NGO’s and Empire Maintenance: Aid distributors versus popular sovereignty

“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

Related imageThese 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.

Image result for via campesina

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.


Ayed, Nalaha. 15 February 2018. “Oxfam scandal highlights spectrum of abuse: local staff, recipients — aid workers, tooCBC.

Barry-Shaw, Nikolas and Dru Oja Jay. 2012a. “NGOs and empire: Canadian aid agencies take empire building seriously” in Briarpatch.

Barry-Shaw, Nikolas and Dru Oja Jay. 2012b. Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism. Halifax, NS: Fernwood Press.

Biehn, Tristan. 2014. “Who Needs Me Most? New Imperialist Ideologies in Youth-Centred Volunteer Abroad Programs” in The New Imperialism, Volume 4: Good Intentions, Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism. Edited by Maximilian C. Forte. Montréal, QC: Alert Press, 77-87.

Chandran, Nyshka. 3 January 2018. “Pakistan is ditching the dollar for trade with China — 24 hours after Trump denounced the countryMSNBC. 

Cornwall, Andrea. 2003. “Whose Voices? Whose Choices? Reflections on Gender and Participatory Development.” World Development Vol. 31, no. 8: 1325-1342.

Donnan, Shawn. 1 January 2018. “Donald Trump threatens to withhold US aid to PakistanFinancial Times.

Engler, Yves. 2015. Canada in Africa: 300 years of aid and exploitation. Halifax, NS: Fernwood Press.

Forgie, Keir. 2014. “US Imperialism and Disaster Capitalism in Haiti” in The New Imperialism, Volume 4: Good Intentions, Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism. Edited by Maximilian C. Forte. Montréal, QC: Alert Press, 57-75.

Forte, Maxmillian C. 2015. “Introduction to Force Multipliers: Imperial Instrumentalism in Theory and Practice” in The New Imperialism, Vol. 5: Force Multipliers: The Instrumentalities of Imperialism. Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 1-87.

Le Cointe, Altheia, Luke Daniels, Cristel Amiss et al. 13 February 2018. “NGO crimes go far beyond OxfamGuardian. 

McGoey, Linsey. 2012. “Philanthropcapitalism and its critics.” Poetics Vol. 40, no.2: 185-199.

Kuziemko and Werker. 2006. “How Much Is a Seat on the Security Council Worth? Foreign Aid and Bribery at the United Nations” (draft) in Journal of Political Economy (forthcoming).

Nichols, Michelle. 21 December 2017. “Defying Trump, over 120 countries at U.N. condemn Jerusalem decisionReuters. 

Perez, Sonia. 13 February 2018. “Guatemalan ex-president, Oxfam chief held in corruption case.ABC News. 

Ratcliffe, Rebecca and Ben Quinn. 11 February 2018. “Oxfam: fresh claims that staff used prostitutes in ChadGuardian.

Reith, Sally. 2010. “Money, power, and donor–NGO partnerships.” Development in Practice 20(3): 446-455.

Staff. 3 January 2018. “‘Jerusalem is not for Sale’: Palestine to Trump after US threatens to cut $300mn aidRussia Today.

USAID. N.D. “Who We are”.

Wang, T.Y. (1999). “US Foreign Aid and UN Voting: An Analysis of Important Issues” in International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 43, no. 1: 199-210.

Marc C. A. Wegerif. February 2018. “People’s everyday practices, not the elites of Davos, hold the human economy answer to inequality” Pambazuka


Political Economy of Eurocentrism: The Post-WW2 “Development Project” As Colonialism

Our understanding of global interactions – economic, political, social, and cultural – are still deeply shaped by the often misunderstood period of economic restructuring between 1945 and 1970. Many questions that plague our modern world – why the US continues to expand militarily, why Haiti is in such dire straits, etc. – can be partially explained by the developments of this period. This piece endeavors to begin an outline and investigation of these developments.

The period from 1945 to 1970 is sometimes called the era of the Bretton-Woods system, but more recently has been referred to as the “Development Project”.  This is the terminology used in McMichael’s work Development and Social Change, where the development of a world economy is described as progressing in three distinct stages; European Colonization, the Development Project, and Globalization. The phrase “Development Project” is apt as it refers to the global focus on the industrialization of newly-independent colonies; industrialization is often understood as development. To this day various international agencies classify countries as “developed” and “developing” (McMichael, 2016).

While each of these stages represent distinct historical developments in global politics and economy, several continuities persist. Indeed, the post-World War “development project” would not have existed without European (and later American and Canadian) imperialism becoming the primary actor in the maintenance of the modern world-system. Likewise, neither would Globalization have become the defining paradigm without the collapse of the Bretton-Woods system as the guarantor of the “Development Project” while still building upon its major institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

The wording of “world-system” is important here. A world-system is a political and economic framework which imposes itself as totalizing and universal. Capitalism, and what we call capitalist development, is the first such complete world-system in human history. Its origins lie in colonialism, which both allowed the spread of European capitalism to the Americas, Africa, and Asia, and the exploitation of these continents to further the consolidation of capitalism and capitalist profit-making (O’Brien and Williams “Forging a World Economy”, 2007; McMichael, 2016).

Thus, understanding that the economic eras of capitalism proceed from each other, it can be inferred that the inequalities entrenched under colonization persisted throughout the development model period. In fact, the development model period can be understood as a new era of social and economic imperialism, colonization being the first. Development model period imperialism represented a shift, rather than a transformation, of the colonial project.

