As a part of the 2012 reboot of the virtual issue on NGOs, authors provided supplemental pieces on their research and updates on their work since the publication of their articles in PoLAR.
Postscript to Politics of the Poor? NGOs and Grass-roots Political Mobilization in Bangladesh
by Lamia Karim
In writing this article, I had focused on the role of the developmental NGO as a provider of essential services to the rural poor, and as a vehicle for the instrumentalization of poor women for the political ambitions of NGO leaders. Since then much has occurred on the ground. In early 2000s, the government of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) investigated the leader of Proshika, Qazi Faruque on corruption charges. When the extent of his corruption came to light, Western aid organizations withdrew their support for Proshika, making it into a resource-poor organization. Faruque was finally ousted from the organization in 2009, and today Proshika is a non-player in local NGO activities.
In 2007, Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus decided to form a political party (a decision he later recanted) to challenge the political corruption in the country. Just as Faruque’s immersion in politics was seen as a threat by BNP leadership, Yunus’s call to politics was seen as an affront by the leader of Awami League that came to power in 2008. In the wake of the charges made in the Norwegian documentary Caught in Micro Debt that aired in November 2010, the Awami League government removed Yunus as the director of the Grameen Bank, and launched an investigation into the alleged mismanagement of funds. While Western leaders called upon the government to reinstate Yunus and not to “break” the Grameen Bank, the pioneering institution of microfinance, the Awami League government did not heed their demands, and instead brought Grameen Bank under government jurisdiction (see http://www.uminnpressblog.com/2011/03/lamia-karim-fall-of-muhammad-yunus-and.html).
By the 2000s then, it had become clear that while the state may outsource rural economic development activities to the NGO sector, it was less willing to tolerate NGO leaders’ political aspirations, especially if they challenged the political party in power. As noted in “Politics of the Poor,” NGOs are large vote banks. They constitute large voting publics who are dependent on these institutions for loans and other necessary services. If NGO leaders join politics, they can easily mobilize millions of borrowers and their families to vote in their favor. It is this “fear,” among other considerations, that color the landscape of NGO politics in Bangladesh. If we are to take the lessons from the Bangladeshi NGO sector into account, what we begin to see is a shift in the evolution of the postcolonial state. In the 1980s and 1990s, the state was heavily dependent on foreign aid, and had to concede to the mandates of Western nations. In the intervening years, the export-oriented garment sector has grown, offering an alternative revenue source to the government. China, a country that does not impose social mandates as part of its business ethic, has become a leading economic partner with Bangladesh, and that has lessened to some degree the country’s former aid dependence. It is in this shifting landscape of power alliances that that we have to comprehend the NGO and the state as structures in motion.
Lamia Karim is the author of Microfinance and Its Discontents: Women in Debt in Bangladesh (University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
Postscript to Mediating Dilemmas: Local NGOs and Rural Development in Neoliberal Mexico
by Analiese M. Richard
While acknowledging the role played by the “third sector” in enabling opposition electoral victories, the past two PAN administrations have also sought to channel the organizational efforts of NGOs into projects more compatible with neoliberal visions of the common good. My informants in Tulancingo struggled to avoid co-optation by state agencies and political parties, as this risked compromising the role they had forged for themselves as advocates for citizen rights and promoters of a participatory civil society. Their anxieties found symbolic expression in the figure of First Lady Martha Sahagùn de Fox, whose Fundación Vamos México embodied both a shift in funding and accountability models and troubling new forms of “connectivity” between NGOs, state agencies and the political class. Those continuing dynamics shape funding relationships between smaller and larger NGOs and limit their autonomy.
Today, the socioeconomic polarization caused by neoliberal reforms is exacerbated by the unprecedented violence of Mexico’s narco wars. However, the voluntaristic model of solidarity actively promoted by current President Felipe Calderon and by organizations like Vamos México and the Centro Fox (of which it is now a subsidiary) as a remedy for Mexico’s ills is focused on the development of philanthropic subjects rather than the resolution of structural inequalities. The Centro Fox is a policy institute led by a cadre of conservative Catholic business leaders, all direct beneficiaries of privatization. One Tulancingo friend mockingly called them “Los Milionarios de Cristo,” referring to the Legionarios de Cristo, an infamous right-wing Catholic congregation with powerful ties to the PAN. Vamos México is a major recipient of corporate donations from multinationals such as Nestlè, Hasbro, Gruma, UPS, Whirlpool and Coca Cola. During Fox’s presidency, it created numerous public-private partnerships, leveraging state infrastructure and resources to carry out its signature programs. The organization was repeatedly accused of political influence peddling. Since then, Vamos México has expanded its influence over Mexico’s “third sector,” entering into partnerships with smaller regional NGOs, as well as launching a professional certificate program in “Social Management” marketed to NGO personnel. In short, Vamos México has created an innovative form of patron-client philanthropy which enables it to indirectly shape social policy.
