Recently a man named Sherzad Mosa walked into a bar in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq, and was surprised to overhear a woman describe it as an “NGO bar.” Mosa wondered on Facebook why hundreds of thousands of refugees are living in the Kurdish region, and “kids and women” are suffering while “200 NGOs have more than 1,600 foreign people working for them and they are getting paid more than $10,000 per month and staying in the best hotels?” Others commented on his thread that NGO workers were driving around in brand new vehicles and spending just a few hours with refugees and then driving back to their hotels.
What these men had seen was only a small piece of a new kind of feudalism that involves governments, NGOs, international organizations and to a lesser extent media and academics.
Trying to quantify the extent of it is like the parable of the elephant in the room.
Everyone is touching one part of the feudal empire, but unable to see the whole of it.
Working in the Palestinian territories I came across these kinds of NGO employees and members of UN and EU government staffs over the years. Their fleets of SUVs plied the streets and their workers made ten times the local salaries. On their own they joked about the job they were doing. One German working on Palestinian election issues admitted it was all a financial windfall. There would never be elections, he said, “but I make great money here and get a resume builder.” A man we met who had a political science degree had somehow become a “security expert” for an international organization, giving “assessments” about threats in Gaza. Organizations such as the “Temporary International Presence in Hebron” are not temporary, existing for decades and paying salaries to Europeans who spend their weekends, as evidenced by their vehicles, enjoying themselves at Jerusalem or Tel Aviv bars. The new colonials call themselves “internationals.”
The old colonialism that mostly came to an end by the 1960s was exploitative and dictatorial in nature. It replaced local elites through conquest with colonial officers and parasitical classes of Europeans who lived in villas and enjoyed a standard of life unavailable to the peoples being colonized. This is immediately recognizable in any description of life in the British Raj or French Indochina.
But since 1960 a new feudal-style colonial elite has arisen. It was at first necessitated by the lack of education among the new states that were born in Asia and Africa. In an ironic twist, the very education that the colonial empire denied locals became the raison d’etre for mostly Western people to return to places in Africa or Asia and fill the void, to direct infrastructure projects or build schools and provide education. One colonialism was replaced by another, seemingly more benign type. After almost 55 years of this it is important to ask what it means when the local elites made up of UN organizations, NGOs and others are staffed by Western, mostly white elites from Europe or North America.
If the interest was education, in places such as Africa we would expect to see a process of indigenization, whereby high-level staff and well-paid positions are held not by outsiders, but by increasingly educated locals. But we don’t see that. In places like Haiti we see generations of NGOs paying non-Haitians exorbitant salaries to help local people. In effect what has happened is the creation of a new colonial empire, staffed with the same upper class Westerners that previously staffed the high echelons of colonial administrations.
“Working for the empire” has been replaced with “get a job at an NGO.”
This may be called “non-profit,” but there are large profits involved. Aiding the “third world” is not the selfless task it appears to be, but a key part of a system that has developed to move salaries from donors to their class peers. In essence almost all the money spent on projects in the third world remains in the first world. There isn’t wealth transfer to the global south, rather there are salaries that start in Europe and stay in Europe.
A case study by Bill Morton on international NGOs on development cooperation in which he analyzed international non-government organizations (INGOs) noted: “They are providing more aid to developing countries than ever before.” They have “combined revenues of more than $11.7 billion in 2011, up 40 percent since 2005. INGOs represent a major presence in many developing countries.”
They are an “increasingly influential actor in policy processes and in the global governance of aid.” In 2011 organizations such as Save the Children had massive incomes of $1.4b., while World Vision International received $2.79b. and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) $1.24b., according to the study.
MSF, for instance, provides information on its local budgets for individual countries.
In 2012 in Guatemala its website said it had 23 staff, of whom 20 were locally hired and three were internationals. The same site says it spent 437,000 euros on the 20 locals and 159,000 euros on the 3 internationals.
A report at The Telegraph found that executives at the UK’s largest charities were receiving more pay than the prime minister.
