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Pithouse, Richard (2005) Report Back from the Third World Network Meeting Accra, 2005. Centre for Civil Society : 1-6.

Here is a brief report back on the Third World Network (TWN) meeting in Accra, Ghana. There will be a written statement on the outcomes from the organisers in a couple of weeks so I’d rather report on the politics of how that deal was achieved rather than the details of its outcome. Because this was rushed in airports it’s just for us. If I write something to be read outside I’ll need to get more details from my notes.

I don’t know enough of the history of TWN to be able to venture any comments on how this meeting fits in with TWN’s broader trajectory and what continuities and innovations it will mark. But some things are very clear. I arrived expecting Third Worldism (the idea, popular among Third World autocrats and many American and French leftists in the late 60s and 70s, that - contrary to orthodox’s Marxism’s view that the Western working class would deliver the world from the tyranny of capital but still within its spirit in that it searched for one particular agent of universal redemption – Third World elites were the privileged historical actor.) Third Worldism is always, in its Western versions, a species of racism. It takes the colonial Manicheanism that presents Africans, or Chinese, or whomever, as an undifferentiated hoard opposite to the enlightened civilising white West and reverses its moral hierarchies while retaining its logic with, among other pathological consequences, the result that it is unable to understand that Third World societies are sites of internal contestation. But Third Worldism only reared its head in the hope that Trevor Manuel (always cosily spoken of as ‘Trevor’) could reform the World Bank or win its presidency and it was beaten back easily and decisively on each occasion. Of course this doesn’t mean that these ideas have dissolved via the forced confrontation with their contradictions and so they may emerge in future. But this was not a Third Worldist conference.

The real contestation emerged around a massive fracture. One the one side were the people who thought that civil society only meant NGOs and that progressive change will be driven by Northern NGOs who see their projects as technical, reformist, addressed to Northern elites and best advanced by mobilising opinion (not material counter power) in elite Northern publics. On the other side were people who, if they had anything at all invested in the idea of civil society, saw it as constituted, at least in part, by popular organisations and who saw their projects, at least in part, as supportive engagement with the resistances of the Southern people in the name of whose suffering and struggles everyone at the conference made their living. Most, but not all, of the people inhabiting the former position as untheorised common sense were from Northern NGOs while most, but not all, of the people taking the latter position were from Southern NGOs directly linked to popular movements. The Centre has always approached the idea of civil society critically and so it sometimes seems to us that the problematisation of the idea of ‘civil society’ is a little passé. But to be among a group of people with significant global influence who, despite increasingly militant challenges as the conference unfolded, wanted to remain invested in the ideas that civil society is just NGOs; that civil society is a ‘community’ that can have ‘a voice’; and the idea that NGOs with a global reach are ‘global civil society’; really bought home to me the urgent need to continue to think critically (as Zoe has done so brilliantly with regard to the U.N. discourses) about this concept and all its subsidiary concepts in the neoliberal thinking of civil society – ‘partnerships’, ‘stakeholders’, ‘public participation’, ‘strengthening’ etc. These all need rigorous interrogation but a close observation of how all the civil society discourse functioned at this conference to legitimate co-option and exclude any form of militancy indicated to me that the pivotal component concept within the broader civil society discourse is the idea of civil society as ‘a sector’. To concede to this is to concede that ‘civil society’ has a particular role with regard to capital and the state – that it should know its place. This discursive move rules out any discursive legitimation of militancy because effective militancy either seeks to subordinate capital and the state to its power or seeks to force a paradigm shift that reorders social roles. Furthermore while working within the role and space prescribed to us by our enemies can deliver some reforms this way of working generally excludes most people from active participation and so reinscribes all the old hierarchies (the ‘civil society’ position at this meeting was on occasion quite explicitly the view that rich Northern NGOs would win concessions for the rest of us from Northern elites). Furthermore it also functions to legitimate constituted power in both its manner of working and the type of reforms that it produces. Of course I agree that any reform that reduces the dispossession and exclusion of the poor must be supported as it reduces suffering and enables resistance but this does not detract from the fact that many reforms simply function to legitimate constituted power by showing that ‘the system works’ and by making it look better. E.g. Having Trevor Manual as World Bank President would make the Bank look good which would be better for The Bank’s masters than for its victims.

