“NGOS take away agency from work­ing peo­ple”

The Africa Report - - FRONTLI NE - Firoze Manji Former Africa di­rec­tor of Amnesty In­ter­na­tional In­ter­view by M.A. in Nairobi

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.

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