Are NGOs Truly as Altruistic as They Make Themselves out to Be?

Are NGOs in the present day not as altruistic as they were intended to be, and what has caused them to fail? Are the critics of NGOs justified in comparing them to the imperialist project of the past?

The Roots

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are often mistaken by many for being altruistic organizations that strive to prevent human rights abuses. However, with the impact of globalization in the past few years and the whirlwind of socio-political and economic changes, non-governmental organizations have come into public scrutiny for their tendency to deviate from their original humanitarian intentions. It is increasingly difficult in the present day to credit them with being absolutely “altruistic”, for those with managerial and directorial positions in non-governmental organizational firms usually enjoy immense salaries and privileges in a billion dollar industry whilst millions around the world still suffer the human rights violations that these organizations pledge to resolve. So much so that the nature of non-governmental organizations today has been likened to that of the imperialist project of the past.

The initiation and formation of non-governmental organizations in the early stages intended to have a relatively more altruistic purpose than they appear to do so today. Although charities have existed for a period of over a century, the term “non-governmental organization” is a fairly latter-day concept, its origins being rooted to the creation of the United Nations in 1945. These organizations started off as international non-state agencies who had been granted the privilege of “observer status” to select meetings in the United Nations. Although deeply rooted to the ideals of social work, these agencies were neither governmental nor corporate in the purest sense of the word. Their sole mission was social good; torch bearing for human rights and other issues that seemed comparatively modern back in the day.

The Politicization

However, the so-called corruption of its benevolent ideals was not wholly self-inflicted; several socioeconomic factors contributed in the downfall of the place of non-governmental organizations in society. These factors continue to affect several societal practices continually and were set off by the following set of circumstances — an increment in the number of non-governmental organizations was catalyzed by the emergence of neoliberal ideology during the Reagan Thatcher era. The answer to this situation became the exploitative emergence of capitalism and the widely assumed but paradoxical idea of the “free market”. Following, the government washed their hands off of public provision such as healthcare and education, which began to creep into the private sector. With the arrival of non-governmental organizations, the government was now assured that there was an alternate available that would provide more affordable services. Soon, government funds to non-governmental organizations failed to match the magnitude of the cuts, and gradually the role of providing aid to developing or suffering nations shifted from that of governments to non-governmental organizations.

Statistically, “between 1975 and 1985 the amount of aid taking this NGO route shot up by 1,400 per cent (Godrej, 2014)”.

The neoliberal attack converted the energy that would have gone into fighting the system to the formation of non-governmental organizations. They became a by-product of the system’s vain idealism, and this transformation was captured even in literature by author Arundhati Roy who wrote:

“Armed with their billions, these NGOs have waded into the world, turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists, funding artists, intellectuals and filmmakers, gently luring them away from radical confrontation (Godrej, 2014)”.

She has even directly attributed this deviation to neoliberalistic factors in saying that it is

“almost as though the greater the devastation caused by neoliberalism, the greater the outbreak of NGOs (Godrej, 2014)”.

Numerically, non-governmental organizations are flourishing globally for today, “30 new ones are formed every day in Britain; and there are 1.5 million in the US alone” (Godrej, 2014).

However, it is important to note that what began altruistically and as a social cause happened to only be a scapegoat for governments to rid themselves of social responsibility financially, making non-governmental organizations and victim of neoliberalism and causing their eventual downfall for the most part. Their weaknesses, though, are not to be blamed only to abstract socio-political factors; although that may have been the root of the problem, non-governmental organizations have their own part to play in their undoing. Non-governmental organizations rely on a chunk of their funding from a range of sources — from governments and intergovernmental aid agencies to corporate donations. Although this is heavily denied, the type of donor is greatly influential to the standpoints of a non-governmental organization, often causing the latter to oblige to the wishes of the former. Gradually, their intentions shift from pure social welfare to forming partnerships with these corporate or governmental donors. Whereas non-governmental organizations were initially described as neither governmental nor corporate, they soon became tight-knit with those two very bodies for their sustenance. Hence, the intentions and actions of non-governmental organizations have deviated greatly over time; they were kick-started with the purpose of the achievement of social good, but unfortunately succumbed to political and corporate whims in the guise of self-sustenance.

The Actions

While these ideas reflect on the nature of the non-governmental organizations’ intentions and interests, much of what forms their criticism is actually the actions they take. According to historian Diana Jeater’s personal experiences volunteering in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, she was at first

“impressed by how all the NGO workers [she] met emphasized the need to listen to rural women. [She] was quickly disillusioned when [she] realized that “listening” meant “finding out how to present what we want to deliver in ways that make them acceptable to rural women” (Godrej, 2014)”.

On the other hand, several countries have differing experiences working with non-governmental organizations for their benefit, one such being Bangladesh, the country with the world’s largest national non-governmental organizational system, many of which act parallel to the national government. While they finance more developmental projects than their government itself does, most of their beneficiaries are yet struggling under the poverty line. They have accordingly been criticized for their market model because of their over-reliance on microcredit, which

“produces ‘rational profit-seeking individuals’ rather than community efforts — to say nothing of the debt traps many have found themselves in (Godrej, 2014)”.

It is for these results that non-governmental organizations are usually perceived to have failed to provide what they promise, only maintaining a guise of social activism and justice torch bearing. On the other hand, however, certain non-governmental organizations can be lauded and must be credited for their fight against the disapproving force of their respective governments. They have been known to put themselves out on the line for environmental issues, and have greatly succeeded when focusing their agenda on singular issues such as the

“abolition of slavery to the landmines ban and access to HIV medication (Godrej, 2014)”.

