my thoughts on Paved With Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism

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I’m getting ready to return the book Paved With Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism by Kikolas Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay back to the friend who lent it to me, but I want to make a few notes about ideas I found interesting. I know a different friend who blogged about the same book, so I want to include a link to his blog here too, though I’ve been careful not to read his assessment of the book till I finished writing mine.

The book outlines several ways in which development NGOs actually assist imperialistic motives. It talks about the history of NGOs and how they sprang up partly as a temporary support offered to third world countries to cushion the hardships of the structural adjustment programs. In other words, the IMF and World Bank insisted that developing nations take actions that would support the repaying of their debts but at the cost of quality of life for those in the nations, and people started to rebel. Sending in NGOs softened the blows. Sure, the third-world governments could do less to help their citizens, but there were first-world aid organizations stepping in to help out. The result is that the NGOs assist in creating and sustaining situations where governments have less power. Then the NGOs are reliant not on taxes or natural resources for their incomes (like governments can be) but on donations (from individuals or governments) and thus are controlled not by the people but by the donors. What is given to the NGOs is not necessarily what the people need, but what the donors want them to have. Should people be forced to rely on charity instead of justice?

Microfiancing is that beautiful idea that the big problem for the poor is that they can’t get up the capital needed to start their own little businesses and if we just give them nice little loans they’ll all go into business and poverty will be solved.  Unfortunately there are problems with the idea. I’ve read elsewhere that one of the problems is people taking out loans to cover operating costs, rather than new start-up costs, and that its leading to micro-loan sharks and more indebtedness.

Paved with Good Intentions points out other problems with it. For example, the push towards microfiance has meant that a lot of NGOs and development aid goes into microfinancing, instead of focusing on other potentially more useful projects. Moreover, the NGOs overestimate the potential of microfiancing. They write:

the informal economy was home to countless tiny, labour-intensive “businesses” – roadside vegetable stands, home-based artisans, open-air repair shops, street corner hawkers – whose prospects for growth were severely limited. These small-scale economic activities of the poor had low levels of technology and little or no fixed investment. With virtually no scope for productivity-enhancing investments, competition between ever-growing numbers of micro-entrepreneurs produced an endless subdivision of the local market. (pg 37)

I’m sure there are successful examples of microfinancing, where it has helped transform communities, but there does have to be caution, and it doesn’t make sense to put all the “development aid” into the basket of microfiancing.

There’s a beautiful children’s book called One Hen, by Katie Smith Milway and Eugenie Fernadnes that explains and promotes the idea of microfinancing. It tells of a boy using a microfinance loan to raise chickens and eventually building a farm and developing the whole community. The website is at Thinking of the book One Hen, I find myself wondering, who had the money to buy the eggs? Did the one farmers increase the amount of food available or did it put other farmers out of business? I have no clue. A quick online search suggests that Darko Farms (the farm owned by the man the book is based after) exports poultry products throughout the world. I wonder if I’ve ever eaten chicken or eggs raised there and I wonder about the ethics of having food grown in Ghana exported. Is it successful integration into a world market or is it something that ends up taking away from the local people, promoting industrial agriculture and concentrating wealth in the hands of a few? I have no clue. I don’t even know what the goal looks like anymore. The goal can’t be to replicate North American society everywhere or we’d need a couple of extra planets, but it can’t be to keep other societies as colonies for us to import goods from either. I don’t have a clue what the goal is. But this moves away from the book I was trying to write about, Paved with Good Intentions.

Paved with Good Intentions talks about the integration of the military and NGOs, particularly in places like Afghanistan where it is used as a counter-insurgency measure. Communities are urged to reject insurgences in order to maintain the support of the NGOs. NGOs are expected to work as “intelligent gathering assets” (221) and at times military posed as NGOs as a means of camouflage. I get a sinking feeling in my stomach when I think about how NGOs can work alongside groups such as the U.S. 5th Stryker brigade, which “dubbed themselves the ‘Kill Team’ and hunted ordinary Afghans for sport, murdering farmers and taking parts of the victim’s bodies as ‘trophies.'”

The use of NGOs as spies, either intentionally or unintentionally, isn’t new either. Back in the 1980s church and progressive based NGOs working in Guatemala refused to take money from the Canadian government because to do so they would have to give too much information to the government, and it was known that the Canadian government shared its information with the Guatemalan government and the U.S. embassy, and the U.S. military was closely involved in training Guatemalans in violence against they very people the NGOs were trying to help. Other NGOs accepted funding and gave their information to the governments.

The book talks about the other challenges faced by people wanting to do good. Do you accept half measures? Do you tone down one’s demands in order to get a seat at the table? Do you direct your attention towards minimizing the worst abuses, providing aid for those most in need or do you stand firm for the need to change the whole system? The book quotes Arunhati Roy who said:

The NGO-ization of politics threatens to turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job. With a few perks thrown in. Real resistance has real consequences. And no salary.

That hits close to home for me. I don’t even make a job of resistance. It’s just a hobby for me. I have kids, after all, don’t I? Don’t I owe it to them to be a good parent and pretend that everything is alright in the world?

Or do I throw myself whole-heartedly into trying to fix the world, though that would mean less of the love and attention they so much deserve.

I know that the anti-poverty organization I belong to is one that looks for private donations. It is not a charity but a resistance organization. It has a different job to do than the food banks or the homeless shelters, that have to keep their mouths shut about government policy in order to continue to get the funding they need in order to provide the bandage services they are providing. They have their job. The anti-poverty coalition has a different job, to try to be the mouths shouting out for justice not charity.

Resistance is hard for me. I think within a certain circle of people I interact with, I tend to be the one with my head buried in the sand. I don’t like thinking about the atrocities North Americans commit elsewhere and I steadily argue against what seems to me like the more crazy theories I hear (like the idea that the Newtown massacre was a hoax. Get real people!) so I really liked the well-researched, well-cited information in Paved with Good Intentions. (It is definitely not a conspiracy theorist book.) I don’t know what to say or think about the atrocities I know that we are committing. I feel a sense of responsibility for them, and yet I see little way to change them.

I believe that the government can and should be used for good things. I love the dream described in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, where politics is where people come together to do good. I want to believe in that with all my heart. In some ways that belief in the potential goodness of government can fuel my resistance. I resist the idea that government serve only business interests. I can resist the idea that we need to take apart the social welfare net and public services.

Change needs to be political. We need good political systems where we can hold those in power accountable. We need to be able to hold accountable those with political, military and financial power. We need good dialogue and discussions so that we can come to common ideas rather than simply wrestling power back and forth between groups with opposing ideologies. We need to make sure that our journalists, scientists and front-line workers are not muzzled so that we can evaluate the decisions those in power make. How can we know the harm of a government policy if the agencies that could speak the truth are dependent upon the government for money they know will be cut off if they admit the harm it does?

We all have our work cut out for us.

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