This leads on to a second important point. It was immediately clear that many Northern NGOs require legitimation from Southern NGOs, who in turn often acquire some legitimacy from connections with popular movements. The entire conference was organised to simulate some kind of North South mutuality. This was clearly the ideological function of hosting the conference in Ghana. But when people fly in to a place like Accra, are driven straight to a discreetly guarded, hugely expensive hotel on the outskirts of town; and when that hotel is built by South African capital (to make a reservation phone +27 11….) and is a site for South African and Western business to meet and make deals with local elites; where visiting businessmen can pay in dollars and Euros and watch CNN and listen to Rod Stewart in the bar and feel right at home; and where the transactions include (still, after hundreds of years of imperialism and resistance) buying sex from local women in the bar – to the point where it is assumed, by staff and visitors, that any Ghanain woman not in a hotel uniform or accompanied by a Ghanian man is a prostitute; and when the people who do take excursions are directed and driven straight to the tourist restaurant and the tourist beach and so on then the space in Ghana in which the meeting is being held is the top end of the emerging network of deterritorialised spaces that have, as their bottom end, the Export Processing Zone. It is a space which is perverse and predatory at every level. Holding a conference here confers zero legitimacy on TWN. On the contrary…. Interestingly the putative enemies of TWN are, on occasion, more sensitive on these issues. The World Bank’s much loved Self Employed Womens’ Union hosts Bank consultants in the homes of the actually existing poor people in whose names transactions are conducted. A couple of years ago I went (in Adam’s stead) to the meeting of the Confederation of Asian Organisations and Foundations in Japan. It was an entirely neo-liberal project with the World Bank in explicit attendance but we stayed in modest student accommodation, in the city and in a territorialised and accessible space.

The presence of Southern organisations was also meant to function as a project of ideological legitimation. I am not arguing that this was conscious or a deliberate conspiracy but just that power relationships impose, if there is not sufficient critical reflection, their own logic on processes and events. We can speak truth to power (and we can lie to power and speak to and be spoken by counter-power and all of that) but power speaks through us all in varying and shifting degrees and without constant vigilance Althuser looks more right than Sartre. (Our work in the Centre is no different – the discourses and practices of neoliberalism – constantly appear in our praxis. On this point, the need for self and collective reflection in the mode of vigilance, I find myself completely opposed to Hardt and Negri’s romanticisation of the pure desires of the multitude or the similarly uncritical romanticisation of ‘civil society’, ‘leftists’ or ‘activists’ or whatever). There were various ways in which the presence of Southern organisations functioned to legitimate the power of Northern organisations. Firstly a clarification - there were a few Southern organisations (from Nicaragua, from Mexico – national histories of militancy offer no immunity) that are, in the mode of CIVICUS simply projects of Northern civil society. This is where their funding comes from, this is where they are accountable and it is in these networks in which they are invested – and investment is not merely financial – it’s also about identity and the pleasures of travel, cosmopolitanism and proximity to power (some people can’t stop name dropping about their meetings with top people in the Bank or Fund). There were also a few people from Northern NGOs who, as much as anyone from the South who feels some obligation to popular movements of the victims of neoliberalism and imperialism, are resolutely committed to legitimating and supporting popular resistances and who take the devastation of the neoliberal return to primitive accumulation as a crisis. But those caveats aside there are clear power relations in play. Domination begins with the sheer self confidence of metropolitan elites. They speak more often and more assertively. It continues with how well networked they are (‘See you next week in Brussels’ – No, I won’t be there – ‘Ok, then Washington the week after’) which is to say how well they know each other and can work with each other. But the hook on which it all hangs is the widely shared understanding of what constitutes good work and therefore effective process. This takes the form of both a shared common sense about what is a ‘reasonable’ topic of discussion and what is an ‘effective’ manner of organising discussion towards an outcome. So if there is a discussion about how the World Bank determines policies in allegedly sovereign states and the discussion moves from the assumption that Northern power should exercise this power with regard to Southern states but that the problem is just a technical question of getting it right and someone wants to challenge this assumption and to talk about the history and contemporary reality of imperialism – and perhaps even to point out how neoliberalism continues older forms of imperialism and began with the savage attack on Chile – they will immediately be told that their point cannot be addressed as there are questions of processes and results that need to be obtained and time pressures to respect and so on. A direct quote “To be effective and pragmatic we must section off this issue”. Another “It would be better to discuss our political differences on a listserve”.

