Somehow, last summer I missed a Foreign Policy article by Michael A. Cohen, Maria Figueroa Küpçü, and Parag Khanna, which appeared in the July/August 2008 issue. Unfortunately, you won’t find much of the article at that link unless you are a subscriber. I happened to see the piece in the November/December Utne Reader. The on-line excerpt is a bit longer there, but you still won’t find the full essay. Sorry about that.

Nonetheless, the authors’ central thesis is certainly provocative and worth discussing even if internet users cannot find the entire piece:

[T]he thin line that separates weak states from truly failed ones is manned by a hodgepodge of international charities, aid agencies, philanthropists, and foreign advisers. This armada of non-state actors has become a powerful global force, replacing traditional donors’ and governments’ influence in poverty-stricken, war-torn world capitals. And as a measure of that influence, they are increasingly taking over key state functions, providing for the health, welfare, and safety of citizens. These private actors have become the “new colonialists” of the 21st century.

Is this the logical new step beyond what Jessica Matthews called a “power shift” back in 1997? Clearly, this is not what scholars had in mind when they noted that activists had moved beyond borders.

While the authors credit NGOs with performing all sorts of beneficial — even vital — functions, they nonetheless claim “whatever the task, the result is generally the same: the slow and steady erosion of the host state’s responsibility and the empowerment of the new colonialists themselves.” Additionally, the authors imply that NGOs have a selfish agenda: “aid organizations and humanitarian groups need dysfunction to maintain their relevance. Indeed, their institutional survival depends on it.”

What are we to make of this critique?

As I said, I’m late to this discussion, so I should first point to an excellent early September post by William Felice at the HRHW Roundtable blog. Felice laments

“the way in which the language of colonialism, imperialism and empire has been sanitized and misused in the current period…Cohen, Küpçü, and Khanna fall into this revisionist quagmire by conflating colonialism solely with dependency, ignoring the most vicious and brutal components to the over 450 years of colonial domination. It should not be so easy to label an organization “colonialist.” In fact, given the real meaning of the term, it is absurd and scandalous to call the Gates Foundation “colonialist.” One would not lightly brand a group “fascist” or “totalitarian.” Yet, somehow today it is OK to talk about empire, imperialism and colonialism as if these were almost neutral terms.

Felice also takes on the claim about selfishness, pointing out that human suffering would increase to “immeasurable” levels if NGOs did not provide vital functions throughout the developing world.

On July 31, Tony Pipa of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard wrote that equating NGOs with colonialists simply “doesn’t work…It’s like calling the Prius the new Hummer. They both get you from here to there, but the goals and values behind the design are completely different.” Pipa also references specific infrastructure projects that NGOs voluntarily turned over to governments once they had some success.

The Foreign Policy trio conclude that NGOs must be held accountable in order to assure that their goals are just and their power limited. They don’t really offer many specifics — market-style “competition among aid groups” is the most concrete suggestion.

There’s actually a very large policy and scholarly literature on NGO accountability. See, for example, this piece and this one too. Nayef Samhat and I briefly addressed some of it in our 2004 book. We argue for widespread inclusiveness, transparency, and public deliberation.

Update: Corrected a typo on Tony Pipa’s name 1/21/09.

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