This model has profound implications for the long term outcome of Mexico’s “democratic transition,” in that the official promotion of NGOs now lends itself to the domestication of civil society participation. In “Mediating Dilemmas,” I described the efforts of the CSC to institutionalize the civic role of NGOs. The outcome of their campaign was the 2004 Law for the Promotion of Activities Undertaken by Civil Society Organizations, which created an official federal registry. Inscription is required of any NGO wishing to participate in public-private partnerships. Applicants must re-write their bylaws to conform to a single standard, and may only access funds from established programs (rather than proposing new ones). They are further prohibited from engaging in any activity intended to influence legislation. By controlling the way NGOs are organized, the Mexican state may now legitimately exclude “unofficial” groups from policy processes and limit the scope of dialogue.
Analiese M. Richard’s work has also been published in Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology and Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society. Her book, Bridges of Love: Constructing Transnational NGO Networks from Rural Mexico, is in preparation.
Postscript to Health ‘Anti-Reform’ In El Salvador: Community Health NGOs And The State In The Neoliberal Era
by Sandy Smith-Nonini
I wrote this article on the politics of health in post-war El Salvador immediately after my last stint of doctoral fieldwork in 1995 when I had followed controversies between radical health workers and the post-war government over pending neoliberal reforms. The reforms (ironically) ended funding for an effective network of health NGOs that were reducing rural maternal and child morbidity, and shifted funds to a dysfunctional health promoter program run by the Ministry of Health. The findings lent insights on the politics of development NGOs and the hypocrisies of neoliberal health reform. [A longer version of this article ran in Jim Yong Kim and colleagues’ Dying for Growth (2000).]
While surfing the net a few years later I learned that the article had gained a peculiar distinction. In a May 16th, 2006 post titled “Neoliberalism in Anthropology” on the blog Savage Minds (http://savageminds.org/2006/05/16/neoliberalism-in-anthropology/#comments), Kerim Friedman asked whether the conjunction noted by several scholars of new attention to neoliberalism was indicative of “a moment” in anthropology?” To find out, he ran a search on the AnthroSource database, noting that “While somewhat limited in scope, it should be able to reveal broad trends in the discipline.” Friedman searched for all articles in the past 100 years that used “neoliberalism” in the title, and came up with a grand total of 25 articles, “of which over half had been published in the past three years.” I was amused to see my article, originally published in PoLAR in 1998, on his list. So, a trendsetter I am, how nice! At the time, my sense was more one of feeling oppressed by the ongoing “culture wars” which had marginalized political anthropology.
While El Salvador’s progressive health activists felt thwarted by multi-lateral lenders in 1995, by the end of the decade health reform had become the unlikely bailiwick symbolizing public discontent. In my recent book, Healing the Body Politic, the last chapter describes the rise of radicalized health professionals to national prominence (initially upstaging the FMLN) through leadership of the huge “White Marches” against privatization of the social security health system which shook up national politics and helped reinvigorate a leftist agenda.
The most impressive show of force since the civil war took place between September 2002 and June 2003 when a prolonged health strike shut down hospitals and clinics nationwide, and roadblocks interfered with business and tourism. The marches brought hundreds of thousands into the streets month after month dressed in white as a show of solidarity with hospital workers. Police raids on hospitals, arrests of doctors and hunger strikes became headline news. In June 2003 the progressive coalition won an important victory — not only did ARENA President Francisco Flores back down from his privatization agenda, but negotiators for the popular sector also got rare concessions from the World Bank that removed privatization conditions from loan agreements. In years that followed, ghosts of privatization continued to haunt the political agenda, but the mobilizations helped establish a new agenda for progressive change and a shift in public sympathies that eventually (in 2009) led to Mauricio Funes’ victory, displacing the ultra-conservative (and thoroughly corrupt) ARENA party from power.
Sandy Smith-Nonini is the author of Healing the Body Politic: El Salvador’s Popular Struggle for Health Rights from Civil War to Neoliberal Peace (Rutgers University Press, 2010).
Gluing Globalization: NGOs as Intermediaries in Haiti and Seeing Like a “Failed” NGO: Globalization’s Impacts on State and Civil Society in Haiti
Mark Schuller reflects on connections between these articles and subsequent developments in a conversation with Digital Editorial Fellow Eduardo Ramirez. It is accessible here.