Monday, 18 August 2014

The Missionary Position: NGOs and development in Africa

Firoze Manji will be participating in the upcoming thinking africa colloquium.  Sally Matthews recently interviewed Manji about his work and the role of NGOs in bringing about social justice in Africa.

Firoze Manji has recently joined ThoughtWorks as the Director of the Pan-Africanism Institute. Before joining ThoughtWorks, he was the Head of Documentation, Information and Communications Centre, of the Council for Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA ). He is also the founder and former editor-in-chief of the prize-winning pan African social justice newsletter and website Pambazuka News and Pambazuka Press/Fahamu Books, and founder and former executive director of Fahamu – Networks for Social Justice, a pan African organisation with bases in Kenya, Senegal, South Africa and the UK (www.fahamu.org). He has published widely on health, social policy, human rights and political sciences, and pan-Africanism and has authored and edited a wide range of books on social justice in Africa, including on women’s rights, trade justice, on China’s role in Africa and on the recent uprisings in Africa. 


Sally:To begin with, could you briefly introduce yourself?

Manji: I founded Fahamu in 1997 and  I’m the founder and former editor-in-chief of Pambazuka News and Pambazuka Press. I have previously worked as regional representative for health in Eastern and Southern Africa for the Canadian International Development Research Centre, Africa Director for Amnesty InternationaI, and more recently as head of the documentation, information and communications centre for CODESRIA. I’m originally from Kenya.

Sally: You have recently taken up the position of Director of the Pan-African Institute for ThoughtWorks. Could you briefly outline your plans in relation to this position.

Manji:I don’t like the word ‘institute’ for the organisation: it has too many connotations of academia and think-tanks. We’ve decided to call it the Pan-African Barazabaraza means a community meeting or forum —  which conveys more what we have in mind, an institution that is a convenor, forum and organiser, a safe place where activists, intellectuals and social movements can interact and debate and organise around key strategic issues facing the continent. The Pan-African Baraza will be an independent institution, albeit supported by ThoughtWorks.

Let me explain why I think such an institution is needed.

I believe we are living in a period of growing discontent and dissatisfaction with the conditions that people across the continent are facing — a discontent arising from the reversals of many of the gains of independence, primarily as a result of decades of neoliberal economic and social policies. As a consequence, the continent is facing a series of dispossessions: dispossessions of livelihoods with the growth of unemployment and decline in living standards; dispossessions of land and natural resources accompanied by destruction of the environment and the consequent effects on climate change; political dispossessions in the sense that our governments are increasingly becoming more accountable to international corporations, banks and international financial institutions than to their own citizens; and dispossession of memory—a loss of understanding of our histories, our struggles, the writings of leading thinkers and revolutionaries, of pan-Africanism, even memories of productions and reproduction of indigenous seeds— all of these are the outcome of the consequences of neoliberalism. Critical in terms memory losses is the fact that the history of Pan-Africanism has been dominated by perspectives that focus primarily on the role and writings of men, with women as usual 'hidden from history', or documented solely as having roles that only serve to emphasize patriarchal perspectives about the role of women. Many, especially the young, are struggling to find a way forward; a way of making sense of what is happening. It is a period when many different forces are organizing and engaging in struggles.  However there are few institutions where the experiences of these women, peasants, homeless, landless, precarious workers, and people affected by environmental destruction and climate change are shared, and where cross-fertilization, can take place.

The formal pan-African movement is fragmented. This year alone there are at least three separate meetings each proclaiming itself as the ‘8th Pan-African Congress’. Many of those who are organized around the ideas of Pan-Africanism have tended to look backwards and almost create a religion based on the past instead of drawing on history in order to define what pan-Africanism could be in the future — what we want it to be! The African Union is perhaps the largest and long-standing pan-African institution, yet operates primarily as an intergovernmental structure rather than an embodiment of any pan-Africanist philosophical, political or intellectual tradition. At the same time, there are many organizations and institutions in Africa and around the globe that aspire (explicitly or implicitly) to advancing pan-Africanist visions and agendas.

