In Breaking the Silence of NGOs in Africa, members of the Kenya Organic Intellectuals Network explore the role that NGO discourse and participation has had on contemporary struggles for radical change. Zachary Patterson writes that this timely book offers insights into how NGOs play a critical role in stifling the development and independence of radical African movements. Activists must proceed cautiously to avoid the risk of falling into a trap of Western rights discourse and liberal movement dynamics.
By Zachary J. Patterson
Africa has experienced a resurgent wave of popular protests in 2023, with themes of government accountability, economic inequality, and democratic involvement influencing the upsurge in widespread demonstrations. Up and down the continent, communities are organizing against high costs of living and unemployment, fraudulent elections and government corruption, and authoritarianism and police violence – gaining momentum and international attention through direct collective action.
Thousands of Tunisians march through the streets against president Kais Saied’s seizure of power and the expanding crackdown on opposition voices amid rising inflation. Protests against the detention of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko continue in Senegal, as young voters voicing concerns about political corruption, deteriorating democracy, and low economic opportunity clash with security forces. Trade union leaders in South Africa mobilize workers across the nation to demand interest rate cuts, electricity reforms, and job growth, while the government approves salary increases for public office holders and social unrest widens due to economic uncertainties and heavy-handed police tactics. Anti-government protests, fuelled by opposition leader Raila Odinga, against the imposition of tax increases, soaring costs of living, and recent electoral flaws in Kenya are met with teargas and live ammunition from a militarized police force, leaving approximately 75 people dead as of the end of July.
Neoliberal capitalism as the vast process of deregulation, liberalization, and privatization that has infected the continent since the 1980s – restructuring political, socio-economic, cultural, and ecological dimensions and preventing colonial emancipation and national autonomy – is in crisis. Africans are seizing this historical moment and rising up against neo-colonial governments sympathetic to and driven by neoliberal ideology. As seen in recent months, citizens mobilizing for change face violent police repression backed by ruling elites’ intent on maintaining power. In addition to their concerns for safe assembly, organizers considering international support and collaboration with NGOs – pursuing benefits of visibility, legitimacy, and security – are advised by the Kenya Organic Intellectuals Network in their book Breaking the Silence on NGOs in Africa to proceed vigilantly so to avoid the risk of falling trap to Western rights discourse, reform rhetoric, and liberal movement dynamics.
Since their rise to prominence as agents of service delivery during the 1990s, NGOs have grown exponentially in size and influence, forging coalitions with grassroots activists to offer solutions to rising inequality, dictatorial authoritarianism, and other obstructive consequences of neoliberalism. Yet, often what NGOs say they want to address and fight against does not improve or change, and their efforts and limited successes become estranged from the aspirations and struggles of grassroots communities. In Breaking the Silence of NGOs in Africa, members of the Kenya Organic Intellectuals Network explore the role that NGO discourse and participation has had on contemporary struggles for radical change. Considering and reflecting on Issa Shivji’s (2007) Silences in NGO Discourse: The Role and Future of NGOs in Africa, the authors present their experiences in organizing – stories of frustrations and contradictions – and the impacts that NGOs have had in the popular movements across the continent. The authors provide a historical chronology of resistance in Kenya, Zimbabwe, and the rest of Africa, relating those to the subjective factors in existence at each period. Through this, a relationship is drawn between social movements and NGOs in our current era. Their timely and essential book offers insights into how NGOs play a critical role in stifling the development and independence of radical African movements, providing a cautionary contribution worthy of consideration by all involved in the struggle for liberation from neo-colonial domination and the oppressive conditions experienced by neoliberalism.
Resistance, justice, and liberation
The Kenya Organic Intellectuals Network is comprised of active organizers in the struggle to cultivate progressive movements in Kenya and revitalize a larger revolutionary, Pan-Africanist Movement with a socialist orientation. Engaged in revolutionary politics, members of this diverse Network are challenging the dynamics and impacts of neoliberalism through their affiliations with a variety of initiatives, including the Revolutionary Socialist League, Kongamano la Mapinduzi, the Communist Party of Kenya, the Ukombozi Library, and social justice centres in Mathare and other informal settlements of Nairobi. The Organic Intellectuals Network formed in 2021 with the purpose of generating active writers and thinkers inside the social justice movement by historicizing African resistance and progressive politics through collective reading, shared dialogue, and reflective writing. The goal of the initiative is to amplify the voices of grassroots activists who are articulating the effects of capitalism in their communities in Nairobi, through both their words and practices. Through their publications, public forums, and related community activities, comrades reveal for themselves and the masses a repressed national and continental history of radical and progressive alternatives to the dominance of neoliberal knowledge – the mindsets and approaches that have greatly affected the political ideas and actions of much of Africa by masking the crises created by capitalism. Together, they explore theoretical concepts alongside the current historical moment and apply understandings to lived experiences, informing a radical ideology – critical of ruling class hegemony – and radical politics for revolutionary change.
The Network utilizes the concept of “organic intellectual” as developed by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. For Gramsci, an organic intellectual has a direct connection to the economic structure of their society and their own class. By unifying various ideological elements from the discourses of marginalized voices to form and articulate a common, organic ideology – rooted in the history of shared class struggle – they create a hegemonic principle which can be used to challenge the dominant cultural and ideological aspects – the superstructure – of state power and the ruling class. The concept of “organic ideology” is central in understanding Gramsci’s “philosophy of praxis” – the application of Marxism as a reflective and inter-defining relationship between theory and practice. Combined, ideology and praxis can be used to understand hegemony as the consummate material of politics – how social power can be practiced to confront or preserve class relations. The maintenance of the prevailing hegemony and historically imbalanced relations under global capitalism requires both coercive force and the domination of ideas for mass consent, making alternatives unthinkable and unviable and neutralizing counter ways of being.
As Brian Mathenge explains, “it is in fact the thought of Antonio Gramsci, closely integrated with the contributions of Walter Rodney, that inspired the formulation and adoption of the political and organizational establishment of the Organic Intellectuals Network” and their use of theory in critical analysis of the current hegemonic system and reflective practice in revolutionary organizing. Applying this understanding, the initiative uses “tools of historical and dialectical materialism to analyse society and produce knowledge that is rooted in the struggle of the common people” to achieve its mission to challenge neoliberal hegemony – abolishing the ideological censorship of the ruling class – and inspire revolutionary thought and action.
The expansion of the New Policy Agenda – discursively emphasizing poverty alleviation, good governance, and democratic citizenship, and promoted by Western donor states and financial institutions following the end of the Cold War – made way for the increased presence and role of NGOs in service delivery and advocacy campaigns for institution-building and human rights in Kenya. As the key actor of the “third sector,” NGOs were explained, introduced, and justified within the conceptual framework of civil society – a contested terrain of bourgeois relationships and individual associations, in which dominant ideologies permeate, state power is upheld, and hegemony appears fixed. As Shivji (2007) explains, “NGOs were born in the womb of neoliberalism and knowingly or otherwise are participating in the imperial project” titled globalization, renewing and strengthening Western dominance in Africa. Just as the colonial enterprise used the church and missionaries as civilizing agents – legitimizing the role of Western colonialists and damning freedom fighters – NGOs have been used in the project of globalization as ideological foot soldiers that speak the language of secular and non-political human rights that influences an acceptance of neoliberal ideology, ascendance of a capitalist, comprador class, and submission of the masses to imperial dominance.
Echoing the contributions of Glen Wright (2012), Maurice Amutabi (2006), and James Petras (1999), this book maintains that NGOs dominate much of the defining and stewarding of development throughout Africa today – mirroring the interests of their Western financiers – which has led to the unwavering predominance of neoliberalism.
