The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) have made significant progress in setting up structures that would serve as an alternative to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which are dominated by the U.S. and the EU. A currency reserve pool, as a replacement for the IMF, and a BRICS development bank, as a replacement for the World Bank, will begin operating as soon as in 2015, Russian Ambassador at Large Vadim Lukov has said.
Brazil has already drafted a charter for the BRICS Development Bank, while Russia is drawing up intergovernmental agreements on setting the bank up, he added.
In addition, the BRICS countries have already agreed on the amount of authorized capital for the new institutions: $100 billion each. “Talks are under way on the distribution of the initial capital of $50 billion between the partners and on the location for the headquarters of the bank. Each of the BRICS countries has expressed a considerable interest in having the headquarters on its territory,” Lukov said.
It is expected that contributions to the currency reserve pool will be as follows: China, $41 billion; Brazil, India, and Russia, $18 billion each; and South Africa, $5 billion. The amount of the contributions reflects the size of the countries’ economies.
By way of comparison, the IMF reserves, which are set by the Special Drawing Rights (SDR), currently stand at 238.4 billion euros, or $369.52 billion dollars. In terms of amounts, the BRICS currency reserve pool is, of course, inferior to the IMF. However, $100 billion should be quite sufficient for five countries, whereas the IMF comprises 188 countries – which may require financial assistance at any time.
BRICS Development Bank
The BRICS countries are setting up a Development Bank as an alternative to the World Bank in order to grant loans for projects that are beneficial not for the U.S. or the EU, but for developing countries.
The purpose of the bank is to primarily finance external rather than internal projects. The founding countries believe that they are quite capable of developing their own projects themselves. For instance, Russia has a National Wealth Fund for this purpose.
“Loans from the Development Bank will be aimed not so much at the BRICS countries as for investment in infrastructure projects in other countries, say, in Africa,” says Ilya Prilepsky, a member of the Economic Expert Group. “For example, it would be in BRICS’ interest to give a loan to an African country for a hydropower development program, where BRICS countries could supply their equipment or act as the main contractor.”
If the loan is provided by the IMF, the equipment will be supplied by western countries that control its operations.
The creation of the BRICS Development Bank has a political significance too, since it allows its member states to promote their interests abroad. “It is a political move that can highlight the strengthening positions of countries whose opinion is frequently ignored by their developed American and European colleagues. The stronger this union and its positions on the world arena are, the easier it will be for its members to protect their own interests,” points out Natalya Samoilova, head of research at the investment company Golden Hills-Kapital AM.
Having said that, the creation of alternative associations by no means indicates that the BRICS countries will necessarily quit the World Bank or the IMF, at least not initially, says Ilya Prilepsky.
Currency reserve pool
In addition, the BRICS currency reserve pool is a form of insurance, a cushion of sorts, in the event a BRICS country faces financial problems or a budget deficit. In Soviet times it would have been called “a mutual benefit society”, says Nikita Kulikov, deputy director of the consulting company HEADS. Some countries in the pool will act as a safety net for the other countries in the pool.
The need for such protection has become evident this year, when developing countries’ currencies, including the Russian ruble, have been falling.
The currency reserve pool will assist a member country with resolving problems with its balance of payments by making up a shortfall in foreign currency.
Assistance can be given when there is a sharp devaluation of the national currency or massive capital flight due to a softer monetary policy by the U.S. Federal Reserve System, or when there are internal problems, or a crisis, in the banking system. If banks have borrowed a lot of foreign currency cash and are unable to repay the debt, then the currency reserve pool will be able to honor those external obligations.
This structure should become a worthy alternative to the IMF, which has traditionally provided support to economies that find themselves in a budgetary emergency.
“A large part of the fund goes toward saving the euro and the national currencies of developed countries. Given that governance of the IMF is in the hands of western powers, there is little hope for assistance from the IMF in case of an emergency. That is why the currency reserve pool would come in very handy,” says ambassador Lukov.
The currency reserve pool will also help the BRICS countries to gradually establish cooperation without the use of the dollar, points out Natalya Samoilova. This, however, will take time. For the time being, it has been decided to replenish the authorized capital of the Development Bank and the Currency Reserve Pool with U.S. dollars. Thus the U.S. currency system is getting an additional boost. However, it cannot be ruled out that very soon (given the threat of U.S. and EU economic sanctions against Russia) the dollar may be replaced by the ruble and other national currencies of the BRICS counties.
The group of five major emerging national economies known as the BRICS has rejected the Western sanctions against Russia and the “hostile language” being directed at the country over the crisis in Ukraine.
“The escalation of hostile language, sanctions and counter-sanctions, and force does not contribute to a sustainable and peaceful solution, according to international law, including the principles and purposes of the United Nations Charter,” foreign ministers of the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – said in a statement issued on Monday.
The group agreed that the challenges that exist within the regions of the BRICS countries must be addressed within the framework of the United Nations.
“BRICS countries agreed that the challenges that exist within the regions of the BRICS countries must be addressed within the fold of the United Nations in a calm and level-headed manner,” the statement added.
The White House said earlier on Monday that US President Barack Obama and the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan decided to end Russia’s role in the G8 over the crisis in Ukraine and the status of Crimea.
Meanwhile, the G7 group of top economic powers has snubbed a planned meeting that Russian President Vladimir Putin was due to host in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi in June.
The G7 said they would hold a meeting in Brussels without Russia instead of the wider G8 summit, and threatened tougher sanctions against Russia.
Russia brushed off the Western threat to expel it from the G8 on the same day. The Autonomous Republic of Crimea declared independence from Ukraine on March 17 and formally applied to become part of Russia following a referendum a day earlier, in which nearly 97 percent of the participants voted in favor of the move.
On March 21, Putin signed into law the documents officially making Crimea part of the Russian territory. Putin said the move was carried out based on the international law.
BRICS have slammed recent reports ahead of the G20 meet to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin or to place any restrictions on his participation at the G-20 summit in Australia later this year.
“The Ministers noted with concern, the recent media statement on the forthcoming G20 Summit to be held in Brisbane in November 2014. The custodianship of the G20 belongs to all Member States equally and no one Member State can unilaterally determine its nature and character,” said a joint BRICS statement on Monday. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had said earlier that Putin could be barred from attending the G20 Summit in November.
BRICS Foreign Ministers met on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in the Hague on Monday to review cooperation among the bloc of five after the adoption of the eThekwini Action Plan of 2013.
The Ministers noted that the role of global governments should focus on “finance, security, information and production”.
“The BRICS agenda is not centered around any specific country or related issue and shares a common vision which drives it to also increasingly identify common areas for cooperation to assist with finding global solutions to global challenges,” noted the joint communiqué.
The BRICS meet convened by South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane was attended by her counterparts Sergey Lavrov, Salman Khurshid, Wang Yi and Carlos Antonio Paranhos, Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs of the Federative Republic of Brazil.
The BRICS Ministers also discussed cybersecurity and challenges to peace and security, “notably the significant infringements of privacy and related rights in the wake of the cyber threats experienced, for which there is a need to address these implications in respect of national laws as well as in terms of international law”, said the statement.
BRICS would “continue to act as positive catalysts for inclusive change in the transformation process towards a new and more equitable global order” asserted the Ministers.
BRICS have opposed sanctions against the Syrian government and have argued for a negotiated settlement of the Iranian issue. They are also pushing for reforms of global financial institutions like the IMF.
The five nations also agreed that the challenges that exist within the regions of the BRICS countries must be addressed within the fold of the United Nations.
“The escalation of hostile language, sanctions and counter-sanctions, and force does not contribute to a sustainable and peaceful solution, according to international law, including the principles and purposes of the United Nations Charter,” said the statement.
By the early 1980s the more perceptive sectors of the neoliberal ruling classes realized that their policies were polarizing the society and provoking large-scale social discontent.
Neoliberal politicians began to finance and promote a parallel strategy “from below,” the promotion of “grassroots” organization with an”anti-statist” ideology to intervene among potentially conflictory classes, to create a “social cushion.” These organizations were financially dependent on neoliberal sources and were directly involved in competing with socio-political movements for the allegiance of local leaders and activist communities. By the 1990s these organizations, described as “nongovernmental,” numbered in the thousands and were receiving close to four billion dollars world-wide.