The history of movements in Africa against enslavement, colonisation and exploitation has always had two contesting tendencies – those committed to emancipation, and those seeking only concessions and sometimes collusion.  I believe there is a need for a pan-African institution that is able to convene progressive forces across the continent and the African diasporas to forge alliances for advancing the condition of African people towards emancipation.

The Pan-African Baraza will be structured around three themes that arise from the above analysis:
·   Reclaiming the past: Popularizing pan-Africanism and pan-African history (including written, cultural, artistic, musical, poetic, etc. forms); popularizing and restoring understanding of the history of women in Africa and their struggles for emancipation; enabling people who make history to speak of that history themselves
·      Contesting the present: Convening of meetings and actions on critical issues facing African people on the continent and in the diasporas (patriarchy, environmental injustice, exploitation, and racism; religious, economic and political fundamentalisms; heterosexism, homophobia, trade, economic policies, freedom of the internet etc.); publishing via a range of media – print, electronic, audiovisual, webinars, etc.
·     Inventing the future: Convening meetings to deliberate on creative alternatives for economic and social policies, stimulating debate on the future strategies for emancipation

Sally: Around a decade ago, you co-wrote the article ‘The Missionary Position: NGOs and development in Africa’ which was very critical of NGOs, indeed it compared them to colonial era missionaries. Have your views on NGOs changed in the interim and if so, how?

Manji: I don’t think we were critical of NGOs per se — they are, after all, a rather heterogeneous collection of organisations: trade unions as well as private corporations are also ‘non-governmental organisations’. What we were principally referring to was the role of NGOs in so-called ‘development’ – that is, development NGOs, in particular in Africa. We examined their objective roles in the context of the emerging struggles for independence, the gains of independence governments, the rise of neoliberalism and the eventual collusion of development NGOs in the neoliberal agenda. In the colonial period, missionaries played a central role in the provision of social welfare as charity as well as in sweetening the bitter pill of colonialism. They were an integral part of colonial rule, providing services to native populations that the state would not, and serving to dominate the mental universe of the colonised, “the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world,” as Ngugi wa Thiong’o put it[i]. In this paper we showed the parallels with the modernised (or perhaps moderniser) missionaries, that is the development NGOs. Under neoliberalism, the state privatised the commons (the commons that were fought for during the struggle for independence for which much blood and life was lost) —  land, water, energy, communications, transport, healthcare, education etc. So services which we formerly had a right to were once again something we had to beg for from the so-called charitable organisations. In that sense we argued that the development NGOs were adopting the missionary position.  It was the development NGOs, heavily funded by the aid agencies, that moved in to privatise social welfare, to provide the sweetener for neoliberalism, to occupy the mental universe by telling the neo-colonised that development, not emancipation, was what they needed, that the key task was ‘fighting poverty’ not fighting the looting that was the principle feature of neoliberalism. And in so doing, they play the vital service to capital of depoliticising poverty. For them the problem is ‘poverty’, not the political and economic processes that results in mass pauperisation. They perfom this role much as the missionaries of the past did: by eliminating any reference to history. People are just poor. There is no question of explaining how they became poor. It is the ‘native condition’. In the past the native was uncivilised. Today, they are judged to be under-developed.

Have my views changed? In many ways that I think the situation today is worse than when that article was published. The extent of land-grabbing, natural resource extraction, privatisation, freedom for transnational corporations to loot and avoid taxation, and the extent of collusion with this theft by the local elites is unprecedented. Our governments are ever more accountable to the coporations and banks. Everything is commodified and speculated upon. Millions are unable to buy basic foods not because of any shortage of food, but because food is speculated upon as commodities on the stock-exchanges. Our genetic resources are being looted and farmers are being imprisoned by the agro-industrial complex. Our countries are being turned increasingly into occupied territories by US Africom. And on these issues, most development NGOs are silent, or at best issue nice policy papers but deny that these are political, not policy, issues, and therefore a matter of power.

