NGOization: Depoliticizing Activism in Canada

Members of a variety of organizations will gather to debate proposals and hear reports from paid organizers. Thousands will gather in major cities, and crowds ranging from dozens to hundreds are expected in smaller centres. In Kenora, a delegation of Indigenous activists are expected to present a proposal for a major change in the role of First Nations in Greenpeace campaigns. In Montreal, a left tendency within the membership is said to be preparing a resolution that would shift the Council of Canadians’ considerable campaigning clout to align more closely with the explicitly anti-capitalist student movement.

In BC, the Sierra Club will hold a series of general assemblies, bringing together its thousands of members for similar discussions. Canada World Youth, Engineers Without Borders, KAIROS and Amnesty International are holding local meetings to select delegates and discuss priorities. Southern Ontario is aflutter with activity as cross-sectoral workers’ committees meet independently of their unions to discuss strategies to proactively prevent the next plant closure and fight it with broad public support if it goes forward.

The question of which alliances to prioritize building when Canada’s still-nascent social movements gather in August is at the forefront of all these conversations. Which strategies will prevail? Which ideas will move to the fore? The anticipation is building.

Pure fiction?

With the exception of the People’s Social Forum, which is indeed planned for August 21 to 24 in Ottawa, the above scenario is pure fiction. The organizations listed above do have the membership and financial resources to open such spaces and expect people to take an interest, but few of them use that capacity. This is not an arbitrary fact of life; there are material and historical reasons why it is the case.

Decades of professionalization mean that if any of those organizations tried to hold assemblies like this, they would, at least initially, have trouble convincing people to come. Things would likely get off to an awkward start and require skilled and hands-on facilitation. A political culture of participation, collective decision-making and debate is all but missing. Decisions are made in offices and boardrooms, where professionalized staff preside over donors, petition signers and the occasional volunteer rather than a mobilized or empowered membership.

It wasn’t always like this. We don’t need to idealize the past to realize that there has been a concerted push to make what under other circumstance would be movement organizations into centrally-controlled bodies run by trained professionals. Exceptions to this trend are forever popping up: the environmental movement in the 1970s, the antiglobalization movement of the late 1990s, and most recently Occupy Wall Street are a few of the more prominent examples. But none of these exceptions has put an end to the process of bureaucratization and centralization. In fact, the process seems to accelerate when powerful grassroots movements enter onto the scene.

This process has been dubbed NGOization (after the increasingly-ubiquitous form, the Non-Governmental Organization, or NGO). While NGOization has been going on for decades, the concept is just starting to gain in currency beyond a few academics and grassroots organizers.

NGOization, write Dip Kapoor and Aziz Choudry in their edited collection by the same name, is a process of “professionalization and depolitization” which fragments and compartmentalizes the world into “issues and projects.” It works well, they add, “for neoliberal regimes.”

What NGOization precludes and inhibits is movement-building. Centralized control allows for an efficient mobilization of existing capacity, but it doesn’t provide the opportunities for masses of people to have new experiences, build their own ideas, do their own research, or start their own initiatives. It doesn’t provide the possibility of large numbers of people to decide, together, where to focus their energies or when to divide them.

The driving force behind the process of NGOization is not mysterious. Billions of dollars have been provided to Canadian NGOs to provide social services, dig wells in villages in African villages, support marginalized populations, campaign for environmental protection, and alleviate the effects of poverty. The money comes from government (the federal government spends close to a billion dollars per year on development NGOs alone) and private foundations (millions of tax-deductible dollars are spent annually to support environmental campaigns, for example).

But what do foundations and governments get for their money?

Chill effect

The wide variety of NGOs serves to confuse things. Depending on how one counts, there are hundreds or thousands of grant-dependent mission-oriented organizations in Canada. Many who work in NGOs insist that it is futile to make generalizations. There exist an undeniable plethora of NGOs. All of them, however, depend on a comparatively small pool of funders.

Each NGO is a snowflake, and the overall effect is chilling. While NGOs may have unique cultures and approaches, the agencies and foundations (hereafter: funders) that fuel them share a number of common characteristics. Almost all funders prefer solutions that don’t question prevailing neoliberal policies or capitalism. When they tolerate questioning, effective mobilizing is strictly forbidden. Funders demand centralized control and accountability in the form of regular and extensive reporting, and often direct oversight. Funders avoid grassroots organizing that directly empowers people whenever possible, prefering structures that provide tight, centralized control.

Democratic accountability to a membership is actually a liability for the funded organization, because it distracts them from adapting to funder priorities. That’s part of what makes the first few paragraphs of this article seem so absurd.

