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NGOs join Presidents behind the G20 Fence

Canada's non-profit industrial complex shows its face in the run up to the G20

by Dawn Paley

Fence in Toronto for the G20 // Zen Bohemian
Fence in Toronto for the G20 // Zen Bohemian

As the people of Toronto prepare community level mobilizations against their lived experiences of the negative effects of G20 control, a much smaller group of people is planning to sit down and speak directly with G20 leaders on behalf of Canadian civil society.

These groups are clustered together as a G20 focused campaign called At the Table, which focuses on vague slogans about eliminating poverty and saving the earth that sound good to people who understand that the world is a messed up place.

But while the At the Table campaign calls for Canadians to “take bold action to end poverty at home and abroad,” their members are actively pacifying people who want to take to the streets to make their message heard.

“We're trying the critical engagement approach,” Make Poverty History head Dennis Howlett told the Globe and Mail in March. “Doing anything outside the security perimeter, it's going to be a nightmare with security.”

Howlett’s dissuasive comments reflect a broader issue in movement building in North America.

“What has happened to the great civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s and 1970s? Where are the mass movements of today within this country? The short answer: They got funded,” wrote Adjoa Florência Jones de Almeida, a community organizer with the Sista II Sista Collective, in the 2007 book The Revolution will not be Funded.

Termed the “non-profit industrial complex” by INCITE! Women of Colour Against Violence, this is a phenomenon that continues to be worth exploring in the context of mobilizing against the G20 in Toronto.

“Usually when we use the word NGO we’re talking about groups that are financed by the government and regulated by the government,” said Yves Engler, a Montréal based author who is writing his fourth book about international development NGOs. It’s important to differentiate between their work and that of grassroots community organizations, says Engler, and tracing the flow of money is one way to make that distinction.

“There’s a history of these organizations sort of defining the parameters of critique,” said Engler.

The Assembly of First Nations, Oxfam Canada, Development and Peace, the World Wildlife Federation, World Vision Canada and other members of the At the Table are heavily funded by various agencies of the federal government. Some groups facing defunding from Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), including the Canadian Council for International Cooperation and Kairos, continue to participate in the campaign.

At the Table labour groups like the Canadian Auto Workers, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, and the Canadian Labour Congress are not government financed, but do receive funds from CIDA for international development projects. Members of these groups are concentrating resources on organizing a permitted march on Saturday, June 26.

History is repeating itself once again as some of the civil society groups inside the security fence at the G20 are assisting the state, the media and the police in creating a binary between “good” protesters and “bad" protesters.

In the context of mobilizing around the G20, Stephen Lewis, former UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa who helped launch the At the Table Campaign, told the Globe and Mail that demonstrators engaging in “violence” must be kept “under control” in order for groups like his to gain concessions from world leaders.

This type of messaging, which portrays people in the street as “violent” even as police and security forces spend nearly one billion dollars on weapons, transportation, and staff time, attempts to define the parameters of acceptable expression with regards to the G20 summit.

In addition, messages around being able to get concessions out of G20 leaders by acting diplomatically towards them undeniably legitimizes the G20 Summit. This distracts from the a key message of grassroots organizers in Toronto, who "ask nothing of the oppressive, illegitimate and non-representative G8, G20 and B20."

Given the historic pattern of government funded groups defining the continuum of acceptable resistance, Engler has a warning for people who support the work of large NGOs.

“It’s very dangerous for people who think they’re involved in progressive causes to be so dependent on government money,” he said. “The effect that has in terms of limiting political independence is very extreme, and in many cases the NGOs have simply become an arm of imperialism.”

This weekend, in a now familiar story line, huge fences and thousands of police will serve to protect heads of state from the people. But what's important to remember is that the fences and police will also separate at least 200 NGO delegates from the thousands of people in the streets.

Curious as to why tens of thousands are protesting the G8/G20 summits?  Go to for up to the minute G20 and G8 Summit Protest Reporting, straight 'outta the Alternative Media Centre!

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dawn (dawn paley)
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Journalist, co-founder VMC, ex-editor & board member with Media Co-op. Author, Drug War Capitalism.

794 words


The Coordinator Class

The funding is part of the matter, but not all of it. The real problem is with those who rise to upper-level coordinating or managing roles in these organizations. And we're not just taling NGO's here...unions, the culture sector, education/academics, white collar, blue collar, corporate's the management class tier between workers and owners, those persons with special privileges (advanced wages, job security, etc.) who will time and again be coopted by owning class agendas, if for no other reason than to maintain their place above the regular wage slaves.

Michael Albert and others have written extensively about this matter. The coordinator class assumes too much power in the institutional dynamics, and end up acting and speaking on behalf of their constituents with unregulated, undemocratic assertion. Most of the time they don't even get it--they are unaware that they have gone off the tracks. These people are deeply indoctrinated in the capitalist ethos (ie. ownership, ie. houses with mortgages, cars and cottages, flyaway vacations and meetings, the "lifestyle"...) and so their actions and voices can simply not speak to real and sustainable progress.