Neoliberalism and the NGOs
The confusion concerning the political character of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) stems from their earlier history in the 1970s during the days of the dictatorships. In this period they were active in providing humanitarian support to the victims of the military dictatorship and denouncing human rights violations. The NGOs supported “soup kitchens” which allowed victimized families to survive the first wave of shock treatments administered by the neoliberal dictatorships. This period created a favorable image of NGOs even among the left. They were considered part of the “progressive camp.”
Even then, however, the limits of the NGOs were evident. While they attacked the human rights violations of local dictatorships, they rarely denounced the U.S. and European patrons who financed and advised them. Nor was there a serious effort to link the neoliberal economic policies and human rights violations to the new turn in the imperialist system. Obviously the external sources of funding limited the sphere of criticism and human rights action.
As opposition to neoliberalism grew in the early 1980s, the U.S. and European governments and the World Bank increased their funding ofNGOs. There is a direct relation between the growth of social movements challenging the neoliberal model and the effort to subvert them by creating alternative forms of social action through the NGOs. The basic point of convergence between the NGOs and the World Bank was their common opposition to”statism.” On the surface the NGOs criticized the state from a “left” perspective defending civil society, while the right did so in the name of the market. In reality, however, the World Bank, the neoliberal regimes, and western foundations co-opted and encouraged the NGOs to undermine the national welfare state by providing social services to compensate the victims of the multinational corporations (MNCs). In other words, as the neoliberal regimes at the top devastated communities by inundating the country with cheap imports, extracting external debt payment, abolishing labor legislation, and creating a growing mass of low-paid and unemployed workers, the NGOs were funded to provide “self-help” projects, “popular education,” and job training, to temporarily absorb small groups of poor, to co-opt local leaders, and to undermine anti-system struggles.
The NGOs became the “community face” of neoliberalism, intimately related to those at the top and complementing their destructive work with local projects. In effect the neoliberals organized a “pincer” operation or dual strategy. Unfortunately many on the left focused only on “neoliberalism” from above and the outside (International Monetary Fund, World Bank) and not on neoliberalism from below (NGOs, micro-enterprises). A major reason for this oversight was the conversion of many ex-Marxists to the NGO formula and practice. Anti-Statism was the ideological transit ticket from class politics to “community development,” from Marxism to the NGOs.
Typically, NGO ideologues counterpose “state” power to “local” power. State power is, they argue, distant from its citizens, autonomous, and arbitrary, and it tends to develop interests different from and opposed to those of its citizens, while local power is necessarily closer and more responsive to the people. But apart from historical cases where the reverse has also been true, this leaves out the essential relation between state and local power—the simple truth that state power wielded by a dominant, exploiting class will undermine progressive local initiatives, while that same power in the hands of progressive forces can reinforce such initiatives.
The counter position of state and local power has been used to justify the role of NGOs as brokers between local organizations, neoliberal foreign donors (World Bank, Europe, or the United States) and the local free market regimes. But the effect is to strengthen neoliberal regimes by severing the link between local struggles and organizations and national/international political movements. The emphasis on “local activity” serves the neoliberal regimes since it allows its foreign and domestic backers to dominate macro-socio-economic policy and to channel most of the state’s resources toward subsidies for export capitalists and financial institutions.
So while the neoliberals were transferring lucrative state properties to the private rich, the NGOs were not part of the trade union resistance. On the contrary they were active in local private projects, promoting the private enterprise discourse (self-help) in the local communities by focusing on micro-enterprises. The NGOs built ideological bridges between the small scale capitalists and the monopolies benefiting from privatization—all in the name of “anti-statism”and the building of civil societies. While the rich accumulated vast financial empires from the privatization, the NGO middle class professionals got small sums to finance offices, transportation, and small-scale economic activity.
The important political point is that the NGOs depoliticized sectors of the population, undermined their commitment to public employees, and co-opted potential leaders in small projects. NGOs abstain from public schoolteacher struggles, as the neoliberal regimes attack public education and public educators. Rarely if ever do NGOs support the strikes and protests against low wages and budget cuts. Since their educational funding comes from the neoliberal governments, they avoid solidarity with public educators in struggle. In practice, “non-governmental” translates into anti-public-spending activities, freeing the bulk of funds for neoliberals to subsidize export capitalists while small sums trickle from the government to NGOs.
In reality non-governmental organizations are not non-governmental. They receive funds from overseas governments or work as private subcontractors of local governments. Frequently they openly collaborate with governmental agencies at home or overseas. This “subcontracting”undermines professionals with fixed contracts, replacing them with contingent professionals. The NGOs cannot provide the long-term comprehensive programs that the welfare state can furnish. Instead they provide limited services to narrow groups of communities. More importantly, their programs are not accountable to the local people but to overseas donors. In that sense NGOs undermine democracy by taking social programs out of the hands of the local people and their elected officials to create dependence on non-elected, overseas officials and their locally anointed officials.
NGOs shift people’s attention and struggles away from the national budget and toward self-exploitation to secure local social services. This allows the neoliberals to cut social budgets and transfer state funds to subsidize bad debts of private banks, and provide loans to exporters. Self exploitation (self-help) means that, in addition to paying taxes to the state and not getting anything in return, working people have to work extra hours with marginal resources, and expend scarce energies to obtain services that the bourgeoisie continues to receive from the state. More fundamentally, the NGO ideology of “private voluntaristic activity” undermines the sense of the “public”: the idea that the government has an obligation to look after its citizens and provide them with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that the political responsibility of the state is essential for the well-being of citizens. Against this notion of public responsibility, the NGOs foster the neoliberal idea of private responsibility for social problems and the importance of private resources to solve these problems. In effect they impose a double burden on the poor who continue to pay taxes to finance the neoliberal state to serve the rich, but are left with private self-exploitation to take care of their own needs.
NGOs and Socio-political Movements
NGOs emphasize projects, not movements; they “mobilize” people to produce at the margins but not to struggle to control the basic means of production and wealth; they focus on technical financial assistance of projects, not on structural conditions that shape the everyday lives of people. The NGOs co-opt the language of the left: “popular power,” “empowerment,” “gender equality,” “sustainable development,” “bottom-up leadership.” The problem is that this language is linked to a framework of collaboration with donors and government agencies that subordinate practical activity to non-confrontational politics. The local nature of NGO activity means that “empowerment” never goes beyond influencing small areas of social life, with limited resources, and within the conditions permitted by the neoliberal state and macro-economy.
The NGOs and their post-Marxist professional staff directly compete with the socio-political movements for influence among the poor, women, and the racially excluded. Their ideology and practice diverts attention from the sources and solutions of poverty (looking downward and inward instead of upward and outward). To speak of micro-enterprises, instead of the elimination of exploitation by the overseas banks, as the solution, is based on the notion that the problem is one of individual initiative rather than the transference of income overseas. The NGO’s aid affects small sectors of the population, setting up competition between communities for scarce resources, generating insidious distinctions and inter- and intra-community rivalries, thus undermining class solidarity. The same is true among the professionals: each sets up its NGO to solicit overseas funds. They compete by presenting proposals more congenial to the overseas donors, while claiming to speak for their followers.
The net effect is a proliferation of NGOs that fragment poor communities into sectoral and sub-sectoral groupings unable to see the larger social picture that afflicts them and even less able to unite in struggle against the system. Recent experience also demonstrates that foreign donors finance projects during “crises”—political and social challenges to the status quo. Once the movements have ebbed they shift funding to NGO-style “collaboration,” fitting the NGO projects into the neoliberal agenda. Economic development compatible with the “free market” rather than social organization for social change becomes the dominant item on the funding agenda.
The structure and nature of NGOs, with their “apolitical” posture and their focus on self-help, depoliticizes and demobilizes the poor. They reinforce the electoral processes encouraged by the neoliberal parties and mass media. Political education about the nature of imperialism, and the class basis of neoliberalism, the class struggle between exporters and temporary workers, are avoided. Instead the NGOs discuss “the excluded,” the “powerless,” “extreme poverty,” “gender or racial discrimination,” without moving beyond the superficial symptom to the social system that produces these conditions. Incorporating the poor into the neoliberal economy through purely “private voluntary action,” the NGOs create a political world where the appearance of solidarity and social action cloaks a conservative conformity with the international and national structure of power.
It is no coincidence that as NGOs have become dominant in certain regions, independent class political action has declined, and neoliberalism goes uncontested. The bottom line is that the growth of NGOs coincides with increased funding under neoliberalism and the deepening of poverty everywhere. Despite the claims of many local successes, the overall power of neoliberalism stands unchallenged and the NGOs increasingly search for niches in the interstices of power.
