The other day I was with my dear friend Heba ‘Boobie’ El Sherif and the topic of non-governmental organizations came up. And how wouldn’t it? Long before #jan25, but especially since right after, many young, pro-active Egyptians are exploring the different channels of bringing about social change and turning things around for all of us. Naturally, NGOs and development projects attract an audience of activists who, with a bit of luck, enjoy the rewarding opportunity of on-the-ground action that empowers the community and takes the entire society forward.
There’s a lot to say, and I’m not going to cover everything. A lot of my views are shared by the global left, but that doesn’t mean that if I say something, every single leftist you know will agree by default.
I have no issues with people working with NGOs, many of my friends fall under that category. They’re doing what they think is best to make this world a better place. There are many options/outlets, and people choose what suits them best.
The issue with NGOs lies on two fronts, the first is funding, and then second, arguably more important, but beyond this post, is the replacement of deficient government.
I would argue that it’s safe to assume that any company or entity making hundreds of millions of dollars is not making this world a better place. It’s almost impossible to think of any corporation, on any level, that is making millions for a board of a dozen men, that is not harming the world’s natural resources, and, of course, human labor.
Companies like these will continue to exist if we don’t change the system. And this is not about a socialist revolution, that’s not the point now. Even from a reformist perspective that argues that the world can live happily under some form of capitalism, it is clear that companies monopolizing on natural and human resources to generate hundreds of millions, and in many cases, billions in profit, is counterproductive. Therefore, we need to stop those companies from operating the way they do.
If a project is running on small funding from private sources, then it’s fine, in my opinion. If an NGO coordinator managed to persuade acquaintances and volunteers to pay LE 5,000 each, so that the project kicks off with LE 100,000 – I’d say that’s perfect! Use that with the help of volunteers and free and open-source tools, and you have an awesome project! Who could argue against that?
However, if the source of funding it via a big government or a multinational corporation, then we need to think about it. I tend to simplify the equation: if the company’s making hundreds of millions of dollars, then it shouldn’t take me more then 8 minutes of Googling to pin point their exact violations against the environment, and exploitation of workers. It has yet to fail me, and I don’t see it as a coincidence. A company simply cannot be making a lot of money unless there are consequentially proportionate human beings taking on the suffering at another place.
That’s not always the case though. For example, if a big company is run by thousands who actually work for it (and we’re not talking about useless 0.1% shares at the end of the year), meaning it’s self-managed, then it’s money is GOLD. That’s because it’s a large group of people each pitching in with small amounts. That’s the world we want; a lot of people all with small (and similar) amounts of power (political and economical). The problem’s when you have a small group of people with a lot of money, which is the case with all multi-million dollar corporations. The 1% that are making all the calls and we’re all fighting each other to reach them. Unfortunately, there are very few companies that have the ‘majority-rule’ model. You can think of coops in California and parts of Europe – but they never have money left over for NGOs to use because it’s an independent self-sustainable entity.
Another example of a big company that is actually helping is if the profit margin is very slim. So if a company is making 10 billion dollars in revenues, there’s usually about 2 billion in profit for the share holders. But what if they decided that they will settle for 100 million in profit (which remains an overwhelming sum of money), and then give 1.9 billion to NGOs with no strings attached to do whatever work they think will make this world a better place. That would be ideal, but that doesn’t exist. The capitalist system does not allow for those companies who want to limit their profits – they’d be immediately muscled out by a competitive market.
The end result is that all rich companies giving out money to NGOs are run by a small group of men, giving out a very small percentage of their profit, and are always protecting their interest. I’m yet to see a single company that proves this inaccurate.
Which takes me to the subsequent point of the same front, and that is companies’ interests. Money coming out of profit, and belonging to the small group of individuals running the company, has to be spent wisely. If McDonald’s decides to spend billions of dollars a year on NGOs unwisely, in other words throwing the cash out the window, they would go bankrupt shortly after. When you make money, you have to protect it and spend it in a way that does not conflict with the interests of your capital. In fact, not only does the money need to stay away from harming your profits, it actually needs to empower it. Because if your profits are not increasing slowly but surely, it means that you’re falling out and losing the money that keeps you going, which will eventually lead to too small of a profit for the company to continue. The rule of thumb is, if you want to be a very successful businessman, you cannot afford to be a good person. Because, in order to survive and grow, you need to be making profits and expanding, otherwise you’ll lose out to competition in the free market (we obviously don’t need to talk about corrupt tycoons, like Ahmed Ezz, that use the government to destroy competition to start with).
Thus when those large corporations hand out cash to NGOs, they’re benefiting from it. It might seem that there’s no problematic issue with companies benefiting, but the matter at stake goes beyond that. Gains made vary from PR and marketing, tax evasion, to political interests.
If the average Joe decided to donate funds for a cause, it’s his right to brag about it. In fact, he deserves it. But if it’s a large corporation making billions of dollars out of destroying our planet and exploiting human beings across the globe, then PR becomes dangerous. Because then, happy, positive faces like Boobie, RowanElShimi, 3aski et al would be saying that, thanks to that particular company, we were able to realize this amazing project (and it’s always going to be an amazing project because it’s incredible people behind it, with a proactive cause). As a result, not only will the company be able to continue its violations for the coming years, but it’s actually become harder for the other groups and activists who are trying to attack that company and get it to stop its harm.
