“Where are the mass movements of today within this country? The short answer – they got funded.”
-Adjoa Florencia Jones de Almeida on the disappearance of the movements of the 1960s in the United States (emphasis added), from “Radical Social Change”, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded
Jones de Almeida answers, with elegant simplicity, a question that has burned in my mind. Why don’t we see people shutting down cities, marching hand in hand against discrimination and inequality? Why are the 45 million people who live without healthcare not drowning out the billions of dollars in propaganda of the US corporate insurance machine through massive civil disobedience? Why do we accept living in a society where in the same company the CEO makes 400 times more than the janitor? Why do we accept a government that squeezes the life out of the economies of the developing world?
Even if there is something uniquely 21st century American about passivity in the face of catastrophic injustice, what about Latin America? What about Nicaragua? Why don’t I see the poor mobilizing themselves to demand change from their corrupt government? Why is post-revolution Nicaragua so quiet in the face of so much pain? I have blamed neoliberalism before in this blog. But if you pry apart pathway of “neoliberalism –> quiet suffering” you find one of the major means is the growth of the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC) – also known as the NGOs, foundations, and laws that support them. The NPIC – through selective funding – co-opts community organizers, professionalizes them, and spits out social service agents that appease donors with tame “projects” rather than organizing the communities to demand change.
I arrived in Nicaragua with one question – and a hypothesis – “Can NGOs save a country whose own popular revolution was strangled by US imperialism?” My hypothesis was quite clear from my phrasing of the question; I was doubtful.
What have I found in 7 weeks? Maybe – as I alluded to in my very first post – in development, the question is always a bit more complex.
My goal in Nicaragua has been to find “innovative” NGOs for film based case studies. For me, “innovative” would be working to make the structural changes needed for the long-term elimination of poverty, thus long-term social change instead of short-sighted social service. So to that end, I guided my research towards NGOs that ostensibly work towards a different vision of society rather than perpetuating the socioeconomic structures that have failed the poor.
But have I been doing the research equivalent of a dog chasing their own tail? Have I been doggedly chasing an oxymoron?
What I have, at times, abstractly and at other times blatantly referred to, is the need for a revolution. A “revolution” is not necessarily violent! But it is a radical change. How else do we really expect that poverty will ever “go away”? We have built an economic system on the skeletons of centuries of exploitation of the poor. Our skyscrapers on Wall Street are the sweat, blood, and tears of the Global South. (I think my civil engineering professor forgot about those materials when he was talking about the shear strength of the steel, concrete, and glass…)
Neoliberalism: Who feels it?
In Nicaragua, the word “neoliberalism” is on the tip of everyone’s tongues. In the United States, I would wager that 99% of the population doesn’t have a clue what it means. Why the discrepancy? Nicaragua is on the receiving end. Everyone but the very richest feel its negative effects:
(Note: these are all about people I have met or seen here)
The woman selling her fruits and vegetables from sunrise to sunset who can’t afford to eat her own produce feels it.
The girl selling her body after sunset for $1 to feed her family feels it.
The taxi driver making less money than he spends on gas each day feels it.
The man selling steering wheels at the stoplight (actually very common) feels it.
The skilled metal worker who can’t find a job anymore feels it.
The middle class family – when thieves break into their house and the underfunded police department arrives three hours later and then charges them $5 for the gas they spent – feels it
If everyone feels it, why isn’t anyone in Nicaragua organizing, standing up together, and saying anything about it?
NGOs and the Co-opting of Social Movements
I came to Nicaragua hoping that maybe – against all odds and logic – NGOs might be able to be part of the revolution that might make these daily stories less commonplace.
Instead I’ve found a civil society whose very foundations have been co-opted by the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC). There is no revolution anymore. The very roots of civil society – the community organizers – today think in terms of “projects” not organizing. Where are the universal strikes that literally stopped Nicaragua for days in 1979? Where are the tens of thousands of volunteers spending their summer eradicating illiteracy?
The most promising thing I’ve found in the NGOs has been that some seem to be genuinely attempting to encourage and empower “citizen participation” in public politics without a political agenda. They do this through popular education and networks of volunteer community leaders who educate their communities. But every time I ask to observe one of these workshops I’m told that “the project is over” or that “we don’t have funds for it right now” and to “come back next year, we’re hoping to get a donation from X then.” I have three questions:
1) SINCE WHEN DID CITIZEN PARTICIPATION IN THEIR PUBLIC POLITICS BECOME A FINITE “PROJECT”?
2) WHY DO YOU NEED (foreign) FUNDING FOR COMMUNITY ORGANIZING?
3) WHY DOES (almost) NO ONE – NICA or GRINGO – QUESTION THIS CONCEPT?
1) Since NGOs co-opted the civil society of Nicaragua and brought whimsical donors into the equation.
2) Because today “community organizing” is synonymous with hosting “workshops” in restaurants with air conditioning and paying a new upper class of NGO staff.
3) See the answers to 1) and 2)
To give them some credit, the NGOs here mostly seem to capitalize on the remnants of volunteerism still present in the society, using networks of volunteer “promoters” who help spread the reach of the NGOs beyond their paid staff. This is a huge step. But the essential problem remains. These very promoters are dependent on donations to do their “projects.” Yet this is not the only way to organize.
Alternatives to the Current NGOcracy
The greatest successes of these community “promoters” have not been funded. It’s been the projects they’ve done on the side – without writing proposals to foreign donors – that have had the greatest impact. In Chinandega, as I mentioned before, they gathered 44,000 signatures to successfully combat water privatization. In the very poor neighborhood of Rubén Darío of León, the community promoter, Cirulo, pictured below, has led his community in a fight against foreign utilities that have drastically reduced their electricity bills. Cirulo and his community did not spend a penny to do this powerful act – and no foreign donor asked for a “report.” When asked how he did it, he said it was a matter of coming together as a community and pressuring the company – he joked that if they didn’t comply the community was going to paint over all the meters so they couldn’t be billed.
The truth is no major foreign donor would fund these acts of defiance. When applying for grants, “civil disobedience” and “fighting neoliberalism” don’t exactly appear on the “priority areas” of the funding agency. Yet these are the kinds of battles truly worth fighting.
NGOs can support the people’s own movement. But they cannot be the movement. This has been seen in the Zapatista revolution in Mexico, where NGOs have provided technical assistance to the revolution, yet they were a dispensible part of the revolution – they were not the revolution itself. Yet in Nicaragua, this is exactly what the directors of one of the NGOs, the Movimiento Communal Nicaragüense, called his NGO. He told me it was a “social movement” not an NGO – even though it was legally registered as one. To give a little balance, the Coordinadora Civil has explicitly said the opposite, acknowledging that an NGO cannot be the movement. Unfortunately, their actions speak more loudly than their words. Who do you see in television interviews representing the 600 members of the Coordinadora Civil and their tens of thousands of affiliated citizens? You see the staff of the Coordinadora Civil, whose salaries are paid by international donors. Is this the true face of the movement? Could these staff members ever say anything radical that would jeopardize their jobs?
I hope I have made the case – throughout this blog – for the need for a radical change to the global socioeconomic structures if we want to truly eliminate poverty.
Yet if the very community leaders who should be shouting out for a change have become seduced or brainwashed to become NGO “project” delivery systems, who is crying foul on this failed system?
That’s the beauty of the NGOcracy.
(I think I might have been chasing my tail.)