Benevolent Colonialism of NGOs in the Balkans

One of the people who most helped put my impressions of Ceauşescu‘s Romania in 1983-84 into coherent wider perspective was Steve Sampson, an American anthropologist from (at that time) the University of Copenhagen (now at Lund University) who had done a lot of fieldwork in Romania during the 1970s and come back for more just as we were finishing our Fulbright year there. He was the one who introduced me to the term “actually existing socialism,” which Western socialists employed to distinguish their visions of ideal socialism from the actual implementation of socialist projects in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, where nearly every ostensible good intention had paved the road to ruin. When I recently googled his name, I came up with an interesting article he had published about attempts by NGOs to help failed societies in the Balkans pick themselves up and get fresh starts. I’ll quote just the introduction from his preprint published in Anthrobase under the title Weak States, Uncivil Societies and Thousands of NGOs: Western Democracy Export as Benevolent Colonialism in the Balkans.

In 1997, as part of a EU program to help build civil society in Bosnia, I was assigned to participate in the “mapping” of civil society in the country. We found nearly 400 various voluntary groups and civil society organizations. There were community groups, environmental groups, women’s groups, youth, refugee/returnee groups, human rights groups, psychosocial assistance groups, associations for reconstruction, culture, legal aid etc. Even in the eastern Republika Srbska, which was considered to be home to some of the most uncivil tendencies in Bosnia, we found various local initiatives and activities which we certainly could call “civil society”. This was surprising to the international aid organizations operating in Bosnia, who saw themselves as operating virtually alone, or needing to “build up the NGO sector”. But it also surprised ordinary Bosnians working in civil society who also felt tremendously isolated. During a meeting, one of them even declared, “If we had had 400 NGOs in our country before the war, there would have been no war.”

As part of this same study, we also commissioned a study of the history of the Bosnian voluntary sector. We found that a hundred years ago and up to the Titoist period, Bosnia was full of voluntary charities known as Vakuf, civic organizations, community groups, intellectual clubs and other organizations and activities which we would today call “civil society” or non-government organizations. It turns out that Bosnia was not so Balkan as it may seem, and that the real problematic was not the absence of civil society and the need to implant NGO organizations, but the fact that a vibrant civil society had in some ways declined or dissolved due to specific historical and political factors. Similar tendencies have prevailed in most other Balkan countries: there were community groups centered on neighborhood, occupation, or common interest which existed together with or supplemented the primary family groups; moreover, family groups often fulfilled what we today would call civic functions, providing security, welfare, etc. Kosovo’s (pre-1999) parallel institutions are the most recent example. The problem of civil society is not necessarily its absence but its decline under specific conditions of economic chaos or political repression.

I point out this example because over the last few years in trying to export Western democracy to the Balkans, we continually interpret our difficulties in terms of the barriers posed by stubborn Balkan traditions. A Western democracy assistance program has stalled or not been implemented, and this is explained by the fact that local Balkan organizations or government offices lack initiative, are not serious, are just thinking about the money, are hypocritical, lazy or corrupt. NGOs are accused of being unable to cooperate, of hoarding information; staff are accused of not having enough initiative; intellectuals of being unable to write clearly; officials of promising to do something and then changing their minds or catering to their political patrons.

These explanations for inadequately executed programs come from the donors and their representatives. They are often not written down in reports but are the stuff of ethnographic interviews or café chatter when “the internationals” gather. But the critique is also complemented by the locals. In Albania, Bosnia, Romania, and Kosovo, the locals make similar complaints about donors: the donors do not listen to their suggestions; they come in and out as if they know everything; they impose bureaucratic barriers on obtaining funds; they are keeping secrets from us; they are maintaining their positions to earn high salaries, otherwise they would have to go home; they are wasting aid money meant for us; they are carrying out unnecessary appraisals, evaluations, and control visits using uninformed foreign consultants. In short, the donors are “not being transparent with us”, they say. This activity, “donor bashing”, is almost de rigeur at conferences on the Balkans and in recent locally produced analyses (Deacon and Stubbs 1998, Papiè 2001). Criticism of donors in Eastern Europe, particularly of American programs, comes also from Western specialists (see esp. Wedel 2001, Carothers 1999, Carothers and Ottaway 2001).

Now it would be easy, much too easy, to call all this an Orientalist discourse, yet another indication that we stupid Westerners don’t know what’s going on. I myself, having worked on such projects, have been accused of all these things. Analyzing the local laments, it would also be easy to see a kind of Balkan externalization in which all problems are attributed to the machinations of outside actors beginning with the Turks, later on the Communists, and now the West, represented by their agents at the local EU office or USAID mission. It would be easy to conclude that the donors are stupid, naive or corrupt, and that the local staff are unthankful or manipulative.

Yet things are not so simple. In fact, most of the actors on both sides of the Western aid system are intelligent, diligent and well-intentioned. Moreover, many of the most anti-Balkan statements come not from the foreigners, who in fact have a sympathy for the trials and tribulations of these countries, but from local citizens frustrated at their own countrymen for squandering opportunities or not being able to cooperate. The most negative remarks about the Albanians, Kosovars, Bosnians and Romanians with whom I have worked have come from other Albanians, Kosovars, Bosnians and Romanians.

