The original, longer version of this article is » When wearing white is not chic, and collaboration not cool
Aside from the global hype associated with reversing aid, debt and trade injustices in recent days, it has not been an easy time for the huge non governmental organisations (NGOs) at the centre of the action.
A front page New Statesman article on 30 May revealed that Oxfam’s revolving door relationship with British chancellor Gordon Brown has neutered the demands, strategies and tactics of the 450-member NGO campaign, Make Poverty History.
The website of the magazine Red Pepper followed up with a devastating political critique of the campaign, including its refusal to countenance any anti-war message that will embarrass Brown and Tony Blair.
There was another PR disaster in early June. The white wristbands favoured by Blair as a mark of his commitment to Africa were revealed to be products of Chinese sweatshop labour.
Do these gaffes signify something deeper? Merely careless paternalism, or perhaps a sense that the main outcomes of this campaign are to be celebrated in media buzz, fashion statements, celebrity chasing and the NGOs’ proximity to power?
The heart of the problem is that the large mainstream NGOs—and here we do not mean organisations like War on Want, the World Development Movement and Christian Aid — are not putting serious pressure on the G8.
For example, when anti-poverty campaigners call for cancellation of poor countries’ unpayable debts, this leaves undefined what exactly is “unpayable” and concedes that the populations of lower middle income countries will suffer under the debt burden.
Without coherence emerging from organic struggles fought by mass democratic movements across the global South (including in Northern ghettoes), the construction of a campaign against poverty is both unrealistic and subject to early cooption.
According to Catherine Quarmby in the New Statesman, “Some of the most intriguing criticism of the softly softly approach has come from within the government itself.
“One senior government source suggests that Oxfam has failed to learn one of the essential techniques of negotiation — if you agree on the basics too early you forfeit real influence.”
Unfortunately this is no aberration, but part of a pattern dating at least to 1995, when Oxfam International broke from the 50 Years is Enough protests against the World Bank.
By 2002, a senior policy analyst for Oxfam, Kevin Watkins, could happily reveal an agenda of divide and conquer, between “globophobes” (the global justice movement protesting against the WTO, IMF and World Bank) and “globophiles” (Oxfam).
Watkins told the Washington Post, “The extreme element of the anti-globalisation movement is wrong. Trade can deliver much more than aid or debt relief.”
The then director of Food First, Anuradha Mittal, responded, “We are disappointed that Oxfam has chosen to undermine the demands of social movements and think tanks in the South such as Via Campesina, Movement of Landless Workers (Brazil), Third World Network, Focus on the Global South, and Africa Trade Network.
“They have demanded that governments must uphold the rights of all people to food sovereignty and the right to food rather than industry-led, export-oriented production.”
Proximity to Downing Street and Pennsylvania Avenue has unfortunately become a good proxy for political common sense, or lack thereof.
Take for example Mohammad Akhter, chief executive officer of Interaction, the NGO coalition many of whose members are considered de facto subsidiaries of the US government’s federal aid programme, USAID.
He met Paul Wolfowitz, recently appointed head of the World Bank and publicly pronounced, “The World Bank is in good hands.”
A few days earlier, Interaction and Oxfam had thrown a grateful going-away bash for James Wolfensohn, the outgoing World Bank president.
As a result of these sorts of influences, there appears little benefit—and great risk — for African NGOs to adopt top down Make Poverty History campaigns that endorse end goals dreamt up in the backrooms of the UN.
Bush administration ideologues breathe down bureaucrats’ necks at the UN to reduce funding obligations, impose Christian fundamentalist values and remove the word “rights” from (already fatuous) official rhetoric.
Even Johannesburg-based Civicus International staff have informally relabeled the UN’s Millennium Development Goals as the “Minimalist Development Goals”.
Why, then, do those white bands grace some African NGO members’ wrists and heads? When Civicus staff brought two huge bags of the headbands to Lusaka, capital of Zambia, and made a pitch for the campaign, it was so controversial — coming alongside a futile appeal to endorse a “joint facilitation committee” with the hated World Bank — that the bags were left closed.
No one is suggesting that putting on a white headband or wristband makes you a collaborator with neo-liberalism, dividing and conquering the oppressed forces, or supporting “moderate” NGOs so that they gain rewards from the global establishment.
