Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have changed development economics for ever over the past 20 years. From Borneo to the Amazon to South Africa, lowly-paid or volunteer activists have forced multilateral financing organizations such as the World Bank to be more responsive to local needs, less committed to large infrastructure projects and less top-down in their approach. The NGOs have been supported in this process by a sympathetic President of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, who has encouraged the Bank to work with, rather against NGOs.
However, in a strongly-worded article in the current Foreign Policy, Sebastian Mallaby argues that “NGOs claim to campaign on behalf of poor people, yet many of their campaigns harm the poor.” In support of this claim he cites his investigation into protests against a proposed dam in Uganda by the International Rivers Network in association with outraged local groups (according to the network). Mallaby visited the area and found little sign of outrage:
My next move was to visit Bujagali. I met up with a Ugandan sociologist who knew the region well and promised to translate for me. She stopped at a cluster of buildings on the edge of the dam site to check in with the local government representative who, far from threatening to call the cops, greeted us cheerfully. For the next three hours, we interviewed villager after villager and found the same story: The “dam people” had come and promised generous financial terms, and the villagers were happy to accept them and relocate. My sociologist companion said we might have sample bias because we were interviewing men, who might value cash more than the land that women tended. So we interviewed some women, who offered the same pro-project line. The only people who objected to the dam were those living just outside its perimeter. They were angry because the project would not affect them, meaning no generous payout.He argues that:
This story is a tragedy for Uganda. Clinics and factories are being deprived of electricity by Californians whose idea of an electricity crisis is a handful of summer blackouts. But it is also a tragedy for the fight against poverty worldwide, because projects in dozens of countries are similarly held up for fear of activist resistance. Time after time, feisty Internet-enabled groups make scary claims about the iniquities of development projects. Time after time, Western publics raised on stories of World Bank white elephants believe them.Mallaby goes on to describe another project at Qinghai, China, at length. The gist of his argument is that the World Bank’s presence helps to ameliorate the negative impacts (be they environmental or social) of projects – sure, the Bank is not perfect, he says, but when it is forced to pull out in response to NGO pressure, the host government often carries out the policy the NGOs were objecting to anyway (as in Qinghai). Impoverished populations are then left with the all the negative impacts of a project, without the benefits.
When I read the article this morning, I found it quite convincing. Some parts of it certainly rang true; for example the fact that people were protesting in Uganda not because of the project, but because they did not live in the area that would receive compensation money. I’ve seen that a number of times.
Still, looking over the article again this evening, a few nagging doubts started to appear. The article is so one-sided that I wondered whether he hadn't got a bit too close to the Bank and its President. That impression was reinforced when I encountered a flattering article on Wolfensohn by Mallaby in the Washington Post. The rather familiar “Jim Wolfensohn” may be a clue (wouldn’t you expect a sober journal like Foreign Policy to use the more formal “James”?) and so too is the fruity quote from old Jim when asked by Tibet activists whether China was resettling people: “How the fuck do I know what they’re doing?” Wolfensohn shot back. “You just got us out of there!” It would be interesting to know the source of that comment.
Anyway, it’s an interesting and lively read, and I am looking forward to reading what the NGO community has to say in response (I am sure “feisty Internet-enabled groups” are making the cables hum from Berkeley to Cape Town).