Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 242 | Septiembre 2001



Who’s Rescuing the South’s Shipwreck: NGOs or the State?

NGOs have to find their place in the world. Are they with the state, without it or against it? By insisting that certain projects be self-sustainable, presenting the poor as responsible for overcoming their poverty and presenting themselves as more efficient than the state, NGOs are actually supporting the neoliberal model.

Gabriel Pons Cortes

At the beginning of this year I shared with envío readers some reflections on the work of NGDOs, the nongovernmental organizations dedicated to promoting development in the countries of the South (envío no. 234-235). The starting point for that reflection was a powerful parable I had been told years earlier:
In a place in the South of the planet, people no longer lived on land, but in ramshackle boats that barely stayed afloat. Some of the boats, packed with passengers, were swallowed up by the waves and sank. Thousands of victims struggled to survive, swimming stubbornly or clinging to the shipwrecks. The disaster filled people in the North of the planet with concern and compassion and rescue ships from their countries began to be sent. These were the ships of nongovernmental development organizations (NGDOs), which had since dedicated themselves to rescuing the survivors of the growing number of cyclical shipwrecks. Only a few were saved, however; thousands of people sank. The North earmarked huge amounts of resources for rescue techniques and watched amazed at some of the more spectacular rescues on their television sets. In the South, meanwhile, the victims continued to struggle to survive, huddled together on all manner of rafts and lifejackets sent by the North...
The parable is ongoing and can be expanded as much as we want. Every day, new disasters suffered in the South and the corresponding rescues organized by the North add new chapters.

Why don’t their own
compatriots rescue them?

Many years have passed and we have repeatedly witnessed similar disasters with similar rescues. Despondency is rife on the foreigners’ ships, where there is too much work and too little success. Some of the most anguished rescuers are those who proposed teaching the shipwreck victims to swim and now watch as most of them sink to the bottom after making an effort to swim for a time…
Continuing the parable, I would like to reflect this time on a generalized question fundamental to any debate engaged on board the NGDO rescue ships: who should be running the rescue?
Why is this question being asked? Because out there at sea no launches belonging to the governments of the South can be glimpsed that are dedicated to rescuing their own citizens, and those that do show up briefly ask the foreign captains to pay for everything, from the fuel to the crew’s wages. "Must it be like this?" ask those from the North who notice that the drowning citizens in the South have enough rich compatriots who should and could help with the costs of the rescue operations. However, this highly charged question hangs in the air, while boats from the North busily come and go and the pilots of the South’s governments watch them, pleased that these generous foreigners are relieving them of the burden. "With so many good rescuers, there is very little for us to do," they say with satisfaction.
The rescuers from the North fall into three groups. Many do not worry much about the shortage of local rescuers. After all, that’s why they are there, that’s their work, and rescue work pays their wages and even provides them with a feeling of purpose. Others are certain that if they abandoned the work nobody in the South would replace them, and this feeling dismays them and drives them to continue saving as many victims as possible. The smallest group thinks that the best thing would be for the shipwreck victims who have still not been rescued to demand their right to be saved by their own compatriots. But is it feasible for the majority who are drowning to organize to make such a demand in such difficult conditions, in which the disaster is a heavy sea that never lets up?

What should the NGOs start doing?
What should the state stop doing?

Comparative insults are bandied back and forth between North and South regarding the different tools they use to combat poverty and the serious social consequences of applying certain ones. The image of dozens of NGDOs, financed by donors with different interests, and working without coordination among themselves or with the State does not paint a very encouraging picture. It generates a chaotic scene with cooperants of all political and ideological stripes implementing all kinds of projects, duplicating work, stepping on each other’s toes and competing with the State.

Within this chaos it is exceedingly odd, or more to the point suspicious, that many NGDOs that zealously embrace the neoliberal postulates implement the same kinds of projects as, or are even partners of, supposedly progressive organizations from the North. They both implement credit projects and/or other support to micro-businesses and sustainable agriculture, which are "politically inoffensive" areas. More suspiciously still, financial institutions such as the IMF or bilateral development organizations of the North’s governments are imposing structural adjustment plans while at the same time financing "progressive" organizations supposedly opposed to them. For example, PL-480—a US government program that swamps the world market with cheap basic grains from the surplus production of US farmers—is financing Nicaragua’s main agricultural union, an organization that should be opposing such a program.

