Its clear that NGOs have become a force onto themselves. At any given moment, at any part of the world, a NGO is probably engaging citizens to take part in some form of group activity. These group meetings are considered essential tools for social change. Almost all of the time, participation is voluntary, meaning people are not paid for the one or two hours of their time to take part in the meeting. Add up the citizen hours of people engaged in water groups, forestry groups, women’s groups, VDC groups, health groups, men’s groups—and you end up getting a very large chunk of productive time being given over to the activities of NGOs and their programs. The funding comes from INGOs, who use small block grants of $1000 to these groups to entice participation.
Now the question arises: does it economically make sense for a country’s citizen to spend this much time in voluntary group activities? And how much time do they lose from a day in which they could be earning money in already hard-pressed circumstances? And how coercive are these groups, and how do they assert pressure on group members to come and participate—despite the fact the person at the other end may not have the time for these activities?
Time of course is money, not just in the West but also in developing countries. But somehow those who run international organizations seem convinced that the “target groups” should give them their time for free—including for repeated interviews about the same conflict violations they may have faced, the same focus group discussions, the same lengthy meetings about women’s empowerment.
On the one hand, these meetings show results. Clearly people are more “empowered” because of them. On the other hand, it begs the question: if Western countries have the power to extract resources from poor people and pay them very little for it, is there a level of irony in having INGOs from these very same countries come and save the people who are being materially and financially exploited by corporations, financial entities, and other institutions that keep poverty at the same level it is now? In other words, do the farmers of poor countries get exploited twice—first by having their products taken by rich local elites at such cheap prices the farmer may never get out of debt, and then secondly by being put in groups and “social changed” by the very same countries which exploit and consume these resources?
Is there something strange about this arrangement?
It appears Uganda has just passed a law demanding greater scrutiny of NGO funding and activities. The truth of the matter is: developing countries have no idea, on an official level, what the NGOs on their soil are up to, what funding they receive, how much of it and from what sources, for what purposes, and what programmatic goals. Are these programs replicating or replacing government activities? Are they debilitating the government by making it redundant, and therefore useless? Which, if you come to think about it, is another “soft power” way to rule in the old Colonial manner. If the government comes to be seen as useless, because almost all government activities are being conducted by NGOs, I would call that a post-colonial coup, in all senses of the term.
Are people really looking at the scale of NGO operations around the world, and questioning what these presence has done to weaken governments and countries in poorer parts of the world?