“Six-figure salaries at Britain’s 14 leading foreign aid charities has risen by nearly 60 percent over the past three years,” according to the report. These leaders of “non-profits,” among them Save the Children, were found to be making more than $200,000 a year.
When real wages for average people in much of the world are stagnant (UK wages declined by 2% from 2009-2014 according to Business Insider), why are NGOs receiving more than ever before and their international hires – which means mostly white Westerners – receiving higher salaries than ever before? The quiet result has been the creation of a new feudal class. The world of NGOs is very murky, often untethered from the usual rules regarding hiring practices and nepotism. These organizations have little fiduciary responsibility and anti-discrimination rules often don’t apply to them in the same way as they would businesses.
The foreign donors have huge influence over small, poor countries. It is in their interest to get countries addicted to their aid as a crutch and outsource basic services to them. An article in TheDiplomat.com on Cambodia concluded: “NGOs’ readiness to substitute for the government in areas where policies are still weak, this first pick of Cambodia’s best and brightest creates the risk that the government’s own capabilities will be compromised.” The more “clients” locally a charity has, the more it can ask for money back home, the more internationals it can hire.
If we did a test of the internationals drawing large salaries from NGOs we would find that most are from the wealthiest class in the West. They have close relationships with the same government ministries that provide them financing. They use taxpayer money as a wealth transfer to the wealthiest.
Work in “international development” is a resume builder to other work in government “service,” or vice-versa. The interest of this feudal class is to keep increasing the size of these budgets, in and outside of government.
A global south without the need to rely on aid and charity would represent a huge financial loss for large numbers of well-heeled bureaucrats and their children, whose graduation from prestigious private schools guarantees them a track to employment.
At the elite level there is a startling lack of diversity. The networks that dominated in the colonial era still dominate today; the same names, the same families. Social mobility, which has percolated up in some professions, has not increased in the “public” and “non-profit” sectors. We can see the way in which this feudal class has insulated itself through its own self-definition abroad with “NGO-only” bars and hotels and clubs.
What’s the difference with the old “European only” or “whites only” social clubs of the 19th century? When there is money to be made off the permanent impoverishment of people there is no incentive to alleviate it. The effusive eulogies for Fidel Castro over the weekend, the admiration for his impoverishment of Cuba so that locals only make $20 a month, comes from the same Western crowd that has increasingly come to live off the poverty and misery of the third world. According to the World Bank there was $160b. spent on foreign aid in 2014 (up from $50b. in 2000), and the amount rises every year, with no evidence it achieves sustainability or growth in recipient countries. “Foreign aid appears to have an adverse effect on economic growth in developing countries,” was one of the conclusions of a 2008 paper examining economics of developing countries from 1986 to 2007 (“The effect of foreign aid on economic growth in developing countries,” by E.M Elanayake and Dasha Chatrna).
Haiti is a prime example. There are 10,000 NGOs providing 80% of government services in Haiti. NPR and ProPublica revealed that the Red Cross reserved a $200,000 salaried position for expats while the most senior Haitian engineer got $42,000 on one project. Nathalie Baptiste, who wrote an article on the issue, argued that “non-governmental organizations should partner with local Haitian groups, which will lead true sustainable development.”
Countries could have attempted to slow down this process of reliance on a new feudalism by requiring that local hires not only make up a majority of employees but receive equal salaries. Donor countries could reduce the process of entrenching this elite by requiring the same diversity and affirmative action in NGOs that are required in other aspects of society.
The problem is that if you view this world of wealthy expats, NGOs and governments they are associated with, their slick public relations, increasing budgets, skyrocketing pay and compliant media and academics as a form of neo-feudalism, you’ll realize it’s not about “partnering.” It’s about colonialism.
Almost 60 years after it ended, it’s back.
Ironically those who might claim to oppose imperialism and admire Castro are the greatest inheritors of its legacy.Follow the author @Sfrantzman.