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nettime: Paul Stubbs / NGOs and the Myth of Civil Society


Article published in 'ArkZin', nr. 55, January 1996

Paul Stubbs

The Vogue of NGOs
The term 'civil society' has become central to struggles for democracy
in post-Yugoslav countries. Much of this impetus derives from the
activities and theories of 'new social movements' in 1980's Slovenia
which disrupted the balance of public discourse in a variety of ways
but which, in the end, were powerless to resist the calls of nationalism.
One of the leading 'civil society' theorists, Slovenian philosopher
Tomaz Mastnak, has recently drawn attention to the danger of assuming
that the new vogue, for Non-Governmental Organisations or 'NGO's', has
very much to do with the progressive imperative of civil society
suggesting that, in the post-Yugoslav context, "the idiocy of Western
diplomacy has possibly been surpassed only by that of Western
non-governmental organisations" (Mastnak in Benderley and Kraft (eds)
(1994) 'Independent Slovenia' St Martin's Press),

Having spent two and a half years in Croatia working with, and researching, 
NGO's, the dangers of 'humanitarianism' which, whilst presenting itself as 
neutral is, in reality, deeply political and reflects the balance of forces 
between different international actors, has become all too apparent. As in the 
'Third World' context, global, supranational, and regional agencies have 
orchestrated their aid for Croatia through a commitment to the development of 
NGO's. The nature of this relationship is, in some ways, masked by an 
emphasis on NGO's as 'civil society', as if this, per se, was progressive. The 
globalised nature of state-civil society relationships has a number of 
consequences which are far from progressive and, indeed, cause us to 
question the validity of certain definitions of 'civil society'.

Large numbers of foreign NGOs are currently operating in Croatia in the fields 
of aid, health, and psycho-social provision. Even more importantly, the major 
sources of funding are foreign donors, including governments (e.g. USAID), 
regional bodies (e.g. European Union), and global bodies (e.g. UNHCR). Most 
Croatian NGOs operating in these fields are funded in this way and many 
obtain this funding through a link with a partner organisation in the donor's 
country or region of origin. This is in contrast to Slovenia where many NGO's, 
linked to the social movements of the 1980's, are funded by central and local 
government and cover a much wider range of issues and concerns. Support 
for NGOs is often seen as 'building civil society'; in fact, in Croatia, it
is more likely to build a competitive marketplace in which local NGOs, to
survive, are forced to reproduce the categories, assumptions, and practices
of their foreign funders. The reality that NGOs have become major political
actors in aid and development policies throughout the world has now become
obvious in Croatia also.

Non-Political Neutrality
Particularly problematic is the assertion that NGO's are 'non political' or 
'neutral' and, hence, more progressive than governments which have vested 
interests and a political 'axe to grind'. Indeed, it is here that
'non-political humanitarianism' finds echoes in 'antipolitical civil society'
which was developed in the 1980's. This 'myth of neutrality' might, in fact,
hide the interests of a 'globalised new professional middle class' eager
to assert its hegemony in the aid and social welfare market place. Through
asserting the values of  political disinterest, uncomplicated humanitarianism,
and a thoroughgoing commitment only to improving people's welfare, NGO's
tend to do rather well out of crises of war and forced migration. Funders
tend to prefer NGO's who reproduce, in part at least, their own view of the
world and who, whilst they may challenge some assumptions, do this within
specific limits. It is not simply that NGOs do what funders want; rather,
that processes of negotiation and of alliance develop in which certain
common emphases are created and certain other possibilities are ruled

The creation of a 'globalised new professional middle class' who, regardless 
of their country of origin, tend to speak a common language and share 
common assumptions, seems to be a key product of the 'aid industry'. In fact, 
professional power is reproduced through claims to progressive alliance with 
social movements and civil society whereas, in fact, the shift towards NGO's is 
part of a new residualism in social welfare which, under the auspices of 
financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary 
Fund, challenges the idea that states can meet the welfare needs of all.

'Trauma', Therapy and 'Empowerment Pimps'
The emphasis on 'relief models' rather than on 'social development' in projects 
working with refugees and displaced people in Croatia has been well-
documented. It is clear that 'relief models' are more containable and less
likely to lead to a 'politicisation' of aid and the development of particular
forms of consciousness and action amongst beneficiary populations. Instead
of social development and community work approaches, heavy emphasis has been
placed on 'psycho-social programmes' and, in particular, on dealing with war 
trauma or 'PTSD', said to be present in the refugee population on a massive 
scale. The irony is that much of the concern with 'psycho-social programmes' 
and with 'war trauma' derive from progressive social movements and from 
those active in alternative mental health and therapy movements in Slovenia 
and Croatia in the 1980's. The familiar phrase 'we need to empower refugees' 
reminds me of what US educationalist Peter McLaren (in 'Politics of 
Liberation' Routledge (1994)) has called 'empowerment pimps' who are simply 
strengthening their own position and who prefer psychological therapy to a 
connection with 'a political project with the objective of dismantling oppressive 
structures and mechanisms'.

A small number of Croatian psycho-socially oriented NGOs have attained a 
level of funding, and a degree of influence, which is far in excess of
their level of service, number of beneficiaries, quality of staff, and
so on, and places them in marked contrast to those providing services
in the governmental sector. One Croatian NGO, linked to a US partner
organisation, has, for example, received a grant from USAID for over
2 million US dollars to develop a training programme in trauma work.
The organisation, the bulk of whose work - in a small number of collective
centres - is undertaken by psychology and social work students, now has
prime office space in Zagreb, large numbers of computers and other
technical equipment, and is able to pay its staff more than double that
which they would obtain in the state sector.

