The Ngo-iza­tion of re­sis­tance

On Mcgill’s saviour com­plex

The McGill Daily - - Commentary - Yasir Piracha

By the end of Septem­ber, ev­ery Mcgill stu­dent has been vis­ited at least once by some non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion (X) claim­ing to per­form a vi­tal ser­vice (Y) for some “third-world” coun­try (Z).

“Join X for an un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence help­ing the peo­ple of Z by do­ing Y! Come to our first meet­ing next week, where you can learn how to get in­volved.”

I ar­rived at one such meet­ing ear­lier this year, feel­ing un­sure about what to ex­pect. I had a gen­eral sense of un­ease, which I naïvely hoped would be put to rest by the forth­com­ing pre­sen­ta­tion. I pa­tiently lis­tened to five stu­dents de­scribe the work their or­ga­ni­za­tion did in­ter­na­tion­ally. As a stu­dent from Pak­istan, a coun­try rife with suf­fer­ing and cor­rupted by the West, I hoped the meet­ing would tell me how I could do some un­prob­lem­atic, ef­fec­tive work for coun­tries strug­gling sim­i­larly. Within the first ten min­utes it was ap­par­ent that this would not hap­pen. Each sen­tence re­minded me of NGO racism in Pak­istan, or of aid agen­cies do­ing coun­ter­feit, im­prac­ti­cal work. Each Pow­erpoint slide made it clearer that the or­ga­ni­za­tion was more con­cerned with ap­pear­ance than long-term change.

There are at least twenty-two clubs at Mcgill that rep­re­sent non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions world­wide. Many of these clubs or­ga­nize trips to “third world” coun­tries (which I will re­fer to as the Ma­jor­ity World), try­ing to get the Mcgill stu­dent body in­volved in hands-on work. I am in no way at­tempt­ing to in­dict all of these clubs; I sim­ply want to call at­ten­tion to a re­cent rise in NGO cul­ture and dis­cuss its ef­fects, both on and off cam­pus.

Arund­hati Roy’s in­creas­ingly rel­e­vant es­say “The Ngo-iza­tion of re­sis­tance” eval­u­ated the ways in which non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions are in­flu­enc­ing re­sis­tance and al­ter­ing the pub­lic psy­che. NGO-iza­tion refers to the re­cent flour­ish of non-prof­its through­out the Mi­nor­ity World, each with a dif­fer­ent hu­man­i­tar­ian mis­sion. To some, non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions are fill­ing the gap cre­ated by a re­treat­ing state, and while some NGOS do pro­vide real, ma­te­rial change, multi­na­tional non-prof­its are help­ing cre­ate a cul­ture in which re­sis­tance it­self is be­ing re­de­fined. NGOS now make up the fifth largest econ­omy in the world, with the num­ber of NGOS world­wide in­creas­ing by a fac­tor of 280 in the last decade. This in­cred­i­ble rise is of­ten cited as in­dica­tive of a rise in phi­lan­thropy. How­ever, phi­lan­thropy and NGOS are in no way anal­o­gous.

First and fore­most, vet­ting an NGO has be­come as­tro­nom­i­cally dif­fi­cult. Re­ports on the cor­rup­tion of non-prof­its in the Mi­nor­ity World con­tinue to sur­face, while an es­ti­mated 77 per cent of fraud in­ves­ti­ga­tions never reach main­stream me­dia. By re­ceiv­ing for­eign aid and hav­ing to main­tain ap­pear­ances, ac­counts of cor­rup­tion re­main undis­closed in many cases. As a Mcgill stu­dent, join­ing a chapter of an in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion is of­ten un­nerv­ing, as the money you help raise is ar­bi­trar­ily sent to the or­ga­ni­za­tion with an ex­pec­ta­tion of un­wa­ver­ing trust as to where and how the money is used. The murky waters of NGOS ar­ranged to siphon off grant money or as tax dodges be­comes even less clear when it takes on the form of a univer­sity club.

Mcgill has no­to­ri­ously used funds in ir­re­spon­si­ble and dam­ag­ing ways. Vol­un­tourism at Mcgill re­sults in a per­pet­u­a­tion of the White Saviour com­plex and of­ten does more harm than good for the com­mu­ni­ties it seeks to aid. By act­ing in short-term, self-serv­ing ways, West­ern stu­dents are of­ten do­ing no more than sa­ti­at­ing a need to be viewed as phil­an­thropic. The money used on these vol­un­teers could have been given to lo­cal, vet­ted busi­nesses; si­mul­ta­ne­ously boost­ing the econ­omy and re­cruit­ing pro­fes­sional, re­li­able work.

Even “re­li­able” NGOS that are not par­tic­i­pat­ing in vol­un­tourism are fre­quently con­tribut­ing to a re­in­force­ment of racist and clas­sist stereo­types. In sim­ply de­scrib­ing a com­mu­nity, NGOS are of­ten prob­lem­at­i­cally con­de­scend­ing, paint­ing a pic­ture of ut­ter pow­er­less­ness.

Stu­dents proudly pre­sent­ing the work their or­ga­ni­za­tion does glo­ri­fies this be­hav­iour, giv­ing out what peo­ple ought to have by right and call­ing it “benev­o­lence.” Stu­dents now feel su­pe­rior by help­ing com­mu­ni­ties gain what they should al­ready have, and reg­u­larly use a com­mu­nity’s strug­gles as pad­ding for a re­sume. Talk­ing to Mcgill stu­dents, club lead­ers, and even fac­ulty, it’s ap­par­ent that the West­ern model of the Ma­jor­ity World is twisted and ubiq­ui­tous. As a non-west­ern stu­dent who reg­u­larly visits a Ma­jor­ity World coun­try, rec­on­cil­ing my ex­pe­ri­ences with the per­cep­tion per­pet­u­ated by NGO clubs is dis­con­cert­ing at best.

