It is not LALIT’s aim, in this Symposium, to demonize people who are active in NGOs or to make anyone feel guilty. As Lindsey said this morning, Mauritius is a highly organized society – even hyper-organized. Few countries are more organized than Mauritius. Each village has a women’s association, a few “sit”, a number of sports clubs and a co-operative shop. What we are trying to do is to look at the whole phenomenon, not at NGOs one by one, as part of this general pre-existing self-organization. We are interested in the phenomenon as a whole and, in particular, in the context in which the NGOs have proliferated, and the effect they have. Mauritian society has, after all, been around a long time and yet it is only recently that NGOs have appeared and proliferated. So they represent a new phenomenon.
Put in a nutshell, what I’m going to be arguing is that NGOs correspond to a specific time in Mauritian history. They appear, and then proliferate, under the particular conditions of the dominant ideology of a particular epoch, which in turn corresponds to the politics of the economy of these times.
Let’s take a look at different historical contexts, so that we can start to understand the factors that favoured the proliferation of NGOs over the past 10 – 20 years in Mauritius.
Colonial times: Times of Paternalism
In colonial times, after the end of slavery and indenture, the State continued to discourage all structured organizations amongst the broad masses. unions were illegal throughout the colonial period, until the 1940s. Associations of ordinary working people were outlawed. The State in those times needed, for its survival, to ban all collective actions by banning all organizations. The laws were called “anti-coalition laws”. Society at that time was characterized by its class nature, and by the immense disparity between rich and poor. The poor could only just survive. So, how does the State stabilize society, stabilize a nation, in these conditions of extreme class inequality, and under such harsh repression.
So this very unequal class society produced a paternalistic attitude towards the working class. From the State’s side, there was what was called the Poor Law; it reluctantly handed out social aid to those who could prove themselves needy and pass a poverty test and who would literally die without this aid. From the Church’s side, there were charitable works that “aimed at” the needy. Both the State and the Church were thus fighting the poverty that the class system was producing.
From 1930s and 40s: Times of political struggle and social gains
Under the triple influences of firstly, the political revolutions of the 20th Century, in particular the socialist revolution in Russia in 1917 and then later in China in 1948, secondly all the huge anti-colonial political movements in Asia and Africa for national liberation, and thirdly with the Mauritian Labour Party being influenced by the British Fabian Society, there was a radical ideology that was becoming dominant, either revolutionary or social-democratic. The Labour Party set up its Societé de Bienfaisance, and trade unions and co-operatives were set up in different sectors – it was a big movement – under the Labour Party’s broad umbrella, and addressing social issues. Big strike movements led to pensions and workmen’s compensation.
In the run-up to Independence, political struggles led to the development of an embrionic welfare state, or elements of the welfare state, with health services, education and housing becoming considered “rights”.
This tendency towards social services being rights grew and expanded under the political impulsion, in the 1970s of the MMM. At the same time, under the broad political umbrella of the MMM, the union movement became strong, and more democratic as broad masses of people mobilized around actions. Simultaneously, there was the growth of democratic, autonomous “Komité Kartye” in all villages and towns. The MMM’s Marxist language (not necessarily its politics) gave impulsion to these collective actions.
The “reaction” sets in
What happened then is important for the beginning of NGOs in Mauritius. A strong, knee-jerk anti-communist line took hold in the bourgeoisie, and in the Church against the MMM. This led to one of the very first NGOs, that would engender many others. It was called IDP (Institut pour le developpement et le progrés). It came from the bourgeoisie and through the Church. It was one of the first signs that we would begin an epoch of NGOs. It was set up to do a specific task: for the bourgeois class, against the spread of communist or Marxist ideas. IDP was controlled, in the final analysis by the Church, which eventually closed it down by force.
From the 1980s, the capitalist neo-liberal offensive really got off the ground at a worldwide level. The IMF, World Bank and then WTO set about imposing a new regime that would turn back the gains of the political revolutions and reforms of the 20th Century. This affected Moris and elsewhere, as Arundhati Roy described in India. The first thing neo-liberalism did was to force the State to withdraw from the economy and from service providing. The State was made to disengage from everything. Except perhaps from the Police. This meant the systematic dismantling of the welfare state, and of running social services – from health services, from social problems. This meant a return to the colonial Poor Law type “targeting” for social aid. People no longer see that it is the class system of capitalism that produces poverty irrevocably, but believe that there are merely “pockets of poverty” here and there that can be addressed with a bit of charity, then everything will be hunky-dory. The State now even opens a National Social Register that lists a finite number of families that are poor enough to qualify for aid. Targeting has been put down on paper. Yesterday the Finance Minister said that 6,400 families are living in extreme poverty. The idea is that once these people are brought out of poverty, there will no longer be any poverty. And this will be done with money from the bourgeoisie and by NGOs.
