Archive - December, 2008

Are NGOs the New Colonial Power?

As the U.S. and European governments use non-governmental organizations to dispense aid funds and services, NGOs are wielding greater power in developing nations. And the result, according to development specialist Henry Zakumumpa in Uganda, is not only development, it is a new form of NGO colonialism.

Citing a report in Foreign Policy, Zakumumpa explains that governments in fragile and failed states are unable or unwilling to deliver basic services that NGOs provide for many reasons. Some governments are corrupt and mistrusted. Others are cash-strapped, their insitutions are inefficent or unable to deliver services effectively.

As a result, as donor nations channel greater sums through NGOs, host nations avoid civic responsibility and change.

Aid skeptic Marcus Mann writes in a blog post that, “The net effect of the trillions of dollars and billions of man hours spent helping Africa and the rest of the developing world prosper has been negligible and possibly negative. The road to poverty appears to be paved with aid dollars.”

Both writers point out that many lives have been saved by NGOs, but they both question how this aid has affected longterm, structural change. Zakumumpa writes that NGOs are becoming more powerful as they receive significantly larger sums for humanitarian work. Mann says they are continuing a culture of dependency that undermines self-development.

These critiques raise one conundrum after another. As donor nations bypass national governments in favor of NGOs, are they also enabling the continuation of the very same policies and practices they deem unacceptable? NGOs operate at the permission of host governments. They are in no better position to challenge human rights violations, corruption, or misappropriation than their donor governments. In fact, they have even fewer pressure points and less diplomatic power.

Does aid through NGOs help to create the infrastructure needed for longterm change, or provide palliative comfort that discourages essential change? For example, health systems in developing nations are notoriously underfunded and staffed. Palliative care, while necessary, doesn’t strengthen hospitals, schools and other civic institutions, and may even take pressure off the need for reform.

As they assume a greater role as the dispensing agents for donor government funds, are NGOs risking the appearance of becoming parallel agents to national systems, or implementing agents of donor nation policies?

These are not new questions, but they take on new relevance as more dollars flow. Zakumumpa and Mann are raising important questions that deserve careful consideration by NGO leaders.

Cambodia’s Canals

A story this morning about the restoration of Cambodia’s irrigation canals by Thomas Fuller in the New York Times brought back memories of my first experience in Cambodia. It was around canal reconstruction following the genocidal regime of Pol Pot known as the Khmer Rouge.

The canals were destroyed by the secret carpet bombing carried out under the Nixon Administration. When Pol Pot fell to the Vietnamese in 1978, the world learned how extensive was the destruction resulting from the combination of U.S. bombing and Khmer Rouge genocide. The country was reduced to near stone age conditions according to some who first entered after the Vietnamese occupation.

The whole of its modern infrastructure had been dismantled. Electrical grid, paved roadways, gasoline powered vehicles (including deisel-powered water irrigation pumps), the school system, modern businesses. The cities were emptied and residents forced to join rural communes where they were forced to engage in agriculture, whether they knew what they were doing or not.

The goal was to re-create an idealized communitarian agricultural-based society free of the exploitation and sins of industrialized societies. Nearly one-quarter of the people were systematically killed. It was this era that gave us the chilling descriptive phrase “killing field” to describe those places where people suspected of being counter-revolutionary were killed and buried in mass graves.

Anyone could be so indicted for the flimsiest of reasons–being educated, wearing glasses, having been accused of someone (including their own children) of making a statement against the revolution. It was one of the horrific nightmares of modern Asia.

After the regime fell, Church World Service, under the leadership of Dr. Paul McCleary, sought to send veterinarians and hydrologists to Cambodia to help vaccinate the national herd and begin canal reconstruction. The needs were obviously enormous and food production was foremost. Healthy draft animals were essential to assist in cultivating the fields and the irrigation canals had to be repaired to deliver water to rice paddies. It was urgent to rebuild infrastructure to re-establish reliable food production.

But this was not so easily done as might appear. First, it was still controversial, even if the world was overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Cambodian people. The U.S. had not resolved its own conflicted feelings about the results of the war in Vietnam and was unable even to consider that the effort there had led to a communist takeover of the the South.  To provide aid to this region was highly inflammatory, and among some it was considered traitorous.

During the war, Cambodia was viewed by the Nixon Administration as a staging area and safe harbor for Viet Cong troops coming into South Vietnam from the North and thus, it was targetted with mercilous bombing by U.S. warplanes, bombing that was kept secret from the U.S. public for several months.

After the war, the U.S. continued a trade embargo against Vietnam prohibiting the transfer of equipment or commercial services directly from the U.S. In this atmosphere many in the U.S. felt any attempt by the church to engage either Vietnam or Cambodia was, to put it mildly, inappropriate. Dr. McCleary, however, was committed to reconciliation between the peoples in the region and in the U.S., and many, including the U.S. government, were open to humanitarian efforts, if not normal relations.

