“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
– Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s
Among the many foibles and spectacles which have characterized the presidency of Donald J. Trump, was his threat to withdraw humanitarian aid from foreign countries on two occasions, the first being a threat against any and all countries who did not vote for the US’s UN resolution to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the other threatening to cut off aid to US ally Pakistan if Pakistan did not meet a series of demands, particularly compliance with the Trump administration’s strategy in Afghanistan.
In both instances, Trump and his UN ambassador Nikki Haley reiterated an old American myth that all US aid is disinterested charity, effectively accusing the Global South of being international welfare bums. They also assumed that US aid was indispensable to Global South countries’ survival. Yet, both Pakistan and Palestine in different ways sent a very distinct message; “we don’t care” and “we don’t need you”.
In Trump’s brash displays of bravado, he may have unwittingly contributed to the unraveling of one of US imperialism’s most effective “soft power” techniques for maintaining the loyalty of intermediaries in the Global South, namely international “aid”. International aid from the Global North cores to the Global South peripheries is by and large managed by government institutions like USAID in the United States and Global Affairs Canada (GAC) but enacted by private actors often referred to as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s). NGO’s have proliferated since the 1980’s, interestingly in tandem with the rise of neoliberalism. Contrary to what much of their branding might suggest, they are essential pillars to the maintenance of imperialism today.
The “Caribbean letter”: On agency and neocolonialism in Haiti
In addition to Trump’s grandstanding, international aid has also captured recent news due to the scandals rocking once-respected Oxfam International, namely widespread sexual exploitation of Haitians by Oxfam employees and alleged use of prostitutes in Chad, and the arrest of Oxfam’s director for corruption charges related to his former role as president of Guatemala. Any of these scandals on their own would potentially topple one of the titans of the NGO industry, renowned in the Global North for its progressive credentials on issues such as gender and income inequality (though usually only from the perspective of imperial core navel-gazing), together they might mean a spectacularly quick demise.
Both these scandals have history behind them and were made possible by the deep structural characteristics of NGO’s as “force multipliers” (Forte, 2015) of US and Canadian imperialism. As a signed letter to The Guardian from Caribbean intellectuals and organizers pointed out:
“In 2008 some of us had written to Barbara Stocking, then Oxfam chief executive, objecting to a report that it sponsored, Rule of Rapists in Haiti, which labelled Haitians as rapists while hiding rapes by occupying UN forces. The year before, 114 soldiers had been sent home for raping women and girls, some as young as 11. No one was prosecuted. We wrote: “NGOs like Oxfam have known about rapes by UN forces, as well as by aid and charity workers, for decades. It’s the pressure of victims, women and [children] in the most impoverished communities, who had the courage to speak out that finally won … public acknowledgement.” There was no reply.
The latest revelations of sexual abuse by major charities…are but one facet of NGO corruption. The people of Haiti were the first to free themselves from slavery, but the colonial “masters” they defeated – France, Britain and the US – have continued to plunder and exploit, including through imported NGOs. Haiti has more NGOs per square mile than any other country and it remains the poorest in the western hemisphere. Corruption begins and ends with neo-colonial powers.
While celebrated for “doing good”, NGO professionals do well for themselves. They move between NGOs, academia and political appointments, enjoying a culture of impunity while they exercise power over the poorest. The Lancet described NGOs in Haiti as “polluted by unsavoury characteristics seen in many big corporations” and “obsessed with raising money”.
(Le Cointe, Altheia, Luke Daniels, Cristel Amiss et al., 13 February 2018)
This widespread abuse often goes unnoticed by the Global North public, whose tax dollars often subsidize these projects (Oxfam receives significant funding from the UK government). In fact, in a survey of the Canadian public, 91% of Canadians expressed at least “some confidence” while 41%, almost half, expressed “great confidence” in NGO’s (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012b). Canadians also see themselves as widely loved throughout the world (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012a). Yet, as the “Caribbean letter” demonstrates, Canadian NGO’s have more questionable reputations than the wider public might assume.
The normalization of NGO’s masks a series of insidious imperialist operations. In Haiti, NGO’s were used to conceal the increasing military role of the “international community”, headed by the United States, on the island. The US has twice intervened to overthrow popular Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, once in 1991 and again in 2004. The troops stationed in 2004 to quell pro-Aristide unrest remain in the country and are a key component to the management and distribution of international aid, and NGO’s are required to cooperate with these occupying forces. These same NGO’s, especially Quebec-based ones, cheered the overthrow of Aristide in 2004 (Forgie, 2014; Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012b). Numerous NGO’s were also enlisted by the Clinton Foundation to engage in its “development projects”, which as we have discussed before, were in fact a scheme to loot poor Haitians. Such practices are more commonplace than the trusting Canadian public might assume, as state donors like USAID and GAC, or private foundations like the Clinton or Gates Foundation leverage their vast supply of funds to encourage NGO’s to act as maintenance tools for imperialism (Frogie, 2014; Reith, 2010).
That NGO’s describe such schemes as “partnerships” between themselves and government or corporate entities conceals the power imbalance between government and foundation funders and the NGO’s “on the ground”. Sally Reith (2010) describes this as the “Trojan Horse” of development discourses, implying a level, depoliticized playing field. Meanwhile, aid has a precisely political character to it, usually in favour of maintaining imperialism and neocolonialism (Engler, 2015). USAID, which is run by the US State Department, makes no secret of this, saying its purpose is to “further America’s interest while improving lives in the developing world” (emphasis added).