And just as we have seen an unprecedented centralisation and concentration of capital globally, so we are seeing a similar process amongst development NGOs with ever larger global enterprises such as Oxfam, SCF, ActionAid, Care, World Vision, to name but a few, being formed with every larger volumes of funds. Many of these Northern aid agencies have now set up offices in Africa so as to be perceived as organisations of the South – as if geographic location changed anything. They now have the power to do deals directly with African governments and to speak on behalf of ‘civil society’. Backed with resources far exceeding those of local organisations, they are able to play the missionary role to a far greater extent than before. They offer no challenge to the neoliberal agenda – indeed, their income depends on not contesting that ideology. Instead, many of them collude with the multinationals by giving a ‘progressive’ cover to them through programmes of ‘corporate social responsibility’:  for example, several Canadian NGOs have been given huge sums for social programmes such as building schools and health centres in areas where extractive industries are mining oil or other mineral resources while destroying the environment. Their silence on the role of these extractive industries is not hard to understand. If the missionaries of the past were part of the machinery of colonial domination, today’s missionaries are part of the machinery of exploitation by multinational corporations and finance capital.  In that sense, then, I think the situation is worse than before.

At the same time we have been witnessing over the last period a growth of popular discontent which manifests itself in the rise of all kinds of organisations and movements of the disenfranchised and impoverished. Popular protests is growing. In such situations, there is pressure on the traditional NGOs to question their own role in relation to rising discontent, especially in the context where access to funds are also declining. There is more public criticism of the work of development organisations as there are of governments and political parties. I think that the objective conditions are evolving. The current situation is qualitatively different to what prevailed across the continent ten years ago,  as I tried to explain in my introduction to African Awakenings: The Emerging Revolutions.[ii] The significance of the eruption of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions should not be underestimated, albeit that the revolutions have experienced setbacks. And if the objective conditions are changing, we may see shifts in the role played by development NGOs. But perhaps that is being optimistic.

Sally: Do you think NGOs can play an emancipatory role in contemporary Africa? If so, how? If not, why not?

Manji: It is perhaps no surprise that the rise in the popularity of terms such as ‘NGOs’ and ‘civil society’ coincided with the rise of neoliberalism as the dominant ideology. Both terms obfuscate the nature of the institutions involved. Neither of these terms allows us to differentiate between those organizations and formations with respect to their potential role in the emancipatory project. So how do we differentiate between the different forms of organizations?

Looking back at the past, I would argue that there has always been a contestation between those who struggle for two different kinds of freedoms. The first is emancipatory freedoms. These are freedoms that imply the collective power of peoples to determine their own destiny. Emancipatory freedoms are an expression of an historical aspiration, one that continues to exist and transcends the constraints that might have been wrung in any given historical period. Emancipatory freedom implies an assertion of dignity, self-worth, a commitment to a project that transcends frequently even the threat or possibility of death.[iii]

The other type of freedoms are what I would call, licensed freedoms. Cattle in a field have the freedom to roam around the field to their hearts’ content, but the fence around the field delimits their freedom. There is no question of breaching the fence or of questioning the power of the farmer to decide on the limits of the freedom granted within that field. In society, this implies freedoms that are granted and delimited by those in power, albeit that such freedoms might be a product of concessions, negotiations or even noblesse oblige. But the right of those who set the limits are not fundamentally challenged.

Crudely put, emancipatory freedoms are taken, while licensed freedoms are given.

The two forms of freedom are of course not entirely separate: the struggle for emancipation and self-determination can and often does lead to negotiations of concessions from the ruling class as a result of popular struggles, with new parameters set for the exercise subsequently of a constrained, delimited freedom. Licensed freedom is, by its nature, one that is not only delimited, its parameters set by constraints imposed by others than those who seek their own freedom, but also does not seek to challenge the right of those who set the limits. In contrast, emancipatory freedoms seek always to push the boundaries and to challenge the authority of those who delimit freedoms.