According to Lewis Maghanga, however, unlike the colonial missionary history, it would be wrong to present the relationship between Western NGOs and donor agencies as some sort of conscious conspiracy. Rather, as Maghanga explains,
the co-option of NGOs in the neoliberal cause reflects a coincidence in ideologies rather than a purposeful plan … [where] proponents of neoliberalism saw in charitable development the possibility of enforcing the unjust social order they desired by consensual rather than coercive means – an excellent merger of interests and opportunity for masking the intention and nature of the capitalist system.
Informed by their reflections on Shivji’s text, members of the Network agree that the imperial project is not only historical but the lived present, where NGOs function as service providers to marginalized and oppressed communities – existing, bound and limited by data collection necessary for donor funding impact reports – diagnosing and addressing non-political issues, rather than the ideology and political arrangement upholding the grand totality of the violence experienced under global capitalism.
NGOs, symptoms, and movements
A notable and significant contribution made by the Organic Intellectuals Network is their concern and warning of the threat of NGO-ization of social justice causes and movements for radical political change in Kenya. Throughout their contributions, the activist-authors describe how they have experienced the contradictions inherent to the NGO discourse and the economic, political, and ideological role played by these organizations in camouflaging the neoliberal offensive as campaigns for human rights and political reforms. ‘Movement-building support’ has become another buzzword in the NGO discourse and a deceptive tactic executed throughout the non-profit industrial complex. Disguised as ‘non-political advocates’ in support of citizen concerns, NGOs jostle over which movements to ‘support’ and allocate resources towards, directly linking Western finances and interests with movement efforts, thereby shaping the nature of struggle and limiting the otherwise radical orientation of a movement’s trajectory.
The Intellectuals go on to diagnose several key symptoms felt by the NGO-ization of Kenyan movements. Telling the story of Bunge La Mwananchi (The Peoples Parliament) in the early 1990s, Kinuthia Ndungu explains how the movement became a shadow of its original self as NGOs capitalized on poor members’ material conditions and turned them into ‘guns for hire’ by mobilizing them to join activities and demonstrations – whatever the cause – in exchange for monetary reimbursements. This is but one way how NGOs create a culture of dependency within a movement, making it challenging for grassroots leaders to organize activities without adequate finances and payments to those supporting a cause. Reliance on NGO resource support – in the form of staff time, printed materials, computers, etc. – can influence movement dependence, which can experience severe strain when donor funds shift to other alliances or causes. Additionally, movements that accept NGO resource and advocacy support often become softer in their critique of NGO positionality, dismissing the historical relationship between imperialism and NGOs.
As the NGO infiltrates a social movement as a partner in a common cause, the movement is impacted by the symptoms of dehumanization and depoliticization. Dividing community members into clusters for data collection and statistical analysis, and documenting stories of lived experiences of subjection to systemic, structural violence manifested as extreme poverty, extra-judicial murders, and gender-based violence, NGOs dehumanize struggles and depoliticize conditions while securing millions of dollars from funding reports and applications. Organically existing as an informal revolutionary structure, NGOs distort and disrupt the situation by converting activists into report writers for the impact reporting needed to get more funding.
Under neoliberalism, strategic plans, projects, and NGO advocacy programs aimed at donor-funded outputs and outcomes have done nothing but depoliticize the issues faced by the masses – “displacing national liberation ideologies and social emancipation, turning confrontation into negotiation”. Other comrades in the edited collection highlight the impacts that NGOs have on grassroots causes through the symptom of professionalization of activism. Through supporting movements in advocacy and awareness campaigns aimed at government officials, the media, and other actors in civil society, NGOs are often framed as a mouthpiece of a cause, establishing a fabricated outward-facing hierarchy and undermining internal voices and functions. In this way, NGOs appear as expert custodians of modest, reform-driven advocacy, leading grassroot movements to solutions outside of themselves. The accounts and reflections provided in this book show how NGOs can Astro-turf radical African movements of resistance and liberation by becoming representatives – pseudo leaders – championing misguided solutions to illusory grassroot concerns and demands.