The problem of formulating alternatives has been hindered in another way too. Many of the former leaders of guerrilla and social movements, trade union and popular women’s organizations have been co-opted by the NGOs. Some have undoubtedly been attracted by the hope—or the illusion—that this might give them access to levers of power which would allow them to do some good. But in any case, the offer is tempting: higher pay (occasionally in hard currency), prestige and recognition by overseas donors, overseas conferences and networks, office staff, and relative security from repression. In contrast, the socio-political movements offer few material benefits but greater respect and independence and, more importantly, the freedom to challenge the political and economic system. The NGOs and their overseas banking supporters (Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank) publish newsletters featuring success stories of micro-enterprises and other self-help projects—without mentioning the high rates of failure as popular consumption declines, low-priced imports flood the market, and interest rates spiral, as in Mexico today.
Even the “successes” affect only a small fraction of the total poor and succeed only to the degree that others cannot enter the same market. The propaganda value of individual micro-enterprise success, however, is important in fostering the illusion that neoliberalism is a popular phenomenon. The frequent violent mass outbursts that take place in regions of micro-enterprise promotion suggests that the ideology is not hegemonic and the NGOs have not yet displaced independent class movements.
Finally NGOs foster a new type of cultural and economic colonialism and dependency. Projects are designed, or at least approved, based on the “guidelines” and priorities of the imperial centers and their institutions. They are administered and “sold” to communities. Evaluations are done by and for the imperial institutions. Shifts of funding priorities or bad evaluations result in the dumping of groups, communities, farms, and co-operatives. Everything and everybody is increasingly disciplined to comply with the donors and project evaluators’ demands. The new viceroys supervise and ensure conformity with the goals, values, and ideologies of the donor as well as the proper use of funds. Where “successes” occur they are heavily dependent on continued outside support, without which they could collapse.
In many ways the hierarchical structures and the forms of transmission of “aid” and “training” resemble nineteenth-century charity, and the promoters are not very different from Christian missionaries. The NGOs emphasize “self-help” in attacking “paternalism and dependence” on the state. In this competition among NGOs to capture the victims of neoliberals, they receive important subsidies from their counterparts in Europe and the United States. The self-help ideology emphasizes the replacement of public employees by volunteers, and upwardly mobile professionals contracted on a temporary basis. The basic philosophy of the NGO intellectuals is to transform “solidarity” into collaboration and subordination to the macro-economy of neoliberalism, by focusing attention away from state resources of the wealthy classes toward self-exploitation of the poor.
But, while the mass of NGOs are increasingly instruments of neoliberalism, there is a small minority which attempt to develop an alternative strategy that is supportive of anti-imperialist and class politics. None of them receive funds from the World Bank, European, or U.S. governmental agencies. They support efforts to link local power to struggles for state power. They link local projects to national socio-political movements: occupying large landed estates, defending public property and national ownership against multinationals. They provide political solidarity to social movements involved in struggles to expropriate land. They support women’s struggles linked to class perspectives. They recognize the importance of politics in defining local and immediate struggles. They believe that local organizations should fight at the national level and that national leaders must be accountable to local activists.
Let us examine some examples of the role of NGOs and their relation to neoliberalism and imperialism in specific countries:
In 1985 the Bolivian government launched its New Economic Policy (NEP) by decree: freezing wages for four months while inflation raged at a 15,000 percent annual rate. The NEP annulled all price controls and reduced or ended food and fuel subsidies. It also laid the basis for the privatization of most state enterprises and the firing of public-sector employees. Massive cutbacks in health and education programs eliminated most public services. These structural adjustment policies (SAP) were designed and dictated by the World Bank and the IMF and approved by the U.S. and European governments and banks. The number of poverty stricken Bolivians grew geometrically. Prolonged general strikes and violent confrontations followed. In response the World Bank, European, and U.S. governments provided massive aid to fund a “poverty alleviation program.” Most of the money was directed to a Bolivian government agency, the Emergency Social Fund (ESF), which channeled funds to the NGOs to implement its program. The funds were not insignificant: in 1990 foreign aid totaled $738 million.
The number of NGOs in Bolivia grew rapidly in response to international funding: prior to 1980 there were 100 NGOs; by 1992 there were 530 and growing. Almost all the NGOs are directed toward addressing social problems created by the World Bank and the Bolivian government’s free market policies, which the dismantled state institutions no longer can deal with. Of the tens of millions allocated to the NGOs, only 15 to 20 percent reached the poor. The rest was siphoned off to pay administrative costs and professional salaries. The Bolivian NGOs functioned as appendages of the state and served to consolidate its power. The absolute levels of poverty stayed the same and the long-term structural causes—the neoliberal policies—were cushioned by the NGOs. While not solving the poverty problem, the NGO-administered poverty programs strengthened the regime and weakened opposition to the SAP. The NGOs, with their big budgets, exploited vulnerable groups and were able to convince some leaders of the opposition that they could benefit from working with the government. According to one observer, commenting on the NGO role in the “poverty program”: “If this (NGO programs) did not create direct support, it at least reduced potential opposition to the government and its program.”
When the public school teachers of La Paz went on strike to protest $50-a-month wages and crowded classrooms, the NGOs ignored it; when cholera and yellow fever epidemics raged in the countryside, the NGO self-help programs were helpless where a comprehensive public health program would have been successful in preventing them. The NGOs did absorb many of Bolivia’s former leftist intellectuals and turned them into apologists for the neoliberal system. Their seminars about “civil society” and “globalization” obscured the fact that the worst exploiters (the private mine owners, new rich agro-exporters, and high paid consultants) were members of “civil society” and that the SAP was an imperial design to open the country’s mineral resources to unregulated pillage.
In Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship in 1973-1989, the NGOs played an important role denouncing human rights violations, preparing studies critical of the neoliberal model and sustaining soup kitchens and other poverty programs. Their numbers multiplied with the advent of the massive popular struggles between 1982 and 1986 that threatened to overthrow the dictatorship. To the extent that they expressed an ideology, it was oriented toward “democracy” and “development with equity.” Of the close to two hundred NGOs, fewer than five provided a clear critical analysis and exposition of the links between U.S. imperialism and the dictatorship, the ties between World Bank funded free market policies and the 47 percent level of poverty.
In July of 1986 there was a successful general strike—a guerrilla group almost succeeded in killing Pinochet—and the United States sent a representative (Gelbard) to broker an electoral transition between the more conservative sectors of the opposition and Pinochet. An electoral calendar was established, a plebiscite was organized, and the electoral parties re-emerged. An alliance between Christian Democrats and Socialists was forged and eventually won the plebiscite, ending Pinochet’s rule (but not his command of the armed forces and secret police); this alliance subsequently won the presidency.
The social movements which played a vital role in ending the dictatorships were marginalized. The NGOs turned from supporting the movements to collaborating with the government. The Socialist and Christian Democratic NGO professionals became government ministers. From critics of Pinochet’s free market policies they became its celebrants. Former President of CIEPLAN (a major research institute) Alejandro Foxley publicly promised to continue managing the macro-economic indicators in the same fashion as Pinochet’s minister. The NGOs were instructed by their foreign donors to end their support for independent grassroots movements and to collaborate with the new civilian neoliberal regime. Sur Profesionales, one of the best known research NGOs, carried out research on the “propensity for violence” in the shantytowns—information that was useful to the police and the new regime in repressing independent social movements. Two of its chief researchers (specialty: social movements) became government ministers administering economic policies that created the most lopsided income inequalities in recent Chilean history.
The NGOs’ external links and the professional ambitions of its leaders played a major role in undermining the burgeoning popular movement. Most of its leaders became government functionaries who co-opted local leaders, while undermining rank-and-file style community assemblies. Interviews with women active in the shantytown Lo Hermida revealed the shift in the post-electoral period. “The NGOs told us that because democracy has arrived there is no need to continue the (soup-kitchen) programs. You don’t need us.” Increasingly the NGOs conditioned their activities on supporting the “democratic” free market regime. The NGO functionaries continued to use their participatory rhetoric to hustle votes for their parties in the government and to secure government contracts.
One striking impact of the NGOs in Chile was its relationship to the “women’s movement.” What started as a promising activist group in the mid-1980s was gradually taken over by NGOs who published expensive newsletters from well-furnished offices. The “leaders” who lived in fashionable neighborhoods represented a shrinking number of women. During the Latin American Feminist Conference in Chile in 1997, a militant group of rank-and-file Chilean feminist (”the autonomists”) provided a radical critique of the NGO feminists as sellouts to government subsidies.
The most dynamic social movement in Brazil is the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST). With over five thousand organizers and several hundred thousand sympathizers and activists, it has been directly involved in hundreds of land occupations over the past few years. At a conference organized in May 1996, by the MST, at which I spoke, the role of NGOs was one of the subjects of debate. A representative from a Dutch NGO appeared on the scene and insisted on participating. When he was told the meeting was closed, he told them that he had a “proposal” for funding ($300 thousand) community development, and insisted on entering. In no uncertain terms the MST leaders told him that they were not for sale and that anyway, they, the MST, design their own “projects” according to their own needs and don’t need NGO tutors.
Later the women’s caucus of the MST discussed a recent meeting with rural-based feminist NGOs. The MST women pushed for a class struggle perspective, combining direct action (land occupations) and the struggle for agrarian reform with gender equality. The NGO professionals insisted that the MST women break with their organizations and support a minimalist program of strictly feminist reforms. The end result was a tactical agreement opposing domestic violence, registering women as heads of families, and encouraging gender equality. The MST women, mostly daughters of landless peasants, perceived the NGO professionals as divisive careerists, not willing to challenge the political and economic elite that oppressed all peasants. Despite their criticisms of their male comrades, they clearly felt greater affinity with the movement than with the class-collaborationist “feminist” NGOs.
In our discussion, the MST distinguished between NGOs that contribute to the movement (money, resources, etc.) to finance class struggle, and NGOs that are essentially missionary outfits that fragment and isolate peasants, as is the case with many pentecostal and USAID and World Bank sponsored NGO projects.
Throughout Latin America peasant militants have voiced serious criticisms of the role and politics of the vast majority of NGOs, particularly about the patronizing and domineering attitude that they display behind their ingratiating rhetoric of “popular empowerment” and participation. I encountered this directly during a recent visit to El Salvador, where I was giving a seminar for the Alianza Democratica Campesino (the ADC, or Democratic Peasant Alliance) which represents 26 peasant and landless workers’ organizations.
Part of our collaboration involved the joint development of a project to fund a peasant-directed research and training center. Together with the leaders of the ADC we visited a private Canadian agency, CRC SOGEMA, which was subcontracted by CIDA, the Canadian government’s foreign assistance agency. They administered a $25 million (Canadian) aid packet for El Salvador. Before our visit, one of the ADC leaders had held an informal discussion with one of the Salvadoran associates of CRC SOGEMA. He explained the proposal and its importance for stimulating peasant-based participatory research. The CRC SOGEMA representative proceeded to draw a figure of a person on a piece of paper. He pointed to the head. “That,” he said, “is the NGOs: they think, write, and prepare programs.” He then pointed to the hands and feet, “that’s the peasants: they provide data and implement the projects.”
This revealing episode was the background to our formal meeting with the head of CRC SOGEMA. The director told us that the money was already earmarked for a Salvadoran NGO: FUNDE (Fundacion Nacional para el Desarrollo, the National Foundation for Development), a consulting firm of upwardly mobile professionals. She encouraged the peasant leaders to co-operate and to become involved because, she said, it would be “empowering.” In the course of our conversation, it emerged that the Salvadoran associate of CRC SOGEMA who had expressed that outrageous view of the relation between NGOs (the head) and peasants (the hands and feet) was a “link” between FUNDE and SOGEMA. The ADC leaders responded that, while FUNDE was technically competent, their “courses” and research did not meet the needs of the peasants and that they had a very paternalistic attitude toward the peasants. When the Canadian director asked for an example, the ADC leaders related the incident of the “political drawing” and the role to which it relegated peasants.
This was, said the director of SOGEMA, a “very unfortunate incident,” but they were nonetheless committed to working with the FUNDE. If the ADC wished to have an impact they would best attend FUNDE meetings. The ADC leaders pointed out that the project’s design and goals were elaborated by middle class professionals, while peasants were invited to collaborate by providing data and attending their “seminars.” In a fit of annoyance, the director called the meeting to an end. The peasant leaders were furious. “Why were we led to believe that they (the Canadian agency) were interested in peasant participation, democracy, and all the other crap, when they are already plugged into the NGOs, who don’t represent a single peasant? That study will never be read by any peasant, nor will it be at all relevant to our struggle for land. It will be about “modernization” and how to swindle the peasants out of their land and turn them into commercial farms or tourist areas.”
The managers of NGOs have become skilled in designing projects. They transmit the new rhetoric of “identity” and “globalism” into the popular movements. Their activities and texts promote international cooperation, self-help, micro-enterprises, and forge ideological bonds with the neoliberals while forcing people into economic dependency on external donors. After a decade of NGO activity these professionals have “depoliticized” and de-radicalized whole areas of social life: women, neighborhoods, and youth organizations. In Peru and Chile, where the NGO’s have become firmly established, the radical social movements have declined.
Local struggles over immediate issues are the food and substance that nurture emerging movements. NGOs certainly emphasize the “local,” but the crucial question is what direction local actions will take: whether they will raise the larger issues of the social system and link up with other local forces to confront the state and its imperial backers, or whether they will turn inward, while looking to foreign donors and fragmenting into a series of competing supplicants for external subsidies. The ideology of NGOs encourages the latter.
NGO intellectuals frequently write about “co-operation” but without dwelling on the price and conditions for securing the co-operation of neoliberal regimes and overseas funding agencies. In their role as mediators and brokers, hustling funds overseas and matching the funds to projects acceptable to donors and local recipients, the “foundation entrepreneurs” are engaged in a new type of politics similar to the “labor contractors” (enganchadores) of the not too distant past: herding together women to be “trained”; setting up micro-firms subcontracted to larger producers or exporters employing cheap labor. The new politics of the NGOs is essentially the politics of compradores: they produce no national products; instead, they link foreign funders with local labor (self-help micro-enterprises) to facilitate the continuation of the neoliberal regime. The managers of NGOs are fundamentally political actors whose projects and training workshops do not make any significant economic impact in raising workers’ and peasants’ incomes. But their activities do make an impact in diverting people from the class struggle into forms of collaboration with their oppressors.
To justify this approach, NGO ideologies will often invoke “pragmatism” or “realism,” citing the decline of the revolutionary left, the triumph of capitalism in the East, the “crisis of Marxism,” the loss of alternatives, the strength of the United States, the coups and repression by the military. This “possibilism” is used to convince the left to work within the niches of the free market imposed by the World Bank and structural adjustment, and to confine politics to the electoral parameters imposed by the military.
The pessimistic “possibilism” of the NGO ideologues is necessarily one-sided. They focus on neoliberal electoral victories and not on the post-electoral mass protests and general strikes that mobilize large numbers of people in extra-parliamentary activity. They look at the demise of communism in the late eighties and not to the revival of radical social movements in the mid-nineties. They describe the constraints of the military on electoral politicians without looking at the challenges to the military by the Zapatista guerrillas, the urban rebellions in Caracas, the general strikes in Bolivia. In a word, the possibilists overlook the dynamics of struggles that begin at the sectoral or local level within the electoral parameters of the military, and then are propelled upward and beyond those limits by the failures of the possibilists to satisfy the elementary demands and needs of the people.
The pragmatism of the NGOs is matched by the extremism of the neoliberals. The 1990’s has witnessed a radicalization of neoliberal policies, designed to forestall crisis by handing over even more lucrative investment and speculative opportunities to overseas banks and multinationals: petroleum in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela; lower wages and less social security payments; greater tax exemption; and the elimination of all protective labor legislation. Contemporary Latin American class structure is more rigid and the state more directly tied to the ruling classes than ever. The irony is that the neoliberals are creating a polarized class structure much closer to the Marxist paradigm of society than to the NGO vision.
This is why Marxism offers a real alternative to NGOism. And in Latin America, there do exist Marxist intellectuals who write and speak for the social movements in struggle, committed to sharing the same political consequences. They are “organic” intellectuals who are basically part of the movement—the resource people providing analysis and education for class struggle, in contrast to the “post-Marxist” NGO intellectuals, who are embedded in the world of institutions, academic seminars, foreign foundations, international conferences and bureaucratic reports. These Marxist intellectuals recognize the centrality of local struggles, but they also acknowledge that the success of those struggles depends to a large extent on the outcome of the conflict between classes over state power at the national level.
What they offer is not the hierarchical “solidarity” of foreign aid and collaboration with neoliberalism, but class solidarity, and within the class, the solidarity of oppressed groups (women and people of color) against their foreign and domestic exploiters. The major focus is not on the donations that divide classes and pacify small groups for a limited time, but on the common action by members of the same class, sharing their common economic, predicament struggling for collective improvement.
The strength of the critical Marxist intellectuals resides in the fact that their ideas are in tune with changing social realities. The growing polarization of classes and the increasingly violent confrontations are apparent. So while the Marxists are numerically weak in the institutional sense, they are strategically strong as they begin to connect with a new generation of revolutionary militants, from the Zapatistas in Mexico to the MST in Brazil.
There is an abundance of discourse over the means and methods that are pursued and/or justified by the Palestinians in their quest for independence and liberation. In the first part of this essay, I presented the legal, historical, and current context that forms the root of their current predicament. In this segment, I want to address the pros and cons of pursuing an exclusively non-armed struggle both by looking at the uniqueness of Palestinian circumstances and also by comparing it with the Indian National Liberation Movement, which is usually presented in Western narratives as almost exclusively non-violent, and successful, for having (ostensibly) been so.
A Brief History of Palestinian Non-Violent Resistance
Palestinians are continuously asked to not resist. The truth is that whether they resist violently or non-violently, Israeli violence continues unabated. Perhaps the scale, ugliness and the immediacy of the trauma are exaggerated in a massacre like we recently saw in Gaza, but the reality of purposeful eradication persists.
Examples of Palestinian non-violent resistance have existed since the very start of Jewish immigration into Palestine, but were never enough to attain freedom. Ultimately it is an imperative but frequently unstated precondition, that Palestinians accept a permanent subjugated and defeated status, preferably outside of their historic lands. It is otherwise known as the Yigal Allon Plan (1967), a policy actively pursued by even the “Dove” Shimon Peres and entailing the expulsion of Palestinians. The Allon plan formed the basis of Israel’s settlements/colonization. Frequently unacknowledged in mainstream Western coverage is that only after acceptance of defeat and eradication can Israel’s violence (aka “retaliation”) against Palestinians stop.
Unwilling to accept that, and choosing a policy of “sumoud”/steadfastness on the land, Palestinians pursue(d) non-violent resistance as a complimentary and grassroots approach against the occupation. Here are just a few examples of Palestinian non-violent resistance to Israeli aggression: in 1902, villages of al-Shajara, Misha, and Melhamiyya peacefully protested against the takeover of 7000 hectares of agricultural land by the first Zionist settlers; in 1936, Palestinians held a six-month industrial strike protesting the British Mandate’s refusal to grant them self-determination; in 1986, Hannah Siniora and Mubarak ‘Awad (who advocates the power of non-violence and is a self-described disciple of Gandhi; recently deported by Israel) drew a list of civic disobedience activities heavily reliant on boycotting Israeli products and economic self-sufficiency, helping launch the 1987-93 First Intifada; in 1993, the signing of the Oslo Accords and the pursuit of the “settlement” path; and currently, the holding of protests in the villages of Jayyous, Budrus, Bil’in, Ni’lin and Umm Salamonah against the apartheid wall (1: See here). Today, the tradition of non-violence is still practiced and promoted by some secular and independent Palestinian political leaders, like the Palestinian National Initiative led by Mustafa Barghouti. And even Hamas, often presented as the ultimate terrorist organization, upheld a six month ceasefire with Israel but was still subjected to a non-lifting of the suffocating siege of Gaza. (The ceasefire ended on November 4, 2008 when Israel conducted a targeted assassination that killed six Hamas members.)
Needless to say, these facts are rarely, if ever covered in mainstream accounts. Instead the focus is consistently on “terror” and “Israel’s right to defend itself,” ignoring the cumulative suffering of the occupation. As for Israel’s response, it consistently uses overwhelming force, including tear gas, rubber bullets, live ammunition, etc. against protesters and justifies this as “self-defense,” even when protecting illegal settlement colonies.
Which raises the question of the efficacy of non-violent resistance as the sole or primary means of achieving national liberation. While each national liberation struggle is unique, there are certain conditions and methods that may translate across people. One thing that many have in common is that non-violent resistance was not pursued exclusively. This was true of the African National Congress’ anti-apartheid Boycott and Divestment Movement in South Africa, which accompanied armed struggle. It was also true of the struggle for national liberation from British rule in India, a fact usually unmentioned in Western press, which tends to focus on Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha / non-violent path to resistance. In doing so, there is a grave disservice done to explaining how Indian independence came to be. There is also a convenient decontextualization of the struggle. And I use “convenient” intentionally, because Gandhi’s model is often held up (by Israel and the West) as the best and “most civilized” one that ought to be emulated by the oppressed Palestinians.
Gandhi in Context: Was the Indian National Liberation Struggle Entirely Non-Violent? The name Gandhi and non-violent resistance (satyagraha) are almost synonymous in most people’s minds. Satyagraha’s aim is not just to defeat the opponent, but aims to convert the adversary as well. And yet there are important nuances and definite progression in Gandhi’s approach to war and colonialism. On the subject of whether it is better to be a coward or to resist violently, he said: “I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence… I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour…” (2: Eds. R. K. Rabhu & U. R. Rao, “Between Cowardice and Violence,” The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, Ahemadabad, India, 1967, p. 3) He also said: “Though violence is not lawful, when it is offered in self-defence or for the defence of the defenseless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission. The latter befits neither man nor woman. Under violence, there are many stages and varieties of bravery. Every man must judge this for himself. No other person can or has the right. (3: Ibid, pp. 369-70) Applied to the Palestinian context, this would indicate that Palestinians have the duty to fight back against their own annihilation. However, he would have probably qualified that by saying that non-violence could cause the same changes with lower loss in life.
Historically, too Gandhi’s attitudes to war evolved. While still in South Africa, and in reaction to the Bambatha (Zulu) Rebellion of 1906 against a new British poll-tax, to which Britain responded by declaring a war, Gandhi encouraged the British to recruit Indians. He wanted to advance Indian claims as full citizens of the Empire. He also encouraged Indians to join the war through his columns in Indian Opinion.
Gandhi’s statecraft and thought did not happen in a vacuum. Likewise, India’s independence was not the work of only one man or one concept or one strategy. In fact, India’s nationalist feelings pre-existed Gandhi and the Congress Party, and evidence of it can be found as early as 1857. The first group to call for complete independence was the uncompromisingly secular Ghadar Party, organized in 1913 by Indian immigrants in California. (3: See here) The party actively pursued violent resistance and revolution (rejecting caste as well) and predictably, their actions were labeled as “terrorism” by Britain. Operating mainly in the first two decades of the 20th Century, the Ghadarites were successful in recruiting Indian soldiers in the British Army (in Hong Kong, Singapore, Rangoon, and Basra) and urging them to revolt.
As for Gandhi, once in India, he progressed to advocating non-violent resistance as a “weapon.” His political views on Indian independence evolved as well. Consider that at the age of 45, Gandhi still held some esteem for the British empire, calling it a “spiritual foundation,” in contrast to the views of most Indian revolutionaries. (4: See here) It wasn’t until after the Amritsar Massacre of civilians by British troops in the Punjab, that Gandhi advocated complete self-government maturing into independence (swaraj). In the intervening years there was a constant push and pull between Gandhi’s satyagraha policy and other political personalities and groups pursuing independence — not always non-violently.
A massive wave of revolutionary unrest swept India in 1919. British violent retaliation was unable to quell it. For example, there were more than 200 strikes in the first six months of 1920 alone. And yet in 1921, when Muslim leader Hasrat Mohani wrote a resolution asking for complete independence, Gandhi led the opposition against it and secured its rejection. Likewise, he supported Britain in WWI by trying to recruit Indians for the war effort. He himself volunteered twice for it, in present-day Iraq and in France, reasoning that he “owed” this to the empire in return for military protection. (5: Ibid) This led to deep divisions within the Congress party and also caused a dramatic drop in the popularity of Congress. Young revolutionaries like Rash Behari Bose, Shaheed Bhagat Singh, and revolutionary groups like the Workers and Peasant Party (Kirti Kisan Party) and militant unions like the Bombay textile workers were frequently at odds with Congress. Armed revolutionary groups that emerged in this period included the Hindustan Republican Army and the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army in northern India, as well as the “Revolt Groups” in Bengal (e.g. Chittagong group led by Surya Sen). Working class and union resistance continued throughout the 1930s. Eventually, it was in response to this revolutionary tide, that the Congress Party became less conservative and more supportive of the more militant attitude. As for Gandhi, he returned to advocating non-violent struggle and launched the salt satyagraha (1930-31) and the boycott campaigns. He has been criticized by some for not taking advantage of this revolutionary tide, thereby delaying independence.
Even at the time of World War II, Gandhi prevaricated on non-violence: first offering “non-violent moral support” to the British effort, and only later rescinding that decision when members of the Congress Party objected to the inclusion of India in the war effort without her consultation. In 1939-40, strikes and uprisings in the countryside swelled dramatically. Afterwards, the Congress party was compelled by grassroots pressure to launch the Quit India movement in August of 1942. It is important to note that this period in the struggle was one of extreme violence, mass arrests, and so forth. And yet, Quit India’s success in contributing to independence is controversial. Those arguing that it failed say that it fizzled out after five months (largely due to the army’s loyalty) and didn’t topple the Raj or bring it to the negotiating table for independence. In contrast, those who see it as a success, focus on how it sapped colonial energy and resources and on its success at mobilizing masses of people.(5: See here) Importantly, it inspired the final phase of the fight for independence, which witnessed increasingly militant peasant uprisings, sometimes joined by some of the landlords.
By the end of the war, Britain was indicating that power would be transferred to Indians. Aware that they couldn’t hold on any longer, they instead focused on partitioning India – bringing to mind Israel’s recent attempts to divide Gaza from the West Bank. In the meantime, Congress’ adherence to a policy of non-violence was entirely dependent on the British soldiers – as opposed to the armed Muslim League – and were unable to prevent partition. Thus, Congress’ inherent conservatism with regards to armed struggle hindered its goal of keeping India intact. They failed to build on numerous past instances of Hindu-Muslim cooperation against British colonialism. (Not all members of the Muslim league supported Muslim self-determination: Communist leader Ghaffar Ali opposed it vociferously.)
As is evident from the history recounted above, the agreeable and reasonable- sounding frame of the superiority of peaceful resistance sets up a false dichotomy. Presenting satyagraha as the exemplary approach to liberation is deceptive mainly because India’s independence was not achieved through non-violence alone. Moreover, its historical context and enemy are do not translate well across time and location. Finally, while inspirational and useful on many levels, it is not sufficient as sole guide or solution to achieving Palestinian liberation.
Options for Palestinian Resistance
Fundamentally, all theories of national liberation emanate from the ethical and legal principle that a people have the right to be free from alien occupation and exploitation. Resistance is their inalienable right. Insistence on non-violent resistance can sometimes be counterproductive – as happened with Gandhi’s insistence on it when confronting partition. Relying solely on non-violence subordinates the fundamental moral and ethical goal of independence to all sorts of conditionalities in order to achieve it in the “right” way.
All events so far indicate that non-violent resistance has been of modest benefit to Palestinians, with the important exceptions of tarnishing Israel’s image and moral claims. One could argue that Israel pursued the (sham) Oslo peace process precisely because the First Intifada rendered the population ungovernable. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, the Fateh leadership of the PLO squandered those achievements and marginalized popular input. Since then, pursuit of “settlement” and “negotiation” in the absence of a concomitant armed struggle has produced regressive and contradictory effects. Why is that?
One reason is the nature of the adversary. Zionist and Israeli ideology and statecraft are fundamentally violent, involving ethnic cleansing and relying first and foremost on war as an instrument in achieving Greater (Eretz) Israel. Unlike Great Britain, which had developed a liberal democratic tradition when Indians were struggling for their independence, Israel is essentially a highly militarized, ethnically-based and legally privileged society. It made no difference whatsoever how the Palestinians resisted, whether violently or not. As happened in other Western colonial historical experiences, like the US, Australia, or apartheid South Africa, the settlers use overwhelming force to convince the native populations of their ultimate defeat.
A second important difference is that after World War II, England could no longer hold onto its colonies. This is in sharp contrast to the US-superpower-backed-Israel, which maintains a pronounced military superiority over all its neighbors.
A third difference is that ever since the Jewish Land Agency started buying Palestinian lands from absentee landowners, and continuing after its war-time conquest of land, Israel stipulated that Palestinians cannot lease or be employed on purchased land. As a result, Palestinians are less important to the Israeli economy than India was to Britain. Their marginalization and de-development are intentional and serve to facilitate Israeli expropriation of valuable water, land, and other resources. Moreover, Israel receives significant financial and military “aid” from the United States which also reduces its need to integrate economically with its neighbors. The lack of economic dependency makes non-violent resistance much less effective as a weapon in fighting the occupation. Any economic levers the Palestinians may have had were further diminished (intentionally) via their PA leadership’s dependency on and distribution of foreign “aid.” This had the double effects of corrupting and ensuring the cooptation and cooperation of the leadership, as well as minimizing the size and role of an educated middle class that could lead the struggle – as was the case in India.
A fourth difference is the lack of a charismatic leader like Gandhi. Which brings us right back to the first reason, the nature of the opponent. Israel has a long history of assassinating and / or deporting any potential leader who is incorruptible or charismatic or effective. (6: For a partial list of Palestinian leaders assassinated by Mossad, see here.)
In the final analysis, non-violence is still a worthy means of resistance. Significantly, it enhances growing international perceptions of the brutality of the occupation and builds on the legal consensus and framework of the legitimacy of Palestinian rights, as recurrently affirmed through UN General Assembly annual resolutions and the most recent ruling against the apartheid wall at the International Court of Justice. Non-violent resistance, by being more accessible to ordinary people, additionally creates more sustainable and widespread networks of resistance. At a minimum, it establishes a network of interdependence for the newly liberated society to build on.
But it is not enough. And arguably, it has never been enough, especially in the absence of a more just as opposed to legalistic international relations.
- Dina Jadallah-Taschler is an Arab-American of Palestinian and Egyptian descent, a political science graduate, an artist and a writer. Contact her at: email@example.com.
The British government has admitted complicity in a deadly attack on Sikhism’s holiest shrine in India, the Golden Temple, almost three decades age.
Appearing in the House of Commons on Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague disclosed the findings of a government investigation into the level of British involvement in the June 1984 massacre of Sikhs in India’s northwestern city of Amritsar.
Hague acknowledged that a British officer from the Special Air Service (SAS) travelled to India in February that year and advised Indian authorities on planning one of the most notorious atrocities in Britain’s imperial history in the South Asian country.
The UK’s top diplomat, however, sought to play down the SAS role in the assault, as he insisted that the advice to the Indian Intelligence Services on their Operation Blue Star raid on the temple had “little impact” on the outcome.
“The nature of the UK’s assistance was purely advisory, limited and provided to the Indian government at an early stage,” he said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron launched the probe in January after newly-released documents showed that the government of former British premier Margaret Thatcher was involved in the Amritsar raid.
Cameron said in a video message that he hopes the report would give “reassurance to the Sikh community here in Britain and elsewhere.”
But Sikh groups criticized the scope of the Whitehall review, saying it failed to cover the British complicity during the time of the massacre.
In a letter to Cameron, Bhai Amrik Singh, the chairman of the Sikh Federation, said he was “hugely disappointed” with the probe’s “narrow terms.”
“It appears the review has looked at a narrow period and not covered the period in the latter half of 1984 and may not have addressed some of the concerns raised by UK politicians in the last three weeks,” Singh wrote.
The death toll from the temple raid still remains disputed, with Indian authorities putting it in the hundreds and Sikh groups in the thousands.
In February last year, Cameron visited the scene of the massacre in the state of Punjab at the end of his three-day trade trip to India but he stopped short of making a formal apology.
I imagine myself walking down to the Beirut train station, boarding the 4pm bullet train that will steam off toward Damascus, heading across the great plains to the east to Baghdad. In a day we’ll be in Iran and then at Mashad there is a choice: one could go south through Pakistan to Delhi, or one would take the longer journey to Beijing via Samarkand. This would be the Great Asian Express that links one end of the massive continent to the other.
But it is impossible. War in Syria stops the train before it has even begun. Instability in Iraq intimates that the tracks would be blown up before they can be laid down. Iran is far more stable, which is why it has begun to build a train line that would link Turkey to Turkmenistan through northern Iran. Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are unable to create a modus vivendi that would welcome such a train, or indeed an oil and gas pipeline that might run parallel to it, bringing Iranian fuel to the consumers of the subcontinent. Central Asia oscillates between long periods of calm and bursts of dangerous violence.
A train itinerary such as the one I described sounds like a dream history – impossible even. But it is not so out of our time. The Trans-Asian Railway comes out from the 1960s, a historical artefact, a project of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific that was finally brought to the stage of an inter-governmental memorandum of understanding in 2006. This Iron Silk Road is to run from Singapore to Istanbul. The project has no timetable. Parts of it are already present, and parts of it are in the maddening future. But some of it will form part of the China-Iran rail link which is expected to go into production within a decade, and will form part of the Istanbul to Tehran route that is also already in production. Not so far that regional future.
Regionalism rests on the mantle of geography. Attempts to isolate a country for ideological reasons do not always work. The West, since 2003 at least, has attempted to isolate Iran but it cannot do so – Afghanistan, under US occupation, buys half its oil from Iran. It cannot do otherwise. Any other source would be ridiculously overpriced. The US embargo of Iran had to be violated despite the fact that it was US money in Afghan hands that was buying the Iranian oil.
Pressure from the US and the desire of the Indian political and economic elites for a close link with the US befuddled India’s Iran policy between 2003 and 2013. India is the second largest importer, after China, of Iranian oil. In the halls of the Non-Aligned Movement, India is a country that is greatly respected.
Through a nuclear deal – as I detail in my new report on India’s Iran policy, the US was able to push India to vote against Iran twice at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meetings in exchange for being brought out of the nuclear winter itself. As the sanctions regime on Iran tightened, India found it hard to buy oil from Iran and coldness between the countries set in as a result of India’s seeming eagerness to toe the US line. But beneath the surface of the IAEA votes and the statements against the buying of Iranian oil, linkages deepened – on oil buying certainly but also on the trade in pharmaceuticals and wheat as well as on the Indo-Iranian construction of a port in south-eastern Iran (at Chabahar). The sanctions regime had certainly throttled Iran, but it could not sunder fully the imperatives of regional trade.
On Sunday, November 24, the P5 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) + 1 (Germany) signed a deal with Iran to end the siege on the latter. The P5+1 promised to ease the sanctions regime in exchange for Iran’s disavowal of a nuclear weapon.
India welcomed the deal, suggesting that it was along the grain not only of Indian policy but also of the BRICS declaration from 2013 (“We believe there is no alternative to a negotiated settlement to the Iranian nuclear issue. We recognize Iran’s right to peaceful use of nuclear energy consistent with its international obligations, and support resolution of the issues involved through political and diplomatic means and dialogue,” was the wording of the eThekwini Declaration).
India’s oil firms promised to hastily transfer arrears held in Indian banks for oil purchased during the previous years (now totalling $5.3 billion), and to increase orders for Iranian oil. The latter would be facilitated by the end to the pressure on insurance firms who then refused to underwrite oil tankers coming out of Iran.
India’s Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh met with Iran’s Deputy Prime Minister Ebrahim Rahimpour on Monday, November 25, and agreed that there is “considerable untapped potential to develop economic cooperation between the two countries particularly in the area of energy and transit.” India and Iran have already been at work building the Chabahar port, and India is building a 900 km train track to link the port to the Hajigak region in Afghanistan. Dreams of oil and gas pipelines and train lines remained suspended over the gathering like a huge exclamation mark.
What these developments indicate is that the time of US primacy is now over and the time of multipolar regionalism is at hand. From 1991 to the present, the US had attempted to forge strong bilateral ties with its chosen allies and sought to knit those allies into a planetary security web of military bases and inter-operatable armed forces; this was the hub and spoke system that James Baker had written about in 1992. That system meant that regional ties had to be sacrificed for the close linkages to the United States. Latin America, through the Bolivarian dynamic, was the first region to exit from the US strategy and create its own regional architecture (for political, economic and social linkages). An over-extended US military presence in Asia and the collapse of the finance-led economic model in 2008 weakened the US considerably.
The example of Latin America gave confidence for the new India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) formation, the antecedent of the BRICS bloc. With the quiet emergence of the BRICS bloc in the context of a weaker West, it was inevitable that the siege of Iran would have to be lifted. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Li uncharacteristically told the Chinese media that his country played a crucial role in concluding the deal. Pressure from Russia and China on the European Union pushed them to bring a wayward France in line. No longer can an imperial foreign policy dominate international policy without challenge. That is the lesson of the Iranian deal.
Vijay Prashad is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut, Beirut, Lebanon. His most recent book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.
- India will continue to engage Iran in economic activities (rediff.com)
- Post-deal with world powers, Iran briefs India on moving ahead (thehindu.com)
- PressTV: US extends Iran oil sanctions waivers (jhaines6.wordpress.com)
Shops, businesses, and schools have been closed with public transport off the roads in the Indian-controlled Kashmir after a pro-independence group called for a strike to protest recent civilian killings in the mountainous Himalayan region.
On Saturday, the shutdown was observed across the disputed territory following a call given by the leader of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
The All Parties Hurriyat Conference is a political front formed as an alliance of 26 political, social and religious organizations in Kashmir.
Contingents of Indian police and paramilitary soldiers were deployed to Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar and other major towns on Saturday to prevent people from holding anti-India demonstrations.
Most of the pro-independence leaders, including Geelani, chairman of the Awami Action Committee Mohammad Umar Farooq and chairman of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front Mohammad Yasin Malik, also remained under house arrest.
The pro-independence leaders were placed under house arrest on Friday after they called for a march to the southern town of Shopian to protest against the killing of five people.
Shopian has been under curfew for two weeks, following the killing of five people in two paramilitary shootings.
Four people were killed on September 7 when Indian paramilitary forces opened fire on them in Shopian, situated about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Srinagar. Paramilitary troops killed another person in the same town on September 11.
Kashmir lies at the heart of more than 60 years of hostility between India and Pakistan. Both countries claim the region in full but each only has control over a section of the territory.
Over the past two decades, the conflict in Kashmir has left over 47,000 people dead by the official count, although other sources say the death toll could be as high as 90,000.
Indian security forces have shot dead at least two people in the north of Indian-administered Kashmir, prompting huge anti-India protests.
An Indian police official said that soldiers surrounded a few houses in the village of Markondal in Bandipora District, about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) north of the main city of Srinagar, before dawn on Sunday.
A teenage boy was killed during a search operation.
A second person was killed after the Indian army shot at local residents who were protesting the earlier deadly incident. According to witnesses, three other people were also wounded.
The killings triggered mass protests in the area. Angry demonstrators chanted slogans against the Indian army.
Reports coming out of Kashmir suggest that Indian authorities are considering imposing a curfew to defuse tensions in the region.
Kashmir lies at the heart of more than 65 years of hostility between India and Pakistan. Both countries claim the region in full but each only has control over a section of the territory.
Over the past two decades, the conflict in Kashmir has left over 47,000 people dead by the official count, although other sources say the death toll could be as high as 100,000.
- Singh visit prompts protests (morningstaronline.co.uk)
The disconnect between nuclear power realities and the Indian establishment’s perceptions is complete. Nuclear power has been in worldwide decline for more than a decade. The number of operating reactors peaked in 2002 at 444, but has fallen to under 380. Their output peaked in 2004, and has since decreased annually by two percent or more.
Nuclear energy’s contribution to global electrical generation has declined from its sixteen percent peak to barely eleven percent. Its share in global primary energy supply has fallen to a marginal four percent and of final energy consumption to a minuscule two percent. By contrast, renewable sources [primarily hydro-power] account for 16 percent of global primary energy.
The sixty-year-old nuclear power technology is exhausted. It has seen no major innovation recently, partly because it has been in severe retreat for a quarter-century in its heartland – western Europe, North America and Japan, which host two-thirds of the world’s nuclear fleet.
The US – which has the world’s largest number of reactors – has not installed a single new reactor since 1973. In western Europe, no reactor has been commissioned since Chernobyl (1986). And Japan now runs only two of the 54 reactors it operated before Fukushima.
Exorbitantly expensive nuclear power has failed the market test and globally lost over one trillion dollars in subsidies, abandoned projects, cash losses, etc. No bank will finance reactors; no insurance company will cover them.
Nuclear power evokes fear and loathing everywhere because of its grave public hazards, including exposure to cancer-causing radiation, potential for catastrophic accidents, and the problem of storing highly radioactive wastes for thousands of years, to which science has found no solution. These hazards are magnified by secrecy, technocratic domination and collusion between operators, regulators and governments.
Fukushima is likely to prove the last chapter in the global nuclear power story. When they retire, most of the world’s 160-odd reactors which are 30 or 40 years old won’t be replaced with new ones.
Indian policymakers are totally blind to this. Driven by irrationality, the domestic nuclear lobby, and relentless pressure from foreign reactor manufacturers and governments (to whom Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised lucrative contracts for backing the US-India nuclear deal), they are pursuing their fantasy of a 12-fold expansion in India’s nuclear capacity by 2032.
They are oblivious of the Indian Department of Atomic Energy’s appalling record. The DAE, argues physicist-analyst MV Ramana, derives its power from the Bomb and the promise of abundant power. It hasn’t delivered even ten percent of the promise – eg 43,500 MW by 1980. It has never completed a project on time, or typically without a 300 percent cost overrun. It has so far installed just 4,780 MW in nuclear capacity – under 2.5 percent of India’s current total.
The official nuclear fantasy now extends to two Russian-supplied reactors being built at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu, against which the local people have waged a resolute, two decades-long, peaceful struggle. This gathered great momentum after the Fukushima meltdown began in March 2011.
The government has viciously maligned and savagely repressed the movement with arbitrary arrests, FIRs against more than 200,000 people, and charging thousands with sedition, waging war on the state, and attempt to murder. It betrayed its promise not to implement the project until people’s safety concerns are fully allayed.
Meanwhile, evidence piled up that Kudankulam’s operator, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), violated numerous safety regulations and missed some 20 officially announced commencement deadlines because of serious engineering problems, including supply of sub-standard equipment by Russian company ZiO-Podolsk whose CEO has been jailed for fraud.
Exasperated, an environmental group moved a writ petition seeking the Indian Supreme Court’s intervention in implementing safety norms and enforcing accountability. The petition showed that Kudankulam lacks proper environmental and coastal zone regulation clearances, that the NPCIL has breached norms stipulated by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), and that it has no plans for hazardous spent-fuel storage.
The court pronounced judgement on May 6, clearing the plant’s commissioning while declaring it safe. The verdict trivialises safety concerns, declares nuclear energy indispensable for India’s progress, legitimises the malfunctioning nuclear establishment as infallible, and propounds a perverse notion of the public interest which runs against the constitutionally guaranteed right to life.
The verdict will go down as an anti-people, anti-environment black mark in Indian jurisprudence. Its greatest failure lies in dogmatically denying that nuclear power poses certain unique hazards. Even a conservative, but thoughtful, judgement would have acknowledged this and explored ways of minimising the hazards while boosting transparency and public confidence. This verdict doesn’t.
It declares nuclear power unproblematically safe, and says the Kudankulam reactors satisfy all environmental and safety criteria, based on the say-so of the AERB, DAE and NPCIL – all interested parties! It refuses to recognise the fact that the AERB is not independent, but a subordinate agency of the DAE, to whose secretary (also the Atomic Energy Commission chairman) it reports. The NPCIL is a wholly owned DAE subsidiary.
The AERB has no personnel, equipment or budget of its own. Recently, it was gravely indicted by the comptroller and auditor general of India for failing to fulfil its mandate to evolve and enforce safety standards. Former AERB chairman A Gopalakrishnan calls it a “toothless poodle”. But the verdict uncritically accepts the AERB’s certification of the Kudankulam reactors as safe, ignoring the gross conflict-of-interest involved.
The judgement simply bypasses numerous site-specific issues, including vulnerability to tsunamis, a history of volcanic activity and geological instability, and absence of an independent freshwater source, which is absolutely critical to all reactors.
The verdict ignores the NPCIL’s brazen violations of the AERB’s reactor-siting norms – viz, there must be “zero population” within a 1.5-kilometre radius of a reactor, and a maximum of 20,000 people within a further five- kilometre radius. But at least 5,000 people live within a 1.5- kilometre distance, including over 2,000 in a new rehabilitation colony with 450 tenements, which is less than 800 metres away. By NPCIL’s own admission, 24,000 people live within a five-kilometre radius, according to the 2001 census. Their number must be much greater in 2013. This too is ignored.
According to another norm, no fuel should be loaded in a reactor until a full emergency evacuation drill is conducted in a 16- kilometre radius. This never happened. The judgement ignores this, and also the fact that the plant lacks proper coastal zone regulation and environmental clearances. Equally ignored is the NPCIL’s non-compliance with the seventeen recommendations made by a special safety committee post-Fukushima.
The verdict dismisses people’s safety apprehensions, heightened after Fukushima, as a mere “emotional reaction”. It declares radiation exposure as a “minor inconvenience” which must be subordinated to the “larger public interest” of promoting nuclear power, which is indispensable to growth and will “uphold the right to life in a larger sense”.
The judgement’s worst part is the vile assertion dismissing “apprehension” about hazards, “however legitimate”: “Nobody on this earth can predict what would happen in future and to a larger extent we have to leave it to the destiny (sic)”. That is, the public must live with unacceptable hazards.
The verdict’s sole positive feature is its order to lift all false cases against the protesters. It otherwise lacks reason or logic, and is suffused with fatalism, irrationality and moral misjudgement.
The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Turkmenistan is persevering with efforts to persuade an international oil major to join the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project, according to reports in India, despite being unwilling to give up a stake in its gas fields to potential investors.
A series of road shows in New York, London and Singapore in the autumn, aimed at attracting international oil and gas companies to the project, ended in failure, even though companies including Chevron, Exxon Mobil, BP, BG Group, RWE and Petronas attended. That disappointment flew in the face of claims from Turkmen officials that they had all expressed an interest in the project, which carry gas from the secretive Central Asian state via Afghanistan to the Indian sub-continent.
Ashgabat’s refusal to allow participating companies to take a stake in the Turkmen hydrocarbons fields that would fill the pipeline has been cited as the main reason for the flop, although the continuing instability in Afghanistan is another factor.
India’s Economic Times cites an unnamed Indian government official as saying that, as the four participating countries prepare for a meeting on May 15, Turkmen officials continue trying to persuade an unnamed international oil major to take part. “Our understanding is that [Turkmenistan is] quietly working with international oil companies to work a way around the question of upstream stake,” the official said.
However, he also noted that the ban on sales of stakes in Turkmen fields to foreign buyers remains a sticking point. “They have told us that they have passed a law after the Chinese were given a stake and this now does not allow them to give a stake to anybody else in the gas fields,” the official said. It’s unclear to which deal he was exactly referring.
Ashgabat is secretive over its agreements in the oil and gas sector. In 2007, China’s CNPC was given the right to develop the Bagtyyarlyk gas field, which supplies the Central Asia-China (CAC) gas pipeline exporting to China. However, the level of access Bejing enjoys to the Galkynysh (previously South Yolotan) gas field remains unknown after the Chinese State Development Bank pledged $4.1bn to help develop it in 2010. On the one hand, it’s thought Turkmenistan may have signed over a stake. Other speculation suggests Ashgabat has offered no more than a firm commitment that CAC is filled.
Either way, India is clearly pushing for a similar level of security. It has been pushing for an equity stake in the massive Galkynysh for itself, to ensure supply issues do not compromise the massive financial commitment needed to build TAPI. Indian officials say that since CNPC has been given access to upstream assets in Turkmenistan, India’s state owned GAIL should have the same privilege.
At the same time, the four states participating in TAPI have maintain that they aim to start construction of the pipeline, which has support from the Asian Development Bank, by the end of 2013. However, on top of the jockeying between themselves, they are trying to drum up support from international oil companies to invest in the project, which may cost as much as $12bn.
Agreements on the price of gas exports to Afghanistan, India and Pakistan have already been signed. In September, the four participating governments agreed to proposal from Turkmenistan to set up a company with shared capital of $20m to carry out a feasibility study and design the pipeline.