Jim Petras on Imperialism
Source Louis Proyect
Date 99/10/02/12:58

(Monthly Review, Dec. '97)

Let us examine some examples of the role of NGOs and their relation to
neoliberalism and imperialism in specific countries:


In 1985 the Bolivian government launched its New Economic Policy (NEP) by
decree: freezing wages for four months while inflation raged at a 15,000
percent annual rate. The NEP annulled all price controls and reduced or
ended food and fuel subsidies. It also laid the basis for the privatization
of most state enterprises and the firing of public-sector employees.
Massive cutbacks in health and education programs eliminated most public
services. These structural adjustment policies (SAP) were designed and
dictated by the World Bank and the IMF and approved by the U.S. and
European governments and banks. The number of poverty stricken Bolivians
grew geometrically. Prolonged general strikes and violent confrontations
followed. In response the World Bank, European, and U.S. governments
provided massive aid to fund a "poverty alleviation program." Most of the
money was directed to a Bolivian government agency, the Emergency Social
Fund (ESF), which channeled funds to the NGOs to implement its program. The
funds were not insignificant: in 1990 foreign aid totalled $738 million.

The number of NGOs in Bolivia grew rapidly in response to international
funding: prior to 1980 there were 100 NGOs; by 1992 there were 530 and
growing. Almost all the NGOs are directed toward addressing social problems
created by the World Bank and the Bolivian government’s free market
policies, which the dismantled state institutions no longer can deal with.
Of the tens of millions allocated to the NGOs, only 15 to 20 percent
reached the poor. The rest was siphoned off to pay administrative costs and
professional salaries. The Bolivian NGOs functioned as appendages of the
state and served to consolidate its power. The absolute levels of poverty
stayed the same and the long-term structural causes— the neoliberal
policies—were cushioned by the NGOs. While not solving the poverty problem,
the NGO-administered poverty programs strengthened the regime and weakened
opposition to the SAP. The NGOs, with their big budgets, exploited
vulnerable groups and were able to convince some leaders of the opposition
that they could benefit from working with the government. According to one
observer, commenting on the NGO role in the "poverty program": "If this
(NGO programs) did not create direct support, it at least reduced potential
opposition to the government and its program.

When the public school teachers of La Paz went on strike to protest
$50-a-month wages and crowded classrooms, the NGOs ignored it; when cholera
and yellow fever epidemics raged in the countryside, the NGO self-help
programs were helpless where a comprehensive public health program would
have been successful in preventing them. The NGOs did absorb many of
Bolivia’s former leftist intellectuals and turned them into apologists for
the neoliberal system. Their seminars about "civil society" and
"globalization" obscured the fact that the worst exploiters (the private
mine owners, new rich agro-exporters, and high paid consultants) were
members of "civil society" and that the SAP was an imperial design to open
the country’s mineral resources to unregulated pillage.


In Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship in 1973-1989, the NGOs played an
important role denouncing human rights violations, preparing studies
critical of the neoliberal model and sustaining soup kitchens and other
poverty programs. Their numbers multiplied with the advent of the massive
popular struggles between 1982 and 1986 that threatened to overthrow the
dictatorship. To the extent that they expressed an ideology, it was
oriented toward "democracy" and "development with equity." Of the close to
two hundred NGOs, fewer than five provided a clear critical analysis and
exposition of the links between U.S. imperialism and the dictatorship, the
ties between World Bank funded free market policies and the 47 percent
level of poverty.

In July of 1986 there was a successful general strike—a guerrilla group
almost succeeded in killing Pinochet—and the United States sent a
representative (Gelbard) to broker an electoral transition between the more
conservative sectors of the opposition and Pinochet. An electoral calendar
was established, a plebiscite was organized, and the electoral par- ties
re-emerged. An alliance between Christian Democrats and Socialists was
forged and eventually won the plebiscite, ending Pinochet’s rule (but not
his command of the armed forces and secret police); this alliance
subsequently won the presidency.

The social movements which played a vital role in ending the dictatorships
were marginalized. The NGOs turned from supporting the movements to
collaborating with the government. The Socialist and Christian Democratic
NGO professionals became government ministers. From critics of Pinochet’s
free market policies they became its celebrants. Former President of
CIEPLAN (a major re- search institute) Alejandro Foxley publicly promised
to continue managing the macro-economic indicators in the same fashion as
Pinochet’s minister. The NGOs were instructed by their foreign donors to
end their support for independent grassroots movements and to collaborate
with the new civilian neoliberal regime. Sur Profesionales, one of the best
known research NGOs, carried out research on the "propensity for violence"
in the shanty-towns—information that was useful to the police and the new
regime in repressing independent social movements. Two of its chief
researchers (specialty: social movements) became government ministers
administering economic policies that created the most lopsided income
inequalities in recent Chilean history.

The NGOs’ external links and the professional ambitions of its leaders
played a major role in undermining the burgeoning popular movement. Most of
its leaders became government functionaries who co-opted local leaders,
while undermining rank-and-file style community assemblies. Inter- views
with women active in the shantytown Lo Hermida revealed the shift in the
post-electoral period. ‘The NGOs told us that because democracy has arrived
there is no need to continue the (soup-kitchen) programs. You don’t need
us." Increasingly the NGOs conditioned their activities on sup- porting the
"democratic" free market regime. The NGO functionaries continued to use
their participatory rhetoric to hustle votes for their parties in the
government and to secure government contracts.

