NGO analysis by Salvadoran and James Petras (fwd)

Wojtek Sokolowski sokol at
Wed Apr 14 08:03:37 PDT 1999

Here is what I see as an important issue, as far as Left organizing is concerned. The enclosed posting argues that the development of NGOs (in Latin America, but the argument can be extended to other regions as well) has a detrimental effect on Left organizing, because:

1. It tends to divide the poor/working class consitutencies and make them compete against each other;

2. It tends to coopt community leaders and professionals to organizations that are utlimately dependent on donors;

3. It tends to promote neo-liberalism.

I think that this critique represents a quite popular on the Left view of NGOs. That view holds NGOs against a romantic notion of spontaneous popular movement and concludes that NGOs are too tainted with compromise to be useful to the Left's emancipatory project.

I also think that such a view is probably one of the gravest mistake the self-proclaimed lefties make, at least from a Marxist point view. From a Marxist perspective, a successful social movement takes advantage of- and attaches itself to- social changes caused by the dominant mode of production (instead of fighting those changes). The expectation of a mass workers movement taking over capitalist enterprises was based on the material foundation created by capitalism - a large working class "produced" by the factory regime. Thus fighting factory regime (as utopian socialists did) was considered counterproductive from a Marxist revolutionary project's point of view.

Therefore, assuming that a successful Left organizing should subsume (i.e. appropriate and transcend) social institutions and organizations created by the dominant economic forces:

1. The social fragmentation NGO critics talk about is caused by modern capitalist development, not by NGOs. NGOs are but an expression of that fragmentation.

2. The mass "Left" movements in the 19th and early 20th centuries grew out of social solidarity that had its roots in a peasant society. That society was all but destryed by capitalism, and the type of solidarity it created is for the most part gone. That means that those who are waiting for a mass popular movement reminiscent of the struggles in late 19th and early 20th centuries are waiting for Godot, indeed. Today, such movements belong to the "Left-files." They ain't gonna happen, because their social-economic basis does not exist anymore.

3. Given that NGOs are an expresion of social changes brought about by capitalist development, they are the most promising platform for Left organizing. Unfortunately, that field has been hopelessly dominated by foundation liberals with Left almost totally absent. Thus, the left is missing its best opportunity, IMHO.

4. In that light, the Left should stop dreaming about "organizing the masses" and instead devlop "middle-range" strategies for using NGOs (also called "civil society") as an organizing platform.

Any comments?


>Date: Tue, 13 Apr 1999 17:00:52 -0500
>From: Chris Vance <cvance at>
>Subject: NGO analysis by Salvadoran and James Petras (fwd)
>To: sokol at
>-- forwarded message --
>** Topic: Proceso 848 **
>** Written 10:35 AM Apr 7, 1999 by cidaiuca at in
>cdp:reg.elsalvador **
>Center for Information, Documentation and Research Support (CIDAI)
>Central American University (UCA)
>San Salvador, El Salvador
>Apdo. Postal (01)575, San Salvador, El Salvador
>Tel: +503-273-4400 ext. 406 Fax: +503-273-5000
>E-mail: cidaiuca at
>Proceso is published weekly in Spanish by the Center for Information,
>Documentation and Research Support (CIDAI) of the Central American
>University (UCA) of El Salvador. Portions are sent in English to the
>*reg.elsalvador* conference of PeaceNet in the USA and may be forwarded
>or copied to other networks and electronic mailing lists. Please make
>sure to mention Proceso when quoting from this publication.
>Subscriptions to Proceso in Spanish can be obtained by sending a check
>for US$50.00 (Americas) or $75.00 (Europe) made out to 'Universidad
>Centroamericana' and sent to the above address. Or read it on the UCA's
>Web Page: For the ones who are interested in
>sending donations, these would be very welcome at Proceso. English
>translation. Apdo. Postal (01)575, San Salvador, El Salvador.
>Proceso, 848
>March 24, 1999
>__________ POLITICS __________
>Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) focus on projects, not on
>movements: "they mobilize the people to produce on the margins and not
>to struggle for control of the basic means of production and riches;
>they focus their attention on technical financial assistance to
>projects and not on the structural conditions which make up the daily
>lives of the people. The NGOs co-opt the language of the left: "popular
>power", "the strengthening of power", "sexual equality", "sustainable
>development", "leadership from below towards above", etc. The problem
>is that that language is linked to a structure of collaboration with
>donors and governmental agencies which subordinate practical activity
>to policies of non-confrontation.
>The local nature of the activity of the NGOs -which means
>"strengthening power"- never goes beyond influencing small areas of
>social life which enjoy limited resources within the conditions
>permitted by the neoliberal state and the macro aspects of the
>The NGOs and their professional post-Marxist contingents compete
>directly with the socio-political movements for influence over the
>poor, women, those who are excluded because of race, etc. Their
>ideology and practice diverts attention from the sources and solutions
>of poverty (looking backwards and inwardly rather than using a process
>which involves looking from above and towards the exterior or outside).
>To speak of very small businesses instead of referring to the
>exploitation by international banks reflects -more than the search for
>a solution- the underlying notion that the problem has to do more with
>individual initiative than with transferring capital outside the
>country. The aid offered by the NGOs reaches small sectors of the
>population, causing competition between communities which fight with
>each other over scarce resources, provoking insidious differences and
>rivalries within and between communities which destroy class
>solidarity. The same goes for the professionals: each one is concerned
>from the vantage point of his or her own NGO to seek international
>financial aid. They compete in presenting proposals which are to the
>liking of their donors and which offer the lowest costs while
>sustaining the greatest number of followers... The concrete result is a
>proliferation of NGOs which fragment poor communities into sectorial
>and sub-sectorial groupings incapable of seeing the social context
>which affects them and incapable, as well, of uniting among themselves
>in order to struggle against the system.
>Recent experience demonstrates as well that international donors
>finance projects during "crises" (political as well as social) which
>challenge the status quo. Once these movements have died down, they
>divert the financing toward NGOs which "collaborate" with the regime,
>adjusting the projects to a neoliberal agenda. Economic development
>compatible with the free market, is considered to be more important
>than the base organization for social change, and so becomes the
>dominant criterion for the distribution of funds. The structure and
>nature of the NGOs, with their "apolitical" posture and their concern
>with self-help, depoliticize and demobilize the poor. They strengthen
>the electoral processes encouraged by neoliberal parties and the mass
>communication media. They avoid political education about the nature of
>imperialism, the bases of class neoliberalism, the class struggle
>between the exporters and temporary workers. Instead of this, the NGOs
>speak of "the excluded ones" or "those without voice", of "extreme
>poverty", of "racial or sexual discrimination" without going beyond the
>symptoms, committing themselves, in this way, with the social system
>which produces those conditions. By incorporating the poor into the
>neoliberal economy solely by means of "private voluntary action", the
>NGOs create a political world in which the appearance of solidarity and
>social action hides a conservative conformity with the structure of
>national and international power.
>It is not a coincidence that in certain regions in which the NGOs
>became dominant, independent political class action declined and
>neoliberalism moved in with no obstacles in its way. The heart of the
>matter is that the growth of the NGOs coincides with the greater
>financing coming from neoliberalism and the deepening of poverty there
>where it is produced. In spite of the many local successes which the
>NGOs claim, the power of neoliberalism as a construct is maintained and
>confronts no obstacles in its way and the NGOs must seek niches in the
>interstices of power with more and more intensity. The problem of the
>formulation of alternatives has been obstructed in various ways.
>Many of the former guerrilla leaders and the social movements, trade
>unions and popular women's organizations have been co-opted by the
>NGOs. The offer is tempting: high salaries (sometimes in hard
>currency), prestige and recognition by international donors, trips and
>access to work networks, helpers and equipment in infrastructure,
>relative safety from repression. The NGOs and their international
>financiers (Inter American Development Bank and the World Bank) publish
>reports and bulletins about successful experiences of very small
>businesses and other self-help projects without mentioning the high
>averages of breakdowns and failures which are produced in the measure
>in which popular consumption is lowered and low cost imports flood the
>market and raise interest rates.
>And the "successes" themselves refer only to a small fraction of the
>total number of poor people in the degree in which others cannot enter
>into the same market. Nevertheless, the propaganda concerning
>individual successes in small business dealings is important to feed
>the illusion that neoliberalism is a popular phenomenon. The frequent
>outbreaks of violence which take place in regions in which small
>businesses are promoted suggest that the ideology which sustains them
>is not hegemonic and that the NGOs have not yet displaced the
>independent class movements.
>Lastly, the NGOs nourish a new type of cultural and economic
>colonialism and a new dependency. The projects are designed -or at
>least approved- within these "guidelines" for priorities in the
>imperial centers and their institutions. They are administered and
>"sold" to the communities. The evaluations are made by and for the
>imperial institutions. Changes in priorities in financing and bad
>evaluations provoke disasters in groups, communities, farms and
>cooperatives. Every person and thing is adjusted in order to comply
>with the demands of the donors and the evaluators of the projects. The
>new viceroys supervise and control them in such a way as to require
>conformity with the objectives, values and ideology of the donor, as
>well as the adequate use of the funds. If "success" is achieved, it is
>made more and more dependent on the continuation of external support;
>otherwise, they collapse.
>While the majority of the NGOs are instruments of neoliberalism, there
>is a small minority which succeeds in developing alternative strategies
>which support class policies and anti-imperialism. None of these
>receive funds from the World Bank or the European or U.S. governmental
>agencies. They sustain themselves by means of efforts to link the local
>power organizations with the struggles for state power. They link the
>local projects with national socio-political movements which encourage
>land takeovers, which defend public property and national control when
>faced with multi-nationals. They give political support to the social
>movements involved in struggles to expropriate land. They are in
>solidarity with the women's struggles with a class perspective. They
>recognize the importance of politics in the orientation of local and
>immediate struggles. They believe that the local organizations ought to
>struggle as well at a national level and that the national leaders
>ought to be responsible to local activists. In a word, they are not
>This article is a collaboration by James Petras of the State University
>of New York at Binghamton.

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list