Impact of Angels: In an Africa Plagued by Conflict and Poverty, International Aid Organizations Loom Large in Every Quarter. Are They Angels of Aid or Bodyguards of a New Colonialism?

By Abdul-Raheem, Tajudeen | New Internationalist, August 2000 | Go to article overview

Impact of Angels: In an Africa Plagued by Conflict and Poverty, International Aid Organizations Loom Large in Every Quarter. Are They Angels of Aid or Bodyguards of a New Colonialism?


Abdul-Raheem, Tajudeen, New Internationalist


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In the last few years international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become part of the landscape of Africa. They are as present as the tropical climate of the west coast of Africa, the biting sun and dry soils of the Sahel region, the thousand hills of Rwanda and south-west Uganda. One can even say they are not just part of the landscape any more; they are the landscape itself, with their Land Cruisers, Land Rovers, Pajeros and other assorted four-wheel drives equipped with radio phones and advertising their endless projects.

So pervasive is their presence that there is virtually not a single district in most parts of Africa that does not have some sort of contact with them. They come as private voluntary organizations, development agencies, religious groups and so on. What unites them is the fact that they are all controlled, financed and executively staffed by Europeans and North Americans. Wealth and direct or indirect backing from their government put them above the local community groups and NGOs in their 'host' countries.

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The continuous rise of the NGOs, their dominance and control over civil society in Africa cannot be divorced from the crisis of the post-colonial African state. Whereas in the immediate post-independence period the political economy of Africa was characterized by neo-colonialism (political sovereignty without economic independence) the current epoch is characterized by recolonization through the IMF, World Bank and Western NGOs.

Today if you want to know the economic fortunes or otherwise of an African country you are better off talking to the country representative of the IMF or World Bank who, to all intents and purposes, is the modern equivalent of a colonial governor. The difference is that unlike the governor who was sent by the colonial power (and therefore ultimately accountable to some public opinion in the parent country), these new governors are bureaucrats, accountable to nobody but their faceless superiors and peers in the Bretton Woods system. They come with a ready-made solution called structural adjustment which is supposed to be a cure-all. Governments that have run down their countries through systematic graft, kleptomania and state robbery have no choice but to do the bidding of their new masters.

However, the operation of structural-adjustment programmes has demonstrated that economics is not just a technical matter to be resolved by 'experts' and other eggheads sent in from Washington. Far from delivering their promised gains, liberalization, privatization and technocratic management have only increased the poverty of the people and further indebted the countries concerned. The more they have adjusted, the deeper they have sunk into the abyss of poverty, joblessness and socio-economic crisis.

Structural adjustment threw up new social contradictions as the already poor condition of the people worsened. Workers were up in arms, civil servants no longer had job security and rural farmers encouraged to produce more got even less money for their goods because of the slump in the global prices for commodities.

Soon it was discovered that while structural adjustment removed the state from all areas of the economy, cutting public expenditure on education, social welfare and health, there was a need to police the resulting crisis. So it was not a weak state that was needed but a very strong one - and an uncaringly wicked one at that. It is only such a state that can impose these draconian measures. So the police, paramilitary and intelligence services had to be strengthened to crush strikes, demonstrations and popular uprisings. The African state was thus restored to its colonial role as the bodyguard of imperialism.

Liberal and social democratic forces in the West began to have qualms about the social effects of adjustment. Their liberal consciences sought a palliative to relieve the pain without curing the disease. …

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