Arundhati Roy on NGOs

Arundhati Roy’s position on NGOs from here:

A SECOND hazard facing mass movements is the NGO-ization of resistance. It will be easy to twist what I’m about to say into an indictment of all NGOs. That would be a falsehood. In the murky waters of fake NGOs set up or to siphon off grant money or as tax dodges (in states like Bihar, they are given as dowry), of course, there are NGOs doing valuable work. But it’s important to consider the NGO phenomenon in a broader political context. In India, for instance, the funded NGO boom began in the late 1980s and 1990s. It coincided with the opening of India’s markets to neoliberalism. At the time, the Indian state, in keeping with the requirements of structural adjustment, was withdrawing funding from rural development, agriculture, energy, transport and public health. As the state abdicated its traditional role, NGOs moved in to work in these very areas. The difference, of course, is that the funds available to them are a minuscule fraction of the actual cut in public spending. Most large-funded NGOs are financed and patronized by aid and development agencies, which are, in turn, funded by Western governments, the World Bank, the UN and some multinational corporations. Though they may not be the very same agencies, they are certainly part of the same loose, political formation that oversees the neoliberal project and demands the slash in government spending in the first place. Why should these agencies fund NGOs? Could it be just old-fashioned missionary zeal? Guilt? It’s a little more than that. NGOs give the impression that they are filling the vacuum created by a retreating state. And they are, but in a materially inconsequential way. Their real contribution is that they defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right. They alter the public psyche. They turn people into dependent victims and blunt the edges of political resistance. NGOs form a sort of buffer between the sarkar and public. Between Empire and its subjects. They have become the arbitrators, the interpreters, the facilitators. In the long run, NGOs are accountable to their funders, not to the people they work among. They’re what botanists would call an indicator species. It’s almost as though the greater the devastation caused by neoliberalism, the greater the outbreak of NGOs. Nothing illustrates this more poignantly than the phenomenon of the U.S. preparing to invade a country and simultaneously readying NGOs to go in and clean up the devastation. In order make sure their funding is not jeopardized and that the governments of the countries they work in will allow them to function, NGOs have to present their work in a shallow framework, more or less shorn of a political or historical context. At any rate, an inconvenient historical or political context. Apolitical (and therefore, actually, extremely political) distress reports from poor countries and war zones eventually make the (dark) people of those (dark) countries seem like pathological victims. Another malnourished Indian, another starving Ethiopian, another Afghan refugee camp, another maimed Sudanese…in need of the white man’s help. They unwittingly reinforce racist stereotypes and reaffirm the achievements, the comforts and the compassion (the tough love) of Western civilization. They’re the secular missionaries of the modern world. Eventually–on a smaller scale, but more insidiously–the capital available to NGOs plays the same role in alternative politics as the speculative capital that flows in and out of the economies of poor countries. It begins to dictate the agenda. It turns confrontation into negotiation. It depoliticizes resistance. It interferes with local peoples’ movements that have traditionally been self-reliant. NGOs have funds that can employ local people who might otherwise be activists in resistance movements, but now can feel they are doing some immediate, creative good (and earning a living while they’re at it). Real political resistance offers no such short cuts. The NGO-ization of politics threatens to turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job. With a few perks thrown in. Real resistance has real consequences. And no salary.


Filed under NGOs

22 responses to “Arundhati Roy on NGOs

  1. kazimalam

    Only Arundhati Roy could say it in such a coherent manner . She is a real crusader. My red salute to her.

  2. W. Brech

    There’s an excellent article about NGO mafia at, here is the link

  3. John T

    While as usual Arundhati Roy’s writing is lively and engaging, I am disappointed that the level of analysis is as simplistic as the World Bank prescriptions that are criticised for, apparently, all of the ‘retreat’ of the state from delivering effective public goods — despite that WB intervention dating back 18 years following India’s foreign debt explosion to nearly 60% of GDP. This is the basic premise of the cartoon depiction of NGO legions despatched as a panacea for insidious weakening of the state’s delivery of services.

    But that premise fails, if for no other reason than 18 years gave India plenty of time to reassess and modify direction; given all the criticism that ensued of the WB/IMF dictates (and I am no fan of Structural Adjustment & neoliberalism), what entrenched interests prevented getting back on course, thereby negating the need for those paternalistic NGOs sketched as crowding in to save their ‘dark’ cousins? Home-grown impediments, I would warrant, more so that NGO fiat or hegemonistic ‘whites under the bed’…

    These are very serious matters. A lively point of view has been put forward by Ms. Roy; but we all benefit from a better level of analysis than such populist caricatures.

  4. John_t

    I submitted a reasoned comment to your site a few days ago. Is it not posted because it took issue with A. Roy’s essay?

  5. John, my understanding is that Roy’s point is not ultimately a matter of critiquing the nation/people from whence the money comes, but rather neo-liberalism, which could come from any nation, but not from the core of the people NGOs are built to serve. “India” is too broad since I’d think that there are plenty of Indians as well as Westerners who contribute to neo-liberalism, which has will have invaded the country. As she says, “Though they may not be the very same agencies, they are certainly part of the same loose, political formation that oversees the neoliberal project and demands the slash in government spending in the first place.”

  6. Varun

    I just cant stop falling in love with the way Arundhati writes … having worked at different rungs, and with different NGOs, I can only agree that they do nothing more efficiently than “sublimate political rage”.

  7. Ryan

    Nice content, but what is up with all the typos that make it hard to read?

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  12. The best resistance is high-efficiency horticultural systems like aquaponics, autowick garden beds, algae production, mushroom production. Any army (like the “resistance” relies on provisions. Once the people have an adundance of provisions, they will discover they need not serf themselves away for oligarchal fiat currencies.

  13. Anon’s Law says:
    If power=corruption then centralizing power will centralize corruption. Decentralizing power will minimize risk of corruption.

    Therefore: Time to end nation-states. Let communities rule themselves with P2P networking, all voluntary.

    See the current disintegration of Italy, and the efficacy of cryptocurrencies, especially the local ones (MazaCoin, HullCoin), for an idea of what is meant.

    It will take about 10-20 years before IT is cheap enough that Indian buffalo herders will have internet access. Those who survive the 4 Horsemen of the billionaires (like Rockefeller-Monsanto), anyway.

  14. Reblogged this on isobelblackthorn and commented:
    NGOs complicit in the neoliberal agenda.

  15. Shona

    NGos as we know run, to help people when they are in extreme need and assist them to stand on their feet. Making people dependent or making some very rich people rich is & should not be the objective – there are some very rich and important corporations and politicians families who are associated with some NGOs and by jove dependent on them! so the important question is who & why? There are some very over the top people, fancy people who organize lunches and dinners in their names. Which is all fine if for the greater good…. who would check this? Only a person pr group of persons who have come out to simply help people survive, the grassrroots who have come out of their houses simply because they want to do something meaningful and satisfying than making some corporations profits rise.

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  17. jacintha

    Okay. so what?

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