A political culture of participation, collective decision-making and debate is all but missing. Decisions are made in offices and boardrooms, where professionalized staff preside over donors, petition signers and the occasional volunteer rather than a mobilized or empowered membership.
It wasn’t always like this. We don’t need to idealize the past to realize that there has been a concerted push to make what under other circumstance would be movement organizations into centrally-controlled bodies run by trained professionals. Exceptions to this trend are forever popping up: the environmental movement in the 1970s, the antiglobalization movement of the late 1990s, and most recently Occupy Wall Street are a few of the more prominent examples. But none of these exceptions has put an end to the process of bureaucratization and centralization. In fact, the process seems to accelerate when powerful grassroots movements enter onto the scene.
This process has been dubbed NGOization (after the increasingly-ubiquitous form, the Non-Governmental Organization, or NGO). While NGOization has been going on for decades, the concept is just starting to gain in currency beyond a few academics and grassroots organizers.
NGOization, write Dip Kapoor and Aziz Choudry in their edited collection by the same name, is a process of “professionalization and depolitization” which fragments and compartmentalizes the world into “issues and projects.” It works well, they add, “for neoliberal regimes.”
What NGOization precludes and inhibits is movement-building. Centralized control allows for an efficient mobilization of existing capacity, but it doesn’t provide the opportunities for masses of people to have new experiences, build their own ideas, do their own research, or start their own initiatives. It doesn’t provide the possibility of large numbers of people to decide, together, where to focus their energies or when to divide them.
The driving force behind the process of NGOization is not mysterious. Billions of dollars have been provided to Canadian NGOs to provide social services, dig wells in villages in African villages, support marginalized populations, campaign for environmental protection, and alleviate the effects of poverty. The money comes from government (the federal government spends close to a billion dollars per year on development NGOs alone) and private foundations (millions of tax-deductible dollars are spent annually to support environmental campaigns, for example).
But what do foundations and governments get for their money?
The wide variety of NGOs serves to confuse things. Depending on how one counts, there are hundreds or thousands of grant-dependent mission-oriented organizations in Canada. Many who work in NGOs insist that it is futile to make generalizations. There exist an undeniable plethora of NGOs. All of them, however, depend on a comparatively small pool of funders.
Each NGO is a snowflake, and the overall effect is chilling. While NGOs may have unique cultures and approaches, the agencies and foundations (hereafter: funders) that fuel them share a number of common characteristics. Almost all funders prefer solutions that don’t question prevailing neoliberal policies or capitalism. When they tolerate questioning, effective mobilizing is strictly forbidden. Funders demand centralized control and accountability in the form of regular and extensive reporting, and often direct oversight. Funders avoid grassroots organizing that directly empowers people whenever possible, prefering structures that provide tight, centralized control.
Democratic accountability to a membership is actually a liability for the funded organization, because it distracts them from adapting to funder priorities. That’s part of what makes the first few paragraphs of this article seem so absurd.
How, then, do movements end up in this situation? No one, after all, wants to give up all their power and autonomy. No one intends to sell out.
Every step of the NGOization process is understandable. Anyone who has spent an hour or three discussing a poster design or slogan can see the advantage of clearly defined leadership. Anyone who has attended a grassroots organizing meeting where key tasks didn’t get done can see the advantages of professional, paid staff. And anyone who has tried to take on a major corporation or government with a few hundred dollars in their bank account knows that decent funding can be invaluable.
While activists are often in emergency response mode, funders play the long game. From the perspective of the funder, here’s how you get the process of NGOization going:
1. Set up a large pool of money, perhaps in collaboration with other foundations or governments.
2. Fund a number of organizations to undertake a variety of activities within a large umbrella. Be supportive at first, and fund existing organizations to do what they were already doing.
3. Give them a little time to get comfortable with the funding.
4. Over time, require an increasing volume of paperwork: grant applications and reporting. This increases the amount of time that the staff spend thinking about your priorities to the exclusion of those of their membership or constituency. You can say that this is necessary to ensure that the money is well spent, and talk about wanting to be as effective as possible.
5. Once staff members are accustomed to their new salaries, announce that there’s less money than was forseen. Have them compete with other organizations for your funding. Gradually introduce new priorities for the grants you provide that they would not have accepted before, but aren’t willing to sacrifice their jobs or organization to oppose.
6. Take it slow and steady. Let them raise a fuss about new constraints and requirements while pruning out those who are intransigent or principled. You’ll rarely have to do any direct disciplining. If someone steps out of line, their peers will realize that they are endangering the funding and marginalize their troublesome colleague to the extent needed for the funding to flow.
7. You don’t have to tell anyone about your overall goals, because it’s literally their job to guess what they are, and wonder what you might want. Drop cryptic hints and point to organizations that are doing “exciting” or “effective” work as models.
8. If you decide that a certain group is actually subversive to your aims, simply defund them. Other organizations will be suitably scared, and happily step in to take on tasks for any funding that might have been freed up.
9. Accountability to goals other than those set you set have become a liability to the organizations you fund. Many of them have all but cut themselves off from their member base, if they ever had one.