"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, May 19, 2013

NGOs Are Part Of The Problem, Not The Solution

I was working in Rwanda a few years back, and had breakfast with two missionaries who were sent by their US-based church to help out with its relief efforts in the country.  The local church affiliate had set up a large soup kitchen designed to feed hungry mouths.

“I witnessed a miracle today”, said one of the women. “We prepared enough food to feed 200 children, but there were hundreds more who showed up at the church. In fact, all during the morning more and more children needed to be fed.  We knew that the food would run out and these poor, starving babies would go away hungry.

But every time I went over to supervise the kitchen, I saw the vats of food filled to the brim.  No matter how many children we fed, there was always a full pot.  God worked his wonders today.  Praise the Lord.”

Jill Filipovic, writing in The Guardian (5.19.13) is concerned about the ‘top-down’ approach of NGOs working in Haiti to provide humanitarian relief, and feels that a more collaborative approach with Haitians, taking advantage of their enterprise and good will would serve the country better.  There is far too much of a patronizing, we-know-what’s-best attitude among the international non-governmental community, and countries will never get on their feet unless help arrives from within.

The miracle observed by the two eager missionaries in Kigali was a good example of this arrogant, dismissive approach that characterizes most humanitarian and development work done by non-profit agencies.  Not only was The First Baptist Church doling out food indiscriminately to all comers regardless of need, it had no interest whatsoever in investing in the strategic social, economic, and educational programs initiated by the government and its private partners.  It was there to preach, convert, and organize.

Just like the soup kitchens of the Bowery during the Depression where bums had to sit through a Bible reading before they tucked into their gruel, so did the Rwandan families who lined up in the church courtyard.

“The most miraculous thing of all”, the missionary went on, “was the Biblical passage chosen by our pastor – the parable of the loaves and the fishes.”

I have a Jewish friend who was an international development consultant, and in the course of lining up new assignments, he visited one of the best-known and largest NGOs which was a conduit for USAID food assistance and program support.  It was also an avowedly Christian organization.

“You’re a Jew, aren’t you ,Mr. Katz?, the Director began.  My friend said he was.

“So I will have to suppose that you haven’t taken Jesus as your Personal Savior”.  My friend said that no, he hadn’t.

“Well, I am sorry for you, Mr. Katz. We are a Christian organization whose mission……”  Here the Director went on not only to describe the missionary purpose of the organization, but to state the absolute rightness of it. There was not a hint of multiculturalism in his sermon, not a twinge of ecumenical sympathy, not a whit of of recognition of anything or anyone out of his Christian, evangelical, fundamentalist vision; and there was no room for Jews.

Religious organizations are no different in their self-serving purposes than any other.  A number of years ago I worked for a similarly large and well-known but secular NGO that started out as a relief organization but had moved into institutionalized school feeding programs which distributed US agricultural surplus commodities.  These programs were designed to provide nutritional supplementation as well as serve as a hook to get children to attend school.  Neither goal was met.  Parents never made dinner for children who got a school lunch, thus wrecking any hopes of a better diet.  Those marginal families for whom the value of a skimpy school lunch was nothing compared to the value of child labor never even considered sending their children to school. 

My organization was unconcerned. The purchase of the agricultural surplus is what mattered to the US government, and it was awash in food.  It couldn’t push the food out the door fast enough, and the profits made downstream (millers, Great Lake transport, East Coast docks, trans-oceanic shipping, American NGOs like mine) beneficiaries happy regardless of the impact on the ‘end user’ – school children.

One day at a staff meeting in Delhi, our Director said he wanted to talk about the inroads that other, smaller NGOs were making in the school feeding business.  For him, every pound of CSM (Corn meal, Soy flour, Milk powder) had a distinct value.  Our organization’s revenue and overhead was pegged to distribution numbers.  Every pound moved through a rival’s network meant less money for us.

One of my colleagues tried to allay the Director’s concerns by saying that a competitor, Children Are Precious, had some innovative programs underway, and we might like to think of collaboration.

The Director reddened.  He snorted, growled, and banged the table. “Fuck Children Are Precious”, he yelled. “I want those motherfuckers out of India, not around our goddam conference table”.