They lead the unions and pull the rug out from under grassroots and member initiatives, time and again. They use up volunteer energy and committment, they exploit donations and funding, they are clearly a force to be reckoned with. Especially as they are masked behind a veil of "do-good".

More of this analysis please and thanks. It's time to OUT these people. They need to hear it themselves.




for your comment. I agree with much of what you say and realize that the above article is a pretty superficial analysis in a lot of ways. But it's a starting point. If you'd like to post a longer piece about this on the site I would be super stoked to read it. That said I do hope to do a few more pieces of this over the next few days, inshallah.

NGO's suck

Great article exposing the role of the NGO industry.  It seems like every generation must learn again and again that there is a reason why the ruling class funds oppositional movements, from the US 'mainstream civil rights' movement to environmental, indigenous, labour etc., and that is as a means of control.  Those who work in the NGO's rationalize to themselves all the 'good' work they do because it's a paycheque and a career--yet they reinforce the status quo and retard the development of radical movements. 

The so-called 'Peoples Summit' last weekend in Toronto was dominated by NGOs and lacked any sense of radical politics or resistance, it was boring and pathetic (for the most part).  This is a big reason why Toronto is so fucking lame--many radicals are coopted and work for an NGO.

we definetely need more critique and analysis of the debilitating role of NGOs within our movements.


Is that really you?

Great points, and I don't

Great points, and I don't dispute the fact that NGOs who accept government fending are stuck in a difficult position. A whole bunch of them have joined in a new coalition called Voices-Voix, to expose and stand up to the Harper government's attack on human rights -- specifically the funding freezes for groups who speak out. 

Also, to my knowledge, PSAC does not receive any government funding, from CIDA or any other agency.

Unions get CIDA funding for social justice

"Most union social justice funds in Canada operate on a contribution of one cent per hour per member, paid by the employer. CIDA provides matching funds."

This is part of the reason folks have started alternative trade union formations, like LATUC.

The matching funds is

The matching funds is something that the workers have negitiated into their collective agreement. CIDA has no influence over the operations of the union's social justice fund. Receiving matching contributions from the employer is totally different from receiving a government grant. PSAC's social justice fund is doing really groundbreaking work in solidarity with trade unions in Haiti and is very critical of the Canadian government's past involvement in Haiti and other countries. CIDA has absolutely no say over its operations.

That's not to say that NGOs and unions are undeserving of criticism. This is a really important discussion to engage in. I personally think we need both NGOs and grassroots movements. But the NGOs should not be setting the agenda or running the show. Activism on all fronts helps us all.

Can you provide a link to the

Can you provide a link to the Stephen Lewis comment in the Globe and Mail? I'd like to see the original quote.

here it is

Sorry, I was having some serious tech issues with the posting... Here's the link:

Want to hear something

Want to hear something crazy? If you're on OSAP, ODSP, social benefits, etc. then...gasp, you're funded by the government! Do all the protestors deny any support from the government? If they accept welfare and so forth, they must actually be in cahoots with them!

Of course, always knew Stephen Lewis was secretly for oppressing the masses. God, this website and its purported journalism is absurd.

You're right

People on welfare and disability are certainly constant pressure to conform to the wishes of the government. It's a battle to maintain independent political vision, whoever you are.

The difference is that the NGOs have a choice in terms of how they go about their business; they can fight and risk funding or kow-tow and keep it. When you get funding from the government, like the article says, it's the first sign that your political orientation has been compromised. It's not proof-positive, but it's a good reason to look for more evidence that this or that NGO has aligned themselves with the government.

The only way your argument makes any sense is if you confuse the issue and refuse to understand the points as they were made. That, in my estimation, is one thing which is absurd.

Use Both Strategies - In & Out

I think this article is unnecessarily polarizing groups that are quite likely linked in terms of their intentions.

A lot of individuals who work for NGOs will also be in the protests, and many NGOs are promoting peaceful protests. To take a phrase of Stephen Lewis out of context and imply that he is against protesting is facile. If the objective of the protests is to get the G20 leaders to wake up to their responsibilites re Climate Change, Climate Debt, Global Poverty, etc. he is dead right that *violent* protests will hurt the cause. Violent protests simply give the excuse to the wealthy, and also a huge swathe of common working Canadians, that the protesters are just a bunch of deranged fanatics. There are hundreds of conservative reporters just hoping for the photo op, millions of conservative Canadians who will love to believe it, and dozens of conservative politicians who will be grateful.

I think that it's clear that *any* government funded organisation is vulnerable to government control (as is anyone on OSAP, Welfare, etc...). We are seeing this now when numerous organizations that have traditionally been strongly critical of Canada's stance on issues like Resource Extraction, Tar Sands, Israel-Palestine, Climate Change, Women's Issues etc. are having their funding completely gutted by the current Conservative government (KAIROS, Alternatives, Rights & Democracy, MATCH). But to infer that these organisations are 'an arm of the imperialist agenda' is really a joke. They've been doing excellent work, supporting those in desperate need in places like the Congo, Guatemala, Gaza, while doing the unpopular advocacy that brings light to bear on the root problems lying at the heart of Canadian society. That advocacy cost them their funding, but it is far too simple to state that they never should have sought the funding in the first place.

Human Rights work, and advocacy and activism need money. Money to support those in need. Money to publicize the messages that need to be heard, and educate those who need to hear it. Money to ensure that staff have the opportunity of having a roof over their heads, food in the fridge, and the possibility of raising a family. While the government is willing to fund good work, then it makes sense to use it.

To go back to my original point, let's avoid stereotyping and unnecessary polarization. The fact that there are those who will try to get inside the fence to negotiate does not mean that they have joined the 'enemy'. Their strategy may be different, by their objective may be the same. It seems to me to be very good to have activists working for decisive and sustainable change both inside and outside the fence.

I'll be on the outside....

Reform movements

I agree that reform movements can be an important complement to radical and grassroots movements under certain circumstances, but two things:

When negotiator/reform types work to actively undermine the people making stronger demands or working to transform the system, they are no longer allies. Their usual mode is to take credit for all the work that grassroots activists do, and then trumpet the deal they made. That's bullshit too, but it's not as damaging as turning against their more radical allies.

Second, the deal can't be a bunch of crap sold on a platter. The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement actually destroys more Boreal forest than it protects. The deal that Live 8 came out with a few years ago just subtracted debt relief from aid budgets, providing no new money. Those deals don't help anyone at all, and legitimize the secret plotting and policies of the G8/G20 in the short run, so they're actually damaging.

There needs to be a relationship of accountability between the reformists and the people they are supposedly speaking on behalf of. Too often, the only real mechanisms of accountability are to the people who control the purse strings and line their pockets.

Well said.... I work for an

Well said....

I work for an NGO that will be both inside and outside the fence. Both strategies are needed and it's unhelpful to polarize people working for social change. We work very closely with community groups and need their voices/actions to push the government. Just as importantly, however, community groups can make use of our access.

Where's your limit

So what would NGOs have to do for you to think that criticism of their actions is "helpful"?

Some NGOs have a lot to

Some NGOs have a lot to answer for. The maternal health initiative, for example, is led by a group of organizations that has been willing to aquiesce to the government's desire to keep certain options off the table, ie., safe abortions. But it's a false dichotomy to pit NGOs against community groups.

In our present context, I agree with the first part of the following but still not the second:

"It’s very dangerous for people who think they’re involved in progressive causes to be so dependent on government money,” he said. “The effect that has in terms of limiting political independence is very extreme, and in many cases the NGOs have simply become an arm of imperialism.”

The above demonstrates a lack of understanding of how many NGOs operate. We raise money for OUR programs and the government matches our efforts. Until the present regime in power in Canada, that is. But some NGOs continue to be bold and stick to their mandates. Others deserve the criticism.



need to nuance criticism of NGOs

Yes, this is a great example of the danger of lumping NGOs all into one boat.

There *are* some NGOs who are benefitting from Harper's so-called Maternal and Child Health program, while there are simultaneously at least as many who are losing their funding because of their support for abortion as being a necessary attribute of a global Maternal and Child Health Initiative.

NGOs are very different from one another.

Criticism of NGOs needs to be welcomed.
But their needs to be considerably more nuance than just 'they're all part of the imperialist plot', or 'they're all in it just for the money'.
If staff of NGOs were in it for the money, they'd go to the private sector!


Name one CIDA funded group that denounced the coup d'etat in Haiti in 2004. I can't think of any. The research has been done and the ground laid for "lumping these groups together" since 2004 and much before.

The problem as I see it isn't about taking the odd government grant or applying for government subsidies per se. It is relying on that money for core funding and paid staff positions.

more answers than questions


All the research has been done?
By who?
And you've personally read it all?

Most CIDA funded NGOs don't actually work in Haiti, so there's another case where you seem to be lumping everyone together.

You seem to have a lot more totally certain answers than questions which, in the mind bogglingly complex, slippery, sometimes violent, and culturally divers world of development aid, may be a little dangerous.

Confusing the issues again


There is a great deal of research backing up the thesis that NGOs that receive government funding (and many organizations who do not) are susceptible to supporting things that are in fact in direct contradiction to their mandate (assuming that it has something to do with the well being of populations). One example of this is the direct participation of NGOs in things like the coup in Haiti. Many unions (mostly from Quebec) were also deeply involved in legitimately a violent, anti-democratic coup that affected millions of people negatively.

