By Farooq Sulehria
In the beginning of the 1960s, there were a couple of hundred
NGOs on the go internationally. Now there are more or less 29,000.
The rich countries are distributing one-fifth of their development
aid through NGOs. The NGO sector is responsible for distributing
nearly $6 billion, annually, in development aid. This is almost
as much as is channelled through the multilateral agencies. More
and more governments in the North delegate responsibility for
disbursement of aid to the NGO sector.
Today, there are over 100,000 NGOs in the so-called third world,
funded with $20 billion annually by the US, the EU, Canada, Australia
and Japan. The managers of these NGOs control accounts worth millions
of dollars. The big NGOs use social reform activities to absorb
what formerly used to be state functions: distributing loans under
the guise of micro-credit and providing services in agriculture,
health, jobs, or education, in the name of development.
The EU has delegated experts from 160 NGOs to manage all on-site
aid work. In principle, local governments are not given any influence
over this money. This partly explains General Musharraf and his
ministers bad-mouthing NGOs.
Ironically, on assuming power President Musharraf adopted two
leading persons (Zubeda Jalal and Omar Asghar Khan) from the NGO
sector as his ministers, besides a couple of advisors. As far
as fundamentalists are concerned, the late Eqbal Ahmed elucidates
their demonising of NGOs. Fundamentalists of all hues (Hindu,
Christian and Muslim), according to Eqbal Ahmad, need an "other"
in the society. The NGO sector (alongside Ismailis and Zikris)
is the new found "other" since the Ahmadia sect as "other"
has long been disused. But the bearded demonising of NGOs is hypocritical
since mullas themselves were among the first to receive petrodollars
flowing in from Sheikhdoms, for big NGOs at the start of the Afghan
Jihad. To cite one example, Khurshid Ahmed of the Jamaat-e-Islami
is also chairman of an Islamabad-based NGO: Institute of Policy
But General Musharraf or beards bad mouthing NGOs finds an echo
among radicals too.
Author of The Green Capitalist, Mikael Nyberg, (www.mikaelnyberg.nu)
thinks the weakening of state structures in the South is part
of a neo-liberal agenda and "in this process, modern charity
and aid organisations play a similar role to that of Western missionaries
in the past". He considers NGOs as a conduit for discharging
the "white man's burden" since: "The states on
the periphery are regarded as malicious, impotent or otherwise
defunct. Consequently, it is the task of the civilised world to
give the peoples in the South human rights, peace, social services
and environmental protection". Thus aid is distributed through
NGOs instead of states.
Arundhati Roy thinks NGOs' "real contribution is that they
defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what
people ought to have by right. NGOs alter the public psyche. They
turn people into dependent victims and blunt political resistance.
NGOs form a buffer between the sarkar and the public. Between
empire and its subjects. They have become the arbitrators, the
interpreters, the facilitators".
Similarly, Tariq Ali in his latest book, Bush in Babylon, comes
down hard on NGOs: "The message from the donors is straightforward:
make some noise, by all means necessary, but if you do anything
really political that seriously affects the functioning of the
neo-liberal state at any level, your funds might not be renewed.
And, as usually happens, participation in serious politics is
likely to be forbidden. This is then characterised as "civil
society" or "real grass roots democracy", cleaner
and more user-friendly than any political party.
"Users may be limited, but the NGOs' salaries from the West
are there to ensure that this remains the case.
Some NGOs do buck the trend and are involved in serious projects,
but these are an exception. Long-term experiments in Egypt and
Pakistan have produced reasonable results. The main problem in
both places is that religious groups have seized the day, filled
the vacuum, and argued against consumerism as the dominant value
in contemporary societies. There is no effective opposition in
either country, both of which are presided over by a military
The role NGOs played in regime changes (Yugoslavia, Ukraine,
and Georgia) conducted through "colour revolution" further
earned them the radical wrath. Pora in Ukraine (Orange Revolution),
Kmara in Georgia (Rose Revolution) and (Otpor) in Serbia, all
have been funded by US donors such as Freedom House (an ex-CIA
man heading it), US National Endowment for Democracy or George
Then there are allegations of corruption, waste and fraud. In
most countries, Pakistan being no exception, the NGOs face an
identity crisis. But the NGO sector does not consist of one trend.
There are different trends. Some of the NGOs work with religious
references, others are aligned with the government and some work
for social reforms. There are also different political trends:
conservative, liberal, radical and religious.
There are NGOs relieving the state of its social responsibilities
by taking over hospitals, public schools, and transport, thus
proclaiming that the evils of the system are only a result of
failure of "good governance". The message is: the system
is workable only if run by clean people. These NGOs provide a
human face to the system when they want people to solve problems
on a self-help basis instead of getting organised. In this way,
such NGOs are an extension of charity. But their nexus to state,
despite their claims to be non-state actors, makes them different
from charities. The NGO phenomenon taking over state functions
is an extension of reformism from above.
But then there are NGOs, both internationally and locally, that
have taken up the cause of anti-globalisation, human rights, peace,
environment, and third world debt cancellation. It is these social
organisations that played a pivotal role in initiating the process
of World Social Forum (WSF). The anti-war mobilisations on Feb.
15, 2003 (and on March 20 the following year) would not have been
possible without the WSF process.
Using NGOs as a scapegoat for depoliticising is also only partially
true. Nepal, for instance, with a large NGO sector, belies the
depoliticisation myth. Nepal has seen a growing Maoist insurgency
in the countryside, but it has also witnessed intense political
activity in urban centres despite the growth of the NGO sector.
It is not correct to say that NGOs do not depoliticise. However,
the NGO sector is not a cause but one of many means to depoliticise
In the case of Pakistan, it was the disillusionment in respective
PPP and Muslim League governments that isolated the masses from
politics. President Musharraf is therefore not meeting the resistance
Zia-ul-Haq had to face. It is mainly the political forces, not
the NGO sector, responsible for the lack of interest masses show
However, women, minorities, bonded labour, children, and trade
unions in Pakistan would have been defencelessand vulnerable without
some of the NGOs that "buck the trend and are involved in
serious projects". These NGOs, even if they are an exception,
constitute the cross-currents that a society in Pakistan badly
needs to attain civility. Civil society would be even less civil
without such NGOs. Imagine a Pakistan without the Human Rights
Commission of Pakistan (HRCP)! The country would definitely have
been poorer without the HRCP.