My monograph with Cambridge University Press, Against NGOs: A Critical Perspective on Civil Society, Management and Development, explores how the figure of the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) emerged as a solution to the problems of development. I take up an observation Cornelius Castoriadis made in an interview with Pascal Egré, in 1993, that ultimately it is “the capitalist imaginary of pseudorational pseudomastery, of unlimited expansion, (that) must be abandoned. That is something only men and women can do. A single individual, or one organisation, can, at best, only prepare, criticise, incite, sketch out possible orientations.” Following Castoriadis, it is hardly possible that all the problems of development, problems shaped by patterns of capitalist growth, including severe inequality, enduring poverty and deprivation, ecological deterioration, and gender violence, can somehow be solved by NGOs. But then, what would development look like if its practitioners and scholars were ‘against NGOs’, challenging our perceptions and hopes of them, and expecting more from all of us as a result? And how do we go about such change, if not through the device of the NGO, then through whom?
To answer these questions, my book presents a critical perspective on NGOs, describing how they emerged as key agents of development over time. I heed an early tenet of the Frankfurt School, that, unlike traditional theory, critical theory is not ahistorical and makes visible the material contexts that generate ideas. Through an interpretative history based on the concepts of Antonio Gramsci, I show how development and management theories enlisted civil society organisations as non-state technocratic actors, generating, over time, the improbable but compelling figure of the NGO. In doing so I steer away from tempting binaries, such as the heroic NGO versus the violent non-state actor, or the devious NGO versus virtuous civil society. Instead my purpose is to understand the NGO within history.
The historical setting, social and political, in which theories of development and management emerged, is of course that of capitalism. Because, following Nancy Fraser and others, capitalism functions foremost as a social system rather than an economic one, relying on a constructed stability that forestalls repeated crises of value extraction. It is not solely through an economic system that our present world coordinates the production and consumption of goods and services, but through an ongoing negotiation of consent, a constructed understanding of both the necessity to commodify time and life and the means to do so. Understood this way, the figure of the NGO is neither distant nor irrelevant from a discussion of Capitalism and its crises. In fact the NGO emerges as a distinct actor of development at a particular moment of global capitalist growth, to forestall sets of crises of that moment. It enables a form of consent, a way of dealing with the dysfunctions of capitalism. This occurs through the negotiation of common sense, maneuvering between fragmented views so that they gradually coalesce into definitive perceptions held by well-defined social groups.
Common sense (“senso commune“) is a phrase Gramsci used in his Prison Notebooks. The term is capacious, with different meanings, that can be tightened into three specific intonations. First is a set of inconsistent, even contradictory, commonly-held views, some testable as truth, others not. Think of the rumours and doubts that initially emerged as the Covid-19 pandemic spread. Second is a set of views held in common by a group, who seek benefits through them, relying on group action and mobilisation. This is a ‘conception of the world’, such as the free-market views of the famously secretive Mont Pèlerin Society. Third is a set of such conceptions held across various groups, acquiring a truth-like status, becoming hegemonic, as did in fact happen with neoliberal ideas. In using the phrase, Gramsci was marking the ways in which consent was created at different levels of society. But in doing so he was also pointing to the organisational and ideational bases for such domination. Common sense interacts with civil society as well as forms of accepted knowledge, benefiting from mobilising capacities and conceptual material, as described in the book’s chapters.
My book makes two contributions. I show the historical affinity between international development and management studies. Though their propinquity can seem incongruous both disciplines offered complementary routes of technocratic prowess and professional identity. Crucially both shared ideas on how to solve the problems of development, at the level of economy/society and organisation, respectively, ideas that in turn offered civil society actors technocratic opportunities to tackle problems of development. I track these ideas through chronological chapters that present succeeding regimes of accumulation and the theories of development and of management that responded to their exigencies. So, colonial resource development (Chapter 2) saw conceptions of indirect rule and the dual mandate, and also a collection of management theories later called Taylorism. Both responded to the need for intensified production in the colonies to meet demand in the colonisers’ home territories. Similarly in modernisation (Chapters 3 and 5) conceptions of technology and community were echoed by theorists of human relations and organisation, who offered purchase for the dissemination of these ideas to the global south. In fact these ideas encouraged an exaltation of management by personages like the World Bank’s President, Robert S. McNamara (Chapter 5). To take a very different period, the crises of state capitalism through the 1970s presaged the shift to a regime of financialisation. This occurred through theories that argued for supply-side efficiencies, counseled free-market policies and organisational agility (Chapter 6), and, later, making the poor managers and entrepreneurs (Chapter 7). Indeed this latter moment was also when civil society allies were recast as a unitary actor, the NGO, capable of achieving development goals, relying on forms of efficiency unavailable to state agencies.
I show that the affinity between the two disciplines was especially reflected in how certain forms of knowledge were legitimised as a basis for social dominance. This construction of consent occured primarily through civil society organisations. For these actors it was crucial to assert technocratic prowess and insight, a capacity to accomplish development, such as when Oxfam championed state-run producer cooperatives in Nyerere’s 1970s Tanzania (Chapter 3). Such alliances were not emblematic of market liberalism alone. Socialist approaches to development in the 1960s, in Cuba as well as Chile, also enlisted civil society groups to promote solutions that championed the role of technology and technical reasoning (Chapter 4). What was distinctive about such use of civil society actors to promote development solutions was not the temporal moment but rather ideological portent, that it enabled supple and agile forms of consent and accomodation to regimes of accumulation.
My book also starts and concludes with conceptual chapters that present a framework of how capitalism accumulates value through stable regimes of extraction. My contribution here is a discussion of the tactical use of common sense, how it allows capitalist crises to be forestalled within the realm of civil society. The Salvation Army and Save the Children (Chapter 2) both promoted forms of relief as allies of colonial powers and played their part in forestalling legitimacy crises of the colonial period. Similarly when the NGO ’emerged’ in the 1980s (Chapter 6) it was expected to square the circle of neoliberal development, somehow offering both empowerment and efficiency to beneficiaries.
The figure of the NGO, to misquote Voltaire, would need to be invented if it did not exist. It serves a serious purpose, shoring up the efforts of global and national agencies to somehow support models of capitalist growth while promising employment and welfare from these models. But increasingly these forms of mediation are growing untenable in parts of our world, as value extraction breaches external frontiers of value, with the social system overwhelming our capacity to regenerate nature, maintain social reproduction or retain a competent nation-state. When crises of capitalism generate flailing efforts by states to mitigate their effects, and conceptions fight one another for ideational dominance but without definitive consequence, what Gramsci famously called morbid symptoms (“i fenomeni morbosi“), there are limits to what can be done to transcend these contradictions and rejuvenate a prevailing regime of accumulation.
At such a time, when capitalism appears, literally, to be eating itself, we may wish to ask what is it about our contemporary world that still makes NGOs necessary? What could instead be made possible by being wary of their promise, by tracking the role they play, politically speaking, in bringing together commonsensical views in a reigning conception (Chapter 8)? Being against NGOs, in this sense, would surely mean pursuing a more sustained revolution of thought, mobilising broader networks of civil society for credible and lasting responses to the problems of contemporary capitalism.
The set image is Honoré Daumier, ‘The Third Class Carriage’ [1862-4]