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NGO's as the new agents of colonialism


The last two decades has seen a dramatic increase of western non governmental organisations (NGOs) working in the global south. The results of this foreign penetration is resulting in greater criticism of the role such organisations have in the struggle for social justice. These big international NGOs or, BINGOs, are increasingly criticised for having foreign, often white "experts", ties to corporate and government money, and not supporting or collaborating in local solutions and resources. This has led some to claim NGOs as being a more public friendly means of implementing colonial policy.

This criticism sometimes arises from those within the NGO industrial complex, but mainly it comes from the local population such organisations are supposed to be benefiting. Some examples given in this article are taken from interviews with various campesiños in Ecuador where a couple of specific NGOs are criticized: these specific cases can be compared to more broad practices elsewhere.

Ecuador is a country that is now experiencing significant increases in both NGO and government aid agency investment. One project of interest is the various reforestation initiatives. The NGO Profafor ( is an Ecuadorian branch of a Dutch carbon trading company created as a means of offsetting a series of new coal fired plants in the Netherlands. The NGO works with local communities by paying per unit of trees planted as a means of providing carbon credits for pollution in the West. The monoculture pine forests are then harvested by European pulp manufacturers. The land is leased from large landowners or indigenous communities for a fee, and all maintenance of the forests is carried out by the individual communities.

Significant problems soon became apparent in the Profafor scheme. Firstly, the financial terms of the agreement quickly became much different from what was originally stated. An initial payment of 10-15 cents per tree was agreed, and although this did provide a beneficial source of income, the costs of maintenance of the forests were to be absorbed by the communities and quickly cut into the original amount. Financial details vary from project to project, but one campesiño stated that in some cases as much as 5,000 U.S dollars would be lost by the community per hectare of forest planted.

Communities in northern Ecuador had been told that the monoculture pine forests would also be beneficial for their environment. However, the pines blocked sun to the native paja grasslands and absorbed excess water, thus drying the land. Since these plants play a vital role in the water cycle, the death of so much native vegetation also constricted water supply to neighbouring communities.

This trend is very similar to corporate colonial policies. Resources flow to the West (in this case, timber and carbon credits), while local communities cover the financial and environmental costs.

Currently, Indigenous populations in Ecuador and around the world are coming into conflict with NGO policies. At the Vancouver meeting of the International Forum on Indigenous Mapping in 2004, all two hundred delegates signed a declaration stating that the "activities of conservation organizations now represent the single biggest threat to the integrity of indigenous lands." The threat they pose is succinctly highlighted by the ideals of organisations such as The Nature Conservancy, which state that the wilderness and human community are incompatible (Orion Magazine, 2005).

As a result of this approach, the number of conservation related refugees is increasing all over the global south. During the 1990s the African nation of Chad increased the amount of national land under protection from 0.1 to 9.1 percent. All of that land had been previously inhabited by what are now an estimated 600,000 conservation refugees. No other country besides India, which officially admits to 1.6 million, is even counting this growing new class of refugees. (ibid) World estimates offered by the UN, IUCN, and a few anthropologists range from five million to tens of millions. Charles Geisler, a sociologist at Cornell University who has studied displacements in Africa, is certain the number on that continent alone exceeds 14 million (Ibid)

The Indian government, which evicted 100,000 adivasis (rural peoples) in Assam between April and July of 2002, estimates that two or three million more will be displaced over the next decade. The policy is largely in response to a 1993 lawsuit brought by WWF (world wildlife fund), which demanded that the government increase Protected Areas by eight percent, mostly in order to protect tiger habitat (ibid).

Very much integrated into the theft of Indigenous land is Biopiracy. Biopiracy has increased with the extent of which the natural world and its components are able to be patented and owned. Various NGOs play a very important role in this theft. Control of biodiversity is an element of increasing importance in the competitive advantage of corporations and nations. Once a biological resource with commercial potential is identified, the corporation that "discovered" it can claim a patent on it, and thus turn what was once freely available to all into private property. Corporations are applying for patents on everything from trees and rice varieties to proteins, gene sequences, and human stem cells. All living organisms and their components are patentable (biopirates in the Americas, 2003). The mechanism that enforces this piracy is the WTO, in which all members must adhere to U.S patent laws. In this process, no regard is given to indigenous care of biodiversity over thousands of years; it is simply patented and extracted.

The difficulty for those seeking to control this biodiversity is that much of it lies outside the Western world. To counteract this geographical mistake, international debt is used by corporations and NGOs in the form of debt for land schemes. These work by large conservation groups paying a portion of a third world country’s debt in exchange for assurances of investment into environmental programs and rainforest privatisation.
Ecuadoran environmentalist Esperanza Martínez says that with the swaps, "the developed countries will have assured for themselves control of our economies and will end up burying once and for all our comparative advantages based on natural riches — We are raffling our biological diversity so that the developed countries can broaden their gap vis-à-vis the Third World and so that they can impose new forms of dependency and wealth extraction." (Ibid).

More broadly, much of the problems with the NGO solution to global problems lie in various interests they are bound to. The truth is that for the NGO, other people’s misery is their occupation. Where will a disaster manager work if there are no more disasters? There is a danger that emergency situations will become permanent situations, especially now, when more NGO money is spent on disaster relief than on long-term development projects. (New Internationalist, 2000).

One example is the Ngara refugee camp in Tanzania, a camp for refugees from the atrocities of the war in Rwanda. The Ngara refugee settlement became the second-biggest city in Tanzania. However, it was not under the control of the Tanzanian government, it was controlled by the NGOs. Each NGO seemed to have its own "territory" where it flew its own flag. The message seemed to be that rival NGOs were saying to each other "If you stay away from my refugees, I will stay away from yours" (ibid.) The refugee camp gave many NGOs considerable influence and those living there became dependent because they were receiving services otherwise not available.

In the West, NGO's represent many things to different people. For some it is the most accessible means of contributing to social justice work. They get many important issues to the public and are generally covered by the media positively. It could be said that many get their introduction to activism through such organizations. Unfortunately this usually involves nothing more than petition signing and financial contribution as activism is reduced to the wallet. The process is inherent in what it means to be an NGO. They are legally bound to abide by state laws, depend on government tax reflief, and have an enforced corporate board structure.

For many in the global south who criticise growing NGO influence, solutions can come in many forms. Emphasis on community based solutions initiated by the communities themselves with support would be a more productive and beneficial outcome for many. NGOs could have a role in this, and campesiños I have spoken to would welcome it.

For others the institution itself is simply another obstacle to social justice and should be treated as such. From taking the role of organising away from the grassroots and diluting dissent in the West, to acting as agents of colonial policy in the global south, many of these organisations may simply be beyond saving

references/further reading


Re: NGO's as the new agents of colonialism

Thanks for your thoughtful piece. Certainly development aid should also be put into this same catagory. Under a number of different pretenses (progress, conservation, jobs, the war on terrorism etc) development aid is offered up and channeled into project which are primarily to the benefit of the country (or its leading corporates) that sponsored it.

It is interesting that many of the human rights and charity organisations have become increasingly irritated by the kind of quasi-humanitarian work of the military in places like Afghanistan. For one, they see this as 'their turf'. They also realise it could cut into their funding.

Elite groups of white folks in the West aren't going to be the ones to save the planet.

Re: NGO's as the new agents of colonialism

save the planet?

get a life hippie!

Re: NGO's as the new agents of colonialism

Looking forward to talking to you about this back home Chris...good article.

Re: NGO's as the new agents of colonialism

Good insight. Where are the borders...? Are NGO's (most of them) just one more piece in the capitalist puzzle (trying to cover up States' innabilities)? Are their contributores mostly naive enough not to realize the implications of their deeds?