I don't see what pointing out that Dawn hasn't read all of the research has to do with that? What does that have to do with anything?

Also, what does pointing out that development work is complex and slippery have to do with anything that has been mentioned? Of course it is, but that doesn't have any bearing on the damage that's done when NGOs support violent antidemocratic coups because of they're scared of losing funding.


You may be right about Haiti. We don't have partners there, and we only comment on situations where we feel we have strong, credible indigenous partner organizations. I do know that the United Church of Canada (a CIDA-funded organization) staff have written many thoughful pieces about the situation in Haiti, including items highly critical of foreign involvement in the country.

But look at the more recent coups in Honduras and read the CCIC-coordinated document "Honduras: Democracy Denied." It's hardly lockstep with the "empire", as you put it. CCIC represents about 90 NGOs, many with CIDA funding:

The point is that there are just as many progressive NGOs as there are progressive community groups. There are also just as many reactionary NGOs as there are reactionary community groups.



may I ask

Who you work for? Cheers.


Why don't you judge the comment on its own merits instead of trying to discredit them through organizational affiliation? We do not ask for a CV of the contributing authors here and then judge their work, we analyze it for what is put out there.

I was curious

because the person posting was referring to "we". You assumed I wished to discredit that person when that wasn't my intention (unless they work with Rights and Democracy, ha ha, but seriously:


"There are also just as many reactionary NGOs as there are reactionary community groups."

Hi again,

I don't think that there's any basis for this comment, and I don't see what it does, other than serve to muddle the analysis of funding sources and ideological drift.

If you compare ENGOs vs. grassroots environmental groups, I don't think there's any such equivalency to be made. If you compare grassroots international solidarity groups to development NGOs, I think that the former are much more accountable to the people whom they are acting in solidarity with.

There are groups that receive some government/foundation funding, but are nonetheless much more accountable than groups that also receive funding, but those are interesting for that reason.

It's certainly possible to imagine and implement ways in which one can positively use government or foundations funding, but NGOs that use the credibility built by grassroots activists to make secret deals, sell people out and so on, are case studies in how it goes awry.


As a previous respondent here stated, there are NGOs that may alter their policies in order to receive government funding. The concern is that this is not the case with all NGOs as the article outlines. Additionally, the reference to complexity in development work refers to the need to analyze why this occurs and what happens when it does. Say, for example, an NGO has to decide between continuing to support a certain policy and receiving government funding that will enable it to save lives. In that case, it may be tough to opt for the former decision even though it is superior in principle. Now it may be the case that an NGO goes further than this, as you say contravening its mandate, and that is objectionable. But the underlying point here is that these situations are not black and white. This article paints a portrait of NGOs as essentially an arm of oppressive governments. There are bad NGOs, good NGOs, bad governments, and good governments. There are bad decisions in otherwise good governments, and good decisions in otherwise bad governments. But it is critical to recognize that complexity, not to excuse egregious behaviour, but to see that by painting the world as us vs. them instead of the complex dynamic it is fails to realize or recognize why the injustices we see every day exist. If these issues were only a matter of the wrong people or wrong system in place and just getting the right people or right system there, it would be a heartening thought. But the history of many movements tell us otherwise, that it is also humanity itself, a humanity that can manifest itself through even the most well-intentioned of acts, that is equally responsible.


Good NGOs and bad NGOs. That sounds fine in the abstract, certainly, though it hardly precludes the need for a structural analysis of NGO funding structures.

Since there is no specific example, it's hard to say more than that.

I will add, though, that when it's about a concrete example, this discussion constantly gets diverted into the realm of personalities. As in: "I know X, s/he is an excellent human being; why are you criticizing her/him? S/he has nothing but the best of intentions."

For me, the point that evidently needs to be made over and over again is that just because you know someone, and think they are wonderful, doesn't mean that they are not succeptible to institutional pressures.

In Greenpeace's case (and many others), activists are fully well-intentioned and politically on point right up to the point where some executive coordinator makes the decision to devote all of the work they have done up to that point to a deal that the coordinator didn't consult anyone (except for their funder, bien entendu) about before signing.

Bias in Stephen Lewis' Caution on Violence?


Not very obvious. Questionable, in fact.
More obvious: Metro Morning CBC commentary on June 23 (I think) about hospitals preparing to deal with injuries "caused by the protest," such as tear gas related injuries. Seems to me that tear gas is much more likely to be generated (i.e. caused) by the response of police and pseudo police. Or even, as Sinclair Stevens found out in Quebec City, as deliberate police provocation. Subtle, perhaps even innocent, but anti-protest bias, nevertheless. Pity the CBC is so scared by attacks on its "liberal bias" that Rick Salutin wrote in a recent Friday G&M column that he now goes to CTV for "left-wing analysis."

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