The second horseman of neoliberalism: Nongovernmental organizations
Central America has proved fertile ground
for the emergence of thousands of NGOs.
During the decades following the armed conflicts,
NGOs have worked in innumerable and commendable ways.
At the same time, their short-term policies, tendency to de-politicize and
submissive dependence on funding from the North must be questioned,
as does their contribution to the decline of wage labor and job security,
another very serious issue given the region’s unemployment..
José Luis Rocha
Two decades ago Argentine journalist Gino Lofredo wrote an explosive article titled “How to get rich in the 90s.” Its opening volley was: “You still don’t have your own EN-GE-OH? You haven’t got a nonprofit foundation, complete with legal status? Not even a private consulting firm? Then, my friend, you’re really out of it.” Continuing to rub it in with his biting humor, he added: “Make no mistake, EN-GE-OHs are the business of the 90s. If you wasted your time studying philosophy, social sciences, history, international relations, literature, pedagogy, political economy, anthropology, journalism, ecology—and anything else that won’t earn you a living selling fried chicken—a good EN-GE-OH is your best option.” He went to say that in order to succeed in the 90s you have to understand the subtle charm of projects and the sensuality of their relationship with NGOs… and admonished that we shouldn’t need telling again that development is a business.
From Lofredo to the present day, “EN-GE-OHs,” more commonly known as NGOs or nongovernmental organizations, have been a target for legions of archers eager to burst the bubbles of international aid and, with impudent sarcasm or judgmental homilies, question everything from the small sordid vices and tricks associated with NGO affairs to the whole system of development cooperation that has provided the daily bread for hundreds of obese social individuals happily bathing in international mendicancy in these little Central American countries—forgotten by the Hand of God and maintained by that of the Devil.
A postwar phenomenon in Central America The literature on the genre is immense. The scathing creativity gnawing at NGOs by hoth comedic and academic critics, Trotskyists as well as champions of laissez faire, NGO experts and amateurs is due in part to their novelty, or at least to the novel forms they adopted in the nineties. It’s easier to see the ridiculous side of new and different things.
NGOs in Central America are mainly a postwar phenom¬enon. While we can identify a few in the sixties and seventies—religious ones, connected to prosperous Northern dioceses, and academic ones, plugged into Scandinavian cooperation—the majority of NGOs in existence today emerged after the insurrections that bathed the region in blood.
Let’s take a look at the case of Nicaragua. The NGO directory of 2000 recorded the data of only 322 NGOs, only 6% of which had emerged before 1980. Because revolutionary Nicaragua was a unique case in Central America, the eighties saw a veritable explosion of NGOs, with the birth of 22% more. But just as Gino Lofredo saw happening all over Latin America, the real demographic explosion in Nicaragua took place in the nineties: 72% of the NGOs existing in 2000 were born in neoliberal Nicaragua. By a few years ago the Ministry of Government spoke of 4,360 nonprofit, nongovernment associations in Nicaragua and many more without legal status.
It is estimated that a large majority of the approximately 70,000 NGOs operating today in the different developing countries were formed in the 1980s and 1990s, following the retreat of the State. This rapid expansion was thanks to the interest of important international cooperation agencies.
In 2004, not quite yet at the NGO peak, European NGOs working around the world placed a significant part of their total project portfolio in Latin America, particularly Central America: Misereor allotted 43.5 million of its almost 100 million euros; Cordaid 17.4 of its 150; Hivos 16.2 of its 65; Intermon 11.6 of its 25; Trocaire 9 of its 37; Diakonia 10 of its 28 and IBIS 7.3 of its 20.6. These agencies alone respectively worked with 944, 300, 269, 209, 188, 129 and 70 Latin American counterparts. Between 1995 and 2005, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras (along with Peru and Bolivia) were the top six priority countries for European NGOs in Latin America, with what was then and may still be both the largest European NGO presence and the greatest allocation of funds.
The emergence of NGOs ran parallel to the shrinking of the State in all Central American countries and was made possible by a transfer of both human and infrastructure resources from the State to NGOs. Former middle- and low-level officials of Honduras’ National Agrarian Institute created NGOs specializing in rural development and a whole range of agrarian and environmental issues. Guatemalan prosecutors, weary of state corruption, took refuge in NGOs specializing in human rights, from whose strongholds they challenge the abuses of the public sector.