The Criticism

However, what often sets them back or provides the most obstacles are their defence of human rights issues, ranging from the freedom or inhumane treatment of political prisoners to the unjust persecution and treatment of sexual and racial minorities. It is these deep-rooted human rights issues that most governments are strongly opposed to due to religious, societal or nationalistic ideals, which forms a barrier for non-governmental organizations when they are shut down, banned, or cut off from the influx of foreign funds. Shockingly, much of this is often even self-inflicted, devoid of governmental forces and usually present in world-renowned non-governmental organizations. Western non-governmental organizations, coming from more ‘developed’ nations and of the highest influence have in the past unflinchingly overlooked human rights abuses in the less fortunate nations. Human Rights Watch, one of the best-known non-governmental organizations has its own fair share of such inhumanity, for in 2009 its advocacy director Tom Malinowski, who had previously served as special assistant to Bill Clinton and speechwriter to Madeleine Albright, even justified CIA renditions ‘under limited circumstances’.

It has also shown bias in its reporting of war crimes committed by Israel and Palestine (Godrej, 2014)”.

Therefore, the idea that non-governmental organizations distinguish themselves from businesses, the corporate world, the government or other political forces is a misconception — most non-governmental organizations are often driven by these entities, an attribute that has eventually tarnished their image in the world of human rights and social justice.

The Historical Connection

There are many who argue that the concept of a non-governmental organization is inherently flawed because it is too reminiscent of the imperialist project of the past.

One may get this impression because of how that project functioned — in the Third World, “imperial ruling classes financed and supported overseas and domestic religious institutions to control exploited people and deflect their discontent into religious and communal rivalries and conflicts (Petras, Veltmeyer, 2001)”, the latter part of which is negatively attributed to non-governmental organizations in the present day.

However, this argument stems from not the results of their global work, but by the personal benefits reaped by non-governmental organization workers. Non-governmental organizations circulate an exorbitant amount of funds, with there being

“at least 50,000 NGOs in the Third World receiving in total more than $10 billion in funding from international financial institutions, European, U.S. and Japanese governmental agencies and local governments (Petras, Veltmeyer, 2001)”.

The Power (Imbalance)

Those who manage the largest non-governmental organizational firms deal with million-dollar budgets, are granted an immense salary and enjoy very similar privileges as to those of the likes of corporate CEOs. Along with those personal privileges, their influence and outlook extends to often the rest of the world as well, given that they partake in international conferences where they are often at par with the business and finance moguls whose decisions affect very global policies — thereby lending non-governmental organization workers the ability to make decisions for and affect, often adversely, the lives of millions of underprivileged people around the globe.

Non-governmental organizations have shifted from being a means of global enhancement to a method of advancing a career and financial gains for those within the upper classes; especially those who have worked towards social movements in vain and then find themselves turning towards non-government organizational careers for richer salaries and rewards.

According to researchers James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, today, “thousands of NGO directors drive $40,000 four-wheel-drive sports utility vehicles from their fashionable suburban homes or apartments to their well-furnished offices and building complexes (Petras, Veltmeyer, 2001)”, indicating that a career in non-government organizational directing is seductive for the luxuries that its salary and privileges can provide, not for the humanitarian, world-bettering facility that it was actually meant to be.

Further criticism is directed towards them for Petras and Veltmeyer state that those very professionals are “more familiar with and spend more time at the overseas sites of their international conferences on poverty (Washington, Bangkok, Tokyo, Brussels, Rome, etc.) than the muddy villages of their own country (Petras, Veltmeyer, 2001)”.

This presents the unacceptable but harsh reality that those who head the most highly renowned, top-notch non-governmental organizations of the world have not remained loyal to the initial concept’s self-denying, noble and philanthropic intention. They have reaped its immense financial benefits, owing to the large budgets present in the industry and the global networking that comes with it, helping them to further their own careers and neglect the wellbeing of the helpless.

The Eventual Downfall

Non-governmental organizational volunteering and its erroneous deviation from its original purpose could actually be explained in three stages that defined its fall. The first stage was its noble creation that came out of revolutionary circumstances — it was a way of dissenting intellectuals, thinkers and activists to create a safe space against harsh dictatorships, where safety and a voice was provided to those who wished to act against human rights violations and its victims who needed protection. These individuals and groups were however not quick to identify and question the emerging but conspicuous “free market” ideals and policies that crippled the general public into destitution often. Moreover, this impoverishment of the people happened to cause multiple human rights violations that the powerhouses of the United States of America and most of Europe were complicit with. This initiated the politicization of non-governmental organizational volunteering, in that these volunteers were now being perceived as “democrats”, and according to Petras and Veltmeyer, as though they were

“available as political replacements for local ruling classes and imperial policy-makers when repressive rulers began to be seriously challenged by popular mass movements (Petras, Veltmeyer, 2001)”.

The concept of non-governmental organizational volunteering began with the need to upturn and challenge imperialistic and hegemonic powers, and also to fight for the masses and for the human rights violations against groups and individuals alike. However, after both their politicization as well as corporatization, ideals that they were originally distinguished from, these organizations became a means for the educated, privileged upper classes to produce even more selfish financial gains for themselves, much like the imperialist project of the past.

The Takeaway

  • Non-governmental organizations may be providing aid to millions around the world, but they are certainly nowhere near “altruistic”, specifically the large scale, world-renowned ones.
  • While their aim remains remotely similar, the way these organizations function and distribute their funds has drastically changed, especially through the means of socio-political and economic change.
  • In the modern set of circumstances, those with high positions in these organizations satisfy their self-serving interests through the financial gains and personal privileges they enjoy by way of their position.
  • Moreover, it adversely affects those beyond themselves for they have a great part in deciding, influencing and imposing global policies that impact millions of underprivileged people around the world who have had their basic human rights violated.

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