Imperialism and NGOs in Latin America

By Petras, James | Monthly Review, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Imperialism and NGOs in Latin America


Petras, James, Monthly Review


By the early 1980s the more perceptive sectors of the neoliberal ruling classes realized that their policies were polarizing the society and provoking large-scale social discontent. Neoliberal politicians began to finance and promote a parallel strategy "from below," the promotion of "grassroots" organization with an "anti-statist" ideology to intervene among potentially conflictory classes, to create a "social cushion." These organizations were financially dependent on neoliberal sources and were directly involved in competing with socio-political movements for the allegiance of local leaders and activist communities. By the 1990s these organizations, described as "nongovernmental," numbered in the thousands and were receiving close to four billion dollars world-wide.

Neoliberalism and the NGOs

The confusion concerning the political character of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) stems from their earlier history in the 1970s during the days of the dictatorships. In this period they were active in providing humanitarian support to the victims of the military dictatorship and denouncing human rights violations. The NGOs supported "soup kitchens" which allowed victimized families to survive the first wave of shock treatments administered by the neoliberal dictatorships. This period created a favorable image of NGOs even among the left. They were considered part of the "progressive camp."

Even then, however, the limits of the NGOs were evident. While they attacked the human rights violations of local dictatorships, they rarely denounced the U.S. and European patrons who financed and advised them. Nor was there a serious effort to link the neoliberal economic policies and human rights violations to the new turn in the imperialist system. Obviously the external sources of funding limited the sphere of criticism and human rights action.

As opposition to neoliberalism grew in the early 1980s, the U.S. and European governments and the World Bank increased their funding of NGOs. There is a direct relation between the growth of social movements challenging the neoliberal model and the effort to subvert them by creating alternative forms of social action through the NGOs. The basic point of convergence between the NGOs and the World Bank was their common opposition to "statism." On the surface the NGOs criticized the state from a "left" perspective defending civil society, while the right did so in the name of the market. In reality, however, the World Bank, the neoliberal regimes, and `western foundations co-opted and encouraged the NGOs to undermine the national welfare state by providing social services to compensate the victims of the multinational corporations (MNCs). In other words, as the neoliberal regimes at the top devastated communities by inundating the country with cheap imports, extracting external debt payment, abolishing labor legislation, and creating a growing mass of low-paid and unemployed workers, the NGOs were funded to provide "self-help" projects, "popular education," and job training, to temporarily absorb small groups of pool, to co-opt local leaders, and to undermine anti-system struggles.

The NGOs became the "community face" of neoliberalism, intimately related to those at the top and complementing their destructive work with local projects. In effect the neoliberals organized a "pincer" operation or dual strategy. Unfortunately many on the left focused only on "neoliberalism" from above and the outside (International Monetary Fund, World Bank) and not on neoliberalism from below (NGOs, micro-enterprises). A major reason for this oversight was the conversion of many ex-Marxists to the NGO formula and practice. Anti-Statism was the ideological transit ticket from class politics to "community development," from Marxism to the NGOs.

Typically, NGO ideologues counterpose "state" power to "local" power. State power is, they argue, distant from its citizens, autonomous, and arbitrary, and it tends to develop interests different from and opposed to those of its citizens, while local power is necessarily closer and more responsive to the people. …

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