Paved with Good Intentions–Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism (book review)

Strange how reality works in mysterious ways sometimes: While I had started feeling guilty that I had not started to read and review Nikolas Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay’s book Paved with Good Intentions – Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism, the current discussions around a potential dissolution of CIDA give the book an even more contemporary relevance as it gets ready for the second printing.The book tells and important – and certainly not just limited to Canada! – story about the changing relationships between the state, civil society, NGOs and, depending on your political viewpoint, the professionalization/depoliticization/selling out of this growing sector of the global aid industry.

The book attempts to, and often successfully manages, to bring together three narratives about the history of Canadian NGOs, neoliberal politics and a focus on the situation in Haiti where the authors were involved as a cross-cultural activists.

Before I will go into detail, I want to share one observation that would be interesting to keep in mind and discuss further: I think that the authors overestimate the power of the Canadian development political apparatus and underestimate larger global developments from OECD summits to the MDGs or NATO doctrines. Many of the developments described in the book are certainly not limited to Canada and I wonder how much ‘in the driver’s seat’ Canada’s relatively small aid program has really been.

Motivated by their work on and in Haiti, the authors outline their key questions in the Preface about essentially political relationships in the aid industry that are mainly guided by foreign policy objectives rather than ‘altruistic’ humanitarian goals:

how common are these funding ties between government agencies like CIDA and development NGOs? And what impact do they have on what NGOs do abroad and say at home? (p.xvi)
The Introduction sets the stage well and at the same time indicates the book’s biggest strength as well as a core weakness: The accessible writing style definitely makes the book an interesting read outside the narrower realm of the professional development ‘filter bubble’. The authors stress the long-standing symbiosis between government money and non-governmental organizations and put it in a broader perspective: There simply was no happy fairytale ‘pre-Harper government’ aid regime of Canadian exceptionalism – an argument I have also been hearing quite a lot when talking to Canadian aid colleagues. Some parts of NGO development support have always been fairly depoliticized and may not have addressed the root causes of poverty, but created a feel-good environment of ‘solidarity’ and ‘support’. This shows the great potential of the book for critical discussions among and across various groups of how they have experienced aid over the past years and decades and why they agree or disagree with the analysis.

At the same time, the book combines international academic literature and case studies, theoretical observations on ‘neoliberalism’ (which is not defined clearly), examples from Haiti as well as Canadian NGO history which – not only in this chapter – sometimes distract from a clearer structure and argumentative flow.

A Spoonful of Sugar recaps the well-known story of the rise of ‘neoliberalism’, complete with structural adjustment policies, the IMF and the rise of NGOs as ‘service deliverers’. It would have been more interesting to include more recent developments around Canada’s natural resource sector at home and abroad rather than focusing on fairly well-known World Bank policies from the 1980s and 90s.

The next chapter on Faith-based Solutions is also a bit sketchy and it includes vignettes from Haiti and her ‘Republic of NGOs’ to Bangladesh’s BRAC and microfinance as an emerging form of ‘grassroots capitalism’:

By suggesting that their rural women beneficiaries are just one goat, or one $10 loan away from escaping poverty, the marketing messages of NGOs constantly do violence to the true sources of world poverty (p.53).
But even if the NGO sector has always been struggling with broader questions of power and social change, until now the book has been too dismissive on some of the ‘softer’ benefits of NGOs and their work - but more on this later...

Who Pays the Piper? comes to a clear and scathing conclusion:

Behind their carefully-maintained veneer of independence, development NGOs are ensnared in a web of governmental relationships that place severe limits on what they can say and do. They are creations of government, not by-products of an altruistic Canadian society. NGOs cannot be said to be “insulated from official priorities and shifting development dogmas” (p.74).
Only in chapter 7 is the history of Canadian NGOs reviewed in more detail and I wonder whether a more nuanced and historical review should have taken place already. I do not disagree per se with the authors, but I wonder how related developments – form the rise of studying development and traveling or volunteering abroad to new forms of social engagement, e.g. through social enterprises, fit into this discourse? Are they just a (post-)modern neoliberal expression of the Generation Y or are new forms of engagement emerging outside traditional NGO-government ‘too close to comfort’ relationships, as Hulme and Edwards seminal book suggested?

