NGOs Speak with Forked Tongue

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared in Lakbima News on April 1. It has disappeared from the paper’s website. This was not an April Fool’s joke because I have the print edition in front of me. I did not imagine seeing it on the website because someone e-mailed me about it only today, April 10. I saw it on the website and a few people commented. Where has it gone?


Susantha Goonatilake called his 2006 book on foreign-funded NGOs in Sri Lanka Recolonization. In his conclusion he wrote: “Sri Lankan NGOs emerged in the late 1970s when the then government cracked down on democracy, transparency and accountability and killed locally-grown civil society… Sri Lanka thus became a partial NGO franchise state, with the NGOs attempting to erode the country’s sovereignty.”

Neo-liberal imperialism leads to the assumption  that poor countries cannot modernize without foreign help. In the 1990s this “help” meant blackmailing developing countries into accepting the Washington Consensus – deregulation and liberalisation of markets, privatisation and severe cuts in the public sector and undermining sovereignty. The World Bank learnt  obfuscatory cant  from its NGO partners and NGOs reciprocally learnt to be “businesslike”. By stressing citizen “participation”, institutional “transparency”, respect for “the rule of law” and the flourishing of “civil society”, the bank was camouflaging its authoritarian preference for imposing its  doctrinaire free-market policies which can be lethal for the weak economies of developing countries.

In my recent article on the subject of cant I gave passing mention to the strong showing that NGOs are making in the jargon department. I now want to give NGOs the more detailed attention they so richly deserve. Much NGO language is verbiage  that is never translated into action, aphasic gobbledygook  that displays the arrogance of the outsider and is not designed to communicate. NGO workers themselves like to joke about  language like “Successful Good Practice Related to Local Ownership and Crosscutting Holistic Gender Empowerment for Excluded Adolescent Girls based on Positive Deviance Methodology”. This is in-crowd humour displaying group solidarity against the funny “locals”.

Let me remind you that Dr Johnson defined cant as: “a whining pretension to goodness, in formal and affected terms”, “a particular form of speaking peculiar to some certain class or body of men”.

For NGO condescension in abundance check out this blogsite:

I know a lot of this stuff is intended as self-deprecatory humour but it still comes across as arrogant and esoteric. A blogger on that site called D (none of these people are prepared to use their real names) finds armed militias a source of humour. “Rebel presence means that the EAW (Expatriate Aid Worker) is doing some hardship living (and getting hardship pay!). Rebels remind the EAW that he is living in a dodgy place. And we all know EAWs like dodgy places.” If only Tamil civilians in the north could have got some “hardship pay” for their proximity to the “rebel presence”! “Rebels, militias and freedom fighters — what would the hardcore EAW do without them?”

Bit too close to the truth, what?

During the Sri Lankan conflict there were many accusations of NGOs supporting the LTTE rebels beyond a reasonable boundary of humanitarian neutrality. Two employees of Care International were arrested and charged with plotting to assassinate defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. It  is interesting to note that Care is based in Atlanta, Georgia but in its mission statement specifically excludes itself from doing any poverty alleviation work in the USA. Is there no poverty in the USA?

A blogger called J finds sexual exploitation amusing: “Few things say, ‘I am one with the people’ like nailing the hot, local office manager or getting nailed by the suave local driver.”

There are those who argue that foreign aid is bad for recipients and donors. William Easterly , who is  the main proponent of this view, sent out a twitter call for aid workers to help him compile a dictionary of AidSpeak.

Here is a selection of the contributions:

 “beneficiaries” : the people who make it possible for us to be paid by other people

 “civil society involvement”: consulting the middle class employee of a US or European NGO

“community capacity building” : teach them what they already know

“entrepreneurial” : vaguely innovative and cool, but definitely nothing to do with the hated “market”

participatory stakeholders” : people who should solve their own problems

 “participation” : the right to agree with preconceived projects or programs

“Global North” : White academics; “Global South” : Indian academics

“pro-poor” : the rich know best

“outreach” : intrude

 “sensitize” : tell people what to do

 “tackling root causes of poverty” : repackaging what we’ve already done in a slightly more sexy font –

I wrote in these pages about 27-year-old  Joshua M Schoop, who spent three months in the Northern province while studying for a Masters in International Development at Tulane University, Louisiana. He wrote: “Natives are suffering immensely from the impacts of the war”. Does anyone use the word “natives” anymore? “Several international and community-based organisations are operating in the area, assisting where they can, while further perpetuating  a dependence on foreign aid.” Josh, are you not planning a career based on such dependence? Today, Louisiana has poverty, crime and health indicators, particularly for blacks, equivalent to  third- world nations. Most of Sri Lanka’s social indicators are better than Louisiana’s. America’s  civil war lasted four years and ended 145 years ago. I have been to Louisiana and the war does not seem to have ended. Sri Lanka’s civil war lasted 30 years and ended less than three years  ago. The Reconstruction era was a difficult period in American history. Progress is already being made in Sri Lanka but we are too slow for Josh.

It was good of Josh to take the trouble come over here to Sri Lanka to help us out when there is so much for him to do back home. How does Sri Lanka benefit from twenty-somethings with little experience of life bringing their jargon over here?

A couple of years back I had some e-mail exchanges with a fellow Irish citizen who had made her career with a US-based NGO whose speciality was fostering democracy. A previous posting had been in Bosnia. Now she was bringing democracy to Sri Lanka. I  wondered how  a young Irishwoman would, in practical terms, address the particular nature of Sri Lanka’s democratic deficit. Would she walk into a local Pradeshiya Sabha and disarm the politico-thugs? Would she go to the parliament with a whip and drive out all the thieves, murderers and rapists? Would she use her Irish charm and eloquence to persuade the president to repeal the 18th Amendment? Would she sort out the leadership crisis in the UNP?

I think it more likely that she would sit in a Colombo office dispensing cant.

A young  British woman posts on Facebook to her friends abroad jottings about life as an NGO intern in Sri Lanka. She finds there are often stupid things in Sri Lankan newspapers. It seems that train journeys can be uncomfortable and fellow passengers smell and have unpleasant eating habits.  Batticaloa and Vavuniya leave something to be desired compared to Didsbury. At one point she did have the grace to describe as  this as “spoiltwesternwhinings”. There are compensations: “Swimming in the Indian Ocean, cricket on the beach, blagging a press pass for the Galle Literature Fest, stalking Richard Dawkins, surfing, fancy beach party….”

I am reminded of something that Gomin Dayasri wrote about the unhealthy symbiosis between NGOs, the Bretton Woods agents of neo-liberal capitalism, foreign journalists and what he calls “Colombians” –  the western-orientated English-speaking elite:“Such comfortable digs are not in the market in the recession-stung home country. There is exotic food and groovy watering holes at affordable prices. NGOs provide the freebies and roll out the red carpet…With the LTTE gone where will they go? After few more horror stories to demean the Security Forces and back to the west to face the shock treatment of recession. War is an investment relief to the Foreign Correspondent. The order will soon come to pack the flak jackets and return to a not so sweet home and to wait patiently for a call to another exotic destination?”

Simon Akam reported from Sierra Leone for the Literary Review that NGO-speak has  infected broadcasting and government in that benighted country and is being absorbed into the local language, Krio: “The national dialogue is framed in the vernacular of NGOs…. What Sierra Leone needs is a functioning central government to deal with the allocation of resources, both domestic and those provided by aid. The issues at stake are too large to be dealt with by smaller institutions…. Instead, numerous foreign NGOs – a surfeit of white people in white Landcruisers – surround a weak central bureaucracy. None of them has the means to perform the grand functions that are needed; even if they did, concern about sovereignty would probably prevent them.”

Humanitarianism is a multi-billion-dollar business. Analysts at Development Initiatives estimate that the humanitarian aid sector globally was worth at least $18 billion in 2008. World Vision International, spent over $6.5 million on relief assistance in 60 countries that year, distributing over half a million tonnes of food to 8.5 million people. NGOs  are huge corporate businesses and they offer a career structure. NGO workers can build up an image of saintliness as well as developing a lucrative CV.