The Complicated Relationship of Global NGOs and Local Popular Movements: Reflections from South Africa

By Richard Pithouse

It’s often assumed that the international reach of big multinational institutions like the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), along with many of the NGOs allied to them, needs to be matched by a counter internationalism from below. In the richer parts of the world, where there is better access to transport and communication technologies, it may well be possible for popular organizations to organize across borders and to send representatives to international meetings on their own terms. But in the poorer parts of the world it is often extremely difficult for popular organizations to work internationally. In these cases, the assumption that an effective response to the big multinational institutions must be a global response results in a tendency by NGOs to substitute themselves for popular organizations in international networks.

There is no doubt that big multinational institutions have a very strong influence on how elites around the world understand cities and the competing claims of their residents. This influence can take the form of simple coercion, as with World Bank structural adjustment programs. It can also take the form of “partnerships,” as with various projects of organizations like USAID or the Cities Alliance, in which governments are won over with funding and the idea that these organizations offer “world-class” technical expertise. But these organizations don’t just try to subordinate or co-opt governments to their agendas; they also work with academics, NGOs and the media to shape the general understanding of cities and the competing claims of the different people and social forces that inhabit them. They also support projects that, like Slum Dwellers International, aim to mobilize poor people to accept oppression and to work within its limits rather than to challenge it directly.

Given the tremendous power of the big multinational institutions, it is no surprise that so many people argue that their global power must be challenged by global alliances of poor people and their supporters. This is not a new idea. When capitalism first spread across the globe, it was often argued that the workers’ movement must also internationalize itself. But although there were lots of inspiring examples of international cooperation between trade unions in different countries, the workers’ movement ultimately failed to organize itself in a truly international manner. On the contrary, workers often accepted the division of the working class into hierarchies based on nationality, race and gender. This meant that workers in the dominated countries often had to wage their own struggles as independent interventions because the workers’ movement that called itself “global” wasn’t really for all workers and didn’t recognize the realities of particular places in the world. This fact should lead us to be cautious of any easy optimism about a global solidarity against the big multi-national institutions.

We also need to remember that, while organized workers in many countries have their own resources in the form of union dues, the urban poor often have extremely precarious livelihoods and are not able to fund their own organizations to undertake international work. International networking usually happens through the internet and international air travel. Many poor people’s organizations do not have regular access to the internet—it’s often a struggle just to gain and sustain access to electricity. And of course, air travel is often entirely unaffordable and it’s sometimes difficult for poor people to get visas.

When donors are willing to fund international networking by popular movements, they usually do so on their own terms and for their own projects and not in dialogue with the movements. And when movements are able to raise their own money they are often confronted with urgent immediate expenses for the costs of day-to-day organizing—costs that escalate enormously when state repression has to be confronted. Popular organizations will simply not survive if they do not prioritize collective work, like holding regular meetings, opposing evictions and supporting prisoners, over individual opportunities for international travel.

Moreover, because most of the organizations that network internationally are professional organizations, they can often make decisions quite quickly and on an individual basis. But if a popular movement is democratic, the decision-making process is inherently slow. For instance, if a shack dweller’s movement receives an email inviting the movement to send a representative to a meeting, the movement may not receive the email until a few days after it has been sent. Once it does receive it, it will have to find space on its regular meeting agenda to discuss the invitation. This may be difficult if it is in the midst of confronting urgent issues like evictions or arrests. Once the issue has been discussed, the movement may decide that it needs to do some research on the proposed invitation before it can consider it carefully. Once that has been done, it may have to refer the invitation back to the branches of the movement for further discussion. If people agree to accept the invitation, they’ll then have to elect a representative to attend the meeting. That person will then have to begin the process of applying for a passport and a visa. All of this could easily take a few months. But most of the time, when an invitation is sent a reply is expected within days or, at best, a couple of weeks. If movements allow themselves to be pressured into giving up democratic politics, which is slow politics, for the fast politics of the NGO world, they tend to lose their mass support very quickly.

These material and political constraints to international networking mean that in poorer parts of the world, like Africa, it is donor-funded NGOs rather than popular organizations that are able to monopolize or to regulate access to international spaces like the World Social Forum and regional social forums. And if popular movements are able to win some autonomous access to these spaces, they often find that all the important decisions have already been taken care of on email by NGOs and academics before the meetings start.