In Nicaragua, even Sandinista comandantes created their own NGOs: Jaime Wheelock with IPADE and Monica Baltodano with Popol Na are just two examples. Sometimes state institutions morphed into NGOs: the Agriculture and Agrarian Reform Ministry’sCenter for Research and Studies on Agrarian Reform (CIERA) was awarded to its director, sociologist Orlando Núñez, in its entirety (land, buildings, files and staff) and became the Center for Research and Promotion of Rural and Social Development (CIPRES). The most outstanding NGOs in key areas were founded and are run by former Sandinista state officials who established contacts with future international cooperation leaders in the 1980s and acquired the know-how and expertise in the areas in which their NGOs have specialized: former officials from the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies (INETER) created the Humboldt Center, specializing in natural disasters, and a former Civil Defense officer created the Augusto César Sandino Foundation’s disaster prevention section; we could continue with education, health, agrarian issues, etc.
NGO becomes a synonym for civil societySoon the good of many became the consolation of the astute, and other sectors joined the NGO bandwagon. Universities saw their staff rosters thin out. Experts on indigenous issues in Guatemala and on agrarian matters in Nicaragua founded NGOs specializing in their respective fields. In Nicaragua, grassroots social sector organizations such as the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), the Luisa Amanda Espinoza Nicaraguan Women’s Association (AMLAE) and the National Educators’ Association of Nicaragua (ANDEN) began to function like NGOs. Instead of relying on dues from their members, they gradually and then entirely began to maintain themselves with donations managed by an almost hereditary bureaucracy that destroyed the democratic and deliberative nature of their assemblies.
The transfer was evident in El Salvador, where the guerrillas had been weaving together a parallel State over the course of the war. Social movements and sectors of the guerrillas transformed themselves into NGO-style foundations, collectives and other bodies (sometimes changing their legal status as well as their management strategies). This happened with El Salvador’s Archbishop Romero Committee of Mothers of Political Prisoners and Missing (COMADRES) and the Federation of Agrarian Reform Cooperatives of the Central Region of El Salvador (FECORACEN). Except in a few rare cases, in neither the Salvadoran nor the Nicaraguan cases did this new dependence on euro and dollar donations instead of dues in local currencies result in respective independence from the FMLN and the FSLN. In fact the social movements’ dependence grew because they required the administrative skills and contacts of the guerrilla organizations-turned-political parties to manage their NGO-style structures.
With this NGO styling of guilds, unions and social movements, NGO became synonymous with civil society. In Central America today, when people talk about civil society, most equate the term with NGOs. Traditional grassroots organizations seldom come to mind; hardly anyone thinks of private enterprise; the media occurs to very few; and no one mentions universities. The media and university professors themselves reinforce this perception, surely symptomatic of the NGO’s political influence.
NGO and association culture: Karl Marx didn’t see this coming, whereas the contemporaneous 19th-Century French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville not only envisioned it but encouraged its development. In his two essays on pauperism (1835 and 1837), Tocqueville sought a solution to poverty beyond the proposals of either an imperfect market or an afflicted State. He was one of the first avowed enemies of the incipient welfare State: the Poor Law in England and the hospices and subsidies derived from it. Tocqueville opposed the institutionalization of charity: “Any measure that establishes legal charity on a permanent basis and gives it an administrative form creates an idle and lazy class, living at the expense of the industrial and working class…. Such a law is a bad seed planted in the legal structure.”
Tocqueville wins out over Marx
Tocqueville was not opposed to all forms of aid. Like today’s neoliberals, he was repulsed by the poor getting aid from the State. And like the NGO development experts, he was against unplanned, sentimental handouts, which have very little impact: “I think that beneficence must be a manly and reasoned virtue, not a weak and unreflecting inclination. It is necessary to do what is most useful to the receiver, not what pleases the giver, to do what best serves the welfare of the majority, not what rescues the few.”
He offered three “manly and reasoned” solutions to the problem of poverty. The first was a better distribution of land: not by applying a subversive agrarian reform but by abolishing the principle of primogeniture, in which the firstborn is the sole heir and younger children are only left to choose the Church, the military or misery. Tocqueville thought that landowners—even if they were only small and medium entrepreneurs—could acquire “the qualities that generate wealth” and “an appreciation for order, activity and saving.”
His second solution was micro-financing (needless to say, he didn’t call it that): a merger of state savings banks and montes de piedad (a Medieval institution that spread throughout Europe offering financial loans at a modest rate of interest to those in need from funds built up from voluntary donations by the financially privileged) in a single institution that would pay more for deposits and require reasonable rates from borrowers.
And his third remedy was the creation of municipal associations for the extinction of vagrancy and begging: “These associations shouldn’t be political in nature; their purpose is to address an evil that affects all parties, men from all parties would be equally invited. They wouldn’t be hostile to the government but would be independent from it.”
A hundred and fifty years later, Central American revolutionaries were more in favor of Tocqueville’s associations than of Marx’ class struggle. With what some see as a vile touch and others as a panacea, Tocqueville got it right: apolitical, local nongovernmental associations working against poverty with private, voluntary funding and not through a hateful, State-imposed tax burden.
