Taimur Rahman Political Archive

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WSF: Return on 30-year investment : NGOs are a 1.6 trillion dollars industry

Posted by Taimur Rahman on April 7, 2006

Published in The Post 07/04/2006

Taimur Rahman

As the initial euphoria of participating in the World Social Forum (WSF) in Karachi wears off and one sits back to analyse the event from a more cool and dispassionate point of view, one cannot help but reflect on the mechanics of international politics that inform, support, and finance such a gigantic effort. While there is little doubt that the WSF gave hundreds of organizations and dozens of social movements the opportunity to voice their opinions, network with each other, and raise awareness about their conditions, all of which are like oxygen for a movement, and there is also little doubt that many social movements gathered in Karachi were in a truly festive and even revolutionary mood, all of which represents small but not insignificant advances for individual organizations and movements, one cannot but analyse this event from the holistic point of view of global politics. In the final analysis, though this may be unpopular with enthusiasts of the WSF, the entire process was the return on a three-decade old investment made by imperialist governments and their coterie of direct and indirect organizations for the preservation of their imperial system. Let us briefly look at the history of this 30-year investment.

It is no secret that the WSF process was intended to and did in fact “strengthen civil society”. But what is this mysterious concept of civil society and how has such an antiquated notion become so popular in the 21st century? Civil society was an ideological concept utilised by the rising bourgeoisie in its struggle against feudalism, but by the turn of the twentieth century, its importance had begun to wane as attention shifted to questions of war, peace and class struggle. It was only in 1975 that the US administration and President Jimmy Carter brought this concept back to the centre-stage of politics. The US ruling class gave unprecedented assistance (financial and moral) to the Helsinki Accords and the concept of “human rights” in an attempt to fan dissent in socialist Eastern Europe. The entire “civil society” and “human rights” agenda was directed almost exclusively at the socialist governments of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and for all its rhetoric of “dignity” and “freedom”, its inevitable and logical result is there for all to see in the form of the restoration of a rapacious free market capitalism accompanied by prostitution, poverty, unemployment and general misery of the vast majority. How the grand word “liberty” was dragged through the mud is another story, but what is relevant to our narrative is that it was in the struggle by US imperialism against socialism that today’s NGOs, “civil society” and “human rights” rhetoric finds its roots.

By the early and mid-1980s, the attention of the ready-made Helsinki “human rights” machine was given a secondary target: national liberation movements in neo-colonies of the soon-to-emerge sole superpower. Latin America was a sea of revolution from the Sandanistas in Nicaragua to the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) in Colombia and needed pacification, Africa needed more civilizing, and East Asia could not be trusted with its own affairs. International aid and donor agencies began to pour in millions of dollars while simultaneously, international financial institutions such as the IMF, GATT, World Bank combined to force countries to undertake massive structural adjustment programmes. The NGOs acted as massive pressure valves, letting off steam and resentment and most importantly, preventing social movements and intellectuals from joining forces with national liberation movements or socialist political parties. The argument at the grassroots level was always the same, though it assumed many different forms. The NGOwalas would say present their “tangible” achievements in ameliorating immediate wants, whereas political activists would argue about the necessity of ideological struggle, the connection of NGOs with imperialism, and the necessity of preparing for the revolution. Soon an NGO culture grew around the millions of dollars flowing from sources beyond. It was a culture of high salaries, scepticism about revolutionary change, cynicism towards politics, belittling theoretical struggle, and a gradual but complete reconciliation with the state and ruling class. If most NGOs today support the military government in Pakistan, it is only the historical product of an entire epoch of the erosion of all principles in the struggle to change society.

Today the top 20 percent elite which controls 85 percent of the world’s income recognizes that its global dominance cannot be maintained without a network of such NGOs with their tentacles in every part of the globe. That is why they are ready, through their governments and through other channels, to provide NGOs with truly monumental levels of financial support. The non-profit sector in the world today is not merely a million dollar, not even a billion dollar industry. According to the Comparative Non-profit Sector Project at Johns Hopkins University, the non-profit sector in only 37 nations had total operating expenditures of over $ 1.6 trillion in 2002. The Red Cross reckons that NGOs now disburse more money than the World Bank. The high-powered NGOs of the world now have budgets of more than $ 1 billion a year. For example, the American Red Cross manages an annual budget of $ 3 billion and its President and CEO Marsha J. (Marty) Evans has an annual salary of $ 450,000. And a substantial portion of this NGO aid comes directly from government sources. For example, in 2004 government aid reached the staggering amount of $ 78.6 billion worldwide, which incidentally is the amount necessary to provide all basic services to all the people in the planet. The principal reason behind the mushrooming of NGOs around the world is that Western governments finance them. Yet, three billion people live below the $ 2 a day poverty line and 850 million people live below the hunger line. Why? Where does the money go?

An analysis of global inequality patterns and spending in the non-profit sector ironically shows an almost inverse relationship. Whereas in the last two decades global spending in the non-profit sector has multiplied from millions to trillions, the UNDP confirms that global inequality and poverty are worse than they were two decades ago. This paradox between the exponentially increasing global spending on and by NGOs and the simultaneous growth of poverty can only be explained if one understands that the real function of NGOs is to act as a conduit and a vast network for international bribery. In the final analysis the NGO network is nothing other than a system through which the latent revolutionary content within social movements is replaced with demands that are innocuous for the capitalist-imperialist system as a whole.

The WSF held in Karachi from March 24-29 was mainly an NGO mela, although I do not deny that small left-wing political parties also participated freely, but they were not dominant. After the Forum a trade union leader remarked to me, “When 35 people assemble outside Press Club to demand their legal rights, the police beats them to a pulp and declares them enemies of the state. In the WSF 35,000 people gathered to create ‘another world’ and the state gave them protection and treated them like royalty. That alone speaks miles about the extent to which the global and local elite are actually threatened by the WSF.” As I heard these words I couldn’t help but think that this WSF-mela costing lakhs and crores of rupees all paid-for by international donor agencies was basically the return on a 30 year old investment made for the preservation of the wealth and privileges of the tiny minority that monopolizes the human and natural resources of the world.


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