The Kennedy administration created USAID in 1961, and since then the agency has been the proving ground of US foreign assistance objectives. It has been proven that countries rotating onto the UN Security Council received on average 59% more aid. As soon as their term ended, aid would fall to historic lows (Kuziemko and Werker, 2006). In a related study, T.Y. Wang (1999) found that UN voting patterns on vital issues to American interests were successfully swayed through the practice of aid giving, rewarding compliance and punishing political defiance. NGO’s are often bound to these funding streams, making the name “non-governmental” seem quite unusual given their actual reliance on western government aid.
Youthful Idealism: From impetus for revolt to marketing technique
These contemporary practices often coexist with NGO branding which promotes the role of western young people as “change-agents”, not only in their own societies, but across the entire world (Biehn, 2014). This is a legacy of the origin of NGO’s, especially in Canada, which grew out of attempts to neutralize the new anti-war left during the Pearson and Trudeau Sr. years. Many now-mainstream NGO’s such as CUSO, mostly composed of youth and students, were highly critical of the Vietnam war, and openly criticized the politicization of food aid by Canada as part of the Cold War. These organizations were lured by the relative tolerance of Pearson and Trudeau Sr.’s foreign policy, leading eventually to their institutionalization (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012b). CUSO was absorbed through a government coup of its board of directors, which ripped control of the organization away from its volunteers, while organizations like the Inter-Church Council (now KAIROS), had their funding slashed for criticizing neoliberal structural adjustment (Barry-Shaw and Jay, 2012a), the beginning of “funding discipline” as a technique for maintaining NGO’s as part of the imperialist nexus.
The idea that NGO’s were an expression of youthful change-making, however, was preserved, pivoted to neoliberal ends. Biehn (2014) scrutinizes this, demonstrating how recruitment messaging directed at potential volunteers enforces neoliberal, capitalist understandings of the problem of and potential solutions to global inequalities. Problems are thus decontextualized and depoliticized. The messages reinforce a desired image of the Western youth as a powerful actor, an impetus for change, and an inspiration (Biehn, 2014).
One of the organizations Biehn uses as a case study is International Student Volunteers (ISV). I had a colleague working on a research project with ISV, which we discussed. She was quick to express her frustration with the organization being dominated by a particular milieu of people, what I would call the professional-managerial stratum along with a particularly involved section of the liberal bourgeoisie. These “white and privileged” (her words) families dominated ISV much to her frustration (her project was to find ways to increase the diversity of ISV volunteers). In hindsight, I would argue this is to be expected, as Biehn points out, ISV-style volunteerism is a noteworthy instrument for reproducing the orientation and allegiance of Global North professionals with imperialism.
Similarly, I had peers embark on various humanitarian trips, usually ranging from one to two weeks, to Haiti immediately following and a few years after the earthquake. These trips, usually financed by a combination of Foundation sponsorship, NGO collaboration, and church-based fundraising, consisted of typical volunteerism – building cheap churches, schoolhouses, etc. Looking back, it is fascinating to me that none of these students reported back anything of the political unrest and popular resentment of Haiti in their glossy presentations once they returned home, and enthusiastically accepted the presence of US marines on the island without question. The sheltering of the future young professionals and aspirant bourgeoisie whilst providing them an “authentic” experience of aid and poverty, helps create the conscious ignorance which characterizes the transnational capitalist class (Biehn, 2014; McGoey, 2012).
South-South cooperation and the urgency of Solidarity
If any more evidence was required to demonstrate that Oxfam and similar NGO’s are part of the imperialist establishment, consider that Winnie Byanyima, the Executive Director of Oxfam, appeared at the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Ostensibly, Oxfam was there to represent the voices of “ordinary people” to the global conference of oligarchs and elites, though as Marc Wergerif (2018) points out, no one asked them to speak for them. The assumption by Oxfam that it speaks for “ordinary people” is undercut by its actual collaboration with US imperialism and the transnational capitalist class and its failure to actually advocate solid propositions of popular organizations like La Via Campesina peasants’ coalition, or the Bolivarian social movements, or god forbid movements in the Global South organizing more explicitly for sovereignty against imperialism, such as the Syrian reconciliation movement.
Furthermore, why should a transnational foundation, run mostly by cosmopolitan professionals from the Global North and a handful of compradors, speak for “ordinary people” as a homogenized mass, and not their national representatives? Wergerif says it will be popular practices and movements that will provide the solutions for global challenges, not the schemes of agencies like Oxfam. One should note that as US imperialism continues to experience an economic and strategic decline, its beneficiaries are increasingly desperate to portray its maintenance as humanitarian, internationalist, and benevolent in nature. Meanwhile, we can see an increasing trend towards South-South cooperation in the form of Latin American integration and Chinese partnerships with Africa and the Bolivarian states, anti-EU groundswell in the form of Brexit, and a general working-class rage catapulting both right and left forces to prominence in the Global North. As Wergeif says, these “people’s everyday practices” have done much more to unravel the foundations of systematic inequality than the docile managers at Oxfam could accomplish. What directions these anti-systemic trends will take remains to be seen, but it is certain that they will increasingly delegitimize NGO’s as vehicles for social change.
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Nichols, Michelle. 21 December 2017. “Defying Trump, over 120 countries at U.N. condemn Jerusalem decision” Reuters.
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Marc C. A. Wegerif. February 2018. “People’s everyday practices, not the elites of Davos, hold the human economy answer to inequality” Pambazuka