NGOs should criticise Danish development policies

Danish development policy is increasingly removing itself from its focus on poverty alleviation and capacity building that it adhered to ten years ago, even though the phraseology or choice of words of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Development and Cooperation Ministry has tended to remain somewhat the same.

The ministry still talks of democracy, human rights, and poverty alleviation, although perhaps not as much as ten years ago, but the policies it implements are essentially neoliberal, even though neoliberal development policies have shown themselves to be incompatible with implementing the above-mentioned ideals.If you read the Danish government’s new strategies it becomes clear that “private sector driven economical growth” is seen as the main way of ensuring poverty alleviation and that growth is one of the five main priority areas in Danish development policy.The Danish government even specifies, that “the support to the private sector in Africa will be significantly increased, so that 2 billion Danish Kroner (around US$ 400 million) is set aside for the private sector in 2014″.

But why is the Danish government implementing such a neoliberal development policy. There are after all no examples of successful neoliberal, private sector focused development policies. India is an example of a country that has implemented neoliberal policies whole-heartedly since independence, and where the millions of poor Indians have seen little or no improvement in their lives. Countries such as South Korea that have actually managed to rise above poverty and developing country status have done so by doing the exact opposite of neoliberalism, namely by protecting and investing in national government and industry.

That Denmark has repeatedly cut its foreign aid budget during the last ten years is often seen by progressives as being a major reason for the decreasing quality of Danish development policy and the results of this. But whether Denmark spends 1% or 0.7 % of its GDI on foreign aid is really much less interesting than what this aid is actually spent on. Such numbers have little meaning if, as is presently the case, large chunks of the development budget is spent on matters that have little to do with development such as the war in Afghanistan, environmental issues in Greenland, or to improve Danish market shares in the countries that Denmark is supposed to be aiding. The Danish International Development Agency, DANIDA, alludes to this in stating that “It is clearly in the interest of Denmark and Danish interests to promote development through international development cooperation”. This would seem to answer the question I posed earlier, as to why the Danish government has chosen a neoliberal development policy: because this policy produces the best results, not for the beneficiaries of Danish development policy, but for Denmark’s own markets and companies.

Now this would seem to be the role of NGOs, one of their primary functions in fact, to criticise such measures and convince people of alternative ways of social and political mobilisation. The success of Ngo’s generally during the last 30 years or so has after all been driven by a combination of European middle-class post-material values and that Southern Ngo’s have been seen as an alternative to the states of developing countries, the latter especially after the past decades of world-wide neoliberal rollback of the state.

But for most European developmental NGOs, their dependency upon government resources is a problem, especially as governments are also increasingly insisting upon reporting, evaluation, and monitoring. This dependency has undoubtedly made development programmes and policies more donor-driven and less partner-driven. In addition to this, some NGOs are rightfully accused of more or less intentionally trying to mitigate the effect of the wealthy nations’ self-seeking development policies. Instead of supporting their partners in demanding comprehensive reforms that would change the balance of power between the North and the South, and thereby enabling real progress in the developing countries, these NGOs produce reformist arguments that play into the hands of Western governments and industry. One of the ways this is done is by arguing that solutions are mainly or exclusively to be found within the developing countries themselves, or by discussing micro-loans instead of the casino-like global financial system. Expressions such as partnership, participation, sustainability, internationalism, and democracy are still widely used, but tend to sound rather hollow when seen in the context of the dependency that is introduced by the Ngo’s tendency to perform tasks that the partner organisations and their governments should and could be doing themselves.

Not all NGOs fit this description, however. Africa Contact is an example of an NGO that is somewhat “special” – in fact the organisation doesn’t often use the term “NGO” to describe itself. Instead it refers to itself as a “solidarity organisation” or “activist organisation”, and whereas most larger NGOs are financially tied to the aprons of the Danish Foreign Ministry, Africa Contact is to a much larger degree financially and ideologically independent due to the organisation having only a couple of permanent employees whose salaries need paying, the remainder of the work being carried out by volunteers. All Africa Contact’s projects in Africa are furthermore developed by the partner organisations themselves and there is an understanding that the most important role of a Northern NGO is to support their partner organisations without stepping on their toes, so to speak. Otherwise one is often left with a scenario where the Western NGO advocates democracy and participation, but at the same time demands that the partner organisation lives up to and implements these ideals – a kind of forced “independence”.

Africa Contact has also managed to stay well clear of another pitfall where many other NGOs have not, what one might refer to as the “helpless African children syndrome” – an endless number of seemingly helpless Africans that apparently rely fully on our help in order to survive. This syndrome is perpetuated by many, often well-meaning, NGOs in a misconceived attempt to appeal to the charity and bad consciences of Westerners. And although many Africans do in fact need “our” help to survive, this de facto portrayal of an entire continent as helpless undermines the long-term ability of the charity-driven NGOs, and Africa Contact and other participatory NGOs for that matter, to finance their own programmes. For who is willing to continue supporting people who “aren’t themselves willing to make an effort”? Africa Contact, on the other hand, has chosen to support active organisations and to focus on the many successes that have been created by the partners themselves and not through Western charity. Africa Contact has thereby positioned itself in opposition to both the neoliberal development policy of the Danish government and the charity-driven NGOs.


Frihed fra Fattigdom, Frihed til Forandring, DANIDA

Regeringens Udviklingspolitiske Prioriteter, DANIDA, August 2010

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