Alejandro Bendaña

The increasing prominence of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) is, on balance, one of the few welcome developments in contemporary post-cold war politics. However, from the standpoint of someone who has worked with both governments and nongovernmental organizations in the South, the increasing influence of NGOs raises some concerns and merits more discussion among analysts and activists.

Today, few governmental or intergovernmental bodies dispute the notion that "civil society" and NGOs deserve a hearing in the determination of important policies and decisions. In their country visits, World Bank and even the IMF missions now often make the rounds with nongovernmental entities, including labor unions and opposition parties. Within multilateral institutions, new bureaucratic offices are created to deal with governance, civil society, and NGOs. Sometimes these visiting officials even take note of what NGO members have to say, although they mostly feign interest, not being quite sure how to interpret what has been said.

NGOs are growing in influence--or at least in voice--particularly in the North. And there are few issues that do not relate to the expertise and concern of one civic organization or another. So prevalent and engaged are NGOs that Northern governments increasingly feel obliged (or find it convenient) to provide funding and contracts. NGOs have forged new relationships with governments on issues from democratic governance to the environment, women's concerns to election monitoring, landmine eradication to appropriate technology and food security.

But is it not a problem that NGOs appear to be gaining terrain at the expense of political parties and democratic social movements? Does NGOization entail depoliticization along with defensive retreats into localism or globalism at the expense of national transformation? In fact, NGO influence appears to be displacing traditional politics, including traditional labor union activities. Traditional political ways of exercising citizenship and collective struggle appear to be giving way to a more conservative and much-touted rise of "civil society."

There is an international dimension as the "new" politics of civil society and NGOs--spawned by the North--descend as the latest wave of the white man's burden on the South. Swelling in the aftermath of the cold war, the NGO sector continues to expand and is spreading to the South. Many of the Northern-based forms of NGO and civil society organization are being uncritically exported to and imported by the South with mixed and as yet inconclusive results.

For the South, this proliferation of NGOs--both local and Northern--may pose more long-range problems than opportunities, especially when considering the many structural obstacles to social change in the South. But this should not be exclusively a concern of Southern progressives. If global change is imperative to global survival, and if the rise of international NGOs is part of the change, then the problems associated with the ambiguous role of NGOs operating in the South should be a concern for us all.

Terrain of Struggle

Whether we choose to admit it or not, NGOs take part in a global contest that may be won or lost on the basis of ideology and consciousness. Throughout history, capitalism's principal weapon has been in the realm of culture and ideology. In many ways, development and advocacy NGOs reflect the crisis of the left, which is mostly a crisis of intellectuals involving an outright failure of nerve that is unfortunately being transmitted to the South and communities in struggle. Some of us would like to know, for example, if advocates believe that the basic Marxist critique of capitalism is valid, and if not, what do they offer as an alternative analytical framework. Are we now all called upon to follow the lead of ex-leftists in the North in discovering "civil society" and "NGO engagement?" Do we then go on to embrace identity politics and cultural relativism to fill in the niches left by global neoliberalism?

On the other hand, the "traditional" left, North and South, must relate to changing expressions of politics, including NGOs. Labor unions, for example, that ignored the growing maquila industry in Central America found their place quickly supplanted by women's associations and their NGO supporters abroad. Some parties and unions in Latin America are reaching out constructively to the unprecedented spread of activity and civic organization among women, youth, human rights activists, ecologists, communal and ethnic movements, and sometimes even gay ones, although this is more difficult for the "machistas-leninistas." Other parties are slower, and some insist that the organized working class still has its traditional leading role to play in social advance.

NGOs and advocacy campaigns will have an important role to play in global issues demanding global responses. They can be good advocates and fund-channelers to local development efforts. But let us not underestimate the power of the global power structure, which is reflected in its capacity to absorb the pressures of superficial change as a defense against deeper challenges. Like social and patriarchal systems, the global apparatus will allow some change to take place and in the process leave the deep structures untouched and even invisible.

Part of the problem, from our perspective, is that many national and international NGOs are derisive about politics at the national level--sometimes with good reason. But our organizations should not follow the path of ex-left academics who claim to be making a virtue of necessity by joining the chorus condemning state intervention and the struggle for state power. There is a danger in "small is beautiful." Given interlocking national and international power structures, the sum of "local" democracies does not equal national or international democracy. However, until some other system is invented, local elections and political parties do make a difference. Perhaps not everyone is ready to turn their backs on the need to attain representation at the national level, because, at this stage at least, the democratic movement cannot afford to dispense with the nation-state.

Finally, all of us, as NGOs, should constantly remind ourselves that the principal efforts and sacrifices to attain development, democracy, and peace with justice will be made, as always, by the impoverished. It follows that they, a majority in the South, should be the principal beneficiaries, lest we continue to be confused by the amorphous notion of civil society. NGOs have done very positive work--particularly when they've worked with and not simply for people. But we must also envision a steady and systematic replacement of NGOs with people's organizations capable of acting at the local, national, and international levels. The internationalization and concentration of capital and power must be followed by the internationalization of people's movements and organizations. Therein lies our task.

(Alejandro Bendañ is director of Centro de Estudios Internacionales in Managua. This contribution was excerpted from a groundbreaking essay on the subject that is posted at http://www.irc-online.org/bulletin/bull51.html)

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