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    NGO blues

    There’s a new expat blogger in Germany who’s honored me by putting on what looks to be his very first blogroll. He has a good post up about, among other things, the effects of NGOs, that makes these important points:

    The role of NGOs is especially problematical, since they operate without responsibility. The NGOs go into a country with a problem and try and deal with the problem according to their own priorities and needs. What they end up doing is undermining the authority of the state: whether this is done out of the best of intentions, or deliberately for political purposes, or accidentally plays no role in the effect that it has on the states involved: they are weakened.

    Why is this important? It’s important because if you are going to push for things like an International Court of Justice, treaties like Kyoto, for “obeying international law” – whatever that means* – then you can’t at the same time dismantle the actors that work within this framework.

    And I think that many of the NGOs are pursuing their own special agendas that don’t have all that much to do with providing aid or help and have a lot more to do with ensuring that the problems failed states face don’t go away, since that would mean the NGOs involved would lose their main arguments for fund-raising and that some of those involved might have to drop the pretense of trying to save the world and actually find a real job.

    I think most Americans know all this intellectually, but I also think that you don’t quite realize until you live abroad just how many pies NGOs have their fingers in. There’s an obvious reason for that: America doesn’t need their help, so we don’t have them around in daily life. The Japanese give, rather than get, assistance, also, but there are a lot of countries with close geographical and economic ties to Japan that do, so I think we hear about such organizations and their policy effects more. Germany is probably the same way.

    It may seem odd to have libertarian old me approvingly citing someone who’s complaining about “undermining the authority of the state.” But it’s a problem with regards to these issues for two big reasons, both of which are touched on above. One is that, in countries with corruption problems–and corruption is, naturally, one of the main factors that screw up an economy to the point that it needs outside assistance–NGO personnel end up simply adding another layer to the patronage/approval system. I have no doubt that most of them set out to introduce transparency, equality of opportunity, and the rule of law into the countries they’re working with. But to start getting anything done, they have to operate at least partially within the existing power structures. (The recent Western predilection for prostrating outselves before “local cultural norms” when dealing with less-developed peoples exacerbates this problem.) What start out as temporary concessions can rapidly turn into permanent cooption by the political movers and shakers whose grip the organization was trying to loosen from the economy in the first place. So instead of a country or region that’s moving toward a set of clear, predictable, freely-available rules that are equally enforced on all citizens, you get yet another player (this one with access to a well of foreign cash) whose vagaries of temperament you have to learn in order to get on with your business.

    The second problem is that, sort of the way the most incompetent public schools in America have conventionally gotten the largest amounts of money to help them try again, NGO assistance buffers regimes from the market signals that would normally clobber them. And it is one of the great principles of life–maybe even the great principle–that being insulated from the results of your own screw-ups makes you less likely to change your behavior so you don’t make them again.

    Now, obviously, if either governments or NGOs are staffed with plain old evil, self-serving people, they are not going to care what the market is telling them anyway. But without having taken a poll, I suspect that most aid workers, and even most entrenched local ruling families in their host countries, really think they’re doing the best they can to further the interests of their constituencies. When the path of least resistance is available, though, human nature is capable of going through all manner of ethical arabesques to justify taking it. And it’s a given that it’s easier to play ball with those currently in power, even if they’re causing the problem you’ve undertaken to remedy.

    4 December 07:25 CST

    * This was the line at which I was sure I liked this guy.

    4 Responses to “NGO blues”

    1. John F. Opie says:

      Hi –
      Thanks for the mention. See, I do read you regularly!
      I just expanded on this up at the above URL.
      And while I share many libertarian principles, the problems develop when you get out into the international arena. But the myth of states as the only actors in that arena is just that: a myth.
      Best regards,

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      The myth that states are, or the myth that they should be? Not being combative, just wondering which you meant. I don’t have any problem with international organizations in principle.

    3. John says:

      Actually John (the other one) had a point in favor of being anti-international in any sense: the disaffected and those who religiously cling to stupid ideas will always be disproportionately represented in international organizations:
      “their politics ensure that they wouldn’t be elected, so they aim for achieving power by other means”
      Amen to that. I saw that over and over again in the USSR from the largely nitwitted NGO programs funded by Soros and Hammer.
      There’s one other reason to be anti-international: the current worship of pure democracy as opposed to republican forms of governance. If every piss-ant country gets a vote (UN anyone?) then the productive countries that drive the worlds engine get the short end of the jealousy stick. I always think of Lazarus Long:
      “Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded – here and there, now and then – are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.
      This is known as ‘bad luck.'”

    4. Sean Kinsell says:

      Well, the only reason I didn’t make explicit my contempt for the UN in this particular post is that I figured it was abundantly clear from elsewhere. I didn’t really think about it when posting earlier, but I suppose that for the purposes of this discussion international organizations can cover two types of entities. On the one hand, you have cooperative groups formed by countries with a common interest (say, ASEAN). On the other, you have groups whose first ethical principle is to transcend national interests and and be all high-minded and egalitarian and stuff (the UN and its many sub-acronyms). It’s the former type that I don’t think necessarily has to suck.