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ITVs: NGOs – Blessing or a curse?

By Mark Anderson in Nairobi
Posted on Tuesday, 19 June 2018 10:00

Winnie Byanyima, Executive director of Oxfam International

“We open doors to decision-makers”

TAR: Much of Oxfam’s work is focused on the African continent. What are the most compelling reasons for Africans to support Oxfam’s work?

Winnie Byanyima: I believe the profound historical reasons that have caused African countries to have lagged so far behind others in developing their economies – trapping so many African people in extreme poverty for generations – are breaking. We now have the understanding and means to break them in far more profound and sustainable ways, if we choose to: new technologies, particularly in communications and trade, rule of law, growing democracies, better utility and governance of natural resources, more definitive African political influence in the old and newer corridors of power. Civil society organisations play an important part in all these kinds of struggles.

Do you see a crackdown on the work of NGOs and civil society organisations in African countries today?

Yes, civil society crackdowns are happening. They’re happening against NGOs. They’re happening against media. Civicus recently found that among all UN countries just 3% of the world’s population lives in areas where civic space is truly open, where one can peaceably oppose the state. Over 40% are in places where the right to free expression is repressed or oppressed. We live in a very big world where civic freedoms are the exception, not the rule. That to me is objectively extraordinary, as much as it is worrying.

There is much talk in the NGO community about raising the role of local civil society partners. What is your plan to do this?

Last year Oxfam worked with 3,249 partners. This number grows by the year. Last year, 41% of the partners we worked with were national NGOs, for instance, and 10% were women’s organisations. We also partnered up with ­co-operatives, coalitions, research groups, local government agencies, the private sector. Some were long-term development relationships, some were shorter-term strategic alliances, some were geared to advocacy or campaigning – globally, Oxfam has a huge, colourful and diverse partnership profile.

Oxfam often seems to speak for particular groups – the poor, rural women, and so on – but what mandate does Oxfam have to play this role?

I do not ‘speak for’ poor people, or rural women, or refugees, or victims of crises. But I do represent an organisation whose work opens doors to decision-makers that affected people often cannot reach. I’m very conscious that is a privileged position that is not available to all the people who Oxfam works with and supports. So if I can help them to raise their voices and concerns, even in their absence, I will. But I’m happy to say that every time Oxfam is at a major summit – for example at the UN General Assembly in New York or at the [IMF and World Bank] Annual Meetings in DC – we try to ensure that local partners from Africa and around the world are part of our delegation.

Firoze Manji, Former Africa director of Amnesty International

“NGOs take away agency from working people”

TAR: What is the argument against NGOs?

Firoze Manji: Whether they are foreign NGOs or local NGOs, the point is this: they are part of what I would describe as the ‘white saviour’ complex. And the white saviour complex depends on having victims because without victims they have nothing to do. They take away agency from working people, from ordinary people whose own struggles to liberate themselves, to free themselves, to emancipate themselves are denied. This is true as much of the development NGOs as it is of the human rights NGOs. The latter use the courts or international instruments as a means for both victimising and for taking away agency.

I was the Africa director for Amnesty International many years ago. I know how it operates, and I know how agency is taken away. A lot of the reports they produce are taken from people on the ground who have done the hard work at great risk and are then published in Amnesty’s name. And that’s the norm of how these people behave.

Most NGOs are not organisers, and they are accountable only to a select group of people that they have appointed on their boards, who are usually accountable upwards to their donors. So we have a problem.

What do you think NGOs are trying to accomplish?

They are part of a political economy that is part of the exploitation. It’s a part of the way in which they facilitate the exploitation by transnational corporations. Many of these organisations – Oxfam, Save the Children and others – have constantly turned to seek alliances with transnational corporations, especially in the mining sector. If you look at most Canadian aid today, it is transmitted to support NGOs providing social welfare inside the countries where Canadian mining companies are destroying the environment and extracting wealth and natural resources. This is happening across the continent and especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The same thing goes with those who collude with Bill Gates and the genetically modified organism industry and Monsanto and so on. They seek to provide a cover under which these transnational corporations can exploit our people, pay poor wages and undermine people’s own agency, and in fact reverse the gains that we had at independence.

Do you see any role anywhere for NGOs on the continent?

If there are organisations that are confronting the explothe exploitation of transnationals of our countries, if we have organisations which are membership organisations and who actually enable the agency of people to organise in their own interest, then we are talking about a different ball game. But the reality is that there are relatively few of those. The jargon for the development world is ‘we are underdeveloped, in need of modernisation’. And the reality is that we have to find ways not just to reclaim our humanity, to claim that we are indeed humans, but to actually invent what it actually means to be human.

These interviews were first published in the November 2017 print edition of The Africa Report magazine

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