Silences, histories, and ideologies
Issa Shivji’s examination and interpretation of NGOs from the 2000s – ahistorical in their character and introspection, and adverse towards social and theoretical understandings of development, poverty, and marginalization – is confirmed by the personal narratives of the Kenya Organic Intellectuals Network in the 2020s. Shijvi presented NGOs as self-perceived non-governmental, non-political, non-ideological, non-profit associations of well-intentioned individuals dedicated to making the world a better place for the poor and downcast. NGOs are well-funded and structured for efficiency, vocal and listened to, and provide data, analysis, recommendations, and plans; however, they operate without a clear understanding of their role in neoliberal reforms and the imperial project, neglecting the current historical moment and dismissing political ideology necessary to unify the struggle for liberation. The role of NGOs in Africa is complex and difficult to analyse and summarize. It requires a clear understanding of history and politics, fact and theory, and self-reflection and criticism. Interpreting their role and impacts is helpful, but misreading them – analytically and politically – could be costly for realizing radical political change. Thoughtful intellectual and personal reflection is required to collectively comprehend the matter and manner of NGOs. This book offers just that.
Throughout the book, 16 contributors apply analysis that highlights the ideological, economic, and political role of NGOs in expanding and consolidating neoliberal hegemony throughout Africa. The struggle for ideology – related again to Gramsci and his conception of the “war of position” – in movements and throughout the contested terrain of Kenyan civil society is a well-developed theme throughout the text. Central to their common ideology, the Network emphasizes political education and the need for cadres to share a theoretical foundation that enables movements to understand the historic function of NGOs and the interconnected nature of the neoliberal system acting in the interest of global imperialism. Shivji’s 2007 book challenges the Organic Intellectuals Network to learn from current struggles “and creatively appropriate intellectual insights on the role of NGOs in their political and historical context,” informing an organic ideology and offering these organic intellectuals a clear direction as a vanguard for the revolutionary movement.
Comprehending NGOs in Africa and capitalism is a tricky-yet-vital intellectual exercise and political activity, necessary to inform the current conjuncture. This book advances the needed ideological clarity by making sense of NGOs in the context of neoliberalism, neo-colonialism, and imperialism. This book is a valuable contribution – a radical political project – and should be applauded. It authentically contextualizes – through personal narrative and reflection – other scholarly and peer-reviewed contributions on the role of NGOs in development, human rights, social movements, and neoliberal hegemony. Understanding the nature, role, and impact of NGOs in Africa and on grassroots movements and protests is important-yet-neglected by scholars, as well as activists. Rarely within the academic spaces of social movement theory, development studies, or international relations is the NGO and social movement relationship critically studied, empirically examined, or a topic of publication. Moreso, the study of the impacts of NGOs on African movements and popular protests is an underexplored frontier for inquiry and understanding by community organizers and academics. These author-activists deliver an accessible, unique, and useful collection that should be considered by leftist activists and intellectuals alike to inform ideological reflection, collective conversation, and revolutionary intervention. This timely, insightful, and important book is not to be missed.
Kenya Organic Intellectuals Network, Breaking the Silence on NGOs in Africa. Nicholas Mwangi and Lewis Maghanga (eds.). Daraja Press.
Based in the States, Zachary J. Patterson is an independent researcher, activist, and roape.net contributor, he writes on Kenya, NGOs, socialist politics and movements on the continent.
Featured Photogragh: BASICS International, an American NGO in Ghana (9 May, 2018).
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Shivji, Issa G. 2007. Silences in NGO Discourse: The Role and Future of NGOs in Africa. Nairobi and Oxford: Fahamu.
Wright, G. 2012. “NGOs and Western Hegemony: Causes for Concern and Ideas for Change.” Development in Practice, 22 (1): 123-134.