In recent years, people have been reflecting with increasing intensity on the role that NGDOs should play, and questions repeatedly crop up about whether playing this role does not clash with state responsibilities. What should NGDOs, whether from the North or the South, be doing and what should the state, sometimes present and sometimes not, stop doing? It is hard to distinguish among the intentions of so many organizations from the North and the South working in such different sectors and in such a wide diversity of conditions. Even more difficult, but more necessary, is determining what work legitimately corresponds to the NGDOs and what corresponds to the state.

From pro-development states
to neoliberal states

How did we get into this situation? In the vast majority of poor countries, particularly in Latin America, the state played a lead role in promoting development thanks to the development-based policies that prevailed in the 1950s. The state financed development through both industrial and agricultural development banks. It offered health and education as far as its squalid budget would allow and, although the health and education programs did not cover everybody, at least there was some kind of coverage, obligation and willingness.

In this context, the countries of the South suffered from constant impoverishment as year after year the inequity built into their commercial exchanges with the rich countries worsened. This inequity, combined with government corruption and lack of interest, led to the failure of such development-based policies. In fact, they were really only based on cosmetic reforms and very rarely touched the privileges enjoyed by the dominant classes. The rich have never paid taxes in Latin America and the figures on tax evasion were and still are scandalous. In the 1990s only 15 people in El Salvador declared they were earning over US$100,000, which is incredibly difficult to believe observing the ostentatious wealth displayed by the few hundred privileged citizens of that particular country. During those same years, a bank branch in San Salvador paid around $5 a month in urban taxes.

Following the foreign debt crisis in the 1980s, structural adjustments arrived in Latin America, promoted by the IMF. Such adjustments forced the states to get rid of profitable public companies and of their development banks—which were generally bankrupt—and to keep the lowest-paid public workers—teachers, police officers and health workers—living in poverty, abandoning most of the population to precarious health and education services.

Central America and other parts of the world devastated by the structural adjustment plans are currently experiencing a phenomenon that reveals the schizophrenia affecting governments and multilateral institutions. On the one hand, the structural adjustment plans limit education ministry budgets, part of the explanation for the teachers’ miserable salaries and the governments’ excuse for why they cannot be increased. On the other hand, institutions delegated by the IMF or World Bank finance social investment funds to construct beautiful little rural schools that have no operating funds and no teachers because the state sacked them or paid them so little that they decided to sack themselves. That was the general story in Nicaragua at the end of the 1990s. During those years, the Swedish government financed an agricultural program in Jinotega, but as there were no agricultural ministry personnel and the adjustment made it impossible to hire any, the Swedish government ended up having to take responsibility for everything itself, including wages. And to top it all, most of the agricultural ministry’s advisers were paid by the European Union.

NGOs and education:
with or without the state?

In this highly distorted context, there has been a boom of all kinds of NGDOs working in all areas, including education, health and credit. NGDOs build schools, usually without the necessary coordination with the state so that the education ministry will provide teachers. Sometimes, they do not even ask the education ministry for teachers and either they or the community itself provides them, claiming that the values transmitted by the school through popular and participatory education, with characteristics that most states from the South and North would refuse to transmit, are important. In fact, this is true: although states do use popular education techniques, they are unlikely to assume its contents, which they consider potentially subversive.

The NGDOs work directly in education in two areas: replacing the state where it has no presence, without really assessing whether they have made enough efforts to get the state to play its proper role; and offering the state their services where it does have a presence. In El Salvador, the popular teachers trained in zones controlled by the guerrilla forces during the war have continued working in the public system thanks to efforts to confirm their status with the education ministry, which officially recognized them after a long negotiation process. Their struggle was exemplary. Another, hardly exemplary case is that of the El Esfuerzo School in Managua’s Santo Domingo neighborhood. There, teachers without a degree work in far worse conditions than the state school just meters away, with little support from the volunteers from the North who are financing them. The reason for supporting the El Esfuerzo School is that it uses popular education methods based on the ideas of the great teacher of teachers Paulo Freire. But is it really worth investing in such a project so children can attend a school with worse facilities than the state school offers?