The discursive turn in Balkan studies (Wolff 1994, Todorova 1997), in which societies are purely constructive and therefore artificial, has blinded us to the concrete problems which cause some organizations and projects, despite good intentions and declarations, to falter. Measuring project success is always problematic. Often we tend to compare the ideal of our own society (our own myths of efficiency, transparency and cooperation) with the harsh reality of getting things accomplished in the Balkans. There are in fact some concrete factors connected with Balkan history and society which do indeed give democracy projects a particular colour in these places south and east of the Alps. In one particular sector, civil society/NGO development, activists and project coordinators conclude that of the thousands of registered NGOs, no more than 10% are truly active. The rest exist only on paper, or have been formed only to obtain funds, or are a cover for a single person’s activity, or simply a cover for tax free business, or even worse. Civil society is accused of being secretive, manipulative, ineffective, nepotistic, of being an “NGO mafia” who reward each other with trips, computers, and other benefits. The conflicts can even be more dramatic. In Albania, for example, I was working with a head of a youth organization who explained to me that he was unable to work with another youth activist because of a family feud: He explained to me, “Do you know what it’s like to be angry at somebody for five generations?”(Sampson 1996).

Let me try to summarize, at the risk of putting all the Balkan societies under a single category (something we do every day when we talk about “the West”). What makes the Balkans both interesting, and exasperating is the presence of alternative social arrangements for achieving one’s own strategies and for preventing others from achieving theirs. Kinship, clans, family relations, social networks, social circles, intrigues, ties of loyalty, informal linkages, and a host of social obligations somehow inhibit people from fulfilling their official duties to formal institutions, or prevent organizations from operating in an efficient, transparent way. In one sense, these are the famous “parallel structures” which played such a prominent role throughout the Balkans both before and during communism, and in Kosovo during the 1990s. In another sense, these parallel structures are the true civil society, the social self organization to fulfill grass roots needs in a hostile political environment.

The paradox, of course, is that these same informal relations which inhibit institutions from functioning are those which have enabled Balkan peoples to survive subjugation by foreign powers, authoritarian politicians, and countless wars and betrayals. Moreover, if we examine the many successful civil society initiatives in the Balkans, we find that many of these activities are based on the utilization of kinship, friendship and neighborhood ties and strong social linkages of obligations. Members of NGOs are not simply independent individuals with a common interest; they have often grown up together, gone to school together, served in the military or spent time in prison together, been in exile together, or are close friends or cousins. They “know each other”. Let us call this relationship one of “trust”. Trust, and the moral obligations associated with these, enable people to get a meeting together at a moment’s notice, or put together an application, or locate a plane ticket when everything is sold out. Trust is what the members of an Albanian grant-giving foundation with whom I worked, when reviewing applications for grants from other activist groups, could throw the project proposal aside and conclude, “I know him. He’s good.” And it is these same importance of social relations which also causes them to question another project proposal, no matter how well written, by saying, “I don’t know her.” or “Her father was a communist”.

The strength of these ties is well known to Balkan ethnographers. Extended families, friendship, godparenthood, village ties, and conversely, relations of enmity and feud are the very stuff of Balkan ethnography, especially out in the villages and up in the mountains. It is these ties which enable communities to hold together while also tearing them apart in the most violent fashion. In fact, the stronger the kin and family ties, the more violent the feuds and more fragmented the society. Highland Montenegro and Northern Albania are examples (Boehm 1984).

Seen from a Western democratic point of view, the problem of the Balkans is what to do about these traditional institutions. Up to now, the idea has been the replace them or go around them by establishing new institutions: NGOs, community organizations, parliaments, ombudsmand, and other kinds of formal organizations. Even in politics, the idea has been to turn the personalistic, clientilistic political parties into transparent, accountable organizations. Much of the activity of Western development projects is about implanting these new forms onto preexisting communities. It is about replacing loyalty to persons with a Western model of loyalty to an institution and its principles. Sometimes these efforts have been successful, though the presence of so many façade or nonfunctioning organizations seems to belie the success.

The ability to actually utilize these traditional networks has been limited to a very few projects: one of the most interesting are the Danish government-financed projects for conflict resolution in Albania, in which traditional leaders and peacemakers are given training in modern techniques of conflict resolution, which they then use to arbitrate family disputes, village conflicts or long-standing blood feuds. Generally, however, the effort by Western democracy and civil society programs is to transplant our models so that local cultural traditions remain unused.

Most Westerners’ observations about complications in civil society development speak of the stubbornness of Balkan cultural traditions. The adaptability and flexibility of these traditions tends to be forgotten, as it tends to conflict with the dynamics of the Western foreign aid system as it operates in local communities and social interventions. It is what I call the “social life of projects”, a specific set of resources, people and practices which ultimately creates embedded interests (Sampson 1996). One of these interests is to make itself irreplaceable, i.e., to construct a local Balkan reality in which local problems persist and make project personnel and project thinking a necessity. At its best, the project system begins with foreign staff and their organization, who are then gradually replaced by local staff, what in Kosovo has been called “kosovarisation” by the OSCE.

Project society has its own dynamics, and it is misleading to see Western aid projects as an insidious plot. The donors and their personnel are by and large well-intentioned, and the most suitable term for Western intervention in the Balkans would be benevolent colonialism. Here the accent should be on the benevolent aspects. Traditional European colonialism was violent, repressive and exploitative, but we also know that even the most brutal colonial regimes in Africa had civilizing missions, priests, doctors and humanitarians who truly sought to help. They built roads, sewage systems and railroads. Today’s Western benevolent colonialism seeks to provide a climate of security and stability in the Balkans, and while their may be untapped consumer markets for cellular phones and household goods, the economic benefits of Western investment in the Balkans are questionable.

We need to understand the nature of this Western good will, the mechanisms behind “funding virtue” (Ottaway and Carothers 2001). Balkan critiques of the West focus on Western self interest and manipulation, hence the conspiracy aspect. They fail to understand that from an economic point of view, the Balkans is more a burden than a benefit. Hence my focus on benevolent colonialism. This kind of colonialism has its own dynamics, whereby the Balkans are a Western project. Let me therefore use the rest of this paper to detail the nature of project society in the Balkans.

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Filed under Balkans, democracy, economics, nationalism, NGOs, scholarship, U.N.

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