Up with social movements, down with NGOs?Perhaps it’s the intuition that NGOs have their theoretical roots in such a manifestly liberal thinker that sticks in the throat of more radical leftwing thinkers and has them choking with emotion.
Among the steeliest-bladed NGOs denigrators are James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer. Their book Social Movements and State Power encapsulates the central criticism of NGOs, arguing that international development and funding organizations have turned decisively towards democrati¬zation and civil society, contracting voluntary, nonprofit associations (NGOs, or what in their most domesticated and expanded form in the United States are known as private voluntary organizations, or PVOs), then have converted them into their agents as “strategic partners” to deal with the acute discomfort produced by the implementation of neoliberal measures. This strategy’s agenda is to gain the support of these NGOs in decompressing revolutionary outbreaks in rural areas and giving poor peasant farmers and society’s grassroots sectors an alternative to the social movements with their radical anti-establishment policies.
Social unrest and the energies of grassroots movements would be diverted towards reformist social organizations or local development. That’s why Petras and Veltmeyer believe the NGOs’ development aid channel is more devoted to political than economic development. It is designed to ensure transparency (hinder or prevent government corruption and favoritism), promote democracy in the change process and instill relevant values and respect for the norms of democratic behavior, encouraging the adoption of “civilized” policies (dialogue, consultation, negotiation) rather than the social movements’ habitual confrontational policies.
Post-insurrection Central America has been and still is a breeding ground for this strategy because the erstwhile revolutionary leaders are themselves now complying with representative democracy and neoliberal measures. Petras and Veltmeyer argue that the NGOs have a prominent role in “re-democratization” process as front-line agencies in participatory and democratic development and politics, in order to convince poor peasants of the virtues of local community development and the need to reject the social movements’ confrontational policies.
From a political to an economic focus The transformation and transfusion of state resources to NGOs are events that in Petras and Veltmeyer’s view fit into a conspiracy where grassroots organizations abandon their nonconformist nature and, smelling dollars, are co-opted by organizations opting to avoid conflict and eliminate the political chip from their plans and strategies. The authors declare that the flow of foreign funding, combined with the pressure to fill the spaces vacated by the State, has forced many NGOs, especially those that were community-based, to restructure their activities in line with a new focus of associating with foreign aid organizations. In this context, slowly but surely, the NGOs became organizations established to serve the poor in a way the World Bank described as “operational”: contractors deprived of their policies operating in “poor districts” with a more or less apolitical focus and direction (macro-project) but not from or part of these communities. As a result, NGO after NGO was forced to adopt a more narrowly economic and apolitical focus than before in order to work with the poor. They limit themselves to programmatically focusing on individual capabilities, minimizing interest in the structural (social and political) causes of poverty.
De-politicized and brazenly flirting with the forces of evil, we NGOs that work with migrants and their families can’t denounce and work on migration’s structural causes; we’re limited to filling in the black holes of governmental red tape or channeling claims between migrants and elusive, negligent state bodies. Nor do micro-financing NGOs challenge the banks’ refusal to make loans to small producers. They’re content to move into, and take over, that niche of the market that has to charge high interest rates. To summarize: instead of encouraging struggles for a redistribution of national and local resources, NGOs have all become providers of services not offered by decrepit or dwarfed States (if they were merely small they would have some chance to grow). In so doing, NGOs have fulfilled Tocqueville’s dream of apolitically and non-confrontationally channeling funds.
Orlando Núñez, take 1: We can contrast this vision with the one Orlando Núñez, the Nicaraguan director of CIERA-CIPRES, shared at the end of the 1990s in his foreword to the NGO directory, titled “NGOs, 20 years on: Support for or resistance to neoliberalism”: “Tens of thousands of NGOs specializing in credit, hundreds of millions of poor people and billions of dollars are mixed together to celebrate what may be the launching of a grassroots economy or the reworking of usury through the democratization of credit. If productive credit is accompanied by commercial, manufacturing and export credit, the NGOs could be the pioneers of a grassroots economy, able to take surplus away from the market that today the market is taking from the poor. Until recently there has been only one power bloc, the dominant one comprising the government, the Catholic Church and private enterprise organized in COSEP. In recent years, however, a new social bloc has been forming, composed of municipalities, NGOs and social movements. The dominant bloc supports an entrepreneurial economy and a representative or elected democracy, while the new social bloc supports a grassroots economic project and participatory or local democracy. Furthermore, we found NGOs accompanying grassroots sectors in various nonpartisan, political demonstrations against governmental corruption, giving them progressive identity by resisting neoliberalism.”
NGOs are pioneers of grassroots economy
What would Petras say about this speech? These are Núñez’s words in 1999, written at his apolitical NGO desk and from his no-way confrontational enthusiasm for the self-managed, associative, peasant economic projects funded by the imperial agents of cooperation.
Orlando Núñez, take 2: In July 2007, the second Núñez appeared—now the creator of Zero Hunger, the new Ortega government’s flagship program. Six months after the FSLN’s return to office, Núñez 2, now from his Christian, socialist and solidary state desk, wrote a text titled “Assault on the nation State,” in which he came close to Petras’ position: “In recent decades the original role of the NGOs has been dissipating and has been directed and/or reorganized in the light of new mandates.
NGOs are dismantling the public sector
“a) The first mandate that international cooperation gave civil society’s new subjects was to act as a buffer against the ravages created by privatizing public services. Education NGOs were formed dedicated to literacy; a noble action individually but with little social impact as the capitalist system generated a thousand more illiterates during the same period that a hundred were taught to read, simul-taneously reducing the education budget by 50%.”
“b) The second mandate was to collect the surpluses of the grassroots economy through what has been called the micro-credit system. At a certain point, once privatization was advancing on its own, the NGOs were told they had to be self-sustaining and the best way for them to do this was to increase the capital advanced by international cooperation through short-term loans. Few could resist and many didn’t survive. The rightwing media opened its pages, screens and microphones to intellectuals selected as outstanding representative members of civil society. The offensive against the public sector overrode criticism of the government’s work. The more the government was weakened, the more brutally they dismantled the nation State. The NGOs’ foremost professionals were co-opted by the new neoliberal rightwing parties; they abandoned their original indepen¬dence and some began to militate in new neoliberal civil-political organizations.”
Sleeping with the enemy? The statements of Petras and Núñez 2 insist that the NGOs are sleeping with the enemy or, at least, are asleep from the effects of the enemy’s drugs. But you have to keep a careful eye on those who merrily throw stones at the NGOs’ fragile tiled roofs from the industrialized countries’ comfortable academic mansions, or from state offices. Although only blind interest could deny that Petras has good reason to question the NGOs’ political orientation (apolitical and apoliticizing), his unreserved condemnation should be balanced by a solid mass of evidence and a divergent historical focus. The emergence of NGOs in Central America has also had many beneficial effects. If the work of certain NGOs had not existed or were to disappear in one fell swoop, we would be dancing to a very different tune. Petras’ condemnation deliberately ignores this evidence because he’s slanted towards a Manichean historical accounting focus: a Dickensian story of good and bad, a history where conflicts result in zero-sum game successes or failures and it’s possible to distinguish between “debits” and “credits” as if a cut-and-dried accounting of historical processes were possible.
On the other side of the epistemological street, the historical vision of German political theorist Hannah Arendt posits that all human actions have a definite start but an unpredictable end. All actions fall into an already existing network of relationships and references, so they always extend further and put in relation and motion more than the agent could have foreseen. Because these actions trigger a chain of events that can’t be controlled by the causative agents, they have unpredictable consequences and unlimited results. It is the interactions that determine the course of effects, bringing about the birth of the unknown. Success and failure categories of have no place in this vision because the processes are always inconclusive and not determinable by the actors. NGOs are only one among many actors. The effect of their actions is the result of the interaction with the efforts and interests of other characters in a very complex drama that could never be called “Down with NGOs, up with social movements.”
Perverse confluence?The warning by Brazilian political scientist, Evelina Dagnino is a preferable NGO critique. She talks about the existence of a perverse confluence—understood as a coincidence of antagonistic projects at the discourse level, hidden beneath apparently harmless and rarely elucidated common references. Both leftwing NGOs and the World Bank talk of corruption, of preserving the institutional framework, of access to resources, of training for development, etc. but are they talking about the same things?
Recalling Pablo Freire, Dagnino discusses how organi¬zations’ political projects internalize neoliberal elements and present them as alternatives. This process occurs by dislocating the sense of allegedly common references when individual and organizational political projects aren’t made explicit.
The commonest perverse confluence reduces the promotion of citizenship and democratization to the level of the marketplace. NGOs are permanently exposed to this confluence by moving in the same market of donations tied to ideological packets. I see two differences between Dagnino and Petras’ proposals: According to Petras, NGOs already co-opted by the neoliberal project can only—although it’s no small thing—internalize neoliberal elements. The NGOs that he sees as subsumed in neoliberal strategy appear to Dagnino to be in the midst of a cloud of programs with diffuse borders and few or badly defined concepts. There’s an enormous difference between being a sulfurous agent of Satan and being someone who could be tempted.
The danger Dagnino points to was expressed in the words that US political scientist Susan George put into the mouths of an apocryphal panel of experts in The Lugano Report: On preserving capitalism in the 21st century: “Nongovernmental organizations should, however, continue to be allowed ‘consultative status’ within a formal body sitting at regular intervals. Representatives in this permanent NGO forum could be elected or not, according to the policies of each member state. Successfully tested in the long string of UN conferences during the 1990s, this model has proven its capacity to make NGOs more ‘constructive’ and ‘respons¬ible,’ that is, far less radical, challenging and unruly.” The NGOs have the floor. It’s up to them if they fall into the trap, remain faithful or resume their anti-establishment role. The story isn’t over and we can expect the emergence of many new developments.
NGOs in Central America:Tocqueville argued that institutionalized charity emerged from Protestantism. Karen Armstrong, a British former nun who has published many books on comparative religion, says that many North Americans began to work for their country and their communities in the profusion of Protestant associations that arose in the Northern countries during the 1820s, after the Second Great Awakening. Christians began to work for a better world, organizing campaigns against slavery, alcoholism and the oppression of marginalized groups. Many were committed to abolitionist and feminist organizations.
A minimal compendium of their contributions
Like those predecessors, current associations—many religious, some secular—have played a prominent role in promoting the rights of different groups. The list is immense, enough to give the lie to Petras and Núñez 2. It was NGOs that dedicated themselves to the search for the missing during and after the armed conflicts in Central America and their work has led to them to challenging and confronting the established criminal powers. Thousands of dollars were channeled from NGOs to grease the legal processes and even rescue guerrillas who would have perished in the dungeons or under torture by the Guatemalan kaibiles, tenebrous Honduran police or implacable Salvadoran army.
The Pro-Search Association in El Salvador specialized in reuniting families separated by the war. Betania and COAR, also in El Salvador (one in Libertad and the other in Zaragoza), rescued and raised children of parents killed or lost in the war. And, when the smoke from the guns began to dissipate in Nicaragua, the Central American Historical Institute’s war-wounded project provided work training and hundreds of resources to Sandinista army veterans with disabilities who had been left stranded in misery by their wealthy general. War would be nothing but an indescribable grief without the mercy and solidarity of so many NGOs.
NGOs dedicated to elucidating also mitigated this grief through the truth. The Inter-diocesan Project for the Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI), which culminated in the report Guatemala: Never again, cost its leader, Bishop Juan Gerardi, his life. He was barbarically murdered by remnants of repressive structures sheltering in the Presidential General Staff. The report’s four volumes confronted both neoliberal Guatemala, anxious to forget and immerse itself in the sweet charms of the market, and authoritarian Guatemala, which doesn’t tolerate complaints and isn’t willing to compensate victims.
Over time, NGOs have been a source of employment and information and a stronghold from which to confront authoritarian governments. They are the ones that have backed the struggle for the decriminalization of therapeutic abortion in Nicaragua, facing down representatives insensitive to women’s life and health. This is an eminently political struggle that deals with regulating public values and questioning specific political parties. It is also from the NGOs that voices have been raised in defense of Children’s Codes and against the assaults of the Honduran and Salvadoran anti-gang laws, against the Mano Dura (Hard Hand) operations in El Salvador, against Guatemala’s Plan Escoba (Clean Sweep Plan) and against recent initiatives to implement an extremely punitive juvenile justice system in Nicaragua. In their embryonic as well adolescent, mature and currently senile phases, not all but certainly more than a few NGOs have shown a controversial, confrontational, political and politicizing spirit that has enough backstitches to invalidate Petras’ ironclad law against NGOs.
NGOs have been a counterweight to the abuses of Central American governments: Micheletti’s coup, Funes’ authoritarianism and Daniel Ortega’s despotism—the latter a Nica version of Rip Van Winkle with his return to the presidency after a 20-year sleep during which, for him, nothing happened in Nicaragua, Central America and the world. However superficially we scratch the surface of recent history, we find NGO directors and staff who have invested their energy and risked their savings and lives to denounce the corruption of Portillo in Guatemala, Alemán in Nicaragua, Cristiani in El Salvador, Callejas in Honduras and Rodríguez in Costa Rica. This is a far from complete list and only a faint reflection of the innumerable marches, analyses, signature collections, talks, workshops, pamphlets and advocacy that NGOs have designed, led and implemented.
NGOs are acting as a bridge to internationally accepted rights in such areas as feminism, indigenous peoples and the environment, among others. National laws (such as those on domestic employment in Costa Rica, citizen participation in Nicaragua and the integral development of youth in almost all the region’s countries) echo globalized initiatives. The hand of the NGOs has been, and continues to be, behind, below and to one side or the other of the adoption of these laws. Thanks to their efforts, many communal leaders, peasants, adolescents and young adults and indigenous peoples are able to make their voices heard: radio programs, newsletters and participatory research reports embody and project the voices of those have always had a voice but only a muted microphone and few auditoriums.