The risk of aspirinizing health proposals

Thanks to the structural adjustment process, the state’s presence in the area of public health is increasingly symbolic. The social investment funds not only build beautiful state schools that then have no teachers, they also build beautiful state hospitals that then have no doctors or medicines because of the cuts imposed on the state budget. Without judging what NGDOs do in particular health emergencies, it is worrying that they construct and administer hospitals and then run into enormous problems maintaining them because they did not negotiate appropriate agreements with the health ministry prior to building them. The NGDOs also organize grassroots first aid posts that offer the poor basic medicines not found in state health centers.
Given the lack of any responsible state intervention, many NGDOs opt for disconnection. One example of this is in the area of natural medicine, in which many projects are organized under the premise that if it is natural it must heal, and that anything goes when trying to recover traditions. In the area of medicine, however, it is fair to say that while there are well-founded popular traditions, some are quite simply wrong. Not all plants are beneficial, and neither are all traditional cures. In this area, as in many others, the lack of rigor is the main point of conflict. In the area of health, we often find ourselves with a problem similar to that affecting sustainable agriculture: aspirinizing the proposals. This involves proposing aspirin as if it were better than a fully equipped hospital, as if nothing could be better for healing broken bones, curing cancer and caring for most ailments for which aspirin is obviously not the cure.

A state free of credit’s responsibilities and risks

In these times of structural adjustment, state credit has been reduced to a few programs that depend on lines of financing granted by the multilateral banks. Such programs cover what they can or what they want to politically. Another thing that happens is that the funds run out. As one Nicaraguan peasant put it, trying to get such official credit was "like the vulture who arrived when the bones were picked clean."
The need to capitalize the production of poor peasants has led to the emergence of micro-credit NGDOs throughout the South trying to cushion the blow of the disappearance of state credit and to extend financing to remote areas where the state never went in the first place. The NGDOs get resources for such credits through donations or financing lines from the multilateral banks. In Bangladesh, micro-credit constitutes almost half of the country’s total rural credit.

There are exceptions to these rules. In Indonesia and Thailand, government credit programs work well and maintain a dominant position. Indonesia’s state bank, BRI, is very successful, but the reason is not very edifying: it uses the earnings from the program of one of its dependents to cover losses on its loans to big clients. It is far more common than we might imagine to find the poor subsidizing the rich. This is as common as the traditional inefficiency of public credit, characterized by low repayment rates and the dominance of political favors, particularly in Latin America.

The private banking sector is not an option for small-scale farmers. It mainly finances export products, which are concentrated in the hands of big producers. It is not interested in products for internal consumption because it prefers safe and profitable short-term investments. As Alvaro Fiallos, president of Nicaragua’s National Union of Farmers and Ranchers, commented, "When you go to a bank seeking credit for a luxury vehicle, nobody asks any questions. But if you ask for money for a tractor they want to know everything right down to the color of your underwear." This is not applicable to all countries in the South as some, such as Indonesia and Bangladesh, have well-developed credit services for the poor with state participation.
Furthermore, the agricultural credit offered through the private banking sector means little to small-scale producers, most of whom have no access to it because they have nothing to offer as collateral. Only in recent years have private banks started to offer credits to the poor, attracted by the high interest rates that can be charged. However, this change can only be appreciated in urban zones.
It is very advantageous to the state for NGDOs to free it of the arduous responsibility of financing the productive activities of the poor, which always involve greater risks than supporting those who are not poor. However, the state also runs risks with the rich. All over the world, the state assumes the losses generated when rich people’s banks run into problems. Thus the banking system privatizes profits and socializes losses. This could be plainly seen during the 1990s in Mexico and Ecuador and was witnessed previously in the United States when contributors’ deposits in bankrupt savings and loans associations were covered with public funds. John Kenneth Galbraith stated that the bankruptcy of the S&Ls at the end of the 1980s cost every US citizen $2,000.

In this context, if NGDOs take responsibility for financing the poor and handling their savings, the state will be rid of both its duty to offer them credit and its obligation to assume any losses. States will no longer be responsible for guaranteeing poor people’s banks that run into financial problems, though it has been known to happen on occasion, as in Bangladesh with the Grameen Bank following the flooding of 1998.

