So pervasive is their presence that there is virtually not a single
Impact of Angels (AfricanAgendaVol.3 No.4 21)
In an Africa plagued by conflict and poverty, international aid organizations loom large in every quarter. But, asks Tajudeen Abdul_Raheem, are they angels of aid or bodyguards of a new colonialism?
In the last few years international non- governmental organizations (NGOS)
have become part of the landscape of Africa. They are as present as the
tropical climate of the west coast of Africa, the biting sun and dry soils
of the Sahel region, the thousand hills of Rwanda and south-west Uganda.
One can even say they are not just part of the landscape any more; they are
the landscape itself, with their Land Cruisers, Land Rovers, Pajeros, and
other assorted four-wheel drives equipped with radio phones and
advertising their endless projects.
The continuous rise of the NGOS, their dominance and control over civil
society in Africa cannot be divorced from the crisis of the post-colonial
African state. Whereas in the immediate post-independence period the
political economy of Africa was characterized by neocolonialism (political
sovereignty without economic independence the current epoch is
characterized by recolonization through the IMF, World Bank and
Today if you want to know the economic fortunes or otherwise of
an African country you are better off talking to the country representative
of the IMF or World Bank who to all intents and purposes, is the modern
equivalent of a colonial governor. The difference is that unlike the
governor who was sent by the colonial power (and therefore ultimately
accountable to some public opinion in the parent country), these new
governors are bureaucrats, accountable to nobody but their faceless
superiors and peers in the Bretton Woods system. They come with a
ready-made solution called structural adjustment which is supposed to be a
cure-all. Governments that have run down their countries through systematic
graft, kleptomania and state robbery have no choice but to do the bidding
of their new masters.
However, the operation of structural-adjustment programmes has
demonstrated that economics is not just a technical matter to be resolved
by 'experts' and other eggheads sent in from Washington. Far from
delivering their promised gains, liberalization, privatization and
technocratic management have only increased the poverty of the people and
further indebted the countries concerned. The more they have adjusted, the
deeper they have sunk into the abyss of poverty, joblessness and
Structural adjustment threw up new social contradictions as the condition
of the people worsened. Workers were up in arms, civil servants no longer
had job security and rural farmers encouraged to produce more got even less
money for their goods because of the slump in the global prices for
Soon it was discovered that while structural adjustment removed the state
from all areas of the economy, cutting public expenditure on education,
social welfare and health, there was a need to police the resulting crisis.
So it was not a weak state that was needed but a very strong one - and an
uncaringly wicked one at that. It is only such a state that can impose
these draconian measures. So the police, paramilitary and intelligence
services had to be strengthened to crush strikes, demonstrations and
popular uprisings. The African state was thus restored to its colonial role
as the bodyguard of imperialism.
Liberal and social democratic forces in the West began to have qualms
about the social effects of adjustment. Their liberal consciences sought a
palliative to relieve the pain without curing the disease.
The answer was a new-found religion: "NGOism". The new catechists
the right-wing chorus about the inefficient state and declared their
newly discovered civil society (often inappropriately used to mean NGOS) to be the new
angels. Refugees, civil wars and other calamities created an immediate need
for this humanitarian industry. And African governments were glad to
co-operate by handing over responsibility for education, water, health -
whatever - to NGOs. A myth developed that because these organizations are
based 'among the people' they are best placed to deliver services to the
people. In the right-wing climate that followed the Thatcher and Reagan
years, it all seemed to make sense. Government was bad and NGOs were good.
What this fails to recognize is that much of the influence of foreign NGOs
in Africa derives from the power of their governments, embassies and companies. Some
of the most powerful NGOs get the vast majority of their money from their
own governments, whether for emergency operations or for development
projects. In effect these NGOs are the civil arm of their
governments' policies and the ideological cousins of the IMF and World Bank. One
slaps us in the face and the other offers us handkerchiefs to wipe the tears.
The first problem with NGOs is that they have become sacred cows that
cannot be touched. Anyone who wishes to criticize Western NGOs is likely to
meet accusations of ingratitude, churlishness, inhuman cynicism or lack of
sympathy for the victims of disasters. How dare you talk ill of these
selfless missionaries who have come to help you? This sacredness has
encouraged arrogance and strengthened their feeling of superiority and
we-know- best attitudes. No doubt many are involved in the charity business
out of moral and political commitment. But it is also true that there are
many who are doing it only for career purposes. Our misery is their job. If
you are a disaster manager,what will you do if there are no more disasters?
This is particularly true at a time when more and more NGO money is going
emergency operations rather than long_term development work. There is even
a danger that emergencies will be converted into permanent situations. A
typical case was that of post genocide Rwandase refugees in former Zaire,
Tanzania and Burundi. The Ngara refugee settlement became the
second-biggest city in Tanzania after Dar es Salaam. Yet it was not under
the control of the Government. It was controlled by NGOS. A trip there
would have shocked any liberal conscience. Flags of different NGOs were
hoisted in different compartments, with the obvious suggestion to rival
organizations: 'Keep off my refugees and I'll keep off yours.' Many of
these NGOs did not wish the camps to be closed because their jobs and
influence would go too. The pressure to make the camps habitable was
turning them into permanent cities with amenities that the refugees were
never going to get if they went back to their hills in Rwanda. Yet if you
suggest to the NGOs that long-term 'development work in Rwanda itself will
actually persuade refugees to go home, they plead that it is not their
A second major problem arising from the mushrooming of NGO work in
is the internal brain drain. The external brain drain from Africa is a
dismal phenomenon which has been exacerbated by the economic crisis.
Thousands of Africans with university degrees or professional
qualifications end up in dreary jobs in Europe or America, from cleaning
the streets to working antisocial hours that would be refused by the
natives. Meanwhile NGO employees, almost all of them white, head back in
the opposite direction. One might ask, if the NGOs genuinely wish to help,
why could they not send African skills back to Africa with the same
fantastic salaries and perks as the European experts?
But the internal brain drain is a less recognized problem. The few
skilled people left behind in Africa are tempted away from public
institutions by the NGOs, who can afford to pay ten times what governments
can afford. Furthermore, the same NGOs that drain this local expertise away
get consultancies to train and build up 'local capacity'. Go to any
university in Africa and you will find that the professors who are doing
well are those with access to the foreign NGO community as consultants and
researchers. In effect they spend more time chasing or performing these
jobs than they do teaching their students.
The pervasive presence of NGOs is even changing the social geography of
African cities due to the high-spending lifestyles of the 'expats'.
Wherever there is a big expatriate community there is invariably sex
tourism. One cannot blame prostitution on expatriates but there is a
particular twist that the dollar power has imposed on the exchange. A lot
of African women and men now hope to do better for themselves by hooking an
expatriate partner. They can pay much more and if you are lucky they may
even take you back to the West!
The economic power of NGOs is precipitating a cultural crisis that is now
very acute. It is not just that the colonial mentality is back in the shape
of white expatriates being treated as 'bosses' (and many of them are
literally bosses to numerous domestic servants). But for African countries
that already suffer the debilitating effect of inferiority complexes
brought about by slavery and colonialism, these new relations cannot do
much for our collective morale, esteem and confidence.
As if this is not bad enough it has now become fashionable to hear Western
journalists, humanitarian 'experts' or even some Africans advocating a
return to some kind of colonialism (probably under UN mandate) as a remedy
for Africa. Actually colonialism never really left Africa. Like the deadly
AIDS virus, it merely mutated.
The choice facing Africa is not between chaos and recolonization, as
so many, but between Pan-Africanism and recolonization. The African Unity
agenda remains the only basis on which Africans can reclaim their dignity
and become equal partners with the rest of humanity. It is not that Africa
does not need help but at the moment it is too weak to determine where this
help should be and how it should be used.
Hope is not what somebody else bestows on you. It is what you give to
a union of African states can create the enabling environment for Africa's hope to be
Tajudeen Abdul_Raheem is the General Secretary of the Pan-African
Movement, based in Kampala, Uganda. This is an abridged version of a
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