Friends of the Poor or of Neo-Liberalism?

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The rise of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the past 30 years has been dazzling.

NGOs are typically private, not-for-profit, bodies that carry out humanitarian work or provide basic social services, often working in the Global South. There are an estimated 37,000 international NGOs with global reach, one fifth of them formed in the 1990s. The number of smaller NGOs operating within a single country is far larger - there are an estimated one to two million in India alone.

The growth of NGOs has coincided with the spread of neo-liberal ideology across the globe. As neo-liberalism has taken hold, state provision of welfare has been rolled back in the Global North and the Global South. In this context, many mainstream NGOs have adapted themselves to neo-liberalism, a process brilliantly captured in David Harvey's book A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism. The rhetoric of universal human rights and individual sovereignty, both concerns of the NGOs, has slotted into a neo-liberal view of the world that also stresses individual rights and the limited scope for state intervention. As Harvey points out, this can accelerate the scaling back of the state through "privatisation by NGO", in which NGO provision takes the place of government provision.

Of course, not all NGOs can be accused of collusion with neo-liberalism. The rise of anti-capitalism in recent years has produced a range of responses. A minority of NGOs, for instance War on Want, have enthusiastically thrown themselves into the movement, sensing the importance of political engagement for their work. Many have remained at a distance, stressing a traditional, charitable concern to remain "politically neutral". But others, while accepting the need for political engagement, have tied this to an increasing acceptance of neo-liberal policies.

Oxfam is one of the biggest and most well known international NGOs, and played a leading role in the Make Poverty History campaign last year. It angered many other development organisations by supporting questionable New Labour schemes such as the International Finance Facility. While the World Development Movement rightly condemned this plan as a "Private Finance Initiative for the poor", Oxfam promoted the scheme as an "innovative" means to "secure sustainable development financing". When the government appointed Commission for Africa produced its lengthy report - presenting privatisation and free trade as a panacea for the continent's woes - Oxfam was among the first organisations to offer its praise.

In the run-up to the G8 meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland, last year, increasingly frustrated NGOs within the Make Poverty History coalition voiced their concerns about the "revolving door" between Oxfam and the government.

Justin Forsyth, Oxfam's former director of policy and campaigns, became Tony Blair's special adviser on international development. Shriti Vadera, an economic adviser to Gordon Brown, has been central to the development of public-private partnerships and is on the Oxfam board of trustees. John Clark, another former campaigns manager at the charity, left Oxfam for the World Bank and has advised Tony Blair on Africa. When Oxfam interviewed candidates for Forsyth's replacement, half those on the interview panel were advisers to New Labour ministers.

NGOs find that access to politicians, the media and their all important funding is made easier if their objectives can align with those of the great powers. While attempting to maintain their distance, the attractions of apparent power and influence are very substantial - it is estimated that up to a quarter of Oxfam's funding is provided directly by the government and the European Union, while Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) receives close to half its funding from various government sources.

Increasingly, the larger NGOs have become politically and ideologically entangled with governments in the Global North. For example, MSF has spoken in favour of "humanitarian intervention" to secure human rights in the Global South. Here the language of universal human rights is used in a way that echoes British and US politicians' attempts to justify recent military operations against Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia.

David Chandler traces the arguments over "ethical" intervention in his book From Kosovo to Kabul, describing how the demise of social and political movements allowed those in the Global South to be portrayed as passive victims. As such it is assumed that they are utterly dependent on enlightened assistance - whether from NGOs or northern governments.

How should we view NGOs? At root, our attitude to NGOs should reflect our approach to other bodies that attempt to reform rather than overthrow capitalism. By attempting to work with neo-liberal governments, NGOs hope that small, incremental changes can be made to improve people's lives. But instead of pulling governments towards more noble humanitarian causes, some NGOs have been pulled into the orbit of a system organised around profit and exploitation.

By abandoning a radical critique, it has become perilously easy for some NGOs to become co-opted by neo-liberal governments in the North, inadvertently paving the way for further neo-liberalism.

Against this, socialists stress the need for an understanding of the world in which deprivation and squalor is set in the context of global capitalism. We stress the need for political struggle against neo-liberalism. Rights cannot be imposed or created by "humanitarian" intervention - they have to be fought for and won. NGO activists can play an important role as part of wider movements, but it is the self-activity of the masses that is decisive.