How, then, do movements end up in this situation? No one, after all, wants to give up all their power and autonomy. No one intends to sell out.

Every step of the NGOization process is understandable. Anyone who has spent an hour or three discussing a poster design or slogan can see the advantage of clearly defined leadership. Anyone who has attended a grassroots organizing meeting where key tasks didn’t get done can see the advantages of professional, paid staff. And anyone who has tried to take on a major corporation or government with a few hundred dollars in their bank account knows that decent funding can be invaluable.

While activists are often in emergency response mode, funders play the long game. From the perspective of the funder, here’s how you get the process of NGOization going:

1. Set up a large pool of money, perhaps in collaboration with other foundations or governments.
2. Fund a number of organizations to undertake a variety of activities within a large umbrella. Be supportive at first, and fund existing organizations to do what they were already doing.
3. Give them a little time to get comfortable with the funding.
4. Over time, require an increasing volume of paperwork: grant applications and reporting. This increases the amount of time that the staff spend thinking about your priorities to the exclusion of those of their membership or constituency. You can say that this is necessary to ensure that the money is well spent, and talk about wanting to be as effective as possible.
5. Once staff members are accustomed to their new salaries, announce that there’s less money than was forseen. Have them compete with other organizations for your funding. Gradually introduce new priorities for the grants you provide that they would not have accepted before, but aren’t willing to sacrifice their jobs or organization to oppose.
6. Take it slow and steady. Let them raise a fuss about new constraints and requirements while pruning out those who are intransigent or principled. You’ll rarely have to do any direct disciplining. If someone steps out of line, their peers will realize that they are endangering the funding and marginalize their troublesome colleague to the extent needed for the funding to flow.
7. You don’t have to tell anyone about your overall goals, because it’s literally their job to guess what they are, and wonder what you might want. Drop cryptic hints and point to organizations that are doing “exciting” or “effective” work as models.
8. If you decide that a certain group is actually subversive to your aims, simply defund them. Other organizations will be suitably scared, and happily step in to take on tasks for any funding that might have been freed up.
9. Accountability to goals other than those set you set have become a liability to the organizations you fund. Many of them have all but cut themselves off from their member base, if they ever had one.

Development NGOs in Canada 

During the Cold War, capitalist governments faced off against movements full of idealistic young people who were inspired by anti-imperialist and socialist struggles in Europe, then Asia, Africa and South America. Capitalist governments went to great lengths to undermine and crush these movements, pouring vast resources and gruesome violence into the effort.

Campaigns of red-baiting, criminalization and demonization may have been sufficient to suppress movements and organizations advocating for equality in Canada and the US, but some liberal-minded operatives took it a step further. What if, they wondered, we could harness that idealistic energy to fight for a more humane version of capitalism while projecting Canada’s commercial and geopolitical interests more effectively?

Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO), one of Canada’s first development NGOs, was founded the Lester Pearson’s Liberal government. Keith Spicer, the Liberal aide who talked the government into funding it, was influenced by Canadian missionary Donald Faris, who wrote:

“Our youth possess a tremendous potential of energy, idealism and enthusiasm, just waiting to be tapped. … To this end, visualize placing not just a few thousand balding experts in the field to cope with the advancing enemy [*communism!*–doj], but a hundred thousand young people to supplement the other more seasoned men and women.”

CUSO rolled along, harnessing idealism, until the early 1970s, when it was flooded with student radicals, fresh from the struggles of the late 1960s. The NGO radicals set about instituting democratic structures, which they used to pass resolutions condemning Canada’s involvement in imperialist adventures, among other transgressions. It didn’t take long for CUSO’s funding to be cut to the bone. A new executive director was imposed from above by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) (see this article).

During the same time, the CIDA was funding dozens, then hundreds of development NGOs, fueling exponential growth in the sector. Once the wave of 1970s radicalism receded, CIDA tightened the screws, demanding more accountability from its fundees, while constantly narrowing the range of acceptable activities. The culmination of this is summed up by a 2011 plan to push NGOs to collaborate with mining companies, which continues to this day.

From the elimination of poverty to training African villagers to for jobs helping with the theft of their country’s natural resources and the pollution of their air and water, the ideals of development have fallen far indeed. Unable to stop seeking funding, the staff who remained in NGOs consented every step of the way.

Environmental NGOs in Canada 

The trustees of major fortunes in the US learned from various governments’ early cold war experimentation, and got in on the NGO game. One of the pioneers was the Pew Charitable Trusts, run by the heirs to the fortune of the Sun Oil Company, many of whom still work for the company, now called Sunoco.