Therefore, while the Development Project succeeded in preserving the capitalist world-system, it was a failed to provide adequate restitution and improvement for the peoples of the ‘developing’ world.

Pax Imperialism and the Dollar Dictatorship

Cuba. First demonstration in support of the Revolu
The Cuban 26 July Movement storming Havana, the victorious moment of the Cuban Revolution.

The imperialist countries’ shift from colonization to ‘development’ can be understood as a reaction to three distinct processes threatening the capitalist-world system, (1) the wave of decolonization and nationalism sweeping the Europe’s colonies, (2) the weakening of the European powers by the world wars, and (3) the subsequent emergence of a socialist state (the Soviet Union) as a world power.  In response to these developments, the United States replaced Great Britain as the “center” of this new orientation in the capitalist world-system and financial domination replaced traditional colonialism as the method by which “Center” countries dominated colonized “peripheral” countries.

As much as the Development Project transformed the capitalist world-system away from the colonial model, it also continued colonial policy in two key ways. First, the currency of the leading imperialist power functioned as the stabilizer and equivalent for all exchanges within the world-system. During the Victorian era, the British Pound-Sterling was the universal equivalent in almost all exchanges (O’Brien and Williams, “Pax Britanica” 2007). Under the Bretton-Woods System, the U.S. dollar was made equivalent to gold and thus functioned in the same way as the Pound (Cohen, 2001).

It should be noted that at the time of independence for most former colonies, Europe had extracted vast amounts of wealth which it was not subsequently obliged to repay their now-independent colonies (McMichael, 2016).

So while the Development Project transformed the newly-independent states of the colonized world with an influx of industrial hardware and organization, industrial projects took place unilaterally, under the dictates of U.S. economic security and geopolitical interests. The control of the United States in this arrangement cannot be understated. In effect, Pax Americana replaced Pax Britanica, the period of almost absolute British dominance. This control of the Development Project was so complete that through the Bretton-Woods system, the U.S. congress could use fiscal policy, inflating or deflating the dollar, to influence the outcomes of trades the United States otherwise played no part in (Cohen, 2001; McMichael, 2016). Like how British supremacy created competition between European imperialisms leading up to World War I (O’Brien and Williams “Pax Britanica”, 2007),  the United States’ dominance also led to dissent from Japan and Europe who lamented the rigidity of the dollar-pegged system (Cohen, 2001).

Cold War Containment

Sign describing the Bretton Woods System

Another factor in these contradictions was location. Both Japan and the European powers bordered socialist states; China and the Eastern Bloc countries respectively. In a strategic compromise, U.S. policymakers allowed developmental models to improve other imperialist states’ position, to the point of destabilizing of the internal U.S. economy (Cohen, 2001). Hence why West Germany was the main beneficiary of the Marshal plan as part of staving off the “Soviet wave” the U.S feared would sweep Europe. The major successes of the Development Project – Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong – were also strategically located in East Asia (McMichael, 2016) to contain the socialist revolutions in places like China and Vietnam, while opening a proverbial ‘eastern front’ against the USSR.

While the Development Project was framed as an effort based on the nation-state, self-sufficiency in the area of agriculture was completely denied to emerging nation-states. Troubled by the enthusiastic and rapid communization of agriculture in China, development agencies sought to reduce the power of peasants to self-organize in India and countries with large agriculture potential through specialization in crops produced for European and North American consumption (McMichael, 2016). While U.S farmers were encouraged to grow staples like wheat and grains, India was roped into growing commodities for western consumption, making India and other countries in similar arrangements dependent on western markets for basic sustenance. India was also the poster-child of the “green revolution” in agribusiness, which created a market for excess chemical weapons the United States was  looking to reprocess (they became fertilizers). This made India responsible for the immense costs of externalities created by U.S. war activity, including ecological destruction and massive rural decline (McMichael, 2016).

Both these examples from India are demonstrative of wider processes of economic and ecological “Unequal Exchange” which perpetuated the colonial reorganization of the world. It may be easy to explain the unevenness of the world economy and the dependency of the ‘developing’ world on the ‘developed’ as simply the vestiges of colonialism. However, this would ignore the active role which the United States played in perpetuating these uneven arrangements through the Bretton-Woods system, with the consent of the other imperialist countries (and when Bretton-Woods failed to foster favourable arrangements, NATO was always on standby). Thus the problems of the development project were precisely because the objectives of the most powerful actors were the preservation of the capitalist, imperialist world-system.

The Next Phase

Understanding the deeply imperialist elements of the Development Project is essential to understanding what comes next, Globalization. Just as Britain spread ‘civilization’ across the world, facilitating the global colonial supply chain, so too did the United States spread ‘development’ through the IMF and World Bank, leading to our now deeply Americanized period of Globalization; the similarities are stark (O’Brien and Williams, “Pax Britanica”, 2007). If we are to address the contradictions of globalization, we must understand the Development Project’s impacts in shaping the globalized world into one of dependency and renewed imperialism.



Cohen, B. “Bretton-Woods System” Routledge Encyclopedia of International Political Economy. Ed. RJ Barry Jones. Routledge, 2001.

McMichael, P. Development and Social Change (6th ed.). Sage Publishing, 2016.

O’Brien, R. and Marc Williams. “Forging a World Economy, 1400-1800.” Global Political Economy (2nd ed.). p. 43-76. Palgrave/Macmillan, 2007.

O’Brien, R. and Marc Williams. “The Industrial Revolution, Pax Britanica, and Imperialism.” Global Political Economy (2nd ed.). p. 77-105. Palgrave/Macmillan, 2007.