From the central state to the municipality

The main result of the reduction of the state and corresponding advance of NGDOs has been the disordered attribution of their respective responsibilities. Everything has become confused: the central and municipal governments have been NGO-ized—if you will pardon this necessary neologism—and the NGDOs have taken on state responsibilities. Sometimes the state and NGDOs manage to live together in harmony, but most of the time they do not. The disorder is reflected in various spheres.

After a decade of neoliberalism has attempted to wither away the state throughout Latin America and a large part of the rest of the world, we realize it was necessary. Not so long ago we sought to build a central state that was on the side of the poor. Having failed to reach that goal we have now "discovered" the municipality. Everyone, including multilateral donors, the United Nations and municipal governments in the North, have rushed to work with the municipalities of the South. The Cologne Call—made during the first European Conference on Cities and Development in October 1985—triggered off this movement.

Municipal governments unquestionably offer certain advantages. It is more possible in these political arenas for the poor to exercise power directly or represented by public officials who are closer to them. Municipal governments also offer an opportunity to work with the state sector that enjoys the legitimacy of having been democratically elected. Public services can be provided in the municipalities by politicians elected for that particular mission so the state fulfills one of its obligations—central governments were also elected to serve the people but their performance tends to be worse. Furthermore, municipalities have the advantage of offering a greater selection from each country’s political spectrum: while only one central government is elected, there can be 100-200 municipal governments, among which it is possible to work with the best ones and those that offer greater guarantees. This advantage tends to go unrecognized because the abstract virtues of municipal government tend to praised rather than the luck of having found one doing good work simply because it has competent authorities.

Muncipalism attempts to establish or recover the public arena, but it faces limits when it seeks to replace the central state. The municipality’s limited financing functions like a straightjacket on any real autonomy. Responsibilities are transferred to the local governments but the funds to administer them tend not to be, and the local governments have very limited capacity to collect progressive taxes—in which those with more pay more, which tend to be direct taxes on production and income. Neoliberalism is showing a noticeable preference for regressive taxes, which are most often indirect, as in the case of value-added tax, which pushes up the retail price of a soft drink or a liter of milk uniformly for rich and poor.

Concealed behind the municipal model is the imposition in the South of the US model for financing public services, characterized by its distributive injustice, which quickly turns into an empty shell: financing for small public works projects, while schools and hospitals increasingly go without central government support.

The NGO-izing of municipal government

Given the lack of central government financing and the few possibilities of collecting taxes, municipal governments of the South have sought support from international cooperation, with uneven results. One way for these municipalities to receive support is through sister city links with their counterpart governments in the North. However, when there is an excess influx of funds from these sources, it encourages the municipal governments in the South to take on additional responsibilities, outside of their traditional ambit. In northern Nicaragua, Somoto’s municipal government spent 60% of its budget from cooperation on productive agricultural projects. Is this desirable? Becoming the institution in charge of everything, even providing employment, distorts the idea that citizens should have of their municipal government. In certain cases, it has even been proposed that the municipality should provide agricultural production credits through municipal rural banks. Is this desirable?
This does not ignore the absence of the central government and existence of many great needs. Municipal government projects would be welcome if they came from central funds or from charging direct and progressive taxes. But if this is not the case, they only help increase the central state’s irresponsibility, leaving poor municipalities to be definitively sustained by their own poor or by international cooperation, but not by their rich compatriots, as should be the case.

It is essential to focus the work of the municipalities within the framework of strict responsibilities, because they should not make the same mistake as the NGDOs and become a substitute for the central state. NGO-izing the municipal governments is a real danger, as many already function more like NGDOs than municipal governments, with most of their budgets coming from cooperation while they make little effort to obtain their own funds from taxes. It must also be admitted that it is hard to collect taxes because there is no civic awareness and charging taxes is highly unpopular, while in most municipalities any taxes collected would represent a very insignificant portion of the budget in any case. This being the general case, why bother collecting taxes? The collaboration of the Dutch agency Novib with the federal district of Mexico offers an example of the right way of encouraging assumption of responsibilities: municipal governments and NGDOs split the project costs.