So in the end the people from Pakistan and South Africa and the Congo and so on are all flashing eyes and raised voices while the people from London and Washington exercise their power with a quick, calm confidence. So while Victor from the Congo will say ‘The World Bank wants to privatise and sell off our rain forest – one quarter of the country, an area the size of France, what will happen to us? What will happen to us?’ Sonny from London will say ‘Yes well we need a position on X for a meeting with Y so let’s move on’. And the metropolitan confidence is not merely a politically neutral abundance of capacity that is produced by life at the top of the dominating zone (with its respect, travel, access to power, formal education etc) it is also directly producing of domination. On a number of occasions the great and the good of ‘global civil society’ exhibited crass displays of contempt for the people in whose name they get money, opportunity and respect. Sometimes it’s the reproduction of the view that agency – including the agency of resistance – is always located within the elite. So for example a women from a group called GenderAction twice asserted that an urgent priority was to offer support to women within the Bank! She said nothing about how women suffer, endure, escape and resist The Bank. Of course she believes (in the face of Ramphele….) that support for women in The Bank will lead to changes outside but this is just another version of the thinking that Biko rose to oppose. Feminism requires our urgent theorization. The marginalisation of radical feminisisms and the casual assertion of feminisms that are simply a tool in the class project of elite women as feminism needs to be taken on directly. I hope that as a start we can take up the offer to edit a special issue of Agenda, and to do that via a process of dialogical workshops, but I also think that we need to invest more resources in theoretical questions. Discourses can also be a crisis requiring an urgent response. At other times the metropolitan contempt was even more crass. An example: A Finnish anthropologist currently ‘in the field’ observes to, a self selecting group of metropolitians, that while Ghanians claim to be Christian they secretly practice Juju. Twiters of laughter. Then a question: “Do they have their own Juju God?”. Gleeful laughter at the answer, given like a punchline, of ‘Oh, many’. As if consumerism and patriotism were not polytheistic….Another example: Souparna Lahiri from India explains that in an area which was hit by the tsunami fisher people have lost the boats and nets necessary for their livelihood; that while they can make new boats and nets they need cash for the engines which are usually Suzuki or Yamaha but that Japanese aid is not giving people engines but is building a road from a Japanese owned mine and suggesting that former fisher people find work on the construction of the road. The response – laughter at the idea that fisher people use Suzuki and Yamaha engines. Further examples (which could be multiplied) include the assumption of two white American women (on the opening night drinks at the pool party where how you looked had not yet been subordinated to how you acted) that a white South African man should be appealed to for help in rebuffing the advances of two African man on the unspoken assumption that I must know how to deal with the natives. Race requires our urgent and sustained empirical and theoretical investigation. And we urgently need to, perhaps following on from David Goldberg’s work or Richard Ballard’s groundbreaking work on how certain forms of white racism in Durban are tied up with a racialised identification with modernity, of how a multi-racial metropolitian elite can exhibit a contempt that is not exactly racism but does much of the same work – but which draws significant legitimacy from the fact that it is racially diverse. But this incident also illuminates something else that we need to take very seriously. South African sub-imperialism is not just about South African capital (which is massively evident in Ghana) and it is not just about how the South African state is seeking to legitimate the World Bank agenda via NEPAD but it is also about that fact that South Africa is becoming a very, very important site for co-opted Northern NGOs to legitimate themselves – i.e South African sub-imperialism occurs - because Jo’burg is a convenient way to be in Africa and because South Africa provides the credibility of the struggle against apartheid with reality of neoliberalism - in all three of neoliberalism’s ‘sectors’ (market, state, civil society). A good number of global NGOs are shifting their head offices here and many more seek other forms of collaboration. In the struggle to oppose the power of the market over life we need to delegitimate neoliberalism which means that we need to delegitimate the Bank which means that we need to delegitimate the co-opted NGOs operating here. Amanda and Mandisa’s account of the humiliation of Civicus and Kumi Naidoo (Kumi is apparently big in TWN too) at the ASF was hugely important. More work on these lines is vital. In fact it is urgent. It is also vital that to retain a radical suspicion of mainstream Northern NGOs many of which are just for a less savage imperialism. This is not to essentialise – it is merely a caution against the tendency to romanticise.

As I said it seemed that most often the power relations flowed from a common sense about what was reasonable, doable and so on. So there would be reformist technicism – then an impassioned political challenge – then more technicism. Just because a point was won on logical grounds didn’t mean that it was taken seriously when it came to the structure of further discussions or the outcome of the meeting. Eventually, on the third day, there was something of a rebellion with people issuing clear demands for their arguments to be taken seriously. The key point of contestation was a demand that social movements in the South be taken seriously and included in future conferences and projects etc. The response (with Jeff Powell from the Brettonwoods Project UK doing the work) was clearly an overt attempt at containment. In the beginning the official civil society camp kept saying that either ‘it seems that we have consensus so let’s move on’ or ‘let’s leave this issue aside in the interests of consensus’. The utter inability to understand that civil society is a site of contestation (they speak, just like the ANC, of civil society as having singular positions) and that there must, therefore, be a civil society position, provided some discursive legitimacy for this manoeuvre. When people wouldn’t buy into this they declared a break – in which the official camp could caucus. They then came back with the suggestion that a way forward could be achieved by asking two people to make specific interventions. They choose two Southern people with movement connections but asked them to speak to other issues in their countries. This was clearly an attempt to create legitimacy by giving voice to Southern people with movement connections but to not allow them to speak to the actual issue at hand. Then, after 5 people protested, it was decided to put the questions of movements into the working group on the U.N. Protests about that move were ignored. The conference came to a head in the U.N. working group when, with 5 minutes left, the question of movements was raised. The direct manipulation was taken on directly and a good challenge developed and the working group time extended to deal with the issue properly.

In the end there were a number of concessions that included the following:

· agreements that conferences should not be held in hotels like the one in which we met
· agreement that movements must participate in all TWN activities
· agreement that NGOs must find ways to seek to enable (but not co-opt) Southern movements – e.g. via funds for legal costs, sharing information etc.
· complete rejection of all World Bank conditionalities (some Northern NGOs were in favour of some conditionalities)
· that the World Bank should be judged by its own good governance standards
· complete rejection of PRSPs and all participation therein (some NGOs facilitate participation in PRSPs and some see their work as purely helping ‘civil society’ to meet with the Bank)
· development of alternative economic policies
· that the World Bank must get out, altogether, of resource extraction, land privatisation, water, carbon trading etc.
· that the possibility of suing the Bank etc for reparations would be explored

The one question which was not really taken up was the ‘shrink it or sink it’ debate. It was clear that for many of the Northern NGOs the latter position was just impossible – even discussing it was difficult - and they were allowed to stick to their ‘shrink it’ position.

So, in summation, this meeting, unlike say CAFO or ISTR, was not a completely neoliberal space. There were real possibilities for contestation and to drive forward on certain key issues. Of course we’ll have to wait and see how seriously the concessions won here are taken but it does seem that TWN is a space in which limited challenges are possible.

Of course there is also life outside the conference and there is much to tell about the struggles against water privatisation and the student struggles in Ghana. Also, we will soon be seeing an Indymedia Ghana. And of course there were inspiring and challenging meetings with many wonderful people doing wonderful work all over the world. But this is already far too long so over coffee perhaps.


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