Imagine a group of NGO enthusiasts taking funding from the Ford Foundation when there’s a group of activists in Seattle trying to show the world that companies like Ford make their profits by enslaving women and children in the third world. Subsequently, people exposed to the CSR-funded project that says ‘helped by Ford Foundation’ will not be too critical of them, Ford will release a statement showing what an amazing company they are because they helped NGOs make this world a better place, the Seattle group will be set back, and Ford will continue its violations for a couple of more years at least.
Maybe the project by the NGO has caused more benefit than Ford’s harm to the world? That’s physically impossible. If they give out a small portion of their money, the outcome can never be compared to the billions of dollars they’re invested while ruining the planet and its people. Then again, maybe we can use this money to inspire people to learn about how companies like Ford destroy our societies, and how to mobilize to change the system for the better. But Ford would never let us do that, and those are the strings attached. They will always be benefiting more, otherwise they will not make the unwise decision of splashing out cash with no return to avoid losing business.
Political and economical gains, that’s where corporations ‘donate’ tiny slices of profits gained at the expense of nature and desperate human beings.
I see no reason in giving up on changing the system, and choosing to work within the framework to try and make this world a little less catastrophic. I believe we’re more than capable of turning this around to the point of ridding our world of the system that allows the 1% to live off the 99%. More importantly, I think it’s unsustainable for the world to continue as is, because you cannot fool human beings for too long, and it’s only a matter of time before we all realize that we’re 99% and much more stronger and powerful than those who rule us.
Which brings me to governments giving out money. This one, for me, is much easier to make a decision on. If the government is representing the interests of the majority of its population, then great. However, there isn’t a single truly democratic government on the planet, and they have always sided with the handful of corporations over millions in populations.
For example, if the UK government gives out 1bn Pounds to NGOs in the Arab world because the British are pressuring it to, then it’s fine. That would be money coming from millions of UK citizens who fully support the NGOs in the region. This obviously comes with complete transparency so that we know where every single Pound is going, and with detailed opinion polls reflecting the satisfaction level of the doners (the British people). The UK government would be giving out this money against its will – it will be doing it because its people have forced it to do so via public pressure. That would be golden cash that even I would be willing to set up an NGO for!
But the fact of the matter is, governments don’t represent people. They represent the corporations that control the resources and dictate the flow of the market. They have to act in their interests, which means pleasing the companies that allowed them to make it to office and be in a position of authority. That is why you never see governments donating money to independent labor unions, unless of course it’s in a country with a dictator that they don’t like. Never have the Western governments supported unions or political groups fighting for change. That’s because they supported Mubarak instead, and gave money to NGOs that did not get in the way of their investments and political interests in the region.
So when Sweden gives money to NGOs that promote feminism in the Arab world, we all now perfectly well that they’re not doing it to make this world a better place. They’re doing it to promote their version of feminism, and make Egyptian ideals closer to those of Sweden in order to facilitate business and political support, or in order to avoid the rise of fundamentalism that will have a negative impact of Sweden’s economical control of Egyptian natural resources and labor. Sweden would never give cash to NGOs that are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, for example (thankfully, though).
When we use their money, we are ensuring their grip of the country, and are helping them continue controlling our resources instead of leaving us to our independence. If members of the Swedish parliament donate money privately because, on a personal level, they feel it would benefit the world they live in, then perfect! But that’s rarely going to happen, otherwise they wouldn’t have accepted taking on their authoritarian position in the first place. And if the politicians decide to use the government’s money to please the majority of its people and help empower the third world to rise up to injustice, they would immediately lose the following elections that are overlooked and controlled by the corporations.
With both companies and governments, money needs to be spent to protect their interests, otherwise it’s money thrown out, putting their future at risk. The only way their money would be beneficial to the people, is if it was used to inspire individuals to team up and change the system, and neither body would ever agree to this. If we want to end that soon – and I’m not willing to live the rest of my life in an unjust world – then we cannot allow them to continue further. We need to do everything we can to change this world for the better as soon as possible, and not make superficial improvements that empower the system’s existence and prolongs the struggle to make this world a better place for everybody.
And since money is a translation of labor power, then the bigger your human resources, the bigger your labor power and economical stance. This means that, by getting hundreds of volunteers, you need less cash to get things done. When that happens, you can go with fund-raising events, private sources, or whatever you want. No one can tell you what to do if they’re paying small amounts to a large group of people. If you believe in your cause, you should be able to get volunteers, and if each volunteer chips in with small amounts, your economical needs are met, one step at a time. It’s a slow process, of course, but we’re changing this world for the better, and no one said it was going to be easy.
There is so much revolutionary activity happening across the globe, it’s overwhelming. I know it, we all know it: The days of political and economical injustice are numbered, it’s only a matter of time, and it’s going to be beautiful.