Pew, which also funds right wing groups like the American Enterprise Institute, began funding environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) as the environmental movement was hitting its stride in the 1980s. At first, Pew would actually invest in the mining and logging corporations that its grant recipients were trying to fight. (It later stopped, after a bit of bad publicity.)

Felice Pace, an Oregon-based environmental campaigner, wrote in 2004 of conservation movements in the northwestern United States: “While the proliferating campaigns do involve grassroots groups, in every instance of which I am aware the campaign is in reality implementation of a wilderness strategy formulated by a small group of professional environmentalists working for the Pew Charitable Trust.”

Pew funding arrived in Canada in at the end of the 1980s. Millions of dollars were funneled to groups willing to sign on to centrally-coordinated “collaborations”: meetings between environmentalists, First Nations and industry with the idea of fabricating a “consensus” (see here).

The result of this approach (and the millions grant dollars backing it) was two agreements negotiated in secret between the logging industry and environmental groups. The Great Bear Rainforest Agreement (GBA) was signed in 2004, and the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA) was signed in 2011. These agreements have been thoroughly critiqued elsewhere, but a clear trend of diminishing returns can be established:

The GBA claims to have preserved 30% of the Great Bear Rainforest, but removed resistance to logging and mining in the other 70% (see here). The CBFA initially claimed to protect an area the size of Germany, but when the text of the agreement was leaked, it was found that the actual rate of logging was unchanged. Instead, the two-year agreement was entirely about changing where and how logging was taking place (see this article).

The First Nations whose land was affected by the agreements had some role in the GBA, but were completely cut out of the CBFA negotiations. The CBFA has since fallen apart; Greenpeace and Canopy have pulled out, claiming that companies like Resolute violated the agreement. Resolute responded by suing Greenpeace for $5 million.

The Canadian agreements followed a common two-phase pattern. In phase one, money flows to activist-oriented campaigning groups and grassroots activism, in order to build up pressure on the companies and force them to the table. In phase two, a truce is called as the funded ENGOs bring their campaigns to a swift halt and begin negotiations — head campaigners or executive directors in attendance. Activists on the ground experience a sort of whiplash, as they realize that they can either stop campaigning and follow the ENGOs, or they can continue, but with organizations like Greenpeace and the David Suzuki Foundation as their opponents.

There has been a lot of informed speculation that the same model would be applied to the tar sands. The Pew-funded Canadian Boreal Initiative already brought environmental groups into the same tent as tar sands giant Suncor. A meeting was arranged, then cancelled, between oil industry execs and top environmentalists in Vancouver. Shortly after the CBFA was signed, there was a public relations effort apparently aimed at getting the oil industry to consider the same model, as evidenced by a puff piece in the National Post by John Ivison column, among other trial balloons.

At some point in the last five years, funding responsibilities for what has become informally known as the “tar sands group” switched from Pew to the Hewlett Foundation. Hewlett, which frequently partners with Pew, has a board comprised of tech industry heirs, corporate lawyers and green technology types, along with a few environmentalists. The switch may or may not result in a change in strategy, but we can be certain that capitalism will not be up for discussion within any of the funded ENGOs anytime soon.

Service provision & labour

So far, we’ve just discussed NGOs which nominally advocate for social equality or environmental protection. Because they tend to hire activists, and make use of movements, they are more visible to folks on the left.

It should be noted that activist or campaign-oriented NGOs comprise a tiny proportion of the overall funding given to NGOs. While almost all NGO jobs (which tend to represent a pay cut relative to other sectors) harness idealism to some extent, most are far less challenging to the existing system, when they’re not active backers of the status quo.

Instead of confronting the economic system which creates or perpetuates poverty, mental health issues, racism and violence, they treat the symptoms and the effects. As the welfare state is cut back, an army of service providers have been mobilized to (inadequately and inconsistently) plug the gaps, without the inconvenience of public sector unions. When NGO workers are unionized, they negotiate with their NGOs, not with the funders. But funders are the ones who decide where services are provided, when, and with how many resources.

As a result, NGO service provision is wildly inconsistent, lacks standards, and is often temporary. Relative to the public sector, workers face extreme disempowerment.

What is to be done?

The effects of NGOization go beyond any one campaign, or its objectives. NGOization has been a multi-decade transformation of political culture, and it represents a drastic shift in the horizon of political expectation.

“It is clear,” write the authors of Protest Inc., “that corporatized activism today is doing far more to uphold the world order than mass protests and grassroots activism are doing to transform it.” This is especially the case for larger and more powerful environmental organizations that don’t bother to fight at all. NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund and the David Suzuki Foundation prefer to issue the occasional report or press release while basking in the generosity of foundation funders. They are softer on corporate interests, and they are compensated generously for it.