Re: NGO's as the new agents of colonialism

Yes, this is the sad reality and there is a lot to be unconvered through investigations, see also the report "colonos" did on the Jatun Sacha Foundation:


Is the author of this article working in Ecuador? Colonos would very much like to hear from him/her!

Re: NGO's as the new agents of colonialism

I've been working on farms in Ecuador the last couple of months which is how I met the farmers who raised issues with the Profafor NGO. Just got back home though. I'll take a look at this blog, cheers!

Re: NGO's as the new agents of colonialism

There are some interesting parallels here to the way settlement packages and development aid supposedly designed to benefit Māori have often (but not always) resulted in the building of state-friendly corporate empires, rather than facilitating solutions emerging from Māori culture and aspirations.

"Victims of Progress' by John H. Bodley is a short, well-referenced history of the dispossession of millions of indigenous peoples all over the world, (not only by Europeans either). One of the more interesting chapters described the role of many anthropologists in justifying, even glorifying, the colonization process, on the basis that the extinction of small-scale cultures in the face of the 'superior' colonizing culture was inevitable (white supremacy has a long history). Many of the older conservation NGOs have evolved from organisations set up to conserve game for the enjoyment of recreational hunters from the colonizing culture, for whom self-sufficient indigenous cultures were competition.

That said, NGO is a very broad label. By a common sense definition, Indymedia is an NGO (being non-governmental, and non-profit). I think considering the harm colonizing states have done, there is an argument for them to dedicate resources to helping indigenous people regain their economic self-sufficiency. Unfortunately this really required the state to make formal recognition of their political autonomy, which as Operation 8 showed us, they are very resistant to doing.

Re: NGO's as the new agents of colonialism

Kiora. Thanks for the insightful and thought provoking article. I made a 'twitter' about it today, and it feeds directly into the front of our website.

Your article made me wonder if a list is being formed or has already been created that identifies which NGO is doing what where and which Indigenous people / lands are affected by the work. Do you, anyone else know?

I just interviewed a few speakers at a Conservation conference in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, and asked about how their NGO's work included Indigenous people and how they were using mapping technology to forward their mission. There were about a dozen interviews but only 2 stood out as either ignorant or not interested in the plight of the Indigenous effect on their missions. See what you think. I'll put these interviews up on in the next week. I'll repost here when the interviews are up.

FYI, Indigenous Mapping Network will have another conference hosted by Oneida Nation in June 09. Several folks who attended the forum in 2004 will be there. Hope you can attend if not present!

Re: NGO's as the new agents of colonialism

It's true that many NGOs (particularly the big ones) doing international work have little appreciation of the degree to which they reflect the particular culture of the time and place they emerge from - therefore they currently reflect the neo-liberal, colonial and racist ideologies of capitalism, but to generalise this into an attack on 'NGOs' per se seems a little silly.

As Daniel points out, IndyMedia is an NGO, so is the entire anarchist movement, and the activist left. This seems to be an example of taking a very general term and ascribing everything nasty one can find to it. For example to say NGOs have "an enforced corporate board structure" is plain wrong. Some have a board structure, some don't.

While much of the criticism of BINGOs is valid, there's also a considerable amount of anti-NGO sentiment stirred up by developing country governments who dislike the competition, alternative viewpoints and potential criticism that comes with having NGOs operational within a country. Plenty of governments would love to have a monopoly on aid distribution, emergency responses and so forth, as a means of further increasing their control.

It also looks from their website as if Profafor is a greenwash company rather than an NGO, but my Spanish is limited, so I'm happy to be corrected on that.


Sam Buchanan

Re: NGO's as the new agents of colonialism

Anyone heard of

Re: NGO's as the new agents of colonialism

Theres quite alot of information about how Carbon Trading is leading to a sort of Carbon-Colonisation situation here at also these two books cover the whole thing pretty well: 'Carbon Trading: A Critical Conversation on Climate Change,Privatisation and Power' and 'The Carbon Neutral Myth - Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins' both can be downloaded for free here: