“NGOS take away agency from working people”
TAR: What is the argument against NGOS? FIROZE MANJI: Whether they are foreign NGOS or local NGOS, the point is this: they are part of what I would describe as the ‘white saviour’ complex. And the white saviour complex depends on having victims because without victims they have nothing to do. They take away agency from working people, from ordinary people whose own struggles to liberate themselves, to free themselves, to emancipate themselves are denied. This is true as much of the development NGOS as it is of the human rights NGOS. The latter use the courts or international instruments as a means for both victimising and for taking away agency. I was the Africa director for Amnesty International many years ago. I know how it operates, and I know how agency is taken away. A lot of the reports they produce are taken from people on the ground who have done the hard work at great risk and are then published in Amnesty’s name. And that’s the norm of how these people behave. Most NGOS are not organisers, and they are accountable only to a select group of people that they have appointed on their boards, who are usually accountable upwards to their donors. So we have a problem.
What do you think NGOS are trying to accomplish?
They are part of a political economy that is part of the exploitation. It’s a part of the way in which they facilitate the exploitation by transnational corporations. Many of these organisations – Oxfam, Save the Children and others – have constantly turned to seek alliances with transnational corporations, especially in the mining sector. If you look at most Canadian aid today, it is transmitted to support NGOS providing social welfare inside the countries where Canadian mining companies are destroying the environment and extracting wealth and natural resources. This is happening across the continent and especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The same thing goes with those who collude with Bill Gates and the genetically modified organism industry and Monsanto and so on. They seek to provide a cover under which these transnational corporations can exploit our people, pay poor wages and undermine people’s own agency, and in fact reverse the gains that we had at independence.
Do you see any role anywhere for NGOS on the continent?
If there are organisations that are confronting the exploitation of transnationals of our countries, if we have organisations which are membership organisations and who actually enable the agency of people to organise in their own interest, then we are talking about a different ball game. But the reality is that there are relatively few of those. The jargon for the development world is ‘we are underdeveloped, in need of modernisation’. And the reality is that we have to find ways not just to reclaim our humanity, to claim that we are indeed humans, but to actually invent what it actually means to be human.