Interview with Mark Schuller

Digital Editorial Fellow Eduardo Ramírez Catarí [ER] had a chance to ask Mark Schuller [MS] about his two PoLAR articles, “Gluing Globalization: NGOs as Intermediaries in Haiti” (2009) and “Seeing Like a “Failed” NGO: Globalization’s Impacts on State and Civil Society in Haiti” (2007), both of which are featured in the virtual edition, Ethnographic Perspectives on NGOs.

ER [to MS]: Thanks for taking the time to reflect on these two articles. Looking back on your first article, “Seeing Like a Failed NGO,” what has changed? And, has your research informed your thinking about these developments?

MS: My own thinking on this article has shifted since PoLAR published it in 2007. This was my first peer-reviewed article and my first on NGOs, published before my dissertation. At that time, you can detect an early thinking process about NGOs and their failure. In the piece, I was still working through questions of classification and about NGOs’ social life. I was also grappling with the nonprofit in the U.S. for whom I worked having shut its doors. NGO closure – not necessarily “failure” – is far more common than acknowledged.

This is an early archive of feelings and approaches in the field. I have since heard many similar stories to La Jeunesse de Vallée (JdV) – and while I am far from cynical, I am more skeptical and certainly less “open” to new interlocutors. I ran into Sylvain, the founder, in January 2012. He followed me to an NGO office and actually went inside looking for me. He asked of the “promises” to help him buy a house. JdV has long since died, and along with it Sylvain’s desire to visit Vallue, but also the hopes for earning a livelihood.

I wonder how many Sylvains are out there, certainly after the windfall of aid following Haiti’s 2010 earthquake and the billions that went to foreign NGOs. In another context, Sylvain’s entrepreneurial spirit might not have been directed at NGOs, but as a structure, NGOs are the bulwark of Haiti’s middle class (see “Gluing Globalization”). I wonder what kinds of different social relations would be forming in a different postcolonial society with more opportunities to livelihoods other than NGOs.

ER: As a reader, it strikes me that a theme in “Seeing Like a Failed NGO” is the NGO’s quest for legitimacy. According to your description, it seems that NGO legitimacy vis-à-vis beneficiaries pivots on the promise of aid reaching populations. Would a more general interpretation of legitimacy – that is, a system of popular recognition and acceptance of NGOs’ presence and work – help ensure accountability towards aid beneficiaries?

MS: Is “legitimacy” synonymous with “accountability” or “authenticity”? Anthropologists and cultural studies theorists have engaged this latter concept as neoliberalism commodifies identities. Within the development and NGO literature, the concept is “accountability” – Edwards and Hulme did a volume about “room to maneuver,” NGOs juggling multiple accountabilities – both “upward” and “downward.” In my dissertation, and soon book (to be published in September), I discuss the ways in which NGOs are viewed by various groups – call them “stakeholders” if you like. What relationships do the NGOs engender with the beneficiaries? We need to look at all of these when assessing “legitimacy”, which too often means only either official papers on the one hand (legitimacy “above”) or consent by as few as one “local” representative (legitimacy “below”). NGOs are, structurally, only accountable to their donors, so this relationship is one sided. They are following the reward structure embedded in the aid. So before addressing any one relationship (accountability to beneficiaries) the structure of the reward system would have to be changed. This isn’t simply a staged focus group with hand-chosen beneficiaries for a donor visit, but some direct points of contact or at least communication. I should say that grassroots models do exist: Some groups, including Lambi Fund, have an elaborate process by which they assess legitimacy in the eyes of the community, before even engaging a process of accompaniment.

ER: Another relevant issue is the use of aid in the national interest of donors. At one level, aid is a source of jobs for nationals of donor countries. It is also one of many tools available to bureaucrats in the exercise of diplomacy. At another level, it can be used for regime change, as in the case of Aristide that you describe in your article. Can a legitimate aim of aid be the ‘development of new political leadership’? Are there ways of drawing lines around these issues?

MS: If a recipient country is ruled by a dictatorship, and as a result the population is suffering, then likely we’re talking about humanitarian aid, not development aid. Since the founding of the Red Cross, there has been a code of conduct and principles – neutrality being one of them. Peter Redfield has discussed another humanitarian agency, Doctors without Borders, whose own response differs from the Red Cross. So in the most extreme cases wherein it might be considered a desirable end to “develop new political leadership” (Let’s even put away the critique of imperialism, about who gets to decide whether a leader is a “dictator” and whether it is appropriate to take out Ghaddafi, for example.) we’re not even talking about long-term development but humanitarian assistance. So the proposition wouldn’t even make sense. In terms of development aid, this seems primarily about imperialism, installing regimes that are friendly to specific foreign interests. So no, I can’t imagine a scenario in which this would be justified.

As far as where the line should be drawn, this is what people have been debating on the ‘relief to development continuum’, and unfortunately the answer is not simple, and I wouldn’t trust a short answer on the subject in a postscript. Principles to guide drawing the line would include participation, communication, and a real focus on specific material consequences of aid and its suspension. Beneficiaries need to have a seat at the table when these discussions occur.

ER: The two NGOs that you studied in this piece ran into difficulties that shaped their failure. To a certain extent these failures can be traced back to the policy shift whereby the preferred recipient of funds ceased to be the state and instead became NGOs. The Haitian government responded to this significant reduction of its annual budget through measures aimed at the reduction of NGOs’ presence within Haiti, which proved too onerous for these particular NGOs. Although the advent of state reaction seems obvious in retrospective, anticipating specific strategies of resistance to this policy shift would have entailed the weighing of too many variables. Do you think we can realistically expect donors and stakeholders to responsibly be able to perform this task?

