The Tories’ war on aid: the story of one pioneering NGO

 What does the demise of an international aid charity tell us about the plight of global aid NGOs in Britain today? Mike Phipps investigates

A Record of Change in a Changing World is a history of UK-based development charity the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR), later called Progressio, which closed in 2017 after 76 years in operation. Commissioned from Jon Barnes to celebrate CIIR’s work and promote their legacy, the publication, available online on Progressio’s archived website, documents the organisation’s work in advancing the wellbeing and rights of the world’s poor and oppressed.

The publication traces the organisation’s commitment to peace, human rights and international development from its foundation in 1940. Originally created at the start of the Second World War to mobilise UK Catholic opinion against fascism in Europe, it evolved into an organisation which focused on what was then termed Third World development.

Three years ago it closed.  As a former General Secretary explains in this comprehensive survey, “Roughly £2 million of the organisation’s £6 million plus budget at this time came from its partnership with the UK’ s Department for International Development (DfID), and this ended.”

It is worth exploring the work that CIIR/Progressio did, because its fate is a harbinger for the entire international aid sector. The work such organisations do and why the current government is waging a low-intensity war against them is a story that doesn’t make headlines in much of the media, so this book is a valuable resource for anyone seeking to challenge Tory policy in this field.

CIIR/Progressio achieved an influence way beyond its small size and shaped the evolution of the international development NGO sector in the UK and Europe. It helped to incubate new organisations, such as the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development and the Africa Centre.

 It was ahead of its time in several ways. First, it highlighted the systemic causes of poverty and inequality, conflict and human rights abuses, gender inequality and other forms of discrimination. Second, it played an important policy role in pushing for independence for former colonial countries, such as Zimbabwe, and campaigning against South African apartheid, Indonesia’s brutal annexation of East Timor, and repressive regimes in the Philippines and Latin America.

This approach helped move international development campaigning on from a purely humanitarian focus, to issues such as unfair EU trade policies, the human rights problems of overseas UK business investment, global supply chains and women’s rights. The NGO’s campaigns, for example, against deforestation and ‘terminator technology’ – the genetic modification of plants to make them produce sterile seeds (which benefit nobody, except seed manufacturers) – challenged important vested interests.

Most importantly, CIIR’s work was an early example of international people-to-people solidarity, far removed from what today is sometimes called “white saviour syndrome”, focusing on the empowerment and self-reliance of partner organisations in the Global South. This meant a commitment from the outset to Southern leadership. By the 1980s and 1990s, CIIR handed over management of its country programmes to national staff and by the end of the century, most of its development workers were recruited from countries of the Global South, bolstering South-South cooperation.  In 2009/10, when the organisation had 132 professionals in post over the year, 39 different nationalities were represented.

The content of its programmes was also very forward-looking. Its projects included community-based maternal and child health services (Yemen and Somaliland), boosting recognition of the role of women as key development actors; promoting disability rights; supporting civil society monitoring and participation in elections (Zimbabwe, Somaliland and Timor Leste); nurturing civil society organisations on HIV and AIDS and the rights of women (Somaliland), promoting sustainable agriculture (Honduras and Malawi); promoting environmental education and sustainability, in Latin America; and helