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The problem with development organizations

Activists, authors, criticize ‘imperialist’ tendencies

On November 1, Aziz Choudry, an assistant professor in integrated studies in education at McGill, organized a guest seminar on globalization, education, and change. The seminar, in which about ten people participated, concentrated on Nikolas Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay’s book Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s Development NGOs From Idealism to Imperialism, which deals with the efficiency of Canadian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the developing world and their relation with the Canadian government and mining companies.

Barry-Shaw, who was present at the seminar, is a masters student in history at Queen’s University. In his book, he argues that NGOs were developed as a form of constraining social unrest that came with “squeezing the poor” in developing countries during the 1980s financial crisis, as developed nations used imposed regulations in developing countries to enrich world banks.

“They just wanted to stop the fact that people were rioting and people were resisting them. And they started doing that by [forming] NGOs,” Barry-Shaw stated during the discussion.

He explained how the same methods are used today to contain social unrest resulting from Canada’s mining projects abroad.

“We see this with the corporate social responsibility program [CSR] right now. It is very openly stated that this will help contain social and environmental conflict. That we are going to go in there and build a school and do this kind of palliative projects in and around the mine site and that we are hoping that communities stop resisting mining projects. That’s the stated thing and our government is funding that.”

Rex Brynen, a professor of political science at McGill, responded to some of Barry-Shaw’s arguments in an interview with The Daily, and argued for a more nuanced approach.

“There has been much controversy over the decision of some NGOs to partner with mining companies (and receive [Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development Canada] funding) to do projects in affected countries,” he wrote in an email to The Daily. “Yes, this may be an effort to provide an ethical facade for unethical mining practices, as some have argued. On the other hand, given that mining development is likely to occur anyway, an argument can be made that such partnerships encourage more ethical practice. I would be concerned about this practice, but not automatically opposed to it in any and all cases.”

On Barry-Shaw’s argument for a movement away from NGOs and toward grassroots organizations facing the mining sector, an attendee raised the question of how such organizations could criticize NGOs and collaborate with them at the same time.

“[NGOs] produce things because they have money, they produce reports that grassroots and activists use, as they don’t have money to do that,” the attendee said.

Brynen added to this, writing, “Grassroots activism is useful. It isn’t always very professional or effective. It is rarely any more independent or representative – it is simply accountable to different constituencies. It often lacks the resources to make effective change. It is part of a response, but not the only part.”

Barry-Shaw also emphasized the need for NGOs to move away from funding and toward organizing.

“I think we need to move away from this fixation with money,” he said. “Resources are important in the organization and to mobilize people, but the activism that I found the most interesting that was going on within the NGOs in the 60s, 70s, and 80s was done by people who were idealistic and committed.”

Choudry also noted the importance of avoiding generalization in this particular situation.

“I think one thing that is important to think about is the danger when we’re talking about NGOs to kind of make a totalizing analysis about NGOs,” he said. “It is not like all NGOs are with the mining sector, and most of them have very different histories.”