Consumerism or righteous consumption?Many associations are committed to different aspects of the market and consumption. Some have opted for fair trade while others have limited themselves to more conventional areas but supporting better access to resources or at least places where resources are in play. Perhaps it is these that Petras is challenging with his charge of retreating into the economy and giving up on politics. But the following text, from the Argentine anthropologist Néstor García Canclini, presents us with a different perspective by re-politicizing consumption: “For many men and women, especially the young, both the private consumption of goods and the media better answer our questions about how to be informed and who represents our interests than do abstract rules of democracy or participation in discredited political organizations. In terms of liberal or enlightened democracy, this process could be understood as loss and de-politicization, but it could also be thought that the political notion of citizenship is expanding to include rights to housing, health, education and the appropriation of other goods through consumer processes. It’s in this sense that I propose reconceptualizing consumption, not just as a simple scenario of pointless spending and irrational impulses but as a place for thinking, where much of society’s economic, socio-political and psychological rationale is organized.”
The NGOs also spread knowledgeBy being embroiled or stranded in the morass of consumption, the most sinful of NGOs may be playing politics: outstanding, good, bad or atrocious politics. They are influencing aspects of public life that express, in the social self-image or in everyday living, the dilemmas and agonies of real men and women: individuals who may seem alienated, bewildered and diminished when we compare them to the idealizations created by the most ideological writers of the big “isms” (communism, Catholicism, evangelism, nationalism, etc.) but in all their smallness and fallibility, they are the ones who define the course of history.
NGOs have been, are and—I would like to believe—will continue being a privileged platform for the production and dissemination of knowledge. The Antonio Valdivieso Center, envío magazine and the Center for Communication Research (CINCO) in Nicaragua; the Guaymuras publishing house and the Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC) in Honduras; the Ecumenical Department for Research (DEI) in Costa Rica and AVANCSO in Guatemala are just a few good examples of organizations with two or more decades of analyzing Central American reality and putting out anti-hegemonic thinking through thick and thin. NGOs help globalize knowledge, introject non-aggressive ways to understand and exercise masculinity and dissolve the common sense disseminated by the dominant class. Those who change minds change the direction of feet and the work done by hands. And this is one task—unfortunately, not the only one—where NGOs are today treading on shifting sands.
Rightwing benefactors are more generous…Susan George, the US political scientist and standard bearer for the alter-globalization movement, explained the contrast between the strategies of rightwing and progressive foundations in order to explain the overwhelming onslaught of rightwing thinking in her lucid 2008 book Hijacking America, How the Religious and Secular Right Changed What Americans Think. She asks how these foundations use their money strategically to “build a movement.” The short answer is that they do everything the progressive donors almost always refuse to do. The neoconservatives (neocons) understand that it can take time to produce intelligent and well-presented ideas. They set aside substantial, guaranteed grants for several years; some of their protégées have literally been receiving funding for decades. Recipients know they can do long-term work; that their donors are willing to wait for their ideological benefits.
And the progressive donors? They like the short term; they usually begin with a grant of one year, sometimes renewable. In extreme cases they can be extended for up to three years, but then, even if the work was successfully concluded, they could abandon the recipient because it’s time to pass on to something, or someone, new. Neocons identify their future stars and nourish them with grants, helping them pass from youth to maturity. Progressive donors usually feel uncomfortable awarding grants to individual experts. Like many, they can finance a project they will allow the experts to define, but they also require them to manage and coordinate it instead of devoting themselves to full-time research, thinking and writing.
…and have a long-term visionGeorge describes how rightwing foundations not only magnificently fund individual experts, but also award a generous “basic operational aid” to neocon institutions, because nothing works without decent infrastructure. Progressive donors hate to give money to “basic” budgets, to boring things like secretaries and computers. They will only finance projects that include few “structural” expenses, generally no more than 10%.
George argues that the most notable difference between the two types of donors is the tragic contrast in their objectives. Progressive donors aren’t prepared to contribute in any way to the production and dissemination of ideas. The heart of their strategy is the “project”—a well-described goal that involves something, somewhere that needs correcting—with clearly measurable results. Progressive donors will never give out money saying, “Here, get to work,” with no further ado, not even to people and organizations that have already shown their ability to use it effectively. They won’t do it because this method would only take about five minutes. Consequently, institutions and individuals hoping to obtain or renew their position with their financing sources must devote exorbitant amounts of time writing proposals, filling out forms, answering questionnaires and convincing their “benefactors,” when they should be attending to their own “basic business:” producing and disseminating ideas. The Right, on the other hand, trusts its people, keeps bureaucracy to a minimum and does indeed say: “Here, get to work.”