As I recall, the negotiations to get personnel in place were complex and circuitous. First, everything was done legally. The U.S. government provided the necessary licenses. The Vietnamese, who occupied Cambodia and, therefore, were in control of the government also agreed. But each imposed specific conditions, so you can begin to anticipate what a complex knot of relationships would be required to pull this off.

The Polish Christian Council, an ecumenical organization, and the Cuban Christian Council, another ecumenical group, would provide the personnel. Equipment, medicines and seeds would come from Europe and, under certain restrictions, the U.S.

I recall the first of many conversations that led to the agreement. We sat around a table with ambassadors from Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba and Poland in addition to several NGO executives, and probably UN staff, I can’t recall. The questions and explanations circled around the table. English to French to Polish to Spanish and sometimes to Vietnamese. It was laborious and time-consuming. But it was fruitful and months later I was sent to Cambodia to document the work in film.

And the work was well underway. National vaccination programs had made significant headway in protecting the herds and an added benefit was that the cold chain necessary for animal vaccinations was equally suitable for human medicines.

The topologists had trained several survey teams who were conducting a national survey of the topology to provide hydrological information to the engineers. And many canals were already well along in the reconstruction process.

It was a remarkable story in light of historical circumstances and the limits the people faced. There was still no reliable electrical service and the entire grid had to be re-created because the Khmer Rouge had removed the copper wiring.

Stability was uneven, despite the Vietnamese presence. Gunmen attempted to storm our hotel late one night and at least one was killed and as daylight dawned his body lay on the median strip on the street.

While we traveled the country, with Vietnamese and Cambodian escorts, we were to start two hours after sunrise and to be in a hotel two hours before sunset.

Standing in a field overlooking a mass grave I was eaten up with mosquito bites. Despite protective clothing and repellent, they got through. And it was here I first contracted malaria. A few hours later, feverish and mostly out of my head, my colleagues got me to a physician who dosed me with sulfa drugs and got the malaria under control. And we completed our filming.

As I read the story in the Times it reminded me how easy it is to destroy and how difficult it is to build a nation. After winning independence from 100 years of colonial rule by the French, Cambodia endured four years of carpet bombing by the U.S. and eventual annexation into the U.S. war with Vietnam. A decade of national strife led to civil war won by the Khmer Rouge. They ruled for three years before Vietnam invaded and took control. Vietnam remained for ten years. (See a helpful timeline here.)

The children playing in the irrigation canals probably have little if any awareness of what it has taken to give them a swimming hole.

Michael Moore and The Transportation Bailout

Michael Moore’s letter about the bailout of the big three automakers hits the target when he proposes conditions Congress should impose if they are to get the money. Moore writes: “The Big 3 are, from this point forward, to build only cars that are not primarily dependent on oil and, more importantly to build trains, buses, subways and light rail (a corresponding public works project across the country will build the rail lines and tracks). This will not only save jobs, but create millions of new ones.
He’s also on target when he says the problems of depending on carbon-based fuels have been well-defined and ignored by the auto executives for at least thirty years.

Here in Geneva the first thing you notice when the metro bus pulls up is that it’s clean and graffitti-free. An eye-catching LED sign flashes the route number. And, as most buses today, it’s wheelchair accessible and the driver can lower it pneumatically for those needing the extra assist. Step inside and a wide aisle makes it easy to maneuver and the cloth-covered seats positioned along the outer wall are also clean. Oh, did I mention that when you register at a hotel you are given a transportation card for free access to the city’s public transportation system for the duration of your stay?

In addition, Geneva has light rail and electric trolleys, all equally accessible and inexpensive.

Observe traffic and you see mostly small, compact autos, a huge number of motorscooters, bicycles and motorcycles. Smart Cars, those two-seater battery powered city scamps, roll past as well. And Geneva isn’t alone in its transport system. Nearly every major city in Europe and industrial Asia has similar transportation capabilities.

This relates directly to Michael Moore’s point. Fuel-saving alternatives exist and are in use outside the U.S. Among governments that view it their responsibility to save energy and the environment, and also to move people about, enlightened transportation practices have been in operation for decades. It’s the U.S. and our automotive industry that is behind, embarrassingly, maddeningly behind. And now the taxpayers are being asked to bail them out due to their own recalcitrance and short-sighted resistance to change.

If the government does agree to shell out our money, the least lawmakers could do is require the automakers to behave in the interests of the public that’s saving them and the environment they have so callously disregarded for three decades and more.

Did the News Produce Terror?

A story on CNN International today discusses the influence of non-stop coverage of the Mumbai incident and asks if wall-to-wall coverage contributed to prolonged terror and created “celebrity terrorists.”

