NGOs Tread Hazardous Ethical Terrain in “Paved with Good Intentions”

Paved with good intentions“If I could fool myself, in a minute I’d fool you.” – Elvis Costello

Initially, I was unsure why Nikolas Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay chose to open their book with this quotation. Paved with Good Intentions: Canadian Development NGOs from Idealism to Imperialism is a stone cold indictment of Canada’s international development industry, but also, at its heart, a book about exposing the myths we buy into about good work being done abroad.

This got me excited.

Paved examines the relationship between Canadian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the Canadian state, calling into question the non-governmental status of development NGOs, given their high financial dependence on the federal government. Barry-Shaw and Jay demonstrate the ways in which the state has historically controlled the agenda of Canadian international development by using strategic funding cuts to punish organizations out of step with the government’s current mandate.

According to Barry-Shaw and Jay, “international development” and its attendant NGOs are just another means by which economically powerful countries of the global north exert control over poorer nations in the south, and extend neoliberalism – the eliminating of trade barriers in favor of free-market capitalism – around the world. Paved explicitly argues against neoliberalism, and will obviously win little support from the Milton Friedmans in its readership. But a more interesting question is just how much support Paved garners from left-wing activist readers, people who are typically opposed to unfettered capitalism but also make up the bulk of development NGO membership and leadership?

I would count myself among such left-wing activist types. When I first read Paved in April 2013, I had just returned from an extended period working with development NGOs in rural Guatemala. During my time there, I saw a lot of problematic work being done in the name of development, and was struggling to make sense of it all upon returning to Canada. Reading Paved was a powerful experience. It reflects so much of what I saw first hand in Guatemala: the shortcomings of micro-finance; new class and social divisions caused by the influx of money from northern NGOs; the dependency of grassroots organizations on funds from other countries (and how these organizations are pressured to modify their programs or de-politicize their activities at the behest of northern NGOs).

While Paved uses case studies from a number of countries around the world, Haiti – which is estimated to have the world’s highest concentration of NGOs per capita and has been dubbed the “Republic of NGOs” – is the one place the book comes back to repeatedly. The authors have strong links to Haiti. Both were founding members of Haiti Action Montreal, an activist group established in response to the Canada-backed coup d’état that saw Haiti’s democratically-elected government overthrown in 2004. The authors were shocked by the way other Canadian NGOs, which claimed to have been pro-democracy and focused on social justice, toed the party line and supported the newly-installed Haitian government. “This book was born in Haiti,” the authors begin by saying, and it’s clear.

Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, international NGO activity in the country became even greater. According to Barry-Shaw and Jay, the country lost nearly all sovereignty to foreign NGOs. Then-president Jean-Max Bellerive stated: “The NGOs don’t tell us … where the money’s coming from or how they’re spending it … Too many people are raising money without any controls, and don’t explain what they’re doing with it.”

It was this part of Paved that came to my mind this past November, following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philipines, and is why I chose to re-read the book for review. In the wake of a natural disaster overseas, donating to charities and NGOs feels like a no-brainer. However, Barry-Shaw and Jay remind us to think first before reaching into our pockets, and to make sure we really know how an organization will use those funds. Often such initiatives appear to be undeniably positive – and based on a genuine desire to do good –  but can still end up having the opposite effect

This is just one of many reasons why Paved is bound to be a difficult read. Even setting aside the moral dilemmas it forces readers to grapple with, the book is dense with information – and acronyms; that’s something else readers need to brace themselves for – and reads very much like a text book. (Truly, Paved should be required reading on every Development Studies syllabus, though the book opposes much of what such university programs actually teach.)

While Barry-Shaw’s and Jay’s arguments are indeed quite radical, Paved is by no means an editorial or rant. There is no pontificating. The authors have done their legwork, diligently citing each chapter in what comes out to be almost forty pages of notes at the back of the book.

After reading Paved for the first time, I quickly suggested it to some friends who were also employed in the development sector. My recommendation was met with reticence. One friend admitted that while it sounds like a good book, she was scared to read it, scared it would basically tell her that the work she’s doing is all a sham. Working for NGOs is seldom a money-grab; most people are doing development work because they truly believe they are making a difference. They are doing good work. That’s why it’s easier to close one’s eyes, to fool oneself, rather than call that ‘good’ work into question.

Paved With Good Intentions bravely asks these questions and reveals the path treaded by international NGOs to be more hazardous terrain than we want to believe.