Decentralization is both a
challenge and an ideological fad

Decentralization means transferring responsibilities to local institutions, normally those of municipal government. The resources that local institutions need to responsibly provide the services shifted to them do not always accompany this transfer. Decentralization in Latin America has generally involved the state passing off the obligation to provide or participate in offering public services with no compensation mechanisms for poor municipalities that cannot collect taxes or lack properly trained personnel to offer such services. "Decentralization" has become an ideological fad in many countries, and the powerful institutions responsible for applying globalization have used it to score their own goals, taking advantage of the good press given to municipalism and decentralization to delegate to the municipal governments responsibilities that really belong to the state.

And what about the North’s decentralized cooperation? Decentralized cooperation is that which comes from state institutions that are not part of the central government, such as municipal governments, parliamentary committees and autonomous states, and enables closer contact to be made between the South and North. Relations built up through sister city links in the North and the South help inform the North of the real problems the South faces. This formula is also highly valuable for the awareness it builds among public opinion in the North.

Certain frequently occurring problems should be taken into account, however. The great problem for decentralized cooperation is the same one affecting the rest of the cooperation trade: the coherence of the ideology behind it. Being coherent means ensuring that the work is not helping destroy the central state or contributing to the survival and expansion of neoliberalism. Incoherence is produced when decentralized cooperation only translates into projects and the work is done superficially, without plugging into the real context.

In general, the cooperation from the municipal governments of the North’s countries does not involve deep knowledge of the operating mechanisms of the country in which it is working. For example, those involved seldom know the municipal laws or privatization processes, which leads to financial investments such as installing electricity and potable water services in neighborhoods that simply become free assets for the shareholders of the former public companies being privatized in line with structural adjustment plans. It also discourages tax collection and, worse still, serves as propaganda for the promoters of neoliberalism who are using the "decentralization" fad to perpetrate the destruction of the central state, the sale of its assets and the disappearance of direct and progressive taxes. For this and other reasons, municipal work demands a profound knowledge of each country’s particular social, economic and judicial situation. Such knowledge can make the difference between improving municipal life and favoring the expansion of neoliberalism.

When NGDOs back neoliberalism

Most NGDOs cannot be held guilty of causing such situations. It is perhaps only possible to point to an imprudence that has resulted in disorganization and loss of their spirit of defending the poor, as well as legitimization of the state’s retreat and irresponsibility.

NGDOs frequently have good intentions "to help the poor," while the state exploits this to exit stage right when nobody is looking. Sometimes the state never even makes it onto the stage. And as the officials from the North’s NGDOs are "very nice people" who are guests in someone else’s house, they limit themselves to proposing continued help without asking too many questions about the whereabouts of the host whose house they are supporting. The clearest responsibility that can be pinned on the NGDOs is that they have not realized the ideological backing that such an attitude has given neoliberalism; an involuntary backing perhaps, but one that is nonetheless very real.

NGDOs back neoliberalism by calling for sustainability. In practical terms, sustainability is totally impossible in most NGDO projects, and by calling for it they are backing an ideology that runs against the interests of the poor. Many basic services projects are not sustainable now and never will be, so demanding that beneficiaries sustain the basic health and education services they receive goes against the principle of progressive taxation that is so accepted in the North. This does not imply that the poor should not be charged a few pesos to help maintain the water service or support a childcare center, but they cannot be expected to maintain such services on their own. In the North progressive taxation is the mechanism that allows the poor to enjoy better basic services than in the South, at least offering them free education and free or low-cost health care.

Calling for the sustainability of basic health, education and potable water services means nothing less than burdening the poor with the maintenance of services that no citizen of the North with the equivalent economic level would tolerate. The legitimacy that NGDO work enjoys becomes especially important in the area of basic services. NGDOs have been substituting the state for a long time and in many cases the state has been happy to sit back and let such organizations willingly help cover what the state should be guaranteeing. How long should this go on and under what conditions? Why should international donors finance what the rich in the countries concerned refuse to finance?
In the case of credit, calling for the sustainability of the financial institutions that loan to the poor means charging the poor interest rates high enough to cover the institutions’ own inefficiency. It also ignores the role the state should play as guarantor of the financial services and the fact that the NGDOs’ activities free the state of the greater risk it would run by supporting the productive activities of the poor.

