NGOs: Another wing of US foreign policy [Archives:2004/767/Opinion]

August 26 2004

By Abdulhaqq Abdullah
For the Yemen Times
[email protected]

I would like to respond to your editorial column in issue 760, on the subject of NGOs. Firstly, I think it quite natural for many governments, or should I say dictators, in the Middle East to show suspicion towards NGOs. This does not mean that I condone the bureaucracy of licensing procedures and other red tape (which lets face it we are all subjected to in various ways) that you suggest is in some cases a deliberate attempt to obstruct NGOs, however we'd be incredibly naive to suggest that NGOs were anything other than another wing of US foreign policy.
The latest catch phrase in US foreign policy is the Greater Middle East Initiative (which at least sounds more democratic than regime change). The Greater Middle East Initiative – in a nut shell – is the attempt to deal with the entire Muslim world as one, and to counter the extremist threat with a sweeping set of political and economic reforms. How will they implement such an agenda? Why through the phenomena of trans-national, apolitical, non-aligned, unsuspected, all-singing, all-dancing, saviours of the modern world – NGOs.
Let me quote from Tamara Cofman in her evaluation of the Greater Middle East Initiative for the Brookings Institute, she argues that: “by embedding its small-bore programs in a network of new institutions with their own funding and capacity. Such institutions, once created, might begin to take on a life and logic of their own, and with luck can insulate the project of democracy promotion in the Middle East from the swings of political fortune that have often doomed similar efforts in the past. While some G-8 partners may balk at the creation of so many new multilateral institutions, such components are what ensure that the Greater Middle East Initiative is built in a way that is sustainable over the long term.”
What does that mean in simple English? It means that NGOs are a good because 1) they are self financing so cost the US tax payer nothing, 2) they are self perpetuating and don't need Government control leading to 3) they are not linked to any government so are seen as being impartial and 'credible', 4) you can have an NGO for every reform issue under the sun – in fact it seems the more he merrier, and 5) most importantly, what they promote is exactly the same as what the US wants promoted in the Middle East.
What NGOs bring are items of the western reform agenda, and they bring them one by one. Whether they hold workshops, or lectures, or training seminars, or publish publications, they promote a solution deriving from secular capitalism. Whether the subject is poverty, or literacy, or human rights, press rights, human trafficking, or empowerment of women, or child labour, they promote a solution deriving from secular capitalism. Whatever the development project, however well it's administered, it is done in the name of, or for, an idea of secular capitalism.
The problem is that Secular Capitalism did not come from Islam. The two are not the same, in fact they almost always differ.
I am not for one second arguing that the Middle East is not in desperate need of drastic reform – it is. However, needing reform does not predispose us to embracing every ruff and ready suggestion with whole-hearted applause. Especially when those giving advice are the ones who caused most of the problems in the first place, and who still clearly have vested interests. In fact in issue 758 of the Yemen Times there was a fantastic article by Gwynne Dyer entitled 'What's wrong with the Arab World?', which argued very plainly the case that it was western Governments who imposed the current ruling structures on the Middle East, precisely to further their own interests. Why would their 'reform suggestions' be any more sincere?
Lets face it, this is what the reform agenda means:
Political reform means the imposition of democracy, which means subjecting the rules of Islam to the popular vote, in other words we are liberated by being given the legal right to pick and choose the bits of our religion we want to abide by.
Economic reform means 'encouraging free trade' (which means opening up local markets to foreign goods, by reducing 'protectionism' such as government subsidies and import taxes), 'reducing foreign debt' (which means paying back loans and the accumulated interest which means short term money making initiatives such as increasing taxes and selling off natural resources), and 'public sector reform' which means privatisation, which means selling off national resources to foreign investors. All of which are devastating for the local economy, though quite good for the global one.
Social reform means changing the role and perception of women, which means making women work, encouraging promiscuity, tolerance of the immoral, and encouraging the traditionally taboo.
NGO's are the front end and the friendly face of all of this. Whilst the individuals involved in the work are undoubtedly sincere, they are promoting a culture and a way of life mutually exclusive to Islam. They don't attack Islam by name, of course not, they merely argue the rational of ideas which contradict it. If you ask them they'll tell you that Islam is a good religion, but it is secular capitalism that they look to for answers.
Building infrastructure, providing drinking water, sanitation, public transport, electricity, judiciary, education and healthcare are the exclusive responsibility of Government, not NGOs. Why else do we have governments – if not to administer projects that are in the collective interest and from which everyone benefits? The more we accept NGOs to do the work of government the more we tolerate governmental incompetence, and the longer we're stuck with it. The sad truth is that the kind of reform needed is a little more drastic than patchwork plasters of 'development aid' or the lipstick of 'democracy'.