Even those who have heart­felt in­ten­tions of­ten view the Ma­jor­ity World as a stag­nant mass, de­void of any nu­ance or agency. By turn­ing peo­ple into de­pen­dent vic­tims, NGOS and NGO clubs cre­ate an im­age in which the Ma­jor­ity World is help­less: just wait­ing for an un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dent from PSYC 100 to help them out of their mis­ery. This fos­ters a cul­ture in which it is ac­cept­able to re­spond with a look of pity, be­wil­der­ment, or fear when some­one men­tions their non-West­ern/non-rich/non-white home coun­try or birth­place. With no recog­ni­tion for the au­ton­omy and di­ver­sity of more than half the coun­tries in the world, it’s easy to see how NGOS have con­trib­uted to the nor­mal­iza­tion of these re­ac­tions. It’s easy to see how the flyer of an im­pov­er­ished com­mu­nity or the face of a sad child helps to un­der­score racist and clas­sist stereo­types, and how Mcgill stu­dents are made to feel like noth­ing can be done with­out their help.

Multi­na­tional non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion boards have been con­sis­tently shown to lack rep­re­sen­ta­tion and di­ver­sity, fur­ther per­pet­u­at­ing these stereo­types. Of the gov­ern­ing boards of this year’s top 100 NGOS (most of which con­duct work in non-euro­pean coun­tries), 67 per cent are of Euro­pean de­scent, and less than 1 per cent are Indigenous. This lack of in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity is con­tin­u­ally re­pro­duced in the ac­tiv­i­ties of the NGOS. Clubs proudly claim their aid is given “re­gard­less of race, gen­der, or sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion,” but projects fo­cused on al­le­vi­at­ing racism oc­ca­sion­ally ex­clude or fur­ther op­press women of colour, dis­abled peo­ple of colour, LGBTQ+ peo­ple of colour, and more, by ne­glect­ing to rec­og­nize the in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity of ex­pe­ri­ences and iden­ti­ties. Sim­i­larly, NGOS fo­cused on “women’s move­ments” of­ten try to en­gi­neer a “sin­gle or­ga­ni­za­tional ex­pres­sion” of their cause which can lack a di­ver­sity of in­ter­ests and spa­tial lo­ca­tions.

Be­ing a gay, racial­ized stu­dent, I couldn’t help but won­der if pro­vid­ing sup­port “re­gard­less of race, gen­der, or sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion” was re­ally the best so­lu­tion. In a coun­try strug­gling with state-sanc­tioned ho­mo­pho­bia, was ig­nor­ing sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion bet­ter than openly fight­ing for queer lib­er­a­tion along­side the NGO mis­sion? Wouldn’t this sim­ply al­low ho­mo­pho­bia to flour­ish, de­spite any nec­es­sary work the NGO did? Tak­ing a po­lit­i­cal stance against acts of op­pres­sion seems cru­cial to pro­vide any real change. De­clin­ing to men­tion the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate of a coun­try in­evitably leads to an in­com­plete rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a com­mu­nity’s needs and strug­gles.

By de­politi­ciz­ing is­sues that are po­lit­i­cal by na­ture, NGO clubs can un­in­ten­tion­ally trans­fer blame to the com­mu­nity it­self. Self-de­scribed “apo­lit­i­cal” or­ga­ni­za­tions may ne­glect to ac­knowl­edge the ori­gin of a com­mu­nity’s suf­fer­ing, and by do­ing so, im­ply that it is some­how the com­mu­nity’s fault.

Of­ten, it is the com­mu­nity it­self that can most ef­fec­tively tar­get its own is­sues. NGOS end up in­ter­fer­ing with lo­cal re­sis­tance groups by dic­tat­ing the agenda of sup­port and em­ploy­ing lo­cal ac­tivists in the com­mu­ni­ties they wish to aid. Ac­tivism be­comes an em­ploy­able skill, and re­sis­tance be­comes a ca­reer. While pro­vid­ing jobs, NGOS are also neu­tral­iz­ing the rad­i­cal re­sis­tance move­ments that have tra­di­tion­ally been self-re­liant. Lo­cal ac­tivism and grass­roots move­ments are be­ing sub­merged in a sea of well-in­ten­tioned but ul­ti­mately less ef­fec­tive NGOS. By bet­ter un­der­stand­ing the com­mu­nity and pro­vid­ing re­lief from the bot­tom up, grass­roots move­ments are more likely than big char­i­ties to pro­vide real, long-term change. Rather than sign­ing up to join an un­vet­ted NGO, sup­port­ing lo­cal ac­tivism is of­ten the best route to make a dif­fer­ence. Grass­roots groups also em­ploy def­i­ni­tional in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity, rec­og­niz­ing that pro­vid­ing help for racial­ized com­mu­ni­ties is not in­de­pen­dent from pro­vid­ing help for women or LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ties, and vice versa.

In this way, lo­cal/grass­roots ac­tivism can pro­vide help with­out alien­at­ing or ne­glect­ing op­pressed groups. Many ac­tivists who would be oth­er­wise in­volved in lo­cal re­sis­tance are now be­ing em­ployed by NGOS and can feel they are do­ing im­me­di­ate, cre­ative good. Arund­hati Roy co­gently ar­gues: “Real po­lit­i­cal re­sis­tance of­fers no such short cuts. The Ngo-iza­tion of pol­i­tics threat­ens to turn re­sis­tance into a well-man­nered, rea­son­able, salaried, 9-to-5 job. With a few perks thrown in. Real re­sis­tance has real con­se­quences. And no salary.”

Laura Bren­nan | The Mcgill Daily

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