NGOs: enemies or allies?

Issue: 104

Ji Giles Ungpakorn

This article is an attempt to analyse the politics of the NGOs in Asia, using our experiences as socialists in Thailand as an example. Nearly 20 years have elapsed since the massive proliferation of NGOs in developing countries. The pre-1980s NGOs were mainly charitable foundations, such as the YMCA, the Red Cross, Japanese Societies of Gratitude, Budi Oetomo in Indonesia1 or the various Chinese mutual-help foundations which were set up in Thailand. The real spurt in growth of the NGOs came after the 1970s.

Between 1975 and 1985 the amount of aid transferred from developed nations to developing nations via NGOs increased 1,400 percent and the number of NGOs proliferated in countries as far apart as Brazil, Kenya, Philippines and Thailand.2 Today there are 18,000 officially registered NGOs in Thailand, but only a small proportion remained active for any length of time.3

Gerald Clarke, in his book on NGOs in the Philippines, outlines five main reasons for the proliferation of the NGOs in the 1980s.4 These are:

1) The expansion of NGOs from the West into developing countries, either directly or as funders for local NGOs;

2) The increasing use by governments in developed countries of NGOs in a neo-liberal climate where the role of the state in providing services came under attack;

3) The fact that governments in developing countries increasingly recognised the beneficial role of NGOs in providing cheap services;

4) The fragmentation of left wing, class-based movements;

5) The failure in developing countries of political parties and trade unions to articulate a wide range of problems facing society.

A key factor was the weakening of the left on a world scale with the defeats of the late 1970s and 1980s, and then the widespread disillusionment with the ‘Communism’ of the USSR and China.

Some authors, such as James Petras, go as far as to state that NGOs displaced, destroyed or co-opted movements of the left rather than rising out of the ashes of a weakened socialist movement.5 Petras tends to overstate his case, but there does seem to be an inverse relationship between the strength of socialist movements and the NGO movement.6 NGOs have grown up where there was strong state repression against the left, such as in Thailand and Indonesia, or where bureaucratisation of left wing parties (such as in India) has prevented socialists from becoming representatives of the oppressed in society. This proliferation occurred alongside the rise in theories concerning ‘new’, non class based, social movements, identity politics and the revival of the belief in the need to build ‘civil society’, as a process of democratising the capitalist state.

One huge practical problem in Asia associated with NGO ideology, which has a profound impact on social movements, is the fragmentation caused by single-issue campaigns. The argument has to be waged against those who are still influenced by defeatism and single-issue identity politics. However, we cannot engage in such arguments if we stand outside the movements and struggles and denounce NGOs as being ‘agents of imperialism’ or ‘reformists’. Many NGO activists are involved in or leading important struggles against capitalism. They are not operating deliberately to prevent the success of such struggles. Socialists have to argue that people’s movements need to re-evaluate NGO theory and practice. At the same time we have to engage with NGO activists in order to build broad-based alliances with social movements, many of which are dominated by NGOs.

The work of the NGOs

The 6 October 1976 massacre in Bangkok resulted in the destruction of the left in open Thai society,7 pushing radical students and workers into the arms of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) in the countryside. The subsequent failure of the CPT, in its Maoist strategy, to stage the ‘Thai National Democratic Revolution’, by using a peasant army, together with the party’s total inability to adapt itself to the new wave of urban class struggle from 1973, resulted in the destruction of the Thai left.8 Disillusioned students left the party’s jungle strongholds to return to Bangkok and open society. Many of those who were not totally demoralised became active in setting up NGOs,9 which became increasingly important after the collapse of the party in the mid-1980s.

Local NGOs operate in all regions of Thailand, although there is a strong bias towards work in rural areas, since these areas are perceived to be where ‘the majority’ of the poor are located. In fact, this bias is to a large extent a result of the persistence of certain aspects of Maoism, which dominated the Thai left in the 1970s. Today most NGO activists mistakenly believe that most Thais work in rural agriculture and that rural areas are the only areas which are associated with poverty.10

NGO work covers such diverse issues as human rights, the rights of indigenous minorities, promotion of democracy, advocacy for small farmers and fisher-people, advocacy of non-violence and peace, support for children, labour rights, environmental issues, health issues, religious matters, gender rights, alternative technology, and cultural issues. A number of NGOs work with ‘old’ social movements, such as trade unions or peasant movements, and even when they do not do so, NGOs are usually on the side of the ‘poor’ in society, with an emphasis on identity politics or single-issue campaigns as being important to pressurising the state. Single-issue work is further emphasised by the structure of NGO funding, which is project based.

Thai NGOs are also linked together by networks based upon the type of work that they do and/or the regions in which they operate. The NGO co-ordinating committees or ‘NGO-CODs’ are a good example. Although originally set up and run by people of the ‘October generation’ who were radicalised during the 1970s, NGOs now recruit new generations of young people to work for them. Many are graduates who were involved in social activist groups while at university. Labour NGOs also recruit sacked and victimised union organisers. NGO funding mainly comes from foreign governments, either directly, or through international NGOs and multinational organisations, such as the World Bank. Increasingly the Thai government also funds NGO work on a contractual basis, to provide various forms of social welfare. In addition to this, some international NGOs operate directly alongside local NGOs. These bodies are more likely to have foreign personnel.

Challenges to Thai NGO theory and practice

Most Thai NGO activists unwittingly reflect postmodernist ideas when they claim that theirs is a movement without fixed ideology, unlike the dogmatic left wing organisations of the past. Postmodernism became very fashionable in response to the authoritarian nature of Stalinism and its subsequent collapse, and the logic of this school of thought fits nicely with those who believed that after the end of the Cold War there was no other alternative to capitalism.11 Starting out as a reaction against having ‘the correct line’ rammed down your throat, postmodernism, however, soon became an excuse for NGO activists to ‘reject political theory’ and any unified global analysis of our present social system, since that would be succumbing to some ‘grand narrative’. Yet, in practice, most NGO activists operate around four sets of dogmatic theories, all of which reject class analysis and/or the need to overthrow the state. These are the ideas of ‘civil society’, the ‘new social movements’, top-down advocacy for the dis-empowered poor, and a blend of autonomism or anarchism which pays lip-service to the rejection of political parties, representative democracy and the state.

Their starting point involves two assumptions which arise out of the collapse of confidence in what most activists regard as Marxism:12 first that there is no progressive alternative to capitalist parliamentary democracy and second that class is not a useful tool for analysis when looking at the issues of state power and the forces which can challenge state power. One of the worst aspects such theory as used by the Thai NGOs is the intentional or unintentional capitulation to neo-liberalism.13 An example of such thinking can be found in the Thai Working Group on the People’s Agenda for Sustainable Development ‘Alternative’ Report which states that ‘the principle of free trade might still be appropriate’ so long as there is justice within this system.14 During the massive anti-privatisation campaign conducted by the Thai electricity workers’ union in early 2004, NGO-funded think-tanks and ‘people’s sector’ publications failed to unconditionally support the struggle against market forces. The position taken by such organisations was that the state electricity monopoly should be broken up, allowing for a separation of producers and distributors, which would pave the way for the private sector to participate. Demands by NGOs to reduce the role of the state also dovetail nicely with the neo-liberal demand to reduce state taxation and spending on welfare. Few NGOs in Thailand call for higher progressive taxation on the rich in order to fund a welfare state or increased provision for the poor.15 Instead they demand that the state reduces its welfare provision in favour of a decentralised self-help system based on the people’s sector without proper regard to funding.16

Most Thai NGO activists see the agent for building civil society as the ‘new social movements’, especially of the poorer sections of society, rather than the middle class.

State power and the problem of single issues

It is in dealing with the issue of inequality of power within society, and the way to deal with this problem, that we find the most important weakness with civil society and ‘new social movement’ theory, since both theories rest upon an assumption that the state can somehow be neutralised by various independent forces in society, regardless of class. Furthermore, this model of state and society assumes that there is no alternative to free market capitalism and parliamentary democracy where voters are free to choose their political leaders, but powerless to choose or mandate those who control the big corporations that dominate the means of producing wealth in society. The concept of civil society as developed by the Italian revolutionary Marxist Gramsci stressed that civil society and its institutions in society contributed to existing hegemony. In other words, civil society strengthens the stability of the democratic capitalist state.17 Yet many Thai NGO theorists copy their Western counterparts by misquoting Gramsci so as to justify their views that civil society institutions can reduce the power of the state.18

NGO theory, especially civil society theory, suggests that the activities of NGOs, in strengthening organisations independent from the state, can reduce the power of the state and redistribute such power to the people’s sector. But what has really been the impact of NGO activity in reducing the power of the Thai state? Certainly over the past 20 years the democratic space in Thai society has expanded and an important part of this is due to the activities of NGOs and social movements. This increased democratic space is not insignificant. It means the increased ability of the oppressed to struggle openly for a more just society. It means free trade unions, free peasant movements and a free press. It has meant that governments have had to realise that dams, power stations and gas pipelines cannot just be built with total disregard for the feelings of local people. But all this does not mean reducing the power of the state to act in protecting the interests of the Thai capitalist class. In fact all modern and developed capitalist states involve open and democratic political structures which stabilise the power of the state without challenging the right of a small minority to control the levers of wealth production.

Viewed from this angle, the NGOs’ support for a modern and democratic ‘Peoples Constitution’ in 199719 can be seen as acting within the boundaries of capitalist hegemony in order to protect and develop Thai capitalist democracy, rather than reducing the power of the state.20 In practice, as with all constitutions under capitalism, the paper clauses on people’s rights are hugely outweighed by the reality of power and privilege of the capitalist class in Thai society. There is no indication whatsoever that the power of the state in terms of its armed forces, its police, its courts or its prisons has in any way been reduced. The experience of government repression of land occupations, the Assembly of the Poor, southern Muslims, and the movement to oppose the Thai-Malaysian gas pipeline are good examples. In terms of ‘convincing’ the state to take issues of human rights and equality more seriously, the bloodbath resulting from the Taksin government’s anti-drugs campaign in 2003 shows that the state is as brutal and powerful as ever. The unequal power relationship in the dream coalition of NGOs and civil society groups with the business sector and the state is obvious.

In fact, many NGO theorists do not even attempt to reduce the power of the state. Sanguan and Surapon21 argue that civil society should join forces with the state, echoing something which conservative academics such as Prawes Wasi22 and Chai-anan Samutwanit23 have often argued. Clarke24 has shown that despite NGOs’ considerable contribution to democratisation and the reduction of patronage in many less developed countries, they have not reduced the power of the state, since NGOs have been co-opted into state networks which support the political and economic stability of the state.25 In a similar manner Bryant argues that NGO empowerment of the downtrodden can often have the unintended effect of extending the political control of the state to marginal people, by linking them into formal political structures.26 Rather than seeing the Thai state’s increased interest in NGOs or civil society as an indication of the weakening power of the state, as a few NGO activists have tended to do,27 we should view this as a successful attempt to co-opt NGOs into the modern political system. In the case of Singapore, the government has taken one step further and actually created voluntary and welfare organisations in the public sphere in order to directly control such bodies.28

Mainstream NGO ideology about the modern capitalist state can only be regarded as reformist. NGOs work within the system, encouraging more ‘people’s’ participation and seeking to make minor changes to the existing system, rather than seizing state power and building a new political system. NGOs operating among villagers spend much of their time promoting community businesses which are aimed at finding unique niches within the world market, without any analysis of the pitfalls of market capitalism.

Even among those NGO activists who reject the state, their brand of autonomism merely leads them to ignore the state, not change it or overthrow it. Such views provide no real solutions to villagers who face state repression as a result of land seizures or protest campaigns. Rather than trying to locate the source of class power within society which can deal with the capitalist state, these activists are ultimately forced to turn to clauses in the constitution, so called ‘independent bodies’ or negotiations with state officials via sympathetic politicians, in order to solve villagers’ problems. Such dependence on the state weakens the resolve to oppose the government. The refusal of many Thai NGOs to support the anti-Bush demonstration at the APEC meeting in Bangkok in 2003 is but one example of this.

When advocating a reduction in the power of the state, NGO activists often only mean reducing the power of the civil service and the military and increasing the influence of ‘private’ organisations. Ranee29 states that NGO-backed political reform has resulted in a change from the old ‘steel triangle of power’ which involved civil servants, politicians and the business sector. The new ‘partnership’ that has arisen involves the state, business and the ‘third sector’ (civil society). There is no question of asking why the Thai capitalist class, which makes up less than 1 percent of the population, should have at least a 33 percent stake in power, and if one were to regard the state as being under the influence of this class, its power share rises to 66 percent! Rather than attack the power of private business and its representative state, or even the article in the new constitution which guarantees the free-market, Ranee30 bemoans the clauses in the constitution which pose an obstacle to broad cooperation between the state, private business and civil society.

The contradiction between NGOs acting as political advocates for change on behalf of the poor, and NGOs acting as subcontracted service providers, instead of the state,31 is hardly seen as a contradiction or even a problem among many NGOs in Thailand. The tendency towards more professional NGO workers, while improving efficiency, especially in the delivery of services, goes hand in hand with the loss of political motivation32 and the seeking of professional well paid and secure jobs in NGOs. This can result in internal bureaucratisation of NGOs.33

The fundamental reason why most NGO activists do not even recognise the potential contradiction between political activism and providing services, is a lack of an analysis of the free market and class politics in general. In fact many NGO theorists accept the neo-liberal assumptions that the state ‘is unable’ to provide welfare services to the poor in the modern world.34 They accept the ‘fact’ that the welfare state in the West ‘has failed’35 without looking at the reduced government spending, linked to neo-liberal policies, which has brought about the problems of a shrinking welfare state. Meanwhile those behind such polticies—the conservatives, industrialists, bankers, the IMF, the WTO and the World Bank—can welcome the role of NGOs in providing cheap welfare, which will not be too much of a tax burden on the fabulously rich in Thai society.

At the heart of NGO theory has been the claim that they avoid or reject politics and grand political theories. In the early days of authoritarian regimes, this was an understandable method of operating in open society, but the idea rests on more than this. Civil society and ‘new social movement’ theories reject a class analysis and the need for the seizure of state power in favour of building single-issue pressure groups and community activity. Added to this is the negative experience of many NGO activists who were members of the dictatorial Communist Party of Thailand. This negative experience means that most NGO activists today shy away from the idea of building a new workers’ or peasants’ political party.

But the NGO policy of refusing to set up a political party to campaign inside and outside the structures of parliament means that NGOs constantly seek alliances with existing capitalist parties. The best example of this is the Thai Rak Thai party of telecom billionaire Taksin Shinawat. This party is a right wing populist party which seeks to co-opt people from various social movements. It is not unlike the Peronist party in Argentina, but has not yet managed to systematically co-opt social movements or trade unions. However, the true carrot and stick nature of Thai Rak Thai populism was revealed to some shocked NGO activists early in 2002, when leading NGO organisers found themselves under investigation by the Anti Money Laundering Office. Some NGO leaders complained that they had previously worked hard to dissolve demonstrations by farmers’ groups at the request of the government and now they were being attacked.36 The fact of the matter is that Thai Rak Thai has skilfully used ex-leftists and NGO activists both to give it a populist colouring and to police social movements. This is what comes of refusing to build political parties of the working class and peasantry.

Despite claiming to avoid politics, the NGO movement is deeply involved in it, but the refusal to see the central role of politics in building a better society merely means that the NGOs have no analysis or political organisation independent of the state and the capitalist class. Placing the emphasis of work on single-issue campaigns rather than having a unified political analysis seldom results in national policy proposals. For example, demands for compensation for land flooded by dams or campaigns opposing coal-fired power stations by local communities, do not result in a campaign for a unified energy policy on a national level. They cannot be easily linked to issues of poverty and other social problems either and the government can sometimes solve one group’s problems while other groups are left isolated. Single-issue politics are now a serious obstacle to building broad solidarity within the people’s movement.

Self-activity and democracy

Despite the fact that most NGO activists genuinely believe they are merely facilitating the empowerment of the poor, in practice NGOs mainly fail to do this because they reject organised political agitation. This can be demonstrated by two examples. The first comes from the activities of NGOs in the Thai urban labour movement. Such NGO activists openly regard themselves as ‘Pi-Liang’ (nannies) to trade unions. Therefore the NGO activists will lead struggles instead of agitating for self-activity by workers themselves. They can be seen directing demonstrations and sleeping alongside workers in their protest tents because workers are deemed not to be able to lead themselves.

Outside funding by foreign NGOs to labour movement bodies, rather than strengthening workers’ organisations in Thailand, leads to dependency and bureaucratisation—workers are not called upon to find their own resources for struggle, and union meetings and seminars are held in the comfort of expensive hotels. In fact NGO activists have absolutely no faith in workers’ solidarity within the Thai trade union movement. Instead they look to foreign networks and the internet for help. This can be seen by the way they teach striking workers to chant slogans and write placards in English—a language which most Thai trade unionists do not understand.

NGOs operating among Thai labour concentrate on providing welfare to the disorganised and advice to trade unions about how to operate within the law. This means that they are unwilling or unable to politically agitate among stronger sections of the trade union movement in order to increase the level of legal or illegal workers’ struggles. Under these circumstances they have been known to ignore calls for an end to mass job losses and demands for a welfare state funded by taxation of the rich. Instead they favour telling sacked workers which government loan they can apply for in order to set up their own businesses.

The second example comes from the Assembly of the Poor, which is a mass social movement of the peasantry in Thailand. Many of the NGO activists who have dedicated themselves to this movement were students who joined the CPT in the jungle after 1976. Their dedication cannot be questioned. But the problem is that when it comes to political leadership of the Assembly of the Poor, it does not come from rank and file peasants. It is always the NGO activists who act as spokespeople and carry out the real negotiations with government officials. Such negotiations take place after lengthy periods when the protesting peasants stay in tented encampments outside government offices. The image of these encampments is more like the lower classes passively waiting for an audience with their rulers rather than militant struggle. In sum, the Thai NGOs have failed to build self-leadership either among peasants or workers.

NGO political ideology helps to act as a barrier to self-leadership and the strengthening of struggle from below. NGOs concentrate on the most dispossessed in society, for they rightly see such people as most in need of help.37 Foreign aid funders are also much more likely to provide funds for such works. But work among those on the fringes of society or ‘underclasses’, however important, is so often only welfare work. It usually does not lead to the strengthening of struggles from below by industrial and agricultural workers who potentially have more economic power. Of course, foreign funders are highly unlikely to support projects which encourage militant strikes or demonstrations. Among those NGOs working with labour, there has often been a tendency to turn away from building in the trade unions and advancing class struggle in the workplace. Instead it is suggested that strengthening ‘communities’ is the answer.

Worse than this, many NGO theorists are highly elitist in outlook. They bemoan the fact that poor people have been brainwashed into taking part in the ‘consumer society’.38 This looks upon the poor as stupidly wanting such luxuries as motorcycles, refrigerators or televisions. They also reject ‘representative democracy’39 since, in the Thai context, this leads to vote-buying by capitalist parties. The logic of this is that the poor cannot be trusted to vote since they will just sell their votes to the rich and powerful.

The NGO movement grew up in the mid-1980s in response to social injustice, inequality and the authoritarianism of the state. NGOs were also a reflection of disillusionment with the lack of democracy in Stalinist political parties. NGO activists were originally motivated by ideas of local empowerment, participation and democratisation. Yet there is a trend in NGO thinking which displays an authoritarianism of its own.

NGOs claim to be ‘representatives of the people’s sector’,40 but they need not be accountable to or elected by anyone in the people’s sector. This trend rejects the whole idea of representative democracy, since these elections are tainted with vote-buying and money politics. Instead it opts for a non-elected version of representation. Bob Hadiwinata, in his book on Indonesian NGOs, calls this ‘virtual representation’.41

Most NGO internal structures resemble that of a small private business, and that is exactly what some of the service providers actually are. Many people who set up NGOs appoint themselves to be directors and never face election. This is not because most NGO leaders are power-hungry dictators. Their libertarian or anarchistic views of organising mean that they reject most formal internal democratic structures. Yet, while they claim not to have ‘leaders’, in practice they do and they are unelected. Similarly, they claim not to need formal rules for governing meetings (such as are found in trade union bodies), yet this is a recipe for the domination of informal meetings by loud mouths. Compounding this is the NGO policy of avoiding political arguments and theoretical debates within their meetings, which results in a ‘silent dictatorship’ of civil-society and localist values. Younger activists are not encouraged to form views of their own and debate issues with the older generation because political debate in general is frowned upon.

Agents of imperialism?

The apparent collusion between NGOs and neo-liberalism via civil-society theory may lead people to conclude that NGOs are local agents of imperialism. Massive foreign funding, often from Western governments, may add to this picture. James Petras, for instance, moves on from arguing that the NGOs’ ‘apolitical posturing’ reinforces the neo-liberal agenda to unjustly accuse many NGOs of deliberately acting as ‘grassroots reactionaries’, channelling neo-liberalism down from the World Bank or the IMF. to the people’s sector for the benefit of imperialism. He sees them as the local fire brigades, reducing class struggle so that capital accumulation can continue smoothly.42

During the Cold War period there were some clear examples of foreign NGOs working among the Thai and other Asian labour movements as real agents of Western imperialism. The American Center for International Labor Solidarity used CIA money, channelled through the US trade union movement, to counter the influence of Communists and militants in local unions. Their tactic was, and still is, to establish bureaucratic labour unions devoid of class struggle politics. The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, attached to the German SPD, also operated against Communist influence in the trade union movements. Prolific funding gave these organisations influence among Thai trade unionists. However, they do not represent the majority of NGOs operating among Thai social movements—and since the Cold War their own aims and priorities have changed. Such instances hardly provide the basis for a sane analysis of the NGOs in general as ‘agents of imperialism’.

Today those who charge the NGOs with being ‘foreign-funded agents of imperialism’ often echo the insults hurled at NGOs and all social activists by reactionary nationalist ruling classes, such as the Thai or Malaysian governments. What is more, such insults are a recipe for sectarianism and a lack of unity and solidarity among the people’s movements, which leads to one thing only—a weak and divided movement. The Philippines provides a warning of this type of problem: the Filipino anti-war movement was split four ways instead of uniting into a powerful force.

There is also some indication that the old Maoist left in India is suffering from similar sectarianism, with the ‘revolutionaries’ refusing to organise alongside ‘reformists’ and NGOs in the 2004 World Social Forum (WSF), choosing instead to organise ‘Mumbai Resistance’. Interestingly enough, Mumbai Resistance was also supported by the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines, despite the fact that the party itself organises a number of left-leaning NGO fronts, which carry much of the same identity politics as other NGOs. If such sectarianism is not overcome by a process of reviewing the old politics, it will mean that the left is unable to build on the energies of young people and newly radicalised workers in the rising tide of the movement. The field will be left open for NGO politics to continue to dominate.

Working with NGOs in Thailand

Workers Democracy in Thailand has long sought to critique the politics of both the Communist Party of Thailand, and the NGOs, which emerged after the CPT collapse in the mid-1980s. However, a one-sided critique of others in the people’s movement, if not linked to concrete solidarity with the NGOs, merely becomes sectarianism. When NGO leaders were attacked by the present government for being ‘corrupt’ and receiving foreign funding, it was vital that we stood beside those NGO leaders and defended them, pointing out the hypocrisy of such attacks from a government made up of corrupt politicians. For the last few years we have sought to build a tradition of fraternal debate with NGOs and others in the people’s movement, as part of a general discussion on the way forward for the left. Our main criticism of NGOs in this period is not that NGOs are reformists, but that they are not as effective as they could be in fighting for reforms. This is because NGOs fail to systematically link up various issues into a generalised struggle against capitalism, the free market and imperialism. We criticised the NGO movement for standing candidates in the elections for the Senate as ‘independents’, not because we oppose involvement in elections, but because we believe that the NGOs and others in the people’s movement should build a political party. Such a party would be able to pose an alternative political platform to all the other capitalist parties and would be a better way to involve the mass movements in collectively determining policy and in controlling elected representatives. The immense pressure on elected representatives to move towards narrow, conservative parliamentary politics cannot be resisted unless the individuals concerned are answerable to the movement.

The anti-war and anti-capitalist movement has also provided concrete opportunities for united front work with NGOs. Last year we built a small united front campaign to protest against Bush’s visit to the APEC meeting in Bangkok, despite immense pressure from the government on NGOs to abandon the protest. We also worked closely with groups who were too worried to protest, but were prepared to build forums to discuss alternative ideas to neo-liberalism and imperialism. More importantly, the annual People’s Assembly, set up by NGO and people’s movement activists as an ‘alternative’ to the rotten parliament, has drawn together activists from different single-issue campaigns. We have sought to participate in this process by engaging in fraternal debate and solidarity. Over the past year or so, there has been a small shift in its politics towards a more united political analysis of capitalism and also a shift from just complaining about problems towards trying to build an alternative strategy for struggle. The recent powerful campaign by state electricity workers against privatisation has started to unite urban and rural struggles on the issue of the market, although sharp political debate on the issue of the market is still necessary. Previously rural campaigns against hydroelectric dams and power stations had tended to regard state electricity workers as ‘the enemy’.

There are two pressures on socialists in such circumstances. Firstly, political debate and criticism are often deliberately interpreted by conservatives as ‘sectarianism’. Naturally these people would rather carry on working in old ways without being criticised. We have to find ways of resisting the pull towards ‘keeping quiet’ for the sake of building a united front. Secondly, there is the temptation to isolate ourselves in order to ‘clarify’ the political debate. This may also involve attempting to concentrate on building our organisation at the expense of the united front. In fact, it isn’t possible to do one without the other. Therefore we have to carefully balance political debate with genuine solidarity. This is not something that can be done automatically without constant discussion and reassessment of our work.

NGOs as reformists

Rather than seeing the NGOs and their associated social movements as agents of imperialism, we need to look at them as reformists. When we picture reformists we should not think of Third Way supporters of neo-liberalism, such as New Labour or the leadership of the German SPD. Rather, we should see mass organisations made up of activists who genuinely want to struggle for a better world. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci explained that people struggle against the system with different levels of consciousness. The most common form of early consciousness is to use ruling class ideology in struggling against capitalism. This is basically what the NGO activists are doing when they use civil-society theory or reject a class analysis. The question for socialists today, in a period of rising struggle, is not how we can prove ourselves to be pure revolutionaries in contradistinction from NGOs, but how we can build united struggles against neo-liberalism and imperialism with such people, and in the process start to win them, and those they influence, towards Marxist revolutionary ideas. One thing is clear. We cannot do this if we isolate ourselves from them or spend all our energies denouncing them. What is more, in many countries of Asia we also have to ask why the old Stalinist and Maoist left failed so badly in representing many sections of the oppressed who are now dominated by identity politics. We must ask ourselves why it is that the Dalits, gays, lesbians, drug users, migrant workers or environmentalists have not been drawn towards the left in recent years and what lessons are to be learnt from this fact. In conclusion, we have to be clear that the task is a learning process on all sides, while at the same time uniting in struggle for a better world.


  1. G Clarke, The Politics of NGOs in South-East Asia: Participation and Protest in the Philippines (Routledge, 1998), pp7, 28.

  2. J Bunyarutanasuntorn, ‘The Dynamics of Thai NGOs’ in N Petprasert (ed), NGOs 2000: Political Economy (for the Community), no 11, p74; S Nitayarumpong and S Mulada, From Grassroots to the Edge of the Sky: The Past, Present and Future of Thai NGOs (Kop Fai Publishers, 2001), p13 (both in Thai).

  3. R Hussarungsee, ‘The Role of NGOs and Civil Society in a Period of Change’, in N Petprasert (ed), as above, p180 (in Thai).

  4. G Clarke, as above, p7.

  5. J Petras, ‘NGOs: In the Service of Imperialism’, Journal of Contemporary Asia 29(4) (1999), pp429-440.

  6. G Clarke, as above, pp7, 198.

  7. J G Ungpakorn, Radicalising Thailand: New Political Perspectives, (Institute of Asian Studies, 2003), p187.

  8. As above; J G Ungpakorn, The Struggle for Democracy and Social Justice in Thailand (Pongpangan Foundation, 1997), p94; J G Ungpakorn, ‘The Political Economy of Class Struggle in Modern Thailand’, Historical Materialism 8 (2001), pp153-184.

  9. The same situation occurred in the Philippines—G Clarke, as above, pp7, 195.

  10. J Rigg, Southeast Asia: Human Landscape of Modernization and Development (Routledge, 2001), pp95, 164.

  11. A Callinicos, Against Postmodernism (Polity Press, 1992).

  12. R Hussarungsee, as above, pp42, 181.

  13. Alan Touraine explains that the success and advantage of the ‘new’ movements internationally is because they do not directly oppose the logic of neo-liberalism—A Touraine, Beyond Neo-liberalism (Polity Press, 2001), p69.

  14. NGO-COD, Thai Working Group on the People’s Agenda for Sustainable Development, NGO Coordinating Committee on Development, Alternative Country Report: Thailand’s Progress on Agenda 21 Proposals for Sustainable Development (2002), p25.

  15. As above, p153.

  16. As above, p25.

  17. D Forgacs, The Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935 (Lawrence and Wishart, 1999), p227.

  18. R Hussarungsee, as above, p187, and J Keane, Civil Society: Old Images, New Vision (Polity Press, 1998), p15.

  19. NGO-COD, People’s Agenda for Freedom, Compilation of Proposals by the People’s Sector (2002), p28 (in Thai)

  20. M K Connors, ‘Political Reform and the State in Thailand’, Journal of Contemporary Asia 29(2) (1999), pp202-225, and J G Ungpakorn, ‘From Tragedy to Comedy: Political Reform in Thailand’, Journal of Contemporary Asia 32(2) (2002), pp191-205.

  21. S Nitayarumpong and S Mulada, as above.

  22. P Wasi, Intellectual Strategy of the Nation: The Most Important Strategy for Society as a Whole (Thailand Research Fund, 1998) (in Thai).

  23. C Samutwanit, The People’s State and Change (Policy Studies Institute, 1998) (in Thai).

  24. G Clarke, as above, pp14, 93, 198, 201.

  25. As above, p211.

  26. R L Bryant, ‘Non-governmental Organisations and Governmentality: “Consuming” Biodiversity and Indigenous People in the Philippines’, Political Studies 50 (2002), pp268-292.

  27. J Bunyarutanasuntorn, as above, p76.

  28. K P A S Tan, ‘Civic Society and the New Economy in Patriarchal Singapore: Emasculating the Political, Feminizing the Public’, Crossroads 15(2) (2001), pp95-122.

  29. R Hussarungsee, as above, p181.

  30. As above, p185.

  31. G Clarke, as above, p14. Jon Ungpakorn (interviewed by S Yodkamonsart), ‘Adaptation of Thai NGOs in the Period of Change Between Two Eras’, in N Petprasert (ed), as above, p92.

  32. Jon Ungpakorn, as above, p91.

  33. J Petras, as above, p430.

  34. J Bunyarutanasuntorn, as above, p81, and S Nitayarumpong and S Mulada, as above, pp15, 21.

  35. J Keane, as above, pp5, 35.

  36. ‘Activist Urges PM To Apologise Over Probe’, Bangkok Post, 10 March 2002.

  37. D Pumpracha, ‘The Role and Future of Thai NGOs’, in N Petprasert (ed), as above, p116 (in Thai).

  38. R Hussarungsee, as above, p189.

  39. As above, p177.

  40. U Keaw-nu, ‘Southern NGOs in the Year 2000’, in N Petprasert, as above, p137.

  41. B Hadiwinata, The Politics of NGOs in Indonesia: Developing Democracy and Managing a Movement (Routledge, 2003), p184.

  42. J Petras, as above, p431