The next chapter, Empowerment or NGOization? is a good extension of the previous chapter and highlights quite a few interesting examples of how NGOs have become professionalised and have become vehicles for employment for educated middle-classes that have often little to do with representing ‘civil society’, even if some of the examples are not directly related to Canadian NGOs.

Damming Democracy wraps of the first part of the book. As more and more narratives are emerging from Haiti (see for example my recent review of Jonathan Katz
book), the first part wraps up with case studies on how aid, political interference and ‘disaster capitalism’ have been interwoven with the rise and rise of NGOs from around the world.

I found the The Idealism of Youth the most critical chapter in the context of Canadian NGO history and wished that it somehow was not hidden in the middle of the book. From the politicised youth of the 1960s and 70s to the ‘ideology of solidarity’, the rise of CUSO and volunteering services to the end of government funding for development education in 1995 (long before the Harper government...) this is a very important chapter. The authors are very clear in their assessment of this period:

The rise and fall of the NGO radicals revealed the political elite’s ostensible commitment to pluralism for what it was: a smug tolerance of the powerful, a tolerance that reached its limits when radicalized NGOs began challenging Canada’s foreign policy. Unable to imagine carrying on outside of NGO structures, these “failed rebels from below” gave up on real struggles for social change (p.165).
To be honest, as powerful as the statement is, I am not sure that I agree with it. I think ‘we’ (people/activists/researchers etc. under ~40) tend to dismiss the importance of earlier activism – especially from a pre-Internet age when globalization was much less pronounced and alternative views, news and encounters where much harder to come by and translate back into (Canadian) society. As imperfect as lived values of diversity or equality may be in any Western society, I think that early development pioneers helped to create a vision of a global ‘one world’ that enabled the ground for development policy, NGOs, but also the subsequent ‘NGOization’.

“Does the Doormat Influence the Boot?” recalls the history of global civil society and movements in the age of WTO protests, G8 demonstrations and the politics of the international financial institutions – until the fateful date of 9/11.
The final chapter on Hearts and Minds engages with the post-9/11 world of counterinsurgency, the war in Afghanistan and the international community’s involvement in Haiti’s regime change – not exactly great times for civil society and NGOs.
ut I find it not entirely fair to highlight the protests in Afghanistan against the ‘NGO class’ (p.224) or ‘NGO warlords’ (p.223) without mentioning the much bigger development industry that comprises private companies, service deliverers to NATO troops and the full spectrum of beneficiaries of ‘disaster capitalism’. As problematic as ‘civil-military cooperation’ certainly is, I do not want to single out NGOs as one particularly bad group of the billion dollar pre-, in- and post-war civil-military complex.

At the end of the book, Barry-Shaw and Jay try to stay positive in light of the ‘Arab Spring’ and the Occupy movement. What is surprising is that the pillars of solidarity activism for the 21st century seem pretty much the same as they were throughout development history:

The three basic tasks of solidarity activism in Canada are: 1) to build ties of mutual support between Canadians and social movements in the South, 2) to raise awareness about the international role of Canada and mobilize opposition to the depredations of Canadian foreign policy and corporate interests, and 3) to connect “out there” issues with domestic struggles, as part of a broader effort to create a more just and ecologically sustainable world order.” (p.251)
Despite its minor flaws, Paved with Good Intentions is a stimulating and important book. Even if you or your organization disagrees with parts of the narrative of the book, it is still a valuable resource and entry point of coming together to discuss, reflect and potentially write down your own version of how change has (not) happened and add a more nuanced narrative to the bigger picture of what civil society and NGOs can do across Canada and in the world

Barry-Shaw, Nikolas and Dru Oja Jay: Paved with Good Intentions–Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism, ISBN: 978-1552663998, 320 pages, CDN $24.95, Fernwood Publishing.
Full disclosure: I  contacted Dru Oja Jay about a review copy which he provided in March 2012.


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