27 February 2004

The NGO Catch 22

The November 2003 issue of The Journal of Asian Studies (vol. 62, no. 4) contains an interesting review by Salim Rashid of the book, Civil Society by Design: Donors, NGOs, and the Intermestic Development Circle in Bangladesh, by Kendall W. Stiles (Praeger, 2002).
This book is based on fieldwork done in Bangladesh between 1998 and 1999 on the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the process of economic development. In polite, academic language, it mounts a substantial critique of the hope that NGOs will be the vanguard of change in the near future. The hopes for the NGOs were based on the thought that these organizations would bypass the moribund and corrupt state institutions and infuse fresh vigor into the development process. Such change has not come about, nor is it likely to. The negative themes also come out clearly in an article published almost simultaneously in World Development (30[5][2002]:835-46).

Kendall W. Stiles coins the word "intermestic" to describe the new incestuous relationship that develops between domestic and international organizations. The requirements imposed upon NGOs to maintain this relationship serve in the end to stifle effective action. Critics from the Left believe that such organizations can only effect cosmetic change in an exploitative system and hence serve only to dissipate radical energies in wasteful directions; those from the Right applaud volunteerism and benevolence, but they want all recipients to become self-sufficient rapidly. Well, if the NGOs really do espouse radicalism, neither the Government nor the foreign donors will tolerate them for very long; on the other hand, if the NGO projects really were sustainable--a cute euphemism for "financially viable"--then the market system should suffice to do the job.

These are systemic problems.
No kidding. One of the central questions facing the international community in this era of rapidly multiplying failed states is whether national sovereignty is (a) an inalienable right, (b) a revocable privilege, or (c) an impediment to economic growth. The EU seems to favor (c), but only for states that have already passed the entrance examinations. The IMF seems to favor (b), but only for states that have some chance of passing their remedial classes and rejoining the mainstream. The only thing that everyone appears to agree on is that national sovereignty conveniently trumps every other consideration when failed states are beyond hope, especially if they were once colonies, because the psychic pain of being colonized is worse than the physical pain of bleeding to death or starving to death. In such cases, the NGOs are little more than international hospice workers.

If only failed states could outsource their governments, as some wag in a comment thread on the libertarian blog Samizdata once suggested.

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