Many years later I worked for another large NGO; and by this time feeding programs except for emergency relief services, had by and large been phased out.  This NGO, although secular, had never lost its missionary zeal.  It was the first to line up outside the doors of USAID to be the first into one corrupt country after another.  I complained about its plans to open an office in Burma during the worst days of the military tyranny; and about its continued support to Zimbabwe during Robert Mugabe’s worst racist, imperial presidency.  “It’s all about the children”, the Director told me.  “Without us, they would perish”.

Of course it was not about the children, but the lavish USAID contracts which provided enough overhead to expand Washington offices near the White House, increase billable staff time, and gain increased international visibility. Despite the ‘Mission Statement’ of the organization which spoke of humanitarian gesture, participatory and collaborative work, and respect for racial and cultural diversity, the organization was known as one of the most cutthroat competitors in the business. “Chicanery and duplicity” would have been a good motto on their masthead along with “Children are our business”.

The point is that all NGOs are the same.  They are good, competitive, aggressive, American capitalists, and their non-profit status does nothing to temper that entrepreneurial spirit which so characterizes our country. 

A close friend worked for yet another major NGO which had recently expanded by leaps and bounds.  Because it was a non-profit organization, no officer or employee benefitted from this expansion, and in fact the services rendered could undoubtedly have been improved had the agency reined in its ambitions and focused on quality.  The CEO, however, would have none of this negative talk and went on to capture an ever-increasing share of the market.  Not only that, he moved into a new downtown DC building, covered the walls with impressive art work, and built media-ready, gleaming modern conference facilities.  The goal was to let the world know that the organization was a comer, a leader, and a can’t-lose contractor.  Money, territory, power, and influence reigned as supreme as if it was a Fortune 500 company.

Many of the Haitians I spoke to expressed the hope that the younger generation will reform the country, but emphasized that it will take major investments in youth and education. 

"In addition to teaching them to read and to write and to count, [young people] also need to learn to be self-sufficient and have good self-esteem," said Valencia Petion, a member of JCI Haiti and one of the founders of JCI Women. "We have to trust ourselves first. Lots of people have been told they are nothing. We must teach them to believe in themselves."

I worked in Haiti for over ten years under the Duvaliers and under their even more corrupt successors. Coup followed coup, corruption festered, poverty reached rock bottom, drug trading became a source of fabulous wealth for political leaders and their private supporters; and yet United States money kept pouring in.  Since international assistance is a political program, not a developmental one, Congress only wanted to show the flag, to exert some influence in this dysfunctional piece of the Caribbean, and to demonstrate compassion and support for the the Hemisphere’s first black republic.  The NGOs were the direct beneficiaries of American largesse. The country itself got worse and worse.  Whatever resources were poured in disappeared down mysterious sluices and rat holes.  The people never benefitted.  The earthquake was a disaster, and eventually Haiti will get back to normal – i.e. a corrupt, impoverished country with very little hope for anything.  The infighting, venality, and competitiveness of the NGOs certainly doesn’t help; but they have always been this way, and the feeding frenzy of open-ended government contracts just makes them worse.

I never so more excitement, esprit de corps, energy, and enthusiasm as when a devastating typhoon hit an Asian country.  My office was a beehive of activity.  Young, idealistic men and women who had joined the NGO to help the poor and the miserable, but who had spent years laboring over budgets, contracts, and reports, were now ecstatic.  This is what they had signed up for. The NGO was even more delighted than its employees.  Every tent, spade, bucket, blanket, and mosquito net had Overhead written on it, and the more that could be shipped, the more revenue for the agency.  It was a development organization’s version of Christmas.

While it is nice to recognize the positive spirit of young people in countries like Haiti, there only way out is to get out.  It, like in many countries of Africa, will continue to be a cesspool of corruption, kleptomania, and indifference.  NGOs and their USAID sponsors are part of the problem, not the solution. They give money and credibility to authoritarian, predatory regimes; and because their programs have been designed in Washington by interest groups and do-good lobbyists who have no idea about local conditions, they are doomed to failure.  All should go.  Countries should be left to sink or swim – to rid themselves of corruption, open themselves up to democratic transparency, and become eligible to borrow on international capital markets; or to be destroyed in a violent, eventual political apocalypse.

After more than 40 years in the ‘development’ business, the system has gotten even more ineffectual, more political, and more obviously wrong. Dismantle it, get out, and be done with it.

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