The terrorists had sufficient explosives to do more damage in a shorter time, the story reports, but speculates they took more time and extended the terror–even took hostages but made no demands–because media coverage advanced their aims, among which were to impress upon the public their ability to wreak havoc.

While it didn’t occur to me that the coverage was creating celebrity for the terrorists, it did seem, as I watched in sleepless jet lag in Geneva, that frequent references to “baby-faced gunmen smiling as they sprayed bullets” along with produced packages of graphics and repeated video loops framed the occupation of the Taj Hotel in manner almost surreal.

At times the intro to live coverage seemed indistinguishable from promos for upcoming documentary coverage. I found myself tuning out when the promotion of an upcoming program on genocide and another promo on CNN’s global news coverage of disasters appeared.

As compelling as events were in Mumbai, this framing coupled with CNN’s ever-present split screen text crawls of other stories actually diminished coverage for me.

The crux of the CNN story, however, is a question: Did extended live coverage provide a platform for the terrorists to manipulate public opinion? And further, did this platform lead terrorists to extend the occupation, engage in even more carnage over time and behave in ways to hold the attention of media?

This raises other questions. How media savvy were the terrorists? Were they effective in manipulating the media to achieve their own ends?  Did wall-to-wall coverage, however unintentionally, involve journalists in the story as enablers, even contribute to it?

As the post-mortem of Mumbai occurs, the role of media should be a significant part of the examination. The answers will not be simple or clear. The solution is not censorship. Management of media as practiced by the U.S. government in Iraq is not exactly the model, either. Mumbai will surely foster much serious discussion about how such events will be covered in the future.

The Gospel of Wealth:Televangelists, Culture and Authority

As I travel, I continue to be impressed with the global reach of television evangelists based in the U.S. propounding the gospel of wealth. I also reflect upon the cultural context in which these evangelists bring their messages. More often than not the message and the context are totally out of sync. The places I’m in are vastly different from the U.S. context and its economic realities, even considering the extreme stress the U.S. economy is presently experiencing.

The occasion for this reflection came when I turned on the television while in Geneva and up came a program by a televangelist in the U.S. He was mining the New Testament with a mix of behavioral psychology and scriptural explication that connected the sacred text to support for creating individual wealth. When I hear this it is so far removed from my understanding of scripture and faithfulness to it that I think I live in a parallel universe to the televangelist.

When I’m in Africa, the distance seems even greater. The culture of a televangelist in the U.S speaking about the gospel of wealth to African audiences living in grinding poverty, for example, is strikingly fantastic. It presumes that by individual initiative alone an individual can overcome the systemic chains that keep people locked in economic inequity and drag down, if not prevent, upward economic mobility. It places upon people who are already burdened with huge disadvantages yet another weight, that of individual responsibility for what are clearly social and systemic constraints.

Hope and optimism are precious motivators and one should not deny either to those who yearn for a better life. To do so would be cruel. At the same time, to hold people individually responsible for circumstances that are structural and  systemic is also cruel.

For example, to achieve successful participation in an economic system an individual must have access to the system itself. This requires a system open to individual initiative. Many systems around the world are not open. They are based on patronage and cronyism. They require capital and knowledge that an individual may not possess.

Meaningful participation occurs when people have access to training, capitalization to allow them to be competitive, market information, marketing and accounting skills and a host of other tools, including access to credit and fair trade policies and pricing. (Mohammad Yunus lays out a blueprint in Creating a World Without Poverty that puts the challenge and the incredible potential into focus. His proposal leaves the gospel of wealth in the dust as it puts structure and system to work on behalf of individual entrepreneurs.)

Thus, it seems to me narrow and short-sighted to advance a gospel of wealth theory based on individual initiative rooted in Western entrepreneurialism resting on the claim that this is the Christian gospel. The hope raised by the gospel of wealth preachers is just that convoluted and circuitous, it seems to me.

If it is not rooted on scriptural authority, it’s reasonable to ask what gives authority to the claim? The televangelist will most certainly object to the critique that his theory is not scriptural. But that claim is only possible by ignoring the historical tradition of Christian theology and the accumulated body of scholarship that defines the gospel as a call to discipleship and servanthood, a far cry from market capitalism and behavioral psychology. It is a tradition that recalls the graciousness of a loving God manifested in human form, a God who, according to the apostle Paul, emptied God’s own self and took upon the fragility and pain of human life in order to offer healing, wholeness and meaning.

This is a far cry, I think, from the pleas of a televangelist for funds to sustain a television broadcast that enriches the broadcaster and offers an ephemeral hope to the audience.

If authority does not rest in scripture, the next best thing I see is the legitimating role implied by being on television, and by the support base of a local congregation who believe the claims being made by the preacher. This isn’t much. It’s a pretty thin reed, but in the world of global media and uncritical theological reflection, it’s enough for him.