Campaigning organizations face a delicate situation. They must confront the abuses of capitalism to some extent to be credible. But they must not be too effective, or their funding could dry up. Rainforest Action Network’s campaign to force Canada’s Royal Bank to pull its investments in the tar sands, for example, ended abruptly despite making progress. Rumour has it that funders became squeamish, but no one is talking.

In Canada, decades of NGOization have left us with very little idea of what a popular organization should look like. Very few young people outside Quebec have had the lived experience of being part of a popular organization that takes democracy seriously and that feeds and supports — instead of stifling — the grassroots activity of its members. In addition, a cultural shift is needed to build movements for real social change.

ASSE, the anti-capitalist student federation that led the 2012 student strike that gave way to the “printemps erable,” is probably the most advanced example in Canada. It has established a culture of functional general assemblies which are regularly used to call one-day strikes to mobilize for a demonstration.

LeadNow, which appears to be largely independent of foundation funding, is drawing on the horizontal and collaborative methods emerging from social media. Its base is not particularly radical, but the organization’s recent steps could provide an interesting infrastructure when the next wave of activity hits, if LeadNow is willing to be led then.

Smaller-scale radical experiments have appeared across the country. Solidarity Halifax and the Greater Toronto Workers Assembly represent important forays in the development of organizations with a non-sectarian, democratic political culture of open debate.

Beyond a handful of independent organizations, the situation is more messy. This summer’s People’s Social Forum in Ottawa embodies the dilemmas and contradictions at play. The Forum is organized by Alternatives, a Quebec NGO that decades ago was the product of the merger of several movement organizations, in partnership with a wide array of grassroots groups, organizers and NGOs. For years, Alternatives took millions from the Canadian government as a development NGO. During the anti-globalization movement, they played a key role in channeling street protests away from disruption of the summit in Quebec City (see the book Paved With Good Intentions), and they supported the coup d’etat in Haiti in 2004. These were the results of funding first, and political leadership second.

Today, Alternatives still receives 23% of its budget from the provincial and federal government. The extent of the political limitations this creates can be debated, but they are present. My own assessment is that Alternatives is compromised to the extent that it tries to lead a movement that actually confronts government policies. So far, they’re not really doing that, but are exercising tremendous influence over how movement-building discussions happen. It’s a grey area, but one that merits significant caution.

A similar dilemma has been playing out with Conservative attacks on environmental campaigners. On the one hand, one is obligated to oppose the Conservative attacks on the charitable status of environmental groups. Defending groups like ForestEthics against Conservative attacks can provoke amicable feelings of solidarity, but it need not breed complacency. Dependence on US funding and Canadian charitable status are huge weaknesses for organizations that are supposed targeting one of the current pillars of the Canadian economy. They illustrate, if anything, the corrosive effects of decades of NGOization. Alternatives are sorely needed.

From critique to mobilization

What does this mean for leftists interested in independent movements that can effectively oppose the austerity agenda being imposed daily? An outright rejection would seem be foolish, but surely that doesn’t mean that an uncritical acceptance is necessary.

While awareness of the problem with NGOs is widespread, there have been few attempts to establish a critical analysis of what one book called the “non-profit industrial complex.” That book is The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. Though it was published eight years ago, it is perhaps telling that it remains one of the few well known critiques, and then only in radical circles.

This is understandable, given that tight-knit activist and academic circles tend to overlap with NGOs, and few want to be seen as divisive of fragile and limited existing efforts. Despite this, serious critiques of NGOization are spreading; a few new titles have made useful contributions in the last few years.

That said, most still shy away, likely for the same reasons, from directly confronting the negative political effects of specific NGOs. To this end, it is crucial to establish precedents for institutional critiques that depersonalize the issues while strengthening openly critical thinking and honest material analysis in movements and the public. This too requires a cultural shift.

While alternatives to the NGO model may develop, it’s hard to imagine the day when they have more resources than the funders behind the NGO boom. For a societal transformation to take place, a full-scale rejection of NGOization will be necessary, sooner or later.

How to do this requires a level of nuance that current thinking does not provide. If we push back against funders who steering movements in the wrong direction, can we do so without starting a fight with those who carry out their orders? Is it possible to oppose NGOization without opposing well-meaning activists who want to earn a living?

The answers will depend a great deal on NGO workers. Can they build unity to confront the funders, or will they distance themselves from movements and popular organizations out of fear? In these respects, consciousness-raising efforts about the role of funders, NGOization and NGO workers could be a difference maker.


Dru Oja Jay is a writer and organizer living in Montreal. He is a co-founder of the Media Co-op and co-author (with Nikolas Barry-Shaw) of the book Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s Development NGOs from Idealism to Imperialism.