NGOs and the myth of civil society

Paper by Paul Stubbs (1997).

Date: Mon, 10 Feb 1997 09:52:03 +0100 (MET)
From: Paul Stubbs
Subject: NGOs and the Myth of Civil Society

Article published in 'ArkZin', nr. 55, January 1996


Paul Stubbs

The Vogue of NGOs

The term 'civil society' has become central to struggles for democracy in post-Yugoslav countries. Much of this impetus derives from the activities and theories of 'new social movements' in 1980's Slovenia which disrupted the balance of public discourse in a variety of ways but which, in the end, were powerless to resist the calls of nationalism. One of the leading 'civil society' theorists, Slovenian philosopher Tomaz Mastnak, has recently drawn attention to the danger of assuming that the new vogue, for Non-Governmental Organisations or 'NGOs', has very much to do with the progressive imperative of civil society suggesting that, in the post-Yugoslav context, "the idiocy of Western diplomacy has possibly been surpassed only by that of Western non-governmental organisations" (Mastnak in Benderley and Kraft (eds) (1994) 'Independent Slovenia' St Martin's Press).

Having spent two and a half years in Croatia working with, and researching, NGO's, the dangers of 'humanitarianism' which, whilst presenting itself as neutral is, in reality, deeply political and reflects the balance of forces between different international actors, has become all too apparent. As in the 'Third World' context, global, supranational, and regional agencies have orchestrated their aid for Croatia through a commitment to the development of NGO's. The nature of this relationship is, in some ways, masked by an emphasis on NGO's as 'civil society', as if this, per se, was progressive. The globalised nature of state-civil society relationships has a number of consequences which are far from progressive and, indeed, cause us to question the validity of certain definitions of 'civil society'.

Large numbers of foreign NGOs are currently operating in Croatia in the fields of aid, health, and psycho-social provision. Even more importantly, the major sources of funding are foreign donors, including governments (e.g. USAID), regional bodies (e.g. European Union), and global bodies (e.g. UNHCR). Most Croatian NGOs operating in these fields are funded in this way and many obtain this funding through a link with a partner organisation in the donor's country or region of origin. This is in contrast to Slovenia where many NGOs, linked to the social movements of the 1980's, are funded by central and local government and cover a much wider range of issues and concerns. Support for NGOs is often seen as 'building civil society'; in fact, in Croatia, it is more likely to build a competitive marketplace in which local NGOs, to survive, are forced to reproduce the categories, assumptions, and practices of their foreign funders. The reality that NGOs have become major political actors in aid and development policies throughout the world has now become obvious in Croatia also.

Non-Political Neutrality

Particularly problematic is the assertion that NGOs are 'non political' or 'neutral' and, hence, more progressive than governments which have vested interests and a political 'axe to grind'. Indeed, it is here that 'non-political humanitarianism' finds echoes in 'antipolitical civil society' which was developed in the 1980's. This 'myth of neutrality' might, in fact, hide the interests of a 'globalised new professional middle class' eager to assert its hegemony in the aid and social welfare market place. Through asserting the values of political disinterest, uncomplicated humanitarianism, and a thoroughgoing commitment only to improving people's welfare, NGOs tend to do rather well out of crises of war and forced migration. Funders tend to prefer NGOs who reproduce, in part at least, their own view of the world and who, whilst they may challenge some assumptions, do this within specific limits. It is not simply that NGOs do what funders want; rather, that processes of negotiation and of alliance develop in which certain common emphases are created and certain other possibilities are ruled impossible.

The creation of a 'globalised new professional middle class' who, regardless of their country of origin, tend to speak a common language and share common assumptions, seems to be a key product of the 'aid industry'. In fact, professional power is reproduced through claims to pro-gressive alliance with social movements and civil society whereas, in fact, the shift towards NGOs is part of a new residualism in social welfare which, under the auspices of financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, challenges the idea that states can meet the welfare needs of all.

'Trauma', Therapy and 'Empowerment Pimps'

The emphasis on 'relief models' rather than on 'social development' in projects working with refugees and displaced people in Croatia has been well-documented. It is clear that 'relief models' are more containable and less likely to lead to a 'politicisation' of aid and the develop-ment of particular forms of consciousness and action amongst beneficiary populations. Instead of social development and community work approaches, heavy emphasis has been placed on 'psycho-social programmes' and, in particular, on dealing with war trauma or 'PTSD', said to be present in the refugee population on a massive scale. The irony is that much of the concern with 'psycho-social programmes' and with 'war trauma' derive from progressive social move-ments and from those active in alternative mental health and therapy movements in Slovenia and Croatia in the 1980's. The familiar phrase 'we need to empower refugees' reminds me of what US educationalist Peter McLaren (in 'Politics of Liberation' Routledge (1994)) has called 'empowerment pimps' who are simply strengthening their own position and who prefer psycho-logical therapy to a connection with 'a political project with the objective of dismantling oppressive structures and mechanisms'.