One striking impact of the NGOs in Chile was its relationship to the
"women’s movement. ‘What started as a promising activist group in the
mid-1980s was gradually taken over by NGOs who published expensive
newsletters from well-furnished offices. The "leaders" who lived in
fashionable neighborhoods represented a shrinking number of women. During
the Latin American Feminist Conference in Chile in 1997, a militant group
of rank-and-file Chilean feminist ("the autonomists") provided a radical
critique of the NGO feminists as sellouts to government subsidies.


The most dynamic social movement in Brazil is the Landless Rural Workers
Movement (MST). With over five thousand organizers and several hundred
thousand sympathizers and activists, it has been directly involved in
hundreds of land occupations over the past few years. At a conference
organized in May 1996, by the MST, at which I spoke, the role of NGOs was
one of the subjects of debate. A representative from a Dutch NGO appeared
on the scene and insisted on participating. When he was told the meeting
was closed, he told them that he had a "proposal" for funding ($300
thousand) community development, and insisted on entering. In no uncertain
terms the MST leaders told him that they were not for sale and that anyway,
they, the MST, design their own "projects" according to their own needs and
don’t need NGO tutors.

Later the women’s caucus of the MST discussed a recent meeting with
rural-based feminist NGOs. The MST women pushed for a class struggle
perspective, combining direct action (land occupations) and the struggle
for agrarian re- form with gender equality. The NGO professionals insisted
that the MST women break with their organizations and support a minimalist
program of strictly feminist reforms. The end result was a tactical
agreement opposing domestic violence, registering women as heads of
families, and encouraging gender equality. The MST women, mostly daughters
of landless peasants, perceived the NGO professionals as divisive
careerists, not willing to challenge the political and economic elite that
oppressed all peasants. Despite their criticisms of their male comrades,
they clearly felt greater affinity with the movement than with the
class-collaborationist "feminist" NGOs.

In our discussion, the MST distinguished between NGOs that contribute to
the movement (money, resources, etc.) to finance class struggle, and NGOs
that are essentially missionary outfits that fragment and isolate peasants,
as is the case with many pentecostal and USAID and World Bank sponsored NGO

El Salvador

Throughout Latin America peasant militants have voiced serious criticisms
of the role and politics of the vast majority of NGOs, particularly about
the patronizing and domineering attitude that they display behind their
ingratiating rhetoric of "popular empowerment" and participation. I
encountered this directly during a recent visit to El Salvador, where I was
giving a seminar for the Alianza Democratica Campesino (the ADC, or
Democratic Peasant Alliance) which represents 26 peasant and landless
workers’ organizations.

Part of our collaboration involved the joint development of a project to
fund a peasant-directed research and training center. Together with the
leaders of the ADC we visited a private Canadian agency, CRC SOGEMA, which
was subcontracted by CIDA, the Canadian government’s foreign assistance
agency. They administered a $25 million (Canadian) aid packet for El
Salvador. Before our visit, one of the ADC leaders had held an informal
discussion with one of the Salvadoran associates of CRC SOGEMA. He
explained the proposal and its importance for stimulating peasant-based
participatory research. The CRC SOGEMA representative proceeded to draw a
figure of a person on a piece of paper. He pointed to the head. ‘That," he
said, "is the NGOs: they think, write, and prepare programs." He then
pointed to the hands and feet, "that’s the peasants: they provide data and
implement the projects."

This revealing episode was the background to our formal meeting with the
head of CRC SOGEMA. The director told us that the money was already
earmarked for a Salvadoran NGO: FUNDE (Fundacion Nacional para el
Desarrollo, the National Foundation for Development), a consulting firm of
upwardly mobile professionals. She encouraged the peasant leaders to
co-operate and to become involved because, she said, it would be
"empowering." In the course of our conversation, it emerged that the
Salvadoran associate of CRC SOGEMA who had expressed that outrageous view
of the relation between NGOs (the head) and peasants (the hands and feet)
was a "link" between FUNDE and SOGEMA. The ADC leaders responded that,
while FUNDE was technically competent, their "courses" and research did not
meet the needs of the peasants and that they had a very paternalistic
attitude toward the peasants. When the Canadian director asked for an
example, the ADC leaders related the incident of the "political drawing"
and the role to which it relegated peasants.

This was, said the director of SOGEMA, a "very unfortunate incident," but
they were nonetheless committed to working with the FUNDE. If the ADC
wished to have an impact they would best attend FUNDE meetings. The ADC
leaders pointed out that the project’s design and goals were elaborated by
middle class professionals, while peasants were invited to collaborate by
providing data and attending their "seminars." In a fit of annoyance, the
director called the meeting to an end. The peasant leaders were furious.
"Why were we led to believe that they (the Canadian agency) were interested
in peasant participation, democracy, and all the other crap, when they are
already plugged into the NGOs, who don’t represent a single peasant? That
study will never be read by any peasant, nor will it be at all relevant to
our struggle for land. It will be about "modernization" and how to swindle
the peasants out of their land and turn them into commercial farms or
tourist areas.