It is possible to understand the development of NGO activity in the aftermath 
of the crisis of large-scale forced migration less as the flowering of 'civil 
society' and more as the increase of professional power. This is made more 
complicated, however, by the fact that many of the key protagonists were 
influenced by, and keen to use the language of, civil society to press their 
claims. This has a particular post-communist context in a critique, partly 
derived from anti-politics, of all forms of 'social intervention' and claims to 
skills in this sphere as inherently proto-communist and totalitarian, and
of the only valid skills being individual, therapeutically based. The
'personal growth', 'encounter groups', 'gestalt therapies', and so on, which
flourished in the late 1980's made their members ideally placed to take
advantage of the need for psycho-social work in the 1990's. In contrast,
those advocating community development approaches were seen as tarnished
through its association with dreaded 'social planning'. Such emphases
were excluded from consideration in a coalition between local professionals
and funders keen to emphasise the non-political nature of their work. In
the process, refugees and displaced persons, and particular 'at risk' groups
within this population, are targeted for NGO intervention with little or
no attempt to develop 'integrative' services with local communities.

NGO's and Ethnicised Nationalism
There is no sense, either, in which, NGO's are, by definition, challenging the 
development of ethnicised nationalism. Indeed, echoing Bogdan Denic's 
concern with 'grassroots nationalism', I would argue that a number of Croatian 
NGO's, which are, in many ways, grassroots movements and indisputably a 
part of civil society, combine providing a service only for one ethnic group, 
Croats, with a strong ideology of Croatian nationalism. The strongest of these 
are women's organisations formed out of the experience of women displaced 
from Croatian territory, and by feminists from the Croatian emigre community
in countries such as Australia and Canada. The irony is that many of these 
groups are skilled in gaining financial and other support from abroad, partly 
through manipulating their identities to suit the audience in question. Indeed, 
the complexities of the relationship of different types of welfare
organisations to ethnicised nationalism, are masked by an uncritical support
for NGOs as 'civil society'.

New Othodoxies
Genuine grassroots social welfare organisations, based on broader social 
movements, have developed in Croatia. Many of these derive from  
independent women's initiatives which were founded in the late 1980s or from 
the network of peace, human rights, and anti-war groups which grew up in 
1991 in response to the aggression against Slovenia and Croatia. The attempt 
to maintain a 'peace culture' has been fraught with difficulties in the context of 
globalisation and, indeed, of a misplaced faith in 'civil society'  as the 
panacea. The achievements of the Anti-War Campaign Croatia (or ARK), 
which derive from its flexibility, sensitivity to local concerns, and
refusal to bureaucratise, should not be understated. However, there is
an underlying ideology to the approach of ARK which reflects a general
anti-political stance and, further, an emphasis on what is in danger
of becoming a new orthodoxy, namely 'non violent conflict resolution'.
As the ARK statutes testify:

"The overall goal of the Anti-War Campaign ... is the 
development, propagation and application of non-
violent methods of conflict resolution. ... ARK 
operates first and foremost in civil society, aiming to 
eliminate tensions and intolerance in inter-personal 
(and especially in inter-ethnic) relations. ... All ARK's 
actions are strictly neutral in a party political sense. 
ARK does not promote any particular political 
program, but rather the principles of peace-loving, 
democratic and just resolution of conflicts, tensions 
and social problems in general."

This is a very narrow interpretation of the nature of  'political action' and 
seems attuned to the demands of Western donors for a non-political stance. 
As Bogdan Denic recently argued in 'War Report', such a stance seems 
destined to result in a failure to engage with the (party) political sphere, to 
build left-oriented social democratic alternatives to President Tudjman's party, 
HDZ, and to consign Croatia to a nationalist government for generations, 
alongside, he might have added, a 'parallel society' of non-violent, self-
actualised, and financially secure, individuals working in NGOs and  wanting 
nothing to do with formal politics of any kind. There can be no denying the 
importance of acknowledging that politics goes beyond the party political and 
is also personal and interpersonal. Yet, non-violent conflict resolution, which 
is in danger of becoming a pseudo-scientific orthodoxy, offers little in
terms of fundamental change. A micro-sociological, inter-personal approach,
useful in, for example, small group work, schools, and local communities,
is being developed as if it could change broader power relations.

'Civil society' as a set of social relations is no more inherently progressive 
than other forms of social relations, notably those derived from the state and 
formal political processes, in terms of challenging oppression. It can be a 
distraction, indeed, from the key issues of the time. Democratic change is less 
likely to be brought about by projects which are funded by USAID than by the 
building of alliances between groups affected by the increasing insecurities, 
national chauvinism, and oppression in Croatia and throughout Central and 
Eastern Europe. The growth of a new professional middle class acting in the 
name of 'civil society' is no guarantee of progressive social change.

This is a revised version of the second half of a paper 'Nationalisms, 
Globalisation and Civil Society in Croatia and Slovenia' presented at the 
European Conference of Sociology in Budapest in September 1995, which will 
be published in volume 19 of 'Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and 
Change' in 1996.

The Author:
Paul Stubbs is a Research Fellow from Leeds Metropolitan University, UK 
who is guest researcher at the University of Zagreb School of Social Work.

Paul Stubbs, University of Zagreb, School of Social Work,
Nazorova 51, 10 000 Zagreb, Croatia. Fax: +385 1 274 219

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