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The NGOs: Neither Reform, Nor Revolution, But Rather Status Quo

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

11 August 2020

The NGOs, (Non Governmental Organisations) are in abundance in our society, not just in Colombia, but in the entire world and play various roles from a varied list of political and social positions.  But, what are they? And what is their role in society?  Are they the expression of organised civil society or do they supplant it?  Here I will try to respond to these and other questions.  Because, whether we like it or not, they are an ever present actor and we should be clear about who they are, as they enjoy a reputation and acceptance in some quarters that forces us to be clear about who we are talking to and who talks to us.

They make statements on the war in Colombia, or the armed conflict as they like to call it.  They also intervene in the debate on peace.  Their voice is important because it is influential.  There are those who say that the NGOs represent a reduced social niche, and are not that important.  They are right up to a point, because many NGO types went to work for the UN, the Centre for Historic Memory, the Land Restitution Unit, the Victims Unit and yet others lived for 14 years off the rampant corruption in the Mayor's Office in Bogotá, under the Polo and also Bogotá Humana led by Gustavo Petro.  Their influence can be seen in that the Secretary of Government in the Mayor's Office, under Gustavo Petro's administration was a very powerful person in the NGO world.

Many people, such as the Indian author Arundhati Roy, have criticised NGOs, for what she termed the "NGOisation" of resistance; likewise the US academic-activist James Petras.  In 2001, Petras divided the NGOS into three categories.

1) The NGOs that are an integral part of the neoliberal system and receive substantial sums from the World Bank, USAID and others and undermine the national welfare institutions.  In Colombia this can be seen in bodies such as the Programme for Peace and Development in Magdalena Medio, promoter of monocultures and enemy (despite its own publicity, not to say propaganda) of peasant production, or the European Union's Peace Laboratories that do something similar.

2) The reformist NGOs that believe they can reform the WTO, IMF or World Bank and bring palliative projects to the regions.

3) The radical NGOs, anti-globalisation who work on issues such as anti-racism solidarity etc.(1)

Though with the passing of time, this last category of NGO presents it own problems, its reformism is, in many cases, evident and the capacity to co-opt fighters in these NGOs, is hair raising, as is the way in which they adapt their demands to the most liberal proposals of the large NGOs.  On this point Arundhati Roy has spoken about "NGOisation" of resistance.  In her book The End of Imagination, Arundhati Roy explains how at the end of the 1980s and in the 1990s there was a massive expansion of NGOs whilst the role of the state was reduced, coinciding with the neoliberal aperture.(2)  Roy acknowledges as do others, that the NGOs do fill a void that the withdrawal of the state leaves in its wake, but says that they do so in a materially inconsequential manner and their real contribution is to dole out aid in a way the diffuses people's political anger and they play the role of the "reasonable man" in an equal and unreasonable war.(3)  She is right but it is not just an Indian phenomenon.  It has been seen in many parts, from the United States to Europe and even Colombia.  And NGOs play a decisive role in the midst of struggles, but not on the side of people but of their funders.

There are many such examples and in all cases we see how fighters are defeated, not by the enemy's bullets, but by the dollar bills that flow into their coffers, although there is no harm in a couple of bullets to remind the most recalcitrant of them what the alternative is to the nice discourse of the well paid NGO functionaries.


After the surrender of the PLO in the Oslo Accords, the new Palestinian authority under the tutelage of Israel unleashed a wave of repression against the Palestinians themselves, Israel continued as it had always done and the NGOs came to act as a type of buffer for the Israeli state, limiting their criticisms and taking them along the accepted channels, where describing Israel as a genocidal state is not allowed.  Many NGOs pressure the Palestinian movement and the solidarity movement to accept that the Israeli state should exist as it currently does and they seek to change the positions of the Palestinians, training and forming Palestinian intellectuals to accommodate themselves with that state.  The majority of organisations that work on the issue of Palestine do not insist on the USA divesting from Israel.  the main demand is for a two state solution, when the Palestinian movement makes no distinction between the lands stolen in 1948 and 1967.  That change is partly due to the treachery of Arafat, but also the pressure from the NGOs who speak of two states.  There are cases from the USA prior to the Oslo Accords when NGOs organised protests but wouldn't accept speakers who did not accept the two states solution and the feminist organisation San Francisco Women Against Rape, lost its funding when it began to deal with the issue of Zionism.(4)  The modern BDS movement does demand disinvestment but it is a persecuted movement.

Not only do they do that with a controversial, though simple, issue such as the issue of Palestine.  When the NGOs do not agree with something, they move to supress the criticisms.  When an organisation doesn't have any major contradiction with its funders, fewer problems arise and there are cases of some organisations that resist the impositions of their funders, but not that many.  They even get involved in solidarity concerts on which musicians play, as the official NGO of the Catholic Church in Ireland Trócaire demanded the withdrawal of the singer Sinead O'Connor from a concert in solidary with the activist, Ken Saro Wiwa, executed by the military dictatorship of Nigeria in 1995.  Her crime or in this case sin, was that she tore up a photo of Karol Wojtyla, alias John Paul II.


The same pressures exist in Colombia, sometimes more subtly, and others are never declared.  At the beginning of this century, various international NGOs were looking at the possibility of saying the unthinkable, to deny what they had always defended: that the paramilitaries were a state strategy. These NGOs never said anything publicly, they tested the waters in their own meetings.  The Irish NGO, Trócaire, for example, tried to force the lawyers for the Colombia Three, accused of training the FARC, to withdraw from the case.(5)  From that period, they did not leave much of a trace.  However, we know today that many NGOs have given up defending guerrillas, many but not all of them, furthermore the international NGOs no longer finance projects that include the defence of all classes of political prisoners and slyly exclude guerrillas.  Nowadays, in the face of the murder of social leaders and former FARC guerrillas, many NGOs and even the FARC party ask why? how ? etc. They run away from blaming the state as an active agent and present it as omissive or indulgent with the paramilitaries, which amounts to a significant ideological retreat compared to the 1990s when all those who nowadays criticise the priest Javier Giraldo, who do not accept his thesis or describe him as radical, used to read and circulate his writings, they discussed them and argued for them in public meetings, in international forums of solidarity movements and even before official institutions of the European Union, the UN and even before the US government.  The texts they promoted, that now they are ashamed to acknowledge having even read, have titles such as Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy,(6) a book whose title evokes the reality of the Colombian conflict, its fake democracy and the role of the state.  There is also the text Paramilitarism: A Criminal Policy of the State that Devours the Country(7) or Only States Violate Human Rights,(8) a text that would make almost of all them flee nowadays.  Giraldo did not mince his words when it came to criticising Samper as the bloody murderer he was: in the 1990s he criticised the proposal from the then president to introduce capital punishment in Colombia for crimes such as kidnapping.

It is worth remembering, as nowadays some NGOs and Samper himself have built an image of him as a human rights defender, so much so that the Communist Party invited him to preside over one of their panels at their congress.  He shared a panel with former FARC commanders and left politicians, amongst them those who had previously criticised his bloody role.(9)  Giraldo made many criticisms of Samper that all of them shared, without blushing, and no one supported the proposal to introduce the death penalty in the country.

"In the next sessions of Congress I will present, as I stated a few months ago, when the State of Interior Unrest was declared, a reform bill that, will prior to withdrawing from some international commitments and mandatory institutional consultations I will carry out this week, allows us to establish the death penalty in Colombia for crimes such as kidnapping, massacres or murders of totally defenceless people." (Cfr El Colombiano, 22.02.96, pg 6A)"(10)
The 8000 Process, in which Samper was accused of receiving drug money for his election campaign was not the worst thing about his government, but we no longer talk about it, now he is seen as a human rights defender, praised by the NGOs and the Communist Party.  This is why the joke that the CP is the smaller version of the Liberal Party is true.  Nowadays, thanks to the NGOs and their campaigns, everyone criticises Uribe and recalls his role in setting up the legal facade for the paramilitaries, the Convivir (Rural Community Security Cooperatives).  Nobody wants to recall that the Convivir were not invented by Uribe, but were rather an initiative of the then president Cesar Gaviria and his Minister of Defence, Rafael Pardo, who again without blushing would later play the role in the Santos government of Minister of Post-Conflict.  Less still do they want to recall that it was Samper who regulated that decree and gave a clear path to Uribe and other regional mandatories to set up their own paramilitary groups under the legal facade of the Convivir.

Now the NGOs put forward a vision in which only Uribe has sinned and they want us to forget the other presidents who have their hands soaked in blood, but anyone who says otherwise does not receive funding.  It is telling that in 1993 the Dutch NGO Pax Christi, along with other NGOs published a book called El Terrorismo de Estado (State Terrorism).  Its title says little, but the book contains the CV of many military officers and their role in massacres and murders.  It said it unequivocally.  A second edition was never published and it was never updated.  I recall that book as it was so striking to read what those officers as part of a state terrorism strategy had done.  It was one of the first texts on the country that passed through my hands, along with a report from Amnesty International from 1994, a report that the NGO would never again match in terms of its forcefulness.  The Pax Christi book had a real impact in terms of how the conflict was seen and on public discourse, three Colonels and one General were even denied entry to Germany on the basis of information in the book. In all, the book included information on 248 members of the Army and 102 from the Police.(11)  Nowadays, amongst the NGOs, not even Pax Christi would publish such a book.

Neoliberal Development, the NGOs and Imperialism

NGOs don't just play a role in how we perceive armed conflict and peace proposals, but they also play a very important role in the development of the country.  Not only do they bring their own projects to far away regions of the country, but they define how we see and deal with the question of the economic development of the country.  The infamous proposals the priest Francisco de Roux to lift peasants out of poverty through large monoculture projects of African palm, rubber and cocoa are well known.  But he is just one figure (though nefarious) in the international machinery of development and although he played an important role in the ideological campaigns in favour of monocultures and in his own words to make the regions more attractive for large capital investments, his ideas are not original, nor even Colombian.  Before we look at the role of development NGOs globally, it is worth saying that all the NGOs that now criticise the mass planting of palm remained silent in the face of De Roux's crimes.  They did not want to criticise him and unsuccessfully tried to silence various voices that warned about his scheming.  I know this very well as I was one of those voices and I laugh when I see the same people who said it was best not to criticise De Roux because he was very powerful, now criticise palm, now that the work has been done and De Roux presides over the (Half) Truth Commission, as at the very least hypocritical.

Added to that, it is fundamental to point out that the NGOs usually accept the neoliberal discourse and try to work with in it, lessening the more savage aspects in some cases and in others actively promoting neoliberal policy.  Shivji in her book Silences In NGO Discourse: The role and future of NGOs in Africa retells the story of the conquest of Africa and the struggles for national liberation and shows how following the defeat, in practice, of many of the new governments and states (it is worth recalling that the CIA murdered many of the most radical leaders of Africa) the NGOs came up with a new discourse.  In that discourse the Africans are passive recipients of aid:

They become the subject matter of poverty reduction strategy papers, authored by consultants, and discussed at stakeholder workshops in which the ‘poor’ are represented by NGOs. The ‘poor’ – the diseased, the disabled, the Aids-infected, the ignorant, the marginalised, in short the ‘people’ – are not part of the development equation, since development is assigned to the private capital that constitutes the ‘engine of growth’. The ‘poor’ are the recipients of humanitarian aid provided by ‘true friends’, (thanks to the American ambassador for that phraseology), dispensed by non-partisan, non-political, presumably non-involved, non-governmental organisations. In these societies, where stakeholders never tire of policy-making for the poor, its twin opposite – the rich – do not appear to exist. It is said that these societies consist only of the poor and the wealth creators, not of producers and appropriators of wealth.(12)
This description of the NGO attitude to Africa can be applied to any Latin American country and the majority of Asian countries, not to mention the poor within the advanced capitalist economies.  Whilst some NGOs are more than willing to analyse and criticise certain international and national polices, they rarely see the problem as being with the political system of an African, Latin or Asian country and though sometimes their criticisms extend to European countries or the USA and Canada, the expression Imperialism is not part of their vocabulary and consequently there is no analysis of,  nor does the concept of imperialism exist in their texts.

This can be clearly seen in Colombia.  There still exists a common concept of North American Imperialism amongst grassroots organisations and this is reflected from time to time in the discourse of NGOs and political reformists.  When Colombia "negotiated" a free trade agreement with the USA, many NGOs analysed the proposal and harshly criticised it, with data to hand.  However, when the European Union also celebrated an agreement with Colombia, these same NGOs, went silent despite the two agreements being almost identical.  What little they said was that the EU was good to Colombia, that it respected Human Rights and we didn't have to worry, i.e. there is no concept of imperialism in their discourse and everything is reduced to good and bad governments.  Some times they can hold two contradictory positions at the same time.  On the one hand the USA are imperialists and on the other Obama was going to solve an endless list of problems in Colombia, and when that didn't happen, they just kept silent.

Adam Isacson from the Centre for International Policy (CIP) earned a certain reputation in Colombia at the beginning of the century. Both he and the NGO where he worked produced reports and analysis of Plan Colombia.  The reports were very critical of the plan, rigorous and well documented. They served well the campaigns in the country against forced eradication of coca.  Their texts were very good, quality texts, but bearing in mind that the CIP director was a former US ambassador to El Salvador, it is hardly surprising that many of their political proposals were very liberal.  In 2008, the governments of Bolivia and Venezuela expelled their respective US ambassadors.  Isacson harshly criticised their decision, stating that this endangered Barack Obama's election.

Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez have just given their support to a presidential formula in the US elections.  Their choice is John McCain and Sarah Palin.  Not only do they hope that the republican wins, but rather they count on control of Latin American policy returning to the hard line of the party.

With the expulsion of the US ambassadors from Bolivia and Venezuela Morales and Chávez delivered a serious blow to the more moderate elements in the debate on Washington's foreign policy.(13)

Isacson states that the Latin American countries should subordinate their policies and decisions to the needs of Washington and its internal policies.  Furthermore, Obama was a moderate and he had to be supported.  The passing of time indicates what many said at the time, that Obama was just another imperialist, not a bit different from Bush. But the issue is that, as with every NGO, they not only believed in the virtues of the future leader of US imperialism, but also that the role of the rest of the world was to subordinate their decisions to the interests of one of the two wings of the US right, the democrats or the republicans.

Perhaps, one of the cases in how the NGOs operate and how they ask grassroots organisations to work within the system and not against it, can be seen in the way they accept the rules imposed by the multinationals and governments, is the case of the oil company BP and the accusations against it that it spied on the communities and trained state forces.

In the 1990s, a scandal exploded around the role and actions of the British oil company in the department of Casanare. The oil fields of Cupiagua and Cusiana were the largest in the country with a level of production, never seen before or since.  According to the military, the company supplied photos of activists taken in meetings with the same oil company.  Moreover, the company financed the XVI Brigade of the Army and employed its own private security company, Defence Systems Ltd.

Faced with the murder and displacement of various leaders from the area, the communities themselves in collaboration with the journalist Michael Gillard, and the Euro deputy Hewitt, raised their voices against the company.  As a result of this campaign, the large NGOs such as Oxfam and Christian Aid formed their own campaign (Inter-Agency Group) IAG and in this context visited the area, they carried out interviews with the communities and they also produced reports on the human rights situation in Casanare.  One of their very critical reports concluded that BP opted for not knowing what was happening in the area.  That report was never published as the agencies felt that they could not do so as they depended on donations that could be affected.  Instead they published another report Good Intentions are not Enough, and the said report was a lot softer in its criticism of BP.  It discounted the complicity of BP in the human rights violations in Casanare and accepted the right of BP to extract oil from the area and even spoke of its (insufficient) efforts to alleviate poverty in the area.  An image of BP was given as a good corporate citizen.  Meanwhile one the members of the IAG told Lara Coleman in interview that there was no civil society in the oil fields of Casanare.  It was not the only report they failed to publish.  They asked the Colombian researcher Pedro Galindo to write a report on the oil industry, but then refused to publish it in its entirety as Galindo had criticised the oil production model, argued for the autonomy of the communities to decide their own future and made detailed criticism based on data on the royalties model in force in Colombia.  The IAG did not want to criticise the economic model nor did it want to promote the autonomy of the communities vis a vis the oil companies.

The outcome of IAG's intervention was the construction of a model of corporate responsibility that BP accepted, cleaning its image in the process and side stepping the criticism of the company and an opportunity to discuss the extractivist model as a violent imposition on the communities was lost. It is no exaggeration to say that the main beneficiary of these NGOs' intervention in Casanare was BP, on the one hand, and to a lesser extent the XVI Brigade and the most badly impacted were the communities.(14)  The rampant impunity in Casanare is still ongoing and it is not hard to lay the blame at the feet of the companies.

The model of corporate responsibility that was set up was centred around the voluntary principles on security.  Nowadays when a mining or oil company is criticised for violating human rights they usually say they have signed up to those principles.  Thanks to those NGOs, the companies have an extra shield to protect themselves from accusations of violating human rights.

The NGOs work within capitalism, not against it, they are not even capable of doing that when it is a case of murder.  The most intelligent companies hire journalists, experts in public relations and former human rights defenders in order to evade their responsibilities.  With friends like those NGOs, who needs enemies?  The majority of NGOs don't seek a revolution, nor reform, they just seek to cosy up to power and the system.


(1) See Petras, J (2001) Non-Governmental Organisations in a conjuncture of conflict and war psychosis

(2) Roy, A. (2016) The End of Imagination. Haymarket Books. Chicago para. 32.99 (format epub)

(3) Ibíd.,

(4) Munshi, S. y Willse C. (2017) The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. Duke University Press. Durham, USA. p. 174

(5)The information on their intentions regarding the paramilitaries and the case of the Colombia Three come from my own experiences back then and conversations with other people who also went through that.

(6) Available at

(7) Available at

(8) Available at (Spanish only)

(9)Las2orillas (13/07/2020) Ernesto Samper presidió la mesa en el Congreso Comunista con los ex comandantes de las Farc

(10) Giraldo M, J. (1996) Samper y La Pena de Muerte

(11) El Tiempo (13/05/1993) Pax Christi Tras Difamación A Militares

(12) Shivji, I.G. (2007) Silences in NGO discourse: The role and future of NGOs in Africa. Fahamu Book. Nairobi & Oxford. p.24

(13) Isacson, A. (12/11/2008) La elección de Chávez y Morales. El Espectador.

(14) All the information on Casanare and BP is taken from Coleman, L.M. (2018)  Rights in a State of Exception. The Deadly Colonial Ethics of Voluntary Corporate Responsibility for Human Rights (July 20, 2018). Oñati Socio-Legal Series, vol. 8, n. 6 (2018), Available at SSRN:

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