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Review: Paved With Good Intentions

[Nikolas Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay. Paved With Good Intentions: Canada’s Development NGOs From Idealism to Imperialism. Halifax & Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2012.]

This is a thorough and highly critical look at development NGOs in the Canadian context. It focuses on building an understanding of how such organizations are not meaningfully “NG” at all, but rather are tightly integrated into Canadian state relations and into capitalist social relations more broadly.

The book presents both history and social analysis. Along with looking at how development NGOs are part of state relations, it also pays quite a bit of attention to the relationship between NGOs and social movements. It covers a lot of ground so there is probably more to say about each individual element, but from the origins of development NGOs in the desire of Canadian elites to cultivate particular kinds of domestic public attitudes in the 1950s on through the integration of such organizations (which they usually heatedly deny) into the overall strategy for the ongoing colonial occupation of Afghanistan, the case that it presents for transcending liberal enthusiasm for development NGOs is relentless and impossible to dismiss.

The book pays particular attention to the connection between capitalism’s neoliberal turn over the last few decades and the boom in the number of development NGOs over the same period. Development NGOs, the authors argue, are not just a response to the increase in human need that accompanies neoliberalism but are also an important part of how neoliberal policies are implemented — to defuse political resistance, money is invested in NGO projects that are touted as not only useful substitutes to redistributive measures by states but improvements on such measures. While there is no doubt that some cool local projects do occasionally result, there is little evidence from decades of work in all corners of the world that NGO interventions are capable of making any sort of broad or lasting impact on experiences of poverty. The edge is dulled somewhat, and educated sectors that might otherwise be part of resistance movements are co-opted, but the neoliberal project as a whole presses relentlessly forward. In playing this role, development NGOs articulate and depend on an understanding of poverty as being primarily quantitative rather than an expression of social relations.

I think this book is very useful. It resonated with a lot of my own impressions, analyses, and concerns from working in the para-state sector (aka the agency sector, or the domestic NGO sector) in the past, and I would be keen to have this kind of analysis extended in that direction in the Canadian context. My experience involved doing community-based research mostly related to homelessness from 2001 to 2003, when Canadian cities were still in the initial stages of reeling from the neoliberal cuts of the mid- to late-1990s and the corresponding upsurge in poverty and homelessness. A chunk of the work done by the agency that employed me was paid for by a limited-time funding stream which allowed for the creation of short-term projects and the shoring up of emergency infrastructure. It had the effect, much like analogous arrangements implemented via development NGOs in other countries, of giving the appearance of action in the face of need, of allowing sympathetic people to make a living while doing things that appeared (and, on a certain limited level, were) useful, of being completely inadequate to the scale of the problem created by the withdrawal of state redistributive activity, and of helping to ease everyone into a new phase of deliberate and conscious state refusal to engage in the kinds of activities that would actually be on the same scale as the poverty and homelessness that they claimed to address.

There are a few things that I wish the book did differently. For one thing, while I think linking the activities of development NGOs to the dynamics of global capitalism is very important, I think there would be much to be gained by doing more to foreground a colonial/racial analysis of the sort that Sherene Razack uses in Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping, and the New Imperialism. This book is very much about a different part of the same terrain that Razack examines in that book, and I think orienting an analysis of development NGOs as she does her analysis of peacekeeping would be a path to a much richer understanding of global social relations and of the complicated nexus of shifting relations and practices that usually get oversimplified by the term “neoliberalism.”

I also found the book quite disheartening. And I say that as someone who had no particular emotional investment in seeing development NGOs as good, and as someone who is quite used to reading and writing pretty bleak analyses of the world. As well, I should add that I don’t mean that in the sense that I have sometimes seen it used, as a kind of sleight of hand to avoid thinking about things which might shake the hearer/reader’s liberalism. Rather, I’m thinking about it in terms of making decisions as a writer and an activist about presenting politically depressing material — how do we do it such that we invigorate struggle rather than dampening it? There’s no magic answer, particularly given that things are really bleak, but part of it has to be grounding our work in ways that centre resistance rather than centering oppression. Talk about both, don’t pull any punches, but centre the former. This book does talk about resistance, whether that was the important inroads that radicals made in Canadian development NGOs in the 1970s or whether it is other forms of solidarity activism that provide different conceptions of how we in the wealthy and white-dominated North should relate to those impoverished and oppressed by the social relations which benefit us, but it is not grounded in that material.

The final thing that I would have liked the book to at least gesture towards is a conversation about the implications of its analysis for our own projects of social transformation. That is, the book makes it quite clear that even well-funded, local, non-state interventions by development NGOs have marginal impact on things like poverty and power beyond a very micro level. What does that mean for those of us who are critical not only of capital but also of the state form? I’d imagine there is lots to be said about the form and the goals of development NGO interventions, and how that is much different from anti-authoritarian left interventions — integrating radical oppositional work with non-state prefigurative work is an important difference. But given that this argument is one that some marxists deploy against comrades who are critical of the state form and of political visions that seek to prioritize finding other social forms to replace it, I think it would’ve been useful to include at least an acknowledgement of it, and perhaps a few pages of discussion in the conclusion.

Anyway, I definitely recommend this book. It fills an important gap in developing a critical analysis of Canadian state relations and of the Canadian contribution to the defence and advancement of global capitalist predation.

[Scott Neigh is a writer, parent, and an activist based in Sudbury, Ontario. He recently published two books looking at Canadian history through the stories of activists, which you can learn about here and buy here. This review originally appeared on his personal blog, as have many other book reviews.]

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