The NGDOs back neoliberalism by presenting the poor as responsible for breaking out of their own poverty. The NGDOs have a major responsibility for shaping the mindset and perceptions of public opinion in the North and the South through their communications departments. This mentality has two central ideas about the poor: they can pick themselves up by their own bootstraps and they can play the lead role in breaking out of their poverty. This mentality has allowed the state to stop acknowledging that the deficits faced by the poor are real and based on this mental negligence it has dismantled the few systems that protected the poor: food subsidies, regulated basic grain markets, protective tariffs for agriculture and local manufacturing, etc.

The NGDOs back neoliberalism by presenting themselves as more efficient than the state. They have been the victims of their own self-complacent media success. Their aura of prestige and their success stories presented to obtain more funding have so fostered the idea that NGDOs are more efficient than the state that it is easy for the state to say calmly: well, if they do the work so well, let them do it. Independent of good or bad intentions, the fact is that NGDOs are substituting the body that should be responsible for fixing the problems.

A place in the world
with a clear ideology

It is unthinkable that the great assemblage of NGDOs will suddenly stop doing what they do. So how can the necessary coherence be forged between the work they do now and the work they should be doing? It will not be easy for NGDOs to find their place in the world, but it is essential that they be clear about the ideology behind their actions.

Firstly, they would have to change some of the solutions they apply. They would have to recognize the existence of insurmountable limitations among the poor, in terms of both production and basic services. They would have to be willing to cover those deficits and stop demanding a sustainability that is impossible to achieve. Assuming such attitudes would serve to demonstrate what kind of behavior should be expected from the state. By ceasing to claim that the poor could and should push ahead alone, we would stop legitimizing the state’s evasion of its responsibilities. The correct discourse would be that a) being poor is not viable and the state is responsible for guaranteeing people’s survival; b) if the state lacks the resources the North must help and the rich of the South must pay their respective quota; and c) the international economic order should not be let off the hook.

NGO spaces in education and health

Secondly, if NGDOs finance basic services they should work with the central or local government, avoiding burdening the latter when it should be the responsibility of the former. Schools and health centers should always be subject to agreements with the corresponding ministries, a condition frequently not fulfilled.

Thirdly, NGOs should find their own arenas of action that do not interfere with the state. By way of example, lets look at some possible spaces in three sectors: education, health and credit.

In education, it is possible to help with the preparation of teachers, creating resource centers where they can acquire knowledge that improves their performance, independent of their work as state sector employees. Support can also be provided to teachers unions so they can better defend the quality of state education, but without NGO-izing them through projects that only end up distracting them from their functions. The same applies to parents associations and other civil society organizations, even political parties, so they can discuss the content of public education with the government and back research projects that help define adjustments to that content. NGOs that want to work in education can do so in extracurricular activities, promoting out-of-school infant and youth associations. There are many ways and more than enough spaces in which to work without the need to propose an alternative school next door to the state school. One good example of this kind of complementary action is the Vicente Ferrer Foundation in the Indian state of Andra Pradesh, whose schools are dedicated to complementing state schools, attending to those students who are furthest behind as a result of their marginal social condition.

NGOs can also work in health without competing with the state. One reason the state does not supply public health centers with medicines is the power of the pharmaceutical trade in countries of the South, working in collusion with private medicine. In El Salvador, for example, someone sick with influenza is prescribed up to seven different medicines, which must be bought at the local drug store.

There are good examples of NGDOs that promote rational medicine use in the South. PROSALUS, a small NGDO in the center of Nicaragua, does such work and has a central office that buys and distributes medicines for its network of popular drug stores that charge a third the price of private drug stores. Reducing the exaggerated profit margins of medicines and promoting their rational use is a broad and very appropriate field of action for NGDOs. There are also great needs in the area of health education. Acquired immuno-deficiency syndrome (AIDS) has totally overrun the very poor and even not so poor Sub-Saharan African states. NGDO work in health education complements rather than interferes with the work that the state can do.