The managers of NGOs have become skilled in designing projects. They
transmit the new rhetoric of "identity" and "globalism" into the popular
movements. Their activities and texts promote international cooperation,
self-help, micro-enterprises, and forge ideological bonds with the
neoliberals while forcing people into economic dependency on external
donors. After a decade of NGO activity these professionals have
"depoliticized" and de-radicalized whole areas of social life: women,
neighborhoods, and youth organizations. In Peru and Chile, where the NGO’s
have become firmly established, the radical social movements have declined.

Local struggles over immediate issues are the food and substance that
nurture emerging movements. NGOs certainly emphasize the "local," but the
crucial question is what direction local actions will take: whether they
will raise the larger issues of the social system and link up with other
local forces to confront the state and its imperial backers, or whether
they will turn inward, while looking to foreign donors and fragmenting into
a series of competing supplicants for external subsidies. The ideology of
NGOs encourages the latter.

NGO intellectuals frequently write about "co-operation" but without
dwelling on the price and conditions for securing the co-operation of
neoliberal regimes and overseas funding agencies. In their role as
mediators and brokers, hustling funds overseas and matching the funds to
projects acceptable to donors and local recipients, the "foundation
entrepreneurs" are engaged in a new type of politics similar to the "labor
contractors" (en ganchadores) of the not too distant past: herding together
women to be "trained"; setting up micro- firms subcontracted to larger
producers or exporters employing cheap labor. The new politics of the NGOs
is essentially the politics of compradores: they produce no national
products; instead, they link foreign funders with local labor (self- help
micro-enterprises) to facilitate the continuation of the neoliberal regime.
The managers of NGOs are fundamentally political actors whose projects and
training workshops do not make any significant economic impact in raising
workers’ and peasants’ incomes. But their activities do make an impact in
diverting people from the class struggle into forms of collaboration with
their oppressors.

To justify this approach, NGO ideologies will often invoke "pragmatism" or
"realism," citing the decline of the revolutionary left, the triumph of
capitalism in the East, the "crisis of Marxism," the loss of alternatives,
the strength of the United States, the coups and repression by the
military. This "possibilism" is used to convince the left to work within
the niches of the free market imposed by the World Bank and structural
adjustment, and to confine politics to the electoral parameters imposed by
the military.

The pessimistic "possibilism" of the NGO ideologues is necessarily
one-sided. They focus on neoliberal electoral victories and not on the
post-electoral mass protests and general strikes that mobilize large
numbers of people in extra-parliamentary activity. They look at the demise
of communism in the late eighties and not to the revival of radical social
movements in the mid-nineties. They describe the constraints of the
military on electoral politicians without looking at the challenges to the
military by the Zapatista guerrillas, the urban rebellions in Caracas, the
general strikes in Bolivia. In a word, the possibilists overlook the
dynamics of struggles that begin at the sectoral or local level within the
electoral parameters of the military, and then are propelled upward and
beyond those limits by the failures of the possibilists to satisfy the
elementary demands and needs of the people.

The pragmatism of the NGOs is matched by the extremism of the neoliberals.
The 1990’s has witnessed a radicalization of neoliberal policies, designed
to forestall crisis by handing over even more lucrative investment and
speculative opportunities to overseas banks and multinationals: petroleum
in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela; lower wages and less social
security payments; greater tax exemption; and the elimination of all
protective labor legislation. Contemporary Latin American class structure
is more rigid and the state more directly tied to the ruling classes than
ever. The irony is that the neoliberals are creating a polarized class
structure much closer to the Marxist paradigm of society than to the NGO

This is why Marxism offers a real alternative to NGO-ism. And in Latin
America, there do exist Marxist intellectuals who write and speak for the
social movements in struggle, committed to sharing the same political
consequences. They are "organic" intellectuals who are basically part of
the movement—the resource people providing analysis and education for class
struggle, in contrast to the "post-Marxist" NGO intellectuals, who are
embedded in the world of institutions, academic seminars, foreign
foundations, international conferences and bureaucratic reports. These
Marxist intellectuals recognize the centrality of local struggles, but they
also acknowledge that the success of those struggles depends to a large
extent on the outcome of the conflict between classes over state power at
the national level.

What they offer is not the hierarchical "solidarity" of foreign aid and
collaboration with neoliberalism, but class solidarity, and within the
class, the solidarity of oppressed groups (women and people of color)
against their foreign and domestic exploiters. The major focus is not on
the donations that divide classes and pacify small groups for a limited
time, but on the common action by members of the same class, sharing their
common economic, predicament struggling for collective improvement.

The strength of the critical Marxist intellectuals resides in the fact that
their ideas are in tune with changing social realities. The growing
polarization of classes and the increasingly violent confrontations are
apparent. So while the Marxists are numerically weak in the institutional
sense, they are strategically strong as they begin to connect with a new
generation of revolutionary militants, from the Zapatistas in Mexico to the
MST in Brazil.

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