I’ll try to outline some of the consequences of this financing system in the NGOs’ contribution to the worldwide decline in waged labor. And I’ll take advantage of some of the slogan-denouncements from the Movement of the Indignant to highlight how the system that the progressives want to demolish in the North is being reproduced in the South, in our Central America, by governmental and nongovernmental solidarity from the North.
“Democracy: Where art thou?”He who pays the piper calls the tune. And this means that he has the first and last word and most of those in the middle. Most of the time funders not only define the issues but also the percentages of funds allocated to salaries, equipment and staff training. The terms of reference define everything from the gender balance in a workshop to the politically correct concepts that can be applied in an investigation. From Europe comes concern for the environment, citizen participation and institutional structure. But the same donation packet brings an authoritarian, anti-democratic leadership style: a neocolonial attitude.
Most NGO directors seem like faithful overseers who don’t question the dictates from the North and can’t be questioned by their local crew. They stay in management forever. This is why we so often see the director-founders of an NGO—often people with a commendable track record, who now do little more than repeat, without catching their breath, the last ideas they read during adolescence—spending 30 grueling years at the head of one of the widespread genus that Sally O’Neill from Trocaire (an Irish Catholic NGO whose name is the Irish Gaelic word for mercy) dubbed a MONGO: My Own NGO.
Based on this finding, Gino Lofredo sarcastically advised in his article that the only important character in the creation of an NGO is you: Avoid future problems. Don’t even think about including college friends or professional colleagues with needs and aspirations similar to your own. If you do, you won’t sleep easy. It’s preferable that the others be illiterate, eunuchs, senile old people or deceased voters.
This professional, intellectual and social capital gap means that the new generations find access into and advancement in the NGOs plugged by old corks… that always float to the top. And, if they do manage to get hired they must keep their mouths shut if they want to hang on to their precarious job.
“Hands up: This is a contract”Most agencies establish that local NGOs can only invest a certain amount of their funding in hiring staff. The director of one agency was recently scandalized because the payroll budget of one of her counterparts was almost 70% of the amount requested. “We’re financing almost the whole payroll!” she exclaimed with unmistakable signs of irritation. But, what was this tiny NGO expected to do in a country where alleviating unemployment is imperative? Use the funds for transportation and photocopies so the money from the North returns to where it came from through the dollar-ducts of Esso, Toyota and Xerox? The fact that the agency director’s probably exceeded the NGO’s entire payroll wasn’t a cause for scandal.
One of the ubiquitous benefits of NGO projects is their direct impact on employment. But NGOs have objectives they deem primordial. Theoretically, the goals and mandates of many NGOs aren’t at odds with the simultaneous offer of work, but in practice the funding agency’s regulations put a stop to this benefit, which they seem to consider spurious. Due to the restrictions on the application of funds—no more than 15, 20, 30% on overhead—and because of the frequent need to apply again every year to certain donor agencies, local NGOs must operate with very limited payrolls or can only offer temporary work.
Assigned funding and annual or semiannual tenders are the poorly conceived spawn of the new model. The old agreement was based on long-term stable relationships. The agencies’ new deal involves turning the page and starting over annually. Foreign cooperation’s new institutional economy undoubtedly has many benefits, some real and others still only theoretical: preventing the cronyism of long-term relationships, offering opportunities to new organizations, evaluating impacts, rewarding certain issues and approaches and thus funding the best (which is likely to mean the best at the things that resonate with the agencies, such designing AOPs [annual operating plans], SWOT [strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats] analyses and Logframes [logical frameworks, the project presentation and analysis matrices the funders now usually insist on].
Given that the principle that “every law has its loophole” applies in spades in Latin America, we can guess, and in certain cases confirm, that the new model won’t strain out the evils that—it is said that they say—riddled the old model: cronyism, chronic mediocrity, the inability to measure impacts, among others. But we can also confirm that the new model has legitimated a karate blow to wage labor, adding another cohort of evils: precarious and unstable work situations, low salaries, outsourced costs, work flexibility and others commonly attributed to the implacable demons of the entrepreneurial Right now also applied by us, the progressive NGO cherubim—perhaps even with more expertise and fewer scruples.
Following in the transnationals’ footsteps, NGOs are helping solidify the victory of capital over labor. It doesn’t matter if they’re seeking Development (when used with a capital D, the “in crowd” understands it as the effect of a project on a social deficiency or dysfunction); the NGOs have been subordinated to the dynamics of development (with a small d, the same crowd understands it as the reproduction of the inequalities in the capitalist system).
