Neo-colonialism and the failure of NGO culture

Terra Incognita: In mid-April Russian President Vladimir Putin accused NGOs in Russia of receiving $1 billion in foreign funding.

Tag NGO humanitarian project 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tag NGO humanitarian project 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In mid-April Russian President Vladimir Putin accused NGOs in Russia of receiving $1 billion in foreign funding.
This is part of a wider Russian crackdown on NGOs that receive foreign money. The government has forced them to register as foreign agents, and has raided their offices. This seems to be a one-sided story of thuggish authorities threatening sweet little NGOs that only seek to advance human rights and an open civil society. But there is another question that should be asked. Has all the foreign funding revealed an institutional weakness in the model of advancing the goals NGOs supposedly have? After the fall of the Soviet Union, Westerners flocked to the “new Russia” and donors such as George Soros sought to fund the nascent civil society that was testing the new democracy. The total amount plowed into NGOs in Russia that sought to work on all manner of projects, from gay rights to government transparency, will never be known but the BBC estimated Soros alone gave $1b. over 15 years.
Suffice it to say many NGOs in Russia were set up by foreign donors, with foreign advisers, and worked to advance notions common in the West of democracy and human rights.
In two decades of foreign-funded activity it seems very little financial support for the work of NGOs like Memorial ever came from local sources. How is it possible that in a country as wealthy as Russia locals didn’t support the work of these groups? Why is it that local NGOs never saw this as a fundamental problem, that they didn’t seek to wean themselves of foreign donations and survive locally? The major problem is that funding for NGOs is so generous that these local NGOs never feel they need to even bother looking for local sources of cash. In a now infamous leaked 2010 cable from the US embassy in Tel Aviv, it was revealed that Jessica Montell of the Israeli NGO B’Tselem met the American political officer and “estimated her NIS 9 million budget is 95 percent funded abroad.” How is it possible that in a country where the GDP is $242b., that $2.4m. could not be found for B’Tselem? There are no wealthy people on the Left in Israel that might donate to this organization? B’Tselem’s funding is similar to most of Israel’s left-wing NGOs. Almost all of their funding, approaching 100% in many cases, comes from European governments, EU funds or American donors.
This gives their work the clear imprimatur of being a foreign influence in Israel.
IN MANY cases European countries seek to advance their own political goals in the region, such as monitoring settlements, encouraging Israel to accept asylum seekers, or removing Jewish outposts in the West Bank, by funding Israeli NGOs that hire lawyers to argue cases before the Supreme Court. It is easier for a European country to pretend that “Israelis” took a case against a Jewish outpost in the West Bank to the Supreme Court than for the European country to demand Israel remove the outpost.
This provides the veneer of a “local” role in antisettlement activity. Similarly EU countries fear meddling in Israel’s sovereignty by saying that the country should provide free land to Beduin or settle foreign migrants who claim to be refugees – but if these same countries provide $200,000 in funding to a group fighting for migrant or Beduin rights, the policy may be achieved without a diplomatic row with Israel.
This model of NGO funding has become common throughout the world. The EU and North American funders support most human rights NGOs. Whether it is freeing monkeys from their trainers in India, or fighting female genital mutilation in Africa, the money flows from Europe to help “educate” the locals. In many ways this constitutes part of a neocolonialism that replaces the old-style colonial administration with buying influence through local groups to encourage the spread of certain values.
In many cases it seems hard to argue with this work.
How can anyone disagree with a group that fights for women’s rights in places in the world where women are so manifestly ill-treated? But the question still remains: Why is it in so many of these countries that no local donor base can be found? In most cases the work to advance certain rights has gone on for decades, and yet the work has failed so miserably to change local perceptions that no one will fund the work of the NGO. Or is it simply that the funding encourages dependency since it is much easier to write a grant request to the EU and receive a few million dollars in aid than it is to go hat in hand to locals? Because EU and other donors don’t demand that the budget of an NGO increasingly become dependent on local sources, there is no change over time. Some donors will pretend that they discourage dependency by targeting funding to certain unique programs and refusing to fund the whole budget of the program.
However, because there are so many sources of foreign funding, the NGO simply goes from one European government to another and then goes to major funders in the US and Europe to fill in the gaps.
Even if one European government catches on and realizes that an NGO receives 99% of its funding from abroad, there are ample sources who could care less.
In general the foreign funding acts not only as a form of neo-colonialism and creates dependency, but it also has the negative side effect of reinforcing local elites and retarding the growth of local civil society. When every NGO working on women’s rights in a place like Morocco is funded from abroad, it creates a culture where no NGO that wants to work on women’s rights feels the need to go to locals for funding.
For instance, EuropeAid (a part of the European Commission) provided 255,000 euros to the Egyptian Women’s Center, funding 80% of a program for women in elections. In another case EuropeAid provided 16m. euros to fund 95% of a Save the Children project in Bangladesh “to promote access and increase basic education outcomes for 160-400 hardest to reach and marginalized children.”
There is no localization of the skills needed to increase protection of issues like women’s rights in society. No broad-based support is created. Instead the result is a local NGO elite that involves several people who have connections to foreign funding and who are able to enrich themselves at the breast of the EU or other Westerner countries.
For instance, the CEO of Madonna’s Raising Malawi charity just happened to be the sister of Malawi’s president, Joyce Banda. Since much of the money is provided to foreign-based NGOs whose Western employees have the “expertise,” the funding becomes a form of charity for wealthy Westerners who want to wear a “saving the world” badge.
Israel’s NGO elite is a good example of this; it is composed of people who mostly know one another, went to school together and are from leading upperclass Ashkenazi families. The notion is that once you get a job at a human rights NGO in Israel your path is paved with (European) gold. Certain lawyers who work for these NGOs tend to monopolize the trade in NGO legal matters, also enriching themselves through specialization. The NGO elite dine at the right cafes with the “internationals” from Europe, from whom they often receive “prestigious” European awards for their work.
For instance in 2010 Breaking the Silence, an NGO that claims to receive juicy reports of wrongdoing from former IDF soldiers, was short-listed to receive the Sakharov Prize (a Cuban dissident won instead).
They were invited on speaking tours of Western universities to talk about their work. And all of it is for naught because they never need to create a wide base of support in their home country. Civil society in Israel and other countries is deeply harmed as a result since local donors are not educated about these causes. Even though many people might support some of the work that B’Tselem or Memorial do, none of that work has to be crafted to fit a local audience, since the audience for the work is European, not Israeli.
Western donors should consider the great ill that their funding policy is creating in the world. Why donors think that throwing money at a “human rights” issue in India or Thailand will help the problem is unclear. Western culture would not change at the behest of Chinese-funded NGOs. Would Germans suddenly stop eating meat just because a Hindu-funded NGO encouraged them to treat cows with respect and stop wearing leather? No. Only indigenous vegetarian activism might encourage a change in such habits.
Every human rights achievement that has progressed in the West, such as gay rights, has been at the behest of local changes in attitudes and culture, not because of a few wealthy businessmen from another continent. And yet people somehow assume that throwing hundreds of millions of dollars will change local attitudes. The result is that local attitudes remain unchanged, and the money simply enriches a few people in a foreign country.