NGOs in credit:
Being big to be important

In the area of credit, the contribution of NGDOs is somewhat more complicated. For credit to cover everyone who needs it, the state should guarantee equal opportunities for all citizens. If state credit disappears, NGDOs have neither the obligation nor the capacity to attend to everyone. The struggle to provide universal credit has less real chance of success than the struggle to provide universal health and education. In a context in which it is very difficult to return to public credit, it is inevitable that NGDOs will work in this area. They must never lose sight, however, of the fact that it is up to the state to guarantee universal access to credit and if it does not do so, it must provide other kinds of benefits that can make up for this lack of credit. These might include insurance against climatic or price calamities that allow farmers to improve their possibilities of accessing private credit.

Given their limited success, micro-financing institutions should not be created unless they start up with large amounts of resources and a high professional capacity. Companies providing micro-financing are less viable than the big financing companies for elemental reasons related to economies of scale.

And on the subject of responsibilities, ways must be found to obtain the support of the states involved and of multilateral organizations. The fact that neither nongovernmental nor formal credit institutions responsible for financing the poor receive backing from the World Bank or the states of their respective countries if they are sufficiently large and capable buttresses the idea that small credit organizations must either merge or disappear.

But care should be taken here. It is not a question of merging to create more efficient portfolio management. It will always be more risky to finance the poor due to the activities to which they are dedicated. When an NGDO that lends to the poor becomes very big, it is harder for it to disappear, as in the case of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. The issue is to become big enough and important enough that the state cannot allow them to disappear without triggering greater social conflicts than already exist.

Good governance should be a goal for NGOs too

The argument that it is incorrect for NGDOs to replace the states of the South clashes with an obvious reality. The corruption and impunity of the South’s governments are so great, and they subject their countries and populations to such pillaging that it is illusory to expect them to assume their responsibilities and act as they did before neoliberalism came in. The absence of the rule of law in the South—a reality known as bad governance—is the main reason that the state cannot assume its responsibilities. Getting the state to assume its responsibilities therefore has to be established as a long-term goal.

The work of NGDOs need not be incompatible with this goal. NGDOs must also have the strategic objectives of reinforcing civil society, promoting independent and progressive media—whether mass media or not—and any other instrument that is fighting to get the state to do what it is supposed to do and to do it honestly and efficiently. The day it becomes normal for poor countries to punish corrupt officials will mark a fifty-year leap ahead in their development. To obtain this great leap forward, and others besides, it is essential for NGDOs—particularly those in the North—to change their discourse because the existing one is not ideologically clear enough.

NGO publicity: "Total quality" rescues

The priority for the rescue ship owners is to keep the funds flowing to finance the saving of the shipwreck victims. Donors have only one concern: is the money getting there? Very seldom do they ask if they are putting something right, doing the right thing. And they never ask why the boats keep sinking in the first place, or if something can be done to avoid the shipwrecks.

The captains who return to the North to account for their work have grown accustomed to the kinds of questions their benefactors prefer to ask. They bring lists of lifejackets given out or loaned out and photos of the most picturesque shipwrecks to satisfy those who are giving them money. For those who are still not giving anything, they bring photos of children drowning and of corpses floating in the sea. As the competition is great and there is need to obtain more money, these photos have to be published in newspapers and shown on television. As the competition increases among the ship owners, so does the publicity. Agency X: Adopt a shipwrecked child! Donate a lifejacket! Agency Y: Total quality rescues! Agency Z: We are the saviors of the shipwrecked!
The bosses appear in newspapers and on radio and television demonstrating what a life of sacrifice they live, how visionary they are and how unselfish their dedication. Television cameras reach the shipwreck sites in a matter of hours and broadcast images of the rescue via satellite. In the North, the presidents of the donor associations smile happily whenever they appear on television It is very prestigious to dedicate yourself to philanthropic actions. Many people in the North are moved by the catastrophes to dig into their pockets and their bank accounts so that those who appear most capable of rescuing most shipwreck victims can buy more improved launches.

How to increase awareness
of the South’s problems

The NGDOs are submerged in a kind of publicity schizophrenia. On the one hand they need to raise funds to implement projects and survive, and on the other they usually have the mandate to "increase public awareness," which implies telling people in both the North and South why underdeveloped countries are in the situation they are in and who is responsible.