The forced contraction of the NGO payroll and the volatility of relationships between agencies and counterparts has introduced NGOs into an ephemeral, abusive labor market: survey takers who jump from agency to agency; research assistants who only last a day; developers and evaluators with no passion or conviction for their work, contracted for a month or a week; workshops by piecework, etc. With three-month contracts for project coordinators, NGOs are on a par with the United Nations, one of the bodies that most globalizes and exploits the legitimization of precarious labor situations.
“Economic slave for hire”An indispensable prerequisite for the system to work is the existence of an inexhaustible reserve army of employees with different skill levels: accountants, sociologists, journalists, philosophers, nuns, priests and former priests, peasant-promoters and all the other feathered bipeds the NGO labor market can swallow. They are economic slaves willing to do the most diverse tasks. Each one can encompass a variegated range of positions and occupations: a sociologist can, at the same time, be an accountant, financier, workshop facilitator on an unimaginable variety of issues, writer of articles and newsletters, basic grains marketer, youth group promoter, magazine editorial board member, NGO representative in national forums and international networks, teacher, diploma coordinator and more...
None of these tasks, however indispensable or commonplace they may be to an NGO’s daily work, guarantees employees a lasting position. Not even the writing of funding proposals. A full 20 years ago Lofredo already recognized that people were increasingly being contracted as short-term “consultants.” He explained that a couple of unemployed specialists are hired to write the proposals, devise the action plans, timetable and of course the most important thing— the budget—and paid the lowest salary the NGO can negotiate from its position of strength . They work hard day and night for weeks, formulating the proposal, setting deadlines, arguing the coherence of the project, in short, doing everything. They are told, he says, that if the project is accepted they’ll be hired full-time and with international salaries. In the tongue-in-cheek style he employed in his article, Lofredo advised that if they believe you—and in their desperation they will believe you—they may even work for nothing.
With all their proposal-writing and other skills, these economic slaves will work for nothing or for a modest sum, then pick up and go on to another NGO urgently needing to present a project in record time. “Flight capital” (direct private investment with a short-term mentality, prepared to flit off to another country if the going gets a little rough) is offensive. But “flight labor” (workers forced to flit from one temporary job to the next) are always welcomed… and more easily dismissed. These free-lance workers—they can be found everywhere in Central America—jump from place to place and from NGO to NGO within their own countries, from agency to travelling salesman, from a subsidized newsletter to a fast food stand, with extensive periods out of work. They pay into social security then are cut off, so after a life of haphazard work, they are unlikely to have made enough contributions to enjoy an old age pension. They will never hold a union card. If they’re young, it’ll never occur to them that things could and should be different. In fact, years ago, they were different.
NGOs provide employment but they survive and reach their goals on the back of waged labor. Funding agencies push them in that direction: in countries where unemployment is a problem, they reduce the percentages allocated to salaries and put funds into “activities” such as follow-up visits, workshops, surveys and forums—an option that itself leads to contracting for specific tasks. At this juncture the perverse confluence comes into play: NGOs reinforce insecure, irregular jobs and violate rights they should defend. The Common Fund in Nicaragua—a conglomerate of European cooperation funding—and other similar experiences in the region should rethink the model and explore ways to avoid the old vices without adding new defects.
“Your spoils is my crisis”Wage labor’s obituaries began to proliferate once what Susan George called the “Gramscian Right”—an avalanche of investments and well-coordinated lobbying by the neo¬conservative sectors to generate hegemony—turned the old capitalist catechism, dressed for a first communion, into common sense; worshipping the market like a supreme judge of inscrutable but effective intentions; rewarding strategies to avoid employer obligations; granting hero status to managers who cut back on social benefits and super- and infra-numerary workers; raising managerial techniques to the level of social doctrine and labeling entrepreneurship as the most enviable of virtues.
Pastors and priests, teachers and university professors, managers and administrators, entrepreneurs and NGO officials are all officiating at the theory and practice of wage labor funerals that produce the dominant sector’s spoils and the employees’ crisis. Asking no questions, NGOs generate work insecurity. And we can’t excuse ourselves by saying that all evils come from the donors. As NGOs we are cooperating in this system. What we tear down with our hands and feet we’re raising back with a finger.
What’s the use of being an NGO that promotes migrants’ rights if our hiring policies continue producing more undocumented workers? Are we promoting micro-enterprises so our unemployed can look for the steady income we deny them? Does the struggle for women’s rights not include their right to a steady job even in our own associations? Along with focusing on gender, defending women’s right to decide about what affects their own bodies, the fight for institutional structure and transparency and many other causes worthy of rebels, NGO fairy godmothers cave in to the system, applying managerial and staff management practices that are replacing stainless steel workers with disposal tin employees.
Jose Luis Rocha is a Jesuit researcher for Central American Migrants (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial board. We will continue next year with his analysis of the Third Horseman: Gangs.