Nevertheless, from the standpoint of the resistance organisations, it is overdue that we collectively consider our fundamental visions. In particular we need to look at whether the much welcomed globalisation of people — and of culture, ideas, travel and political solidarity — can be accompanied by what we’d argue is just as desperately needed — the deglobalisation of capital.
After all, the danger of aligning ourselves with the neo-liberal project is serious. At a time when men like Jeffrey Sachs are celebrated as saviours of the world’s poor—for example, in a Bono song dedication at May’s big New York concert—a deeper critique of markets and the NGOs is desperately needed.
Bono in particular has been obsequious. At the last New Labour party convention, Bono labelled Blair and Brown the “Lennon and McCartney of poverty reduction”. According to Quarmby, some groups involved in Make Poverty History were horrified.
John Hilary, director of campaigns and policy at War on Want, was in the audience. He said, “When Bono said that, many NGO leaders who were there put their heads in their hands and groaned.
“It’s a killer blow for us to see the smiles on the faces of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. This is exactly what they want—they want people to believe that this is their crusade, without actually changing their policy.”
Are the Make Poverty History campaign objectives for Gleneagles actually worth endorsing?
In his book Deglobalisation, the Filipino activist Walden Bello has convincingly set out the justice movement’s case for disempowering and defunding the global institutions that push capitalism down Third World throats.
So when Sachs, Oxfam and others continue to insist that the way to cure poverty is to expand the world market and reverse Africa’s alleged “marginalisation”, they ignore the reality that Africa’s trade to GDP ratio has for many years topped the world charts.
The reality is that ever greater reliance upon exporting cash crops and minerals — most of which have suffered huge declines in price due to gluts —is a recipe for underdevelopment.
When debt relief comes with more Western neo-liberal conditionality, the reality is that people often end up in worse shape after relief than before.
And when G8 “phantom aid” continues to foster Northern interests above those of the Third World’s people, it should be rethought entirely.
In late May, Christian Aid’s brilliant Ghanaian researcher Charles Abugre declared — personally not organisationally — to a Globalise Resistance conference in London, “Stop the aid! It’s done too much damage!”
What, then, should be done in coming weeks, especially on 2 July in Edinburgh? As Naomi Klein suggested at an African anti-corporate conference on 10 June, “A million people are going to Edinburgh and joining hands, wearing white, in a circle around the entire city, and it’s going to be one big, giant bracelet.
“Everyone will wear bracelets, and then they’ll be a bracelet. Are you excited about this? I always had concerns that some of these big corporate NGOs were less interested in contesting power than acting as accessories to power. But being a giant bracelet for the G8 takes this a little too far.”
Instead, suggested Klein, “Encircle the G8! But instead of declaring themselves a piece of jewellery, they should say, we are a noose, we are putting pressure and we are squeezing these neo-liberal policies that are taking lives around the world. Just like the noose that killed Ken Saro-Wiwa ten years ago this November.”
That is indeed the choice—to be a bauble for, or a noose against, neo-liberalism. By joining those active across the Third World in concrete struggles, Northern readers can offer real, lasting solidarity.
In making the choice, especially in Britain, consider whether the symbolism of the colour white is appropriate. Will the NGO-led masses be waving white flags of surrender on 2 July in Edinburgh with these wristbands?
It’s rather hard to tell. According to Make Poverty History’s Bruce Whitehead, “It’s not a march in the sense of a demonstration, but more of a walk. It is going to be very much a family affair.
“The emphasis is on fun in the sun. The intention is to welcome the G8 leaders to Scotland and to ask them to deliver trade justice, debt cancellation and increased aid to developing countries.”
Perhaps Whitehead and Make Poverty History need a change of both attitude and attire. After all, “white” armies have traditionally fought “red” armies.
Fortunately, unlike Russia in the late 1910s, today’s social movements are not carrying weapons of physical destruction, only ideas, energy and a few material resources.
Still, we can’t help but conclude that, in contrast to the red social movement struggles for dignity and justice, those wearing white and adopting the NGOs’ weak programme may appear as… well, if not explicit agents of the G8, then at minimum their decorations.
Hence when protesting against Wolfowitz on his mid-June Africa trip, against the Gleneagles meeting of the world’s rulers in early July, and against the World Bank and IMF annual meetings in September in Washington, we’ll encourage our comrades to wear something more colourful, with politics to match.
Patrick Bond is based at the Centre for Civil Society, South Africa; Dennis Brutus is a veteran anti-apartheid activist; Virginia Setshedi is a Soweto-based activist.