New Internationalist

Charity or justice

Issue 383

Mark Curtis has his doubts about what bingos can really achieve.

Are bingos part of the solution or part of the problem? I have long pondered this question while working in the British development sector for the past 12 years. I think the balance sheet is mixed, and that many bingos have a lot of explaining to do.

Photo: Michael York
Propaganda war: two responses to the 'Make Poverty History' demonstration against the G8 in Scotland. Photo: Michael York

To me, the most important issue is whether they are helping to transform current power structures and promoting democratic alternatives. This means challenging an essentially ‘neoliberal’ economic model that promotes privatization, trade liberalization and corporate deregulation. Without such change, poverty will remain endemic and inequalities between and within many countries will continue to rise.

But do bingos see this as their goal? Although few would disagree with it, and some of their activities are directed towards it, most NGOs have much more reformist aims. The Make Poverty History coalition called for more and better aid, dropping the debt and promoting trade justice. Yet, as some of the more progressive groups in the coalition realized, the real problem was unstated – the very economic model that underlies all these policies. The fact that the coalition was unable to agree a call to oppose economic neoliberalism speaks volumes for the reformist majority in Britain’s development lobby.

And, oh yes, this is also the model that is causing climate change – not a minor issue, yet still one that most development NGOs feel unable to address: many continue to see ‘the environment’ as separate from ‘development’.

Many bingos are so used to working on narrow policy issues like aid and debt that it has become easy to miss the big picture. And the biggest story here is that our current political élites have no interest in eradicating poverty or promoting real development. Aid and debt relief are not going to transform the prospects for the South. Structural changes in the North are needed. These include such big tasks as ending over-consumption – which means telling people they are part of the problem – and democratizing policy-making and governance structures.

Our political system is so élitist, secretive and unaccountable that it is no surprise that governments promote abysmal foreign policies abusive of human rights, whoever is in power. NGOs should be telling their supporters that none of the main parties offers anything to the poor world and that more radical change is needed. They should, in other words, be engaged in more ‘political education’, trying to radicalize their own supporters. Some NGOs have tried, but many have not. When criticism of government policy has taken place, it has often been very mild.

The great danger this year was that the British Government would win a huge propaganda victory following the G8 summit – it would champion Make Poverty History, preside over agreements to increase aid and reduce some debt, and then claim it was the US and others blocking further progress. It always worried me that NGOs saw Britain’s presidency of the G8 as a great ‘opportunity’. I think Britain’s role was more of a threat – not only is it the champion of neoliberalism, it also leads the world in state propaganda operations, as we saw over Iraq. And sure enough, I think the outcome of the summit will leave the poor world worse off – increases in aid and reductions in debt are all conditional on countries promoting the neoliberal model.

The bingos’ biggest strength is their ability to get issues on to the mainstream media’s agenda. If it weren’t for Jubilee 2000 – which bingos were instrumental in setting up – debt would have remained a specialized, minority issue. As anyone who has worked in a bingo press office will know, getting media coverage for poverty and development issues is an extremely difficult task, and has become far harder over the years. Many NGOs produce a constant stream of invaluable reports and analyses, without which mainstream media coverage would be even more dismal than it currently is.

The fact that Africa has been on the media agenda this year is significantly due to the efforts of some of the bingos. But the cost has been staggering – does a new generation of people now think that what Africa needs is more aid and debt relief, and that the British Government is essentially benign, having ‘championed’ Africa? If so, the campaign has been a failure.

There is a growing realization in many bingos that their supporters are even more important as campaigners than as funders

Many people believe that NGOs are seduced by governments because of the funding they receive. Yet, unlike many bingos elsewhere in Europe, most British NGOs receive only a small proportion of their funding from government. A more significant reason is the shared political outlook among many at senior level. Bingos are charities and tend to be social-democratic in orientation; they were not set up as radical organizations. Yet there are many radical voices within them, and all are constantly evolving.

Mixed bag

A major brake on their becoming more radical is the ease with which their income can grow. It is all too easy to launch a fundraising appeal for every humanitarian crisis. But what is needed more in most emergencies is an effective international government response, not small amounts of money from the public. This means further developing advocacy and campaigning capacity. It is encouraging that there is a growing realization in many bingos that their supporters are even more important as campaigners than as funders.

The rise of the global justice movement – the largest people’s movement in history – owes very little to the mainstream NGOs. Many do not regard themselves as truly part of this movement (seeing it as too radical for many of their supporters), and many of those who do are not regarded as part of it by others in the movement. The biggest recent demonstrations in British history – the Stop The War movement against the invasion of Iraq – also owed nothing to NGOs. Indeed, no bingo denounced the invasion and campaigned against it.

The bingos’ role on the ground in developing countries is a decidedly mixed bag, in my experience. NGOs’ work is often literally life-saving; and for some poor communities the only external support they receive comes from them. Some, like Christian Aid, also fund radical and cutting-edge organizations at the forefront of social change in the South. Yet many others gravitate towards urban élites and middle-of-the road organizations – few fund social movements or trade unions.

One of the most debilitating roles that can be played by Northern NGOs is undermining the forces at the forefront of social change in the South in favour of safer political forces that tend towards maintaining the status quo. Or they can help deliver the neoliberal agenda through their activities, bypassing governments and more appropriate local structures. NGOs can recreate in the South the charity-not-justice agenda that they promote in the North. This may be the main institutional reason why Northern governments fund them.

So are bingos worth supporting? I think that the smaller organizations focused on campaigning can give more bang for the buck, since they are more independent and prepared to challenge power more directly. However, those bingos with a strong campaigning arm and Southern focus can and do play supportive roles to people’s struggles in the South. The Make Poverty History coalition has radicalized some of the very mainstream organizations which previously had said nothing about debt or trade to their supporters. Many organizations have been making the transition from aid deliverers to advocates to campaigners.

The key is to go further; to become real social-change agents. NGOs need to be focused on broad political, economic and environmental change and mobilizing the public in the North to challenge and transform power here. This means seeing themselves as small players in the global justice movement. This is a more vital function than delivering aid, focusing on micro-projects at community level in developing countries and engaging in insider lobbying for narrow policy change, which invariably leads to co-option. This is also more important than increasing in size or grabbing that two-liner in the media at the expense of the competition.

Can any of this be done while NGOs maintain their charitable status? Although the charity guidelines do allow for campaigning and pressuring governments, they certainly limit political activities. Charities constantly live in fear of opponents resorting to charity law to stop even mild criticisms of government policy. But here is the fault-line. Income will go down without charitable status: so is that a price worth paying to be more politically independent? Currently, no bingo has forsworn charity status: perhaps when one does we will know that a more challenging NGO sector is in the offing.

Mark Curtis was until recently Director of the World Development Movement and previously Head of Policy at Christian Aid and ActionAid. His most recent book is Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses. Web: www.markcurtis.info

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