Beyond replenishing depleted lives

Civic Action15 Dec 2011Shirin Rai

In his thoughtful piece on thick problems and thin solutions, Mike Edwards writes, “In these cases what is needed is an open public sphere in which civil society groups can mediate between these different agendas and hammer out some sense of direction. The problem is that public spheres are getting weaker and civil societies are getting thinner…” The question that needs to be asked here is why public spheres are getting weaker? And also, why, indeed, are problems getting thicker?

In a series of talks recently, Nancy Fraser made a plea for joined up thinking about addressing three sets of problems – social protection, the environment and social reproduction; all these are under stress from financial, productive and exchange relations of contemporary capitalism. Her argument was that unless we are able to connect these three sites of exploitation in our analysis, our understanding, struggles and solutions to these problems cannot lead to justice.

So, if we examine the problem that is INGOs, we find two kinds of disconnect. The first disconnect is INGOs have become specialised – the epistemic community of the development world that seeks to find solution to discreet problems with expertise and efficiency. They do not cross intellectual, sectoral and political boundaries that would address the three arenas of politics that Fraser identifies. The second disconnect is that between structure and agency – the INGOs focus largely on agency issues. This poses a different set of issues for us, about which I have worried before. In a world where millions are being forced to take risks to survive in the everyday, and where risks taken by others are affecting the lives of millions, the mobilisations of peoples without addressing how social relations under contemporary global capitalism might be transformed often leads to disappointment and worse. The consequences of failure of these mobilisations are also variously felt. So, as Edwards suggests, despite the Arab Spring we are a moment of political urgency as we have never seen before. The imaginations of the future will need to expand and become more complex if we are to address this urgency.

That imagination has to fold–in a conception of the political which bridges the public as well as the private sphere, which does not conflate the importance of the political space of civil society with groups and lobbies that operate in that space, and which does not valorise risk, anticipating reward but soberly assesses and properly minimizes these. ‘Philanthrocapitalism’, as Edwards calls it, in this kind of risk society then provides no solutions to the causes of justice-deficit; it becomes a palliative to the consequences of the erosion of our lives under global capitalism. INGOs are themselves folded into this ‘philanthrocapitalism’. They are disciplined through seeking charity, as well as through ‘accountability’ mechanisms (state as well as non-state) – deliverables within short time-frames then drive agendas rather than a long-term analysis and understanding of the issues involved.

So, where does this leave INGOs? Can they move forward in new directions? Do they, indeed, serve a purpose beyond ‘filling-in’, replenishing the depleted lives of the poor without transforming them? This is not to suggest that this replenishing role, especially in times of crisis, is not a worthy role. It is worthy and it does support the exploited, the vulnerable and those least able to defend themselves. But it is also self-supporting – the INGOs reproduce themselves through ‘philanthrocapitalism’ just as capitalism less challenged because of this ameliorative work. I agree with Edwards that small steps are the ones INGOs should aim for – transformation can be seen as a bundled process rather than as a single/series event; but for this approach is need modesty, caution, practices of listening and slowing down time – for gestation of ideas and their becoming deliverables.