Angels of Mercy, Have Mercy!

The assumption of the apolitical and neutral nature of humanitarian and development aid NGOs has stood for too long. Any serious engagement and desire for impact must begin by adopting a more realistic understanding of the roles and influences of the various actors on the ground. Furthermore, journalists must see that the “development” perspective silences and erases the voices and agency of the very people it claims to be there to assist. Journalists need to realize that development aid agencies operate with a particular “development imaginary,” which is sharply antithetical to the ethics and intentions of journalism itself. In particular, it tends to erase those who have the most at stake and work to adapt their lives to transform the existing social order that creates inequalities and injustices.

A “developmental” perspective tends to remove from view strategies and programs that are not “based on the paternal guiding hand of the state; [we] can hardly imagine change coming in any other way.” [James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho, University of Minnesota Press, 1994:281].

We can outline specific trends that should give journalists pause. Journalism and journalists often hide behind the seemingly neutral, apolitical, and humanist discourses of development aid and human rights NGOs. But this stance is a form of willed ignorance and unsustainable when we look at the facts.

Ignoring how NGOs can distort local political and social realities is nearly impossible. Humanitarian and development aid has played a significant role in prolonging conflicts, offering assistance to dictatorships, and even influencing the social imaginaries that have resulted in genocidal violence. For example, as Peter Uvin showed, development NGOs in Rwanda collaborated with the structures, institutions, and ideologies of exclusion, inequality, pauperization, racism, and oppression through which aid and development processes operated and laid the groundwork for the 1994 genocide itself. [Peter Uvin, Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Africa, Kumarian Press, 1998].

Development aid organizations can distort local realities and even compel Governments to renege on their responsibilities–a culture of charity and hand-outs that begins to seep into the highest echelons of power, where the massive international funds slosh around not where they are most needed, but where they are most easily stashed.

In Haiti, hundreds of NGOs flooded the country in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, creating a situation where “NGOs [had] more financial muscle than the state.” [Christophe Wargny, “Haiti in the hands of the NGOs,” Le Monde Diplomatique, January 2011]. Thousands of international aid groups further weakened the state’s fragile capacity to deliver essential civic services, welfare programs, and social support. [Pooja Bhatia, “What’s next, locusts?” London Review of Books, May 23, 2013]. The consequences for public democratic participation and even the sovereignty of a state were dire. With funds coming through private hands and programs being disbursed through NGO experts, local politicians and officials were less concerned about whether the needs of the public were met and more about the priorities and interests of the funders. The outcome was a little short of a second earthquake that left behind a wake of socio-political devastation that further immiserated the lives of the country’s people. [Jonathan M. Katz, The Big Truck That Went By; How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014].

In the DRC, researchers Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern pointed to the problems created by massive amounts of financial aid, and media attention is given to the issue of rape and how it not only influenced the situation on the ground but increased the likelihood of the use of rape to draw aid towards regions. The presence of international agencies and actors in the region, with their significant funds and logistics operations, addressing a selected human rights concern distorted the social, economic, and political environment around them. Various actors in the region began to “produce” cases of rape to gain the attention of international organizations and divert their financial and personnel resources into their areas of control and operations. [Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern, “The Complexity of Violence: A Critical Analysis of Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC),” Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), 2010:13–15].

Despite their distorting socio-cultural and political effects, NGOs remain aloof from local communities. Their organizational culture of “expertise,” operational procedures defined through training manuals and internal meetings, staff that is almost always foreign and Western, lacks actual field experience, is comfortably nestled in gated compounds and air-conditioned SUVs and largely insulated, separated, and living apart from those they claim to be there to assist. [Lisa Smirl, “Drive by Development: The Role of the SUV in International Humanitarian Assistance,” unpublished paper (2011), accessed here:].

Furthermore, international aid, private charity, and public aid are opaque and unaccountable. It is nearly impossible to know where funds are spent and on what. Again, this was apparent in the wake of the Haitian earthquake relief effort in 2010 when “many of the sins that Haitian officials are accused of–dishonesty, incompetence, lack of transparency–manifest in their accusers’ [NGOs] own practices.” [Pooja Bhatia, “What’s next, locusts?”, London Review of Books, May 23, 2013. For a particularly insightful take on the complexities and indignities of humanitarian efforts in Haiti, see Raoul Peck’s brilliant documentary Assistance Mortelle (2013), where he captures how workers, despite good intentions and massive aid funds, quickly became trapped in bureaucracies and procedures that rendered their work useless and ineffective].

But worse, and one of the least examined aspects of humanitarian aid organizations, is their usurping and undermining of critical roles of the state. The aid machinery assumed many of the responsibilities of government, allocating resources, setting priorities, implementing public programs, and deploying violence. So much so that it became impossible to know what was responsible for what and who was doing what. Much is being questioned about the relevance, role, and methods of international aid and humanitarian agencies worldwide. They have come under intense scrutiny for their collaboration with power, ability to contort local societies, overwhelming influence in determining social behavior, and impact their massive budgets have on the situation.

Their collaboration with the state becomes a useful tool to help de-politicize political movements and grassroots demands for socio-political and economic change. This professionalism and disconnect have been further exacerbated by a neoliberal imagination of empowerment, perhaps best represented by micro-credit NGOs, once seen as the great solution to poverty. But these merely allowed all questions of public goods, services, and rights to disappear under an idealized discourse of individual entrepreneurship and consumer preference, and many of them ended up being little more than loan companies profiting off excessive interest rates and extortion of the poor. [Cédric Gouverneur, “Micro-finance for Profit: Entrepreneurial Investment Turns to Consumer Loans,” Le Monde Diplomatique, April 2012]. And those who then stand outside of these formal NGO arrangements, those who retain their links to grassroots actions, and politicize critically important issues of health, water, livelihoods, education, and right to land are then delegitimized as anti-state, anti-modernity, anti-globalization, anti-development.

As Kamat warns, “The influence of NGOs can lead to the corruption of genuine mass movements through the NGO–ization of their leadership or the distortion of their political aims.” [Sangeeta Kamat, “NGOs and the New Democracy: The False Saviors of International Development,” Harvard International Review, Spring, 2003: 25, 1: Spring Premium Collection, Page 69]. We cannot ignore that the rise of NGOs in the global south is directly related to the state’s retreat and the pursuit of neoliberal economic policies where critical areas of public responsibility have been siphoned off to private, corporate, and transnational NGOs and aid organizations. Many have not been shy about working closely with authoritarian regimes and are willing to support and cooperate with them or even work with corporate, financial, and political elites.

A deep contradiction sits behind the institutional nature of an NGO. The very source of their funding streams and the social worlds from which they receive their support makes them susceptible to powerful political interests. These powerful interests utilize and shape NGOs’ agendas toward their own priorities and concerns, using the NGOs as tools for achieving their goals. [Sangeeta Kamat, “NGOs and the New Democracy: The False Saviors of International Development,” Harvard International Review, Spring, 2003: 25, 1: Spring Premium Collection, Page 69].

They can be tools in political games, reflective of the agendas of the powerful, operate to represent interests that are not always obvious, disconnected from the communities they serve in, and beholden to agendas not immediately apparent. Furthermore, development aid organizations can end up extending and expanding the power of the state, the same state that created the social and economic problems in the first place. Extremely sensitive political operations involving the entrenchment and expansion of state institutions’ power can be achieved under the cover of a neutral, technical mission and help depoliticize both poverty and the State itself. [James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticisation and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho, University of Minnesota Press, 1994:256].

A lot more can be said about these entanglements, but this is not the book to do that in. My main concern is the unquestioning collaborations with humanitarian, development, and human rights NGOs that many journalists and photojournalists embark on. There is an assumption that NGOs are a force of good and that simply hitching a ride with them will help produce “journalism” or “socially concerned” photojournalism work. It will not. It will produce political propaganda, public relations material, and marketing content.

We garland NGOs with neutrality and social service idealism that does not stand close examination. We tend to see them as apolitical actors committed to social justice, human rights, and economic betterment of the communities they serve. This is naive at best and irresponsible at worst. Journalists are particularly prone to unthinkingly getting into bed with NGOs and producing work that ends up being little more than promotional material for them. For journalists, any collaboration or partnership with NGOs must be more than just a question of logistics, convenience, or funds. They must recognize NGOs act as agents of power and influence and constrain the broader socio-political environments in which they work. Their actions have consequences, and the damage development aid causes to local economies, communities, and welfare can be devastating.

The exploitation of moral sentiments to veil specific corporate and political agendas has today become a vast transnational enterprise, with tens of thousands of so-called humanitarian and social development organizations working across the globe on everything from hunger, poverty, sex trafficking, refugees, flood relief, and more.

I turn to this issue–NGOs and their media use–next.