A small number of Croatian psycho-socially oriented NGOs have attained a level of funding, and a degree of influence, which is far in excess of their level of service, number of bene-ficiaries, quality of staff, and so on, and places them in marked contrast to those providing services in the governmental sector. One Croatian NGO, linked to a US partner organisation, has, for example, received a grant from USAID for over 2 million US dollars to develop a training programme in trauma work. The organisation, the bulk of whose work - in a small number of collective centres - is undertaken by psychology and social work students, now has prime office space in Zagreb, large numbers of computers and other technical equipment, and is able to pay its staff more than double that which they would obtain in the state sector.

It is possible to understand the development of NGO activity in the aftermath of the crisis of large-scale forced migration less as the flowering of 'civil society' and more as the increase of professional power. This is made more complicated, however, by the fact that many of the key protagonists were influenced by, and keen to use the language of, civil society to press their claims. This has a particular post-communist context in a critique, partly derived from anti-politics, of all forms of 'social intervention' and claims to skills in this sphere as inherently proto-communist and totalitarian, and of the only valid skills being individual, therapeutically based. The 'personal growth', 'encounter groups', 'gestalt therapies', and so on, which flourished in the late 1980's made their members ideally placed to take advantage of the need for psycho-social work in the 1990's. In contrast, those advocating community development approaches were seen as tarnished through its association with dreaded 'social planning'. Such emphases were excluded from consideration in a coalition between local professionals and funders keen to emphasise the non-political nature of their work. In the process, refugees and displaced persons, and particular 'at risk' groups within this population, are targeted for NGO intervention with little or no attempt to develop 'integrative' services with local communities.

NGOs and Ethnicised Nationalism

There is no sense, either, in which, NGOs are, by definition, challenging the development of ethnicised nationalism. Indeed, echoing Bogdan Denic's concern with 'grassroots nationalism', I would argue that a number of Croatian NGOs, which are, in many ways, grassroots move-ments and indisputably a part of civil society, combine providing a service only for one ethnic group, Croats, with a strong ideology of Croatian nationalism. The strongest of these are women's organisations formed out of the experience of women displaced from Croatian territory, and by feminists from the Croatian emigre community in countries such as Australia and Canada. The irony is that many of these groups are skilled in gaining financial and other support from abroad, partly through manipulating their identities to suit the audience in question. Indeed, the complexities of the relationship of different types of welfare organisations to ethnicised nationalism, are masked by an uncritical support for NGOs as 'civil society'.

New Orthodoxies

Genuine grassroots social welfare organisations, based on broader social movements, have developed in Croatia. Many of these derive from independent women's initiatives which were founded in the late 1980s or from the network of peace, human rights, and anti-war groups which grew up in 1991 in response to the aggression against Slovenia and Croatia. The attempt to maintain a 'peace culture' has been fraught with difficulties in the context of globalisation and, indeed, of a misplaced faith in 'civil society' as the panacea. The achievements of the Anti-War Campaign Croatia (or ARK), which derive from its flexibility, sensitivity to local con-cerns, and refusal to bureaucratise, should not be understated. However, there is an underlying ideology to the approach of ARK which reflects a general anti-political stance and, further, an emphasis on what is in danger of becoming a new orthodoxy, namely 'non violent conflict resolution'. As the ARK statutes testify:

"The overall goal of the Anti-War Campaign ... is the development, propagation and application of non-violent methods of conflict resolution. ... ARK operates first and foremost in civil society, aiming to eliminate tensions and intolerance in inter-personal (and especially in inter-ethnic) relations. ... All ARK's actions are strictly neutral in a party political sense. ARK does not promote any particular political program, but rather the principles of peace-loving, democratic and just resolution of conflicts, tensions and social problems in general."

This is a very narrow interpretation of the nature of 'political action' and seems attuned to the demands of Western donors for a non-political stance. As Bogdan Denic recently argued in 'War Report', such a stance seems destined to result in a failure to engage with the (party) poli-tical sphere, to build left-oriented social democratic alternatives to President Tudjman's party, HDZ, and to consign Croatia to a nationalist government for generations, alongside, he might have added, a 'parallel society' of non-violent, self-actualised, and financially secure, individuals working in NGOs and wanting nothing to do with formal politics of any kind. There can be no denying the importance of acknowledging that politics goes beyond the party political and is also personal and interpersonal. Yet, non-violent conflict resolution, which is in danger of becoming a pseudo-scientific orthodoxy, offers little in terms of fundamental change. A micro-sociological, inter-personal approach, useful in, for example, small group work, schools, and local communities, is being developed as if it could change broader power relations.

'Civil society' as a set of social relations is no more inherently progressive than other forms of social relations, notably those derived from the state and formal political processes, in terms of challenging oppression. It can be a distraction, indeed, from the key issues of the time. Demo-cratic change is less likely to be brought about by projects which are funded by USAID than by the building of alliances between groups affected by the increasing insecurities, national chau-vinism, and oppression in Croatia and throughout Central and Eastern Europe. The growth of a new professional middle class acting in the name of 'civil society' is no guarantee of pro-gressive social change.


This is a revised version of the second half of a paper 'Nationalisms, Globalisation and Civil Society in Croatia and Slovenia' presented at the European Conference of Sociology in Budapest in September 1995, which will be published in volume 19 of 'Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change' in 1996.

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