The pervasive substitution of popular movements by NGOs in international forums and networks leads to all kinds of problems. The power relations between the NGOs and the popular movements will always be driven by class and may well also be driven by race, gender and nationality. While NGOs often tend to present the problems faced by poor people as technical policy questions, popular movements, driven by the day-to-day concerns of their members, often see the root cause of the problems in political questions about power relations. Moreover, the donor-funded NGOs tend to orient much of their work around the concerns and interests of their funders in the global North. In some cases, this leads them to try and capture the representation of popular movements in the South in order to deliver the appearance of popular support for the projects of their funders and allies in the North. In these cases, the NGOs tend to become very anxious, and in some instances highly authoritarian, when popular movements insist on representing themselves and on developing their own analysis of their situation. In South Africa, NGOs that work with the big multinational organizations as well as those that oppose them have both responded with shocking authoritarianism that, in some respects, mimics that of the state when popular movements have insisted on the right to represent themselves.

But perhaps the most fundamental difference between the donor-funded professional NGOs and the popular movements is that the former can only make arguments about how to achieve a better world, while the latter may attain the mass support to actually force governments, wealthy communities and big business to make concessions.

NGOs often justify their power over popular movements by saying that the movements are parochial and don’t understand the big picture. It is true that NGOs are often better placed to have a global picture, but while this is important, they usually fail to confront local political realities on the ground, which have to be confronted before any kind of popular mobilization is possible. And there are a lot of examples of how highly mobilized communities have won all kinds of victories and concessions from governments and multinational organizations by having organized themselves to become a powerful force on the ground. Ideally, on-the-ground movements should be able to have a conversation, on the basis of equality, with the NGOs and academics that are more easily able to take a global view. There is much that both sides can learn from each other. But for as long as the NGOs and academics deny this equality, that conversation cannot happen. What happens instead is often more like a form of top-down, stultifying instruction far removed from the lived realities of life and struggle confronted by popular movements.

In South Africa, the two most important popular urban movements walked out of the national NGO-dominated networking forum—a forum that also sought to regulate international networking—in 2006 because they felt that they were systematically disrespected by the NGOs and treated as if they were stupid rather than poor. They also felt that the NGOs were exploiting the movements so that the NGOs could develop their own power in international networks, rather than supporting the movements to develop power on the ground.

This walkout meant that the movements gave up access to NGO money and opportunities for international travel. But by building their own power in their communities on their own terms, the movements were later able to form more equitable relations with different NGOs that were prepared to put aside assumptions of superiority and to respond to the challenge issued by the movements to support, rather than lead. The movements were also able to develop their own relationships, often non-professionalized, with activists from other countries. Through these relationships, it slowly became possible for the movements to make international connections on their own terms with the political support of people that they knew and trusted. For instance, the shack dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo was able to elect representatives to visit London and New York last year. Important solidarity initiatives were developed during these trips. Ashraf Cassiem from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign in Cape Town was able to visit the United States recently, and after his visit, a Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign was formed.

This mode of developing international connections is far from perfect. For a start, it’s been based on individual relations with activists from the North who have come and lived in communities of struggle. These activists have earned the respect of the host communities and gained a real understanding of their situation and the political choices with which they confront that situation. But the problem with this mode of developing an internationalism to counter that of the big multinational organizations is that the reality of the global political economy means that while American or British activists may be able to afford to come and live in a struggling community in South Africa for a few months, a similar exchange doesn’t happen with Nigeria or Pakistan. But because these relations are based on slow politics, and on a clear understanding of the realities on the ground, they have enabled fruitful experiments in international networking, including the beginnings of direct, unmediated relationships between at least some people in popular movements in different countries.

We should not assume that international networking is automatically superior to local activism. To do so not only marginalizes the poor from their own struggles, it is also politically wrongheaded because it doesn’t take into account the important reality that local expressions of international power can and often have been beaten back by local organization. We should recognize that international networking is valuable but that popular movements can’t rely on the professionalized circuits of NGO and academic activism to achieve this. If popular movements are going to be able to represent themselves, to share their experiences and to build genuine solidarity internationally, then they will have to look for ways to build slower and more democratic processes that enable direct horizontal relations, including solid personal relations, between movements.

Richard Pithouse has been a member of Abahlali baseMjondolo since the movement’s inception. He teaches politics at Rhodes University in South Africa.