MS: Should donors anticipate the shifting terrain? Yes. Should they include local grassroots groups? (They are not one and the same. “Local” can also include “Astroturf” associations.) Yes. Should the decision-making structures and the overall plan be flexible to accommodate changes? Yes. Are donors responsible for predicting what will happen to a grassroots group and ultimately responsible for the outcomes to said group when the aid is in flux, particularly when their aid changes the political contours? No. There is no understanding that any particular group should have a claim to foreign aid. They should have access if they have a good structure and plausible solutions. They should hear about opportunities and structures. But I don’t believe donors have responsibilities to give aid to any particular group, so this isn’t a task I would put to donors.

ER: Recent works on anthropology of the State have focused on the role of non-state actors performing activities traditionally considered competencies of the State. In “Gluing Globalization,” you point to one consequence of sharing functions when you allude to the “transformation to support neoliberal interests” that states undergo once NGOs start operating within their boundaries. As a reader, I was interested to note that another consequence of this modus operandi is the need for a long-term presence of NGOs.

This need for a continued presence seems to prevent the realization of NGOs’ ultimate goal of “development.” Is this a fair reading of the operations of NGOs, though? If so, have you encountered this realization among aid workers?

MS: UN Special Envoy Bill Clinton said it best. In a March 2010 congressional briefing: “Every time we spend a dollar in Haiti from now on we have to ask ourselves, does this have a long term return?” said Clinton, whose own NGO, the Clinton Foundation, operates in Haiti. “Are we helping them to become more self sufficient? Are we building infrastructure in local development plans? Are we creating local jobs? Are we paying salaries for teachers, doctors, nurses, police, civil servants? Are we giving money to support government agencies that provide those services? In short, are we serious about working ourselves out of a job?”

The uneven, patchwork response to the earthquake was unfortunately a predictable outcome of the phenomena examined in “Gluing Globalization.” My most recent Huffington Post blog discusses consequences and analyzes the progress made before and after cholera in Haiti’s internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.

Unfortunately the structure was not radically changed with the billions in aid, with an increase in tensions and conflicts with aid flowing to a new class of “semi-elites.”

Especially since the earthquake, I have come to appreciate that we really need to be careful about using the word “NGO” – what does it really mean, in fact? Anthropologists like Lewis and Mosse and Aradhana Sharma have helped us understand that NGOs aren’t single entities; they are very complex “assemblages” of different individuals with distinct and sometimes overlapping interests and agendas.

I have interviewed many aid workers who know quite well the problems of dependency. Given the structure of aid being given they have a more difficult time imagining reorganizing the decisionmaking structures but a few are training Haitians in parts of their job. I would say that there is a profound unease but often a sense of fatalism on the part of the most self-reflexive aid workers. On the other end of the continuum are missionaries who are explicitly in the business of keeping their own niches and winning converts. Most are somewhere in the middle, believing in the humanitarian enterprise and their own role, with a worldview that supports “Western” intervention.

ER: Seminal works, such as Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine, have studied the adverse effects of development interventions that approach politically charged situations from an “expert” perspective. This practice, Ferguson argues, makes the political dimension of development problems invisible to donors and undermines local political processes. In your article, you note that not only services which “were previously under the governments’ purview” become depoliticized, but also that this downsizing of Southern states is in NGOs’ best interests since it helps carve out a niche for their activities. The picture that emerges is less the one of unintended consequences that Ferguson paints and more one of a movement towards what you identify as nongovernmentality. Has development discourse, at least in Haiti, changed to embrace nongovernmentality, or is this shift unconscious?

MS: I’m just going through a mound of both quantitative and qualitative data from eight IDP camps and over 40 aid workers, so I can’t say too much here. I would say that, whether a “project” on the part of foreign aid agencies or the irresponsibility of the Haitian state, Haitian citizens’ aspirations have been privatized. They don’t envision a role for the government in their solution. And their views on NGOs and the UN (which includes a peacekeeping mission) are critical yet complex.

Haiti’s earthquake was supposed to be an opportunity to “build back better”, but unfortunately donor praxis has not shifted much: 1 percent of emergency aid went to the government, and .02 percent of contracts for US reconstruction aid went to Haitian firms.

I would say that for some people highly placed within USAID this shift is most certainly conscious. For most I would guess that it is a sense of realpolitik and a concern with “results” that has shifted the contours of people’s thinking about NGOs and their appropriate role, so maybe this is “semi-conscious”?

ER: Finally, I was interested in your use of world systems theory when you describe the creation of a previously inexistent middle class and the implications of this for the implementation of neoliberal capitalism. I was particularly persuaded by your assertion that ‘[i]ntermediaries, uncertain of their position within the system, hold the key to change. When this middle class identifies with ‘the people’ change is possible.” Is this change possible without the fundamental reimagining of donor priorities, or must “semi-elites” disentangle themselves from agents of neoliberal capitalism for true change to be achievable?

MS: Excellent question. This would be the subject of a productive discussion within and across social movements from South to North. My own sense is that a reparations framework needs to replace the current framework and priorities of national-interest bound clientelism. But this framework won’t change if Southern NGO professionals and their Northern allies don’t push for it. Could the former push for radical structural change while accepting aid conditioned by neoliberal conditionalities and bilateral national interest? Some say they can.

Audre Lorde has an answer: you can’t dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools.

Recommended Citation

Ramírez, Eduardo, and Akhila Gupta. Reflections on the Anthropology of NGOs and Haiti. Interview. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review Online, 1 May 2012, https://polarjournal.org/2012/05/01/interview-with-mark-schuller

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