Saturday special: ‘NGO night’

Often, NGOs in Africa are seen as agents of democratic change, ‘significant actors in the democratisation process through helping to create plural sources of power within civil society.’
True, this is what NGOs are supposed to do in principle. And, many NGOs in Africa do live up to this principle. My concern in this article, however, is the Eurocentric mentality and the coordinator class ideological framework that many NGOs utilise in carrying out their NGO projects on the continent.
Take Liberia, for instance. It is reported that over 600 NGOs, donor groups and agencies of the United Nations operate in Liberia alone. Their missions vary – from rebuilding water systems and roads to providing health care services and education. Liberians seem to think that the work that these NGOs do in the country benefit them more than the ordinary people in Liberia. For example, according to the Sunday Independent – a South African newspaper,
“Liberians say the benefits of this massive international investment are far more obvious in the parts of town inhabited by the foreigners themselves. The number of pools is burgeoning. Casinos are opening. Beach-side bars are springing up or being spruced up.”
Furthermore, at a supermarket in Abi-Jaoudi, ground coffee can be bought from Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks and Seattle’s Best. There are eight types of Chi-Chi’s salsa and 90 types of cereal, including sic variety of special K. These products are not intended for ordinary Liberians; as a ‘bag of these expensive imports can easily exceed the monthly salary’ of a Liberian fortunate enough to have a job.  Consequently, people who buy these products are white and from the West.
According to the Sunday Independent’s report, ‘The same is true at several other hot spots. Les Griot Cafe features both US and European Union flags draped on its wall. Every Saturday is designated NGO Night.’
The question as to what constitutes a decent standard of living for people engaged in NGO work in Africa has always been a source of contestation. In her book ‘The Paternalism of Partnership’, Maria Baaz argues that the NGO workers from the West sometimes deal with the contradiction between the discourse of solidarity and the inequality in standard of living by questioning the discourse of solidarity itself. ‘The concept of solidarity is, in this perspective, presented as an impossible and [unrealistic] notion that presents a false image’ of NGO work as self-sacrifice.
Some of the quotes from NGO workers in Baaz’s book are interesting. For example, one NGO worker argues:
“Some of the hard-core NGO development workers think it’s difficult because the people we work with, they only see us as very privileged in nice houses with a high salary and a very nice car. And of course you are privileged, you have a nice house, nice car, you are rich! Why are you complaining? You have to face it. And that’s again the point: that they would like to hide themselves behind a certain shield, but they are privileged.”
Different NGO workers handle the contradiction between the discourse of solidarity and the unequal living conditions differently. Baaz explains that the option is to avoid being exposed to and reminded of the inequalities by socialising with other NGO workers or people with similar lifestyle – which in this case means other expatriates. It is in this way that alienation and guilt shape and inform the formation of the NGO white community in Africa.
This NGO white community then justifies its existence and the privileges that come with being part of this community by using a Eurocentric discourse of being culturally and socially different to the natives. A recurrent injunction to the NGO worker is to ‘make the natives think in new ways’. The notion of thinking in ‘new ways’ if often linked to the image of Africans as conservatives, subscribing to ‘exhausted nationalism’, immersed in tradition, uneducated and not receptive to new ideas, explains Baaz. The ‘new ways’ are understood as being of European origin – i.e. open-minded, rational, enlightened and liberated from the bondage of conservatism and tradition.
To drive the point home, Baaz quotes an NGO worker explaining what the notion of thinking in new ways means.
“We have a level of knowledge, which is much higher. I mean just our knowledge about health and sanitation, without having medical knowledge. Only that knowledge which we have through school about healthcare, for example, makes it possible to teach people quite a lot….”
What the above quote reveals is that the natives are generally seen as childish and backwards and in need of white guidance.  At seminars or events organised by some of these NGO, the natives’ role is to be in the audience – so as to be educated and instructed. Like children, the natives have no say in the organisation of events; they are simply bussed in, fed and bussed out.  
One of the NGO workers that Baaz quotes in her book explains that:
“When we had that seminar they [the natives] got 5 000Tsh so that they could buy food. But except for that and the travel expenses they got nothing… So 5 000 and I was adamant on that… And it was the same when we were out in the villages. Then we were six people and we needed lunch since we were out all day. So, I had 3 000 nothing more. ‘Oh, but that is not enough,’ they said. Well that doesn’t matter if it’s enough or not enough, I said. This is what we have and we will have to do with that. And the lunch we got for that money was actually very nice. There was nothing wrong with it… So I have been very clear on that issue.”
Another worker explained that: “one piece of advice I got when I came here was not to let go of the money completely: ‘Don’t let it go but check, because it runs through their [natives’] fingers’. And that is something I think can also happen if you don’t do it, so I have to be sort of controller of this money.”
When the natives are employed by these NGOs, they are normally employed to carry out disempowering tasks. For those employed to do empowering tasks, it’s often under the tutelage of a white man or woman. As Baaz points out,  the white man or woman who lead these institutions present themselves as energetic, efficient leading characters with an important mission to pursue – ‘perhaps to save animals or people in danger or to eradicate some dangerous virus’ that’s killing Africans en masse or to save the natives from nationalism or….  

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