Policies. Theories. Models. Ideologies. It is fascinating how abstracted our politics have become from real life experiences.
A couple of months ago, John Hilary caused quite a stir by calling on development charities to re-embrace politics in order to achieve their aims and goals. As the Executive Director of War on Want, his outlook came of no surprise to those in the know of development politics. War on Want is well-known for its Marxist anti-capitalist and challenging approach to international development, a view that has led many other larger development NGOs into a space of much discomfort.
These thoughts were not new; other development workers had been saying similar things in recent years. Development NGOs are the reason that capitalism and liberal peace-building measures exist – they are the foundations of globalisation because they enact exactly what they were given funding for (and far more reliable and cheaper than contracted companies). They have become, in many ways, the Trojan horse of neoliberalism: promising hope for people but bringing in stability to open trade boundaries, provide access to cheap labour and natural resources, and force through a specifically neoliberal structure against social welfare. John Hilary’s point had ample evidence to support it, and it was also being actively ignored by the larger organisations.
But missing in this discussion was the bigger question – whether development charities had any reason to exist at all.
From The Poverty of Capitalism, John Hilary sees their role as a balancing counterpower to corporations and governments, designed to challenge the politics of poverty. But then what was poverty? Was it an actual lack of cash or opportunity? Was is a relative measure of wealth and income?
Through the process of discussing the politics that shape poverty, John Hilary managed to abstract poverty as a lived experience and convert it into a mere statistic. This process highlighted the simple observation that poverty was about the lack of access to necessities like food, water, shelter, etc that humans need to survive, but sees this as a form of economic injustice rather than an issue of social injustice (i.e. a form of cultural imperialism).
Let me explain. Poverty is not fuelled by the inequality of economic access, but the inequality of physical access. You don’t need an export market to become self-sufficient as a community, you merely need access to the resources that make it possible: land and clean water. Viewing this lack of access to resources as an aspect of global economic injustice legitimatises the global economic system which is a continuation of the colonialist regime. In effect, this process neglects local economies which are founded on different value systems to globalised capitalism.
Understanding that view re-establishes the human lived experience in the global political arena. It forces the political analyst to re-engage with the desires of the people actually affected by development by seeing development as an issue of power itself. Issues of credibility then need to be confronted: what gave War on Want the right to decide what was best for international development? what gave their ‘radical’ politics credibility over other large bodies working in the Global South? how did these politics actually effect people who receive development?
Instead of seeing poverty and development as an abstract issue of social justice, it has to be seen as a issue of knowledge/power. The power here is held by a British middle class man whose institution is not founded by the peoples in the countries it campaigns in. Yes, there are strong social movements which War on Want allies itself to, but by choosing which to support and which not to, John Hilary has effectively decided what he thinks is best. In the case of a British NGOs, the question we must ask is: what allows the NGO to have so much sway and power over the lives of other people, other than the NGO’s view that they know best? And how is that any different to the imperialism imposed by international governments?
My critique is simple:
Development (or social change) needs to come from the grassroots and merely supported by NGOs in the global North. The politicisation process of the development NGO is the domain of the peoples whose lives are being impacted by a global system of economic AND social injustice, rather than through the political analysis/leanings of NGO workers based in the North.
We must learn to see politics as an arena of people acting to improve their lives the way that they see fit rather than a sets of theories, policies and principles. Until then, development organisations will continue to be imperialist institutions, abstracted from the daily life of everyone.