The efforts dedicated to the two focuses are different, in both the quantity and the quality of means used. Some organizations publish impeccably presented books that tell the truth in the minutest detail. Others publish articles in newspapers or the specialized press to do the same. But something seems to happen when it comes to targeting mass public opinion. In Spain, at least half a dozen NGDOs took out television ads during 1999, mainly asking for money and explaining the good they were doing. But hardly ever have they spent money in the mass media to denounce who’s who in the international arms trade or in the pillaging of raw materials in countries of the South. Are they afraid to tell the truth or is it an issue of priorities?
It is evidently because most donor partners of the big NGDOs have a more palliative than reforming vision, even if this vision does not coincide with that of the NGDO’s technical or executive personnel, who are conscious of the need to promote structural changes. Even they, however, prefer not to make waves with their donors and risk losing them. It is a shame that the big NGDOs, which have enough money for campaigns that could let everybody know the truth, are afraid of kicking up too much of a fuss.

Mistaken messages, limited results

The messages disseminated by NGDOs have a special importance. Talking about sustainability and self-development and saying that the poor "can prosper as a result of their own efforts" and "must be the protagonists of their own development" is an argument that cuts both ways. Such messages imply burdening the poor with the costs of their own inefficiency and do not respond to the state’s need to cover historic deficits. In the same way, when NGDOs act as though they are more efficient than the state, they benefit neither the development of the state nor the need to recognize the existence of such deficits.

Our discourse is inadequate: what we say does not correspond to what we do. The neoliberal doctrine wants to convince us that non-competitive sectors must become competitive. NGDOs interested in changing unjust structures should not disseminate the idea that the poor should be competitive. This idea must be eliminated from cooperation projects, which are already contaminated by false aspirations of sustainability.

The NGDOs must use the media to help disseminate information about the South’s real problems. But many others who are not NGDOs are talking about such problems in today’s world and publicizing their own particular contributions to the fight against poverty. The World Bank advertises on CNN, publicizing its interest in eradicating poverty through extremely expensive macro projects that have already been shown to provide few benefits to poor people. The IMF also produces publicity presenting itself as an institution collaborating in the eradication of poverty by providing the necessary macroeconomic stability for growth in the countries of the South. In reality, their more noble intentions are incompatible with the structural the poor citizens of adjustment plans they themselves prioritize, which strip the poorest citizens of poor countries of public health and education, agricultural technology transfer and social security, all in the name of that much-touted macroeconomic stability. We have to talk about all of this.

We in the North should use television for more than just fundraising. There is an open tendency among many NGDOs to reduce their "development education" work to recounting the projects they are implementing. That vision must be expanded, explaining as simply as possible that we NGDOs are doing what the states in the South should be doing. We must also explain that the state sector in the South has to be strengthened with resources from the North, proposing clear examples of where this money should come from. The inequitable structure of world trade as well as the foreign debt burden should also be denounced, because they leave the states of the South bereft of resources. All of this must be done in the knowledge that any outreach campaign costs a lot of money and that while the media are usually willing to grant cheap or free spaces for innocuous propaganda, they are unlikely to do so for something most would consider "leftist propaganda."

Who dares?

Another important role for NGDOs is the dissemination of information in the South. Our traditional awareness building work has centered on telling those in the North why the South is poor, but we have done little work in the South to explain the same thing, as though "another vision" of the facts were not also needed in the South. Very few media organizations in the South are capable of providing an alternative to the official version of the neoliberal governments and the rich countries.

Public opinion in the South only has access to versions favorable to neoliberalism. Although progressive media and institutions there do attempt to counteract such propaganda, they have far fewer resources. The big NGDOs are inexplicably reluctant to disseminate information in poor countries against neoliberalism and about the problems of underdevelopment. The urgency of the situation is well illustrated by a phrase taken from Bertold Brecht: "When the truth is too weak to defend itself, it has to go on the attack." We need a presence in the media to transmit simple—but not simplistic—messages that can refute the arguments of neoliberalism and explain the solutions that exist and can be applied. We have to talk in the North and support the media organizations in the South that are capable of offering resistance by supplying them with both ideas and money. What NGDOs dare to do so openly?

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