The movements and organizations that emerged in post-second world war period included those who sought to fight for emancipatory freedoms and those who fought for licensed freedoms. And there were also those that were against any form of freedoms being granted at all! With the growth of NGOs in Africa during the era of neoliberalism, we see a similar differentiation amongst civil society organizations.

There are of course those who are shamelessly in favor of continued expansion of neoliberal hegemony, who argue that only through privatization will there be ‘freedom and democracy’, but fail to point out that such freedoms are for only the rich.

The development NGOs about whom I have been critical are, in my view, largely concerned with licensed freedoms. There is little attempt to contest the right of those in power to set the rules or the extent of freedoms. I would argue that many human rights organizations work on the basis of the same paradigm. They may be vociferous in their critique of human rights violations and of legislations that potentially threaten human rights, but they do not contest the right of the rulers to rule.  And by virtue of their judging everything according to some universal standard, they take no account of the historical origins or political nature that gave rise to the situation. In that sense, they play a similar depoliticizing role that development NGOs have been guilty of. At the same time, the fact that they do put pressure on the state and the judiciary can contribute to politicizing those who are engaged in struggles. But the human rights organizations are not themselves political.

But not all NGOs are of the same ilk. There are some that understand that their role is fundamentally political. It is about pushing the boundaries of delimited freedoms and eventually to break them. They recognize the need challenge the legitimacy of the ruling classes to rule. And they recognize that the current situation of the disenfranchised, exploited and oppressed has historical origins, and that the future cannot be created without an understanding of that history.

However, there are deeper problems amongst this latter group. There are some amongst them who see themselves as the ‘vanguard of the revolution’ and thus the holders of the ‘truth’. There is a tendency amongst such organizations to instrumentalise the struggles of the disenfranchised, exploited and oppressed for their own ends rather than enabling those engaged in struggles to speak for themselves or advance their own struggles. Like their development counterparts, there is frequently an assumption that the masses are ignorant and need educating. The possibility that they could actually learn from the experiences of the wretched of the earth is rarely acknowledged. Inevitably this results in conflicts between such organizations and those engaged in struggles, as we have seen over the years around the shackdwellers movements in South Africa.

I think that NGOs can potentially contribute to the emancipatory project, but cannot themselves be the motor force of emancipation unless they are themselves membership organizations of the oppressed – such as trade unions, peasant organizations, landless farmers, shackdwellers. Most NGOs are private organizations – their boards are not elected by members, and they are for the most part not membership organizations. They are often accountable only to their boards and donors rather than to the constituencies that they purport to represent. They often consist of the well-educated and privileged strata of society. Nevertheless, they can chose to provide support to mass movements and to those engaged in emancipatory struggles through the services they provide. Their primary role should be to challenge the powers of those who benefit from exploitation and oppression – be they corporations, financial institutions, the state, or the elite. They cannot fight the struggles for the oppressed. What they can bring through their intellectual work is a greater understanding of the long arc of history, that every concession is but one step towards breaking the barriers of delimited freedoms. But such organizations are presently few on the continent. Nevertheless, I remain optimistic that this will change in the coming period.





[i] Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature. London: James Curry, 1986, p.16.

[ii] Manji F (2012): African Awakening: The courage to invent the future. In: Manji F & Sokari Ekine (Eds) (2012): African Awakening: The Emerging Revolutions. Oxford, Pambazuka Press.

[iii] Gordon, Lewis (2008): An Introduction to Africana Philosophy, Cambridge




5 comments:

  1. It is extremely hard to read. Please change the background color on the screen. I am sure your readers will thank you for it

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  2. Heavily loaded piece of writing.

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  3. Excellent piece. Too generalist in some regards, but nevertheless this helps articulate some of my reservations about certain agencies, and indeed parts of my own work.

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