Since the mid-1990s, the International Non-Governmental Organizations bypassed Third World governments in order to work directly with regional and neighborhood NGOs. Some have called this “the NGO revolution”.
Revolution? Well, it is clear there are now tens of thousands of NGOs in Third World cities on housing specifically: the World Bank, the UNDP, Ford Foundation, German Friedrich Ebert Foundation, UK Department for International Development, etc, etc. They have changed the landscape of urban development and aid in a way comparable to Johnson’s War on Poverty of the 1960s, this time by transforming relations between Washington D.C., political parties of Third World governments, and inner-city constituencies. In the context of inner-city poor, the NGOs have had perverse effects on the well-being of the ‘slums’. Let me breeze by a few good reads, bullet-style.
- Diana Mitlin describes how, on one hand, NGOs “preempt community-level capacity-building as they take over decision-making and negotiating roles,” while, on the other hand, they are constrained by “the difficulties of managing donor finance, with its emphasis on short-term project funds, on financial accountabilities and on tangible outputs.”
- Regarding the ‘NGO-middlemen’ approach to urban housing: “renters, harassed squatters, displaced downtown tenants,” writes Peter Ward about Mexico City, “are likely to be more radical and disposed to anti-government demonstrations than are those who have, in effect, been bought-off by the government through successive housing policies” that offer tenants land titles (private property) in exchange for taxes and often legitimized evictions.
- There are somewhere between one and two million NGOs operating in India. Lea Jellinek, who spent a quarter-century in Jakarta, recounts how one NGO, a neighborhood microbank, “beginning as a small grassroots project driven by needs and capacities of local women,” grew into a “large, complex, top-down, technically-oriented bureaucracy” that was now “less accountable to and supportive of” the poor of Jakarta.
- Frederic Thomas, writing about Kolkata, argues that NGOs “are inherently conservative. They are staffed by retired civil servants and businessmen at the top and, lower down, by social workers, from among the educated and unemployed and by housewives and others without roots in the slums.”
- Mumbai housing activist P.K. Das gives an even harsher critique of squatter-oriented NGOs in Manifesto of a Housing Activist.
“Their constant effort is to subvert, dis-inform and de-idealize people so as to keep them away from class struggles. They adopt and propagate the practice of begging favours on sympathetic and human grounds rather than making the oppressed conscious of their rights. As a matter of fact these agencies and organizations systematically intervene to oppose the agitational path people take to win their demands. Their effort is constantly to divert people’s attention from the larger political evils of imperialism to merely local issues and so confuse people in differentiating enemies from friends.”
- Another rebel planner and exile from the NGO universe, Gita Verma, in her book Slumming India, characterizes NGOs as a category of middlemen who, with the help of foreign philanthropists, are usurping the authentic voice of the poor. In her view, the World Bank’s paradigm of “slum upgrading” is a position which views the slums as “eternal realities” in need of quick fixes. “Saving the slum,” she says, specifically referring to Delhi, “translates into endorsing the inequity of one-fifth to one-fourth of the city’s population living on just 5 percent of the city’s land.” Although neighborhoods in Indore at one point had sewers installed after the 1998 Habitat II conference (a UN summit on urban housing for the poor) residents didn’t have enough water to drink, much less to flush waste. Sewage consequently backed up into homes and streets; malaria and cholera spread, and residents began dying from contaminated water.
- Verma was also irate about an award-winning resettlement project, the Habitat Improvement Project, for squatters in Aranya. Like many similar to it, it rehoused a small number of the evicted while the “slum saviors” are praised as international humanitarian celebrities. In this case, however, most of the projects achievements were literally on paper.
- Arundhati Roy wrote: “NGOs end up functioning like the whistle on a pressure cooker. They divert and sublimate political rage, and make sure it does not build to a head.” Talk about “enablement” and “good governance” carefully step around core issues of global inequality and debt, and ultimately become language games.
- Dhaka, the world’s poorest megacity, has seen intensive urban land speculation in the wake of slum upgrading, or rather, slum privatizing. Ellen Brennan writes that “an estimated one-third of expatriate remittances have gone toward land purchases. Land prices have risen about 40 to 60 percent faster than prices of other goods and services and are now completely out of line with income levels.”
- Referring to a Manila-based squatter association that was given land titles, Erhard Berner writes, “Now that they have become landowners K-B leaders regard their alliance with other squatter organizations as obsolete and emphasize their relation to government institutions.”
- Asef Bayat wrote that the professionalism of the NGOs tended to diminish the mobilizing features of grassroots activism, while it established a new form of “clientelism”. In this case, it is a new form of the old “clientelism” that informed the World Bank community’s decisions during the era before the 1990s’ NGO boom.
- NGOs monopolize on expert knowledge and middleman roles in the same way as traditional political parties, writes Ruben Gazzoli about urban Argentina. (Political parties are not friends of the urban poor unless they have to be to win votes.)
- “Upwards of a million apartments stand empty,” writes Jeffery Nedoroscik in City of the Dead, “there is no housing shortage per se. In fact, Cairo is filled with buildings that are half-empty.” The same empty building scenario holds true in hundreds of large cities around the world.
The UN’s Habitat branch of urban housing and NGO experts work in an office complex in the same city as the largest squatter settlement in the world, Nairobi’s Kibera. One can almost imagine the number of conferences and short-term project reviews that take place inside as the people outside are constantly being evicted forcibly by developers under orders from the state.
The problem is, housing is everywhere and the poor have no access to it. The World Bank’s favorite urban housing economist, Hernando de Soto, argues just the opposite: that there is “dead capital” everywhere and by privatizing the poor’s housing settlements, international capitalists will have access to it. Theoretically, squatter associations would then have access to credit, would be able to take mortgages out on their housing structures, and make money from selling their titles to urban developers. Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums, calls this “soft imperialism”.
Whether the NGOs really need governments to help do their work is not the question. Many left-ish housing authors believe more government involvement in urban housing projects is needed. The reality is that neither NGOs nor governments have succeeded in securing housing for the urban poor. In recent years both have legitimized the slow takeover of informal development by professional developers. International institutions like the World Bank have acquired their own “grassroots” (rather, a recuperated) presence through the NGOs, and their work has had perverse effects on the well-being of inner-city ‘slums’.