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The missionary position - NGOs and development in Africa

Firoze Manji, Carl O'Coill

Paper presented to: 'Futures for Southern Africa': a symposium organised jointly by

Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR/ICD), Southern African Catholic Bishop's Conference (SACBC)
Nordic Africa Institute (NAI), Institute for Commonwealth Studies (ICS)


September 2003

Posted with permission of the Catholic Institute for International Affairs (CIIR)
[Complete version - 146Kb ~ 1 min (18 pages)]     [ Share with a friend  ]

Africa in the closing years of the 20th Century will be remembered for two historic events.One was the rise of the popular movements that led to the end of the colonial empire andthe downfall of apartheid; the other, a human catastrophe of immense proportions involving the massacre of nearly a million people in Rwanda. If the one was achieved through the mobilisation of the majority for the goal of emancipation, the other was fuelled by pressures to comply with an externally defined agenda for social development. These events represent the extremes of hope and despair that came to characterise much of the continent in the closing years of the millennium. Every country in the region contains, albeit to varying degrees, the mixture of factors that can lead to either outcome - a future built on respect for human dignity, or one torn apart by conflicts such as those seen in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola and in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Development, it seems, has failed. In many post-colonial countries real per capita GDP has fallen and welfare gains achieved since independence in areas like food consumption health and education have been reversed. The statistics are disturbing. In Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole per-capita incomes dropped by 21% in real terms between 1981 and 1989.1 Madagascar and Mali now have per capita incomes of $799 and $753 down from $1,258 and $898 25 years ago. In 16 other Sub-Saharan countries per capita incomes were also lower in 1999 than in 1975.2 Nearly one quarter of the world's population, but nearly 42% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, live on less than $1 a day. Levels of inequality have also increased dramatically but worldwide. In 1960 the average income of the top 20% of the world's population was 30 times that of the bottom 20%. By 1990 it was 60 times, and by 1997, 74 times that of the lowest fifth. Today "the assets of the top three billionaires are more than the combined GNP of all least developed countries and their 600 million people".3

This has been the context in which there has been an explosive growth in the presence of Western as well as local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Africa. NGOs today form a prominent part of the "development machine", a vast institutional and disciplinary nexus of official agencies, practitioners, consultants, scholars, and other miscellaneous experts producing and consuming knowledge about the "developing world".4 According to recent estimates, there are as many as three thousand development NGOs in OECD countries as a whole.5 In Britain alone, there are well over one hundred voluntary groups claiming some specialism in the field.

Aid (in which NGOs have come to play a significant role) is frequently portrayed as a form of altruism, a charitable act that enables wealth to flow from rich to poor, poverty to be reduced and the poor to be empowered. Such claims tend to be, as David Sogge puts it "shibboleths, catch phrases that distinguish believers from doubters. Indeed they are utterances of belief. At best they are half-truths".6

In this paper we trace the evolution of the role of NGOs in Africa. We suggest that their role in 'development' represents a continuity of the work of their precursors, the missionaries and voluntary organisations that cooperated in Europe's colonization and control of Africa. Today their work contributes marginally to the relief of poverty, but significantly to undermining the struggle of African people to emancipate themselves from economic, social and political oppression. NGOs could, and some do, play a role in supporting an emancipatory agenda in Africa, but that would involve them disengaging from their paternalistic role in development.

  1. United Nations Development Programme: Human Development Report -1996. UNDP, Oxford 1996, p 2-10
  2. United Nations Development Programme: Human Development Report - 2001. UNDP, Oxford, 2001, p 1-8
  3. United Nations Development Programme: Human Development Report - 1998. Making new technologies work for human development UNDP, Oxford, 1999, 1-6
  4. Jonathan Crush, ed., Power of Development. London, New York: Routledge, 1995, p.5-8.
  5. Ian Smillie. The Alms Bazaar: Altruism Under Fire - Non-Profit Organisations and International Development. London: Intermediate Technology Publications, 1995, p. 129.
  6. David Sogge, Give and Take: what's the matter with foreign aid. London, Zed Books: 2002

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