Look at the CSR money. Former Finance Minister Rama Sithanen, neo-liberalism’s national high priest, set up CSR. He is in charge of making the State reduce expenditure on social services, and he sets up CSR, 2% profits of the big companies. At the same time, he lowers the tax rate from 25-30% for big companies, and he lowers it to 15%, a flat rate – big companies and individuals. Then he says, “Look, I’ve lowered your taxes by 10-15 %, look you can now give 2% to CSR to look after needy people.” In the beginning, the Government gives guidelines on how to spend the money. Then last year, Lutchmeenaraidoo removes them, and let the companies themselves decide what to do with the money on the basis of their own decisions. What happened is that they set up their own NGOs. Each sugar estate sets up a couple – to look after health and education. The bosses employ people through their own NGO. Yesterday Finance Minister has seen this is too scandalous, so now, still 2% of profit, half will be jointly managed by the State and the Bosses, the other half continue under the bosses’ control. So, just studying CSR, we understand a lot. But most importantly we understand that the same ideology that pushes neo-liberalism, encourages the proliferation of NGOs. There are even organizations that are Governmental, but do the same work! I’m referring to the National Empowerment Foundation, a QANGO, a Quasi NGO – controlled by Government.
There are NGOs in part because there is the money. As if the money is there first. Then people set up NGOs depending, as Vijay said this morning, on what money they hear will be available this year. This year there’s money for the drug problem, next year for street children, and so on. The money goes where the bourgeoisie chooses. So, we really need to be conscious. We need to know that it is not necessarily progress – what it is, is the reflection of a given period, or epoch, and in this case of the reactionary neo-liberal project. So NGOs correspond to the dominant ideology, which has its own right-wing agenda of the capitalist class. Why we need to understand this, is to be aware of how this phenomenon – not any one NGO – slows down, retards the struggle for real progress in society. If not, we in LALIT believe, one of the huge problems around NGOs is that it drains away human effort, the imagination and activism of the youth, because it is a terrain that ignores the fact that we are living in a class society. NGOs think society is OK, other than pockets of problems. If you only see pockets of problems, the rest is by definition hunky-dory. In reality the whole of society is suffering because of the class system, the capitalist system reproducing this exploitation and domination. And it must be addressed. Forces that slow down this process of struggle for deep change are negative forces. We need to understand this.
So, the proliferation of NGOs in the Republic of Mauritius corresponds to the agenda of the international neo-liberal capitalist class as well as the local bourgeoisie. And it corresponds to the related phenomenon of the shifting to the right and even extreme-right of social democratic parties, worldwide and in Mauritius.
Experience of a Health Co-operative
This change in the political context of different epochs explains why a Health Co-operative in Bambous that I was involved in, when it was founded in 1975 was a revolutionary organization. People got together and organized a mini-national-health-service run on autogestionary lines. And by 1999, although we still had 400 families fully paid up as members, the times were such that the same co-operative bore the risk of being a reactionary association. The time of the NGO had arrived. The health co-operative became an example of how the State could happily withdraw from health care. This is why through general assemblies discussing it, we wound up this flourishing co-operative. Its legacy that such self-organization is possible remains.
At the same time, in 1999, there was a massive peoples’ rebellion after the death in police cells of the musician, Kaya. This made all the capitalist enterprises, once again often in cahoots with the Church, set up foundations to try and quell future such uprisings. Soon foreign powers, like the US Embassy also started to chip in to finance NGOs, with their own agendas in mind. NGOs are so big now that as well as drawing in people who might otherwise be activists to run them, they employ thousands of people, most in menial tasks paid much more poorly than when the State gave the service.
It is important that we do not think this Symposium is to look at individual NGOs to see what good each one is or is not doing, but to realize that there is a massive overall phenomenon of our times called “NGOs”, and to recognize the right-wing neo-liberal reaction that has set these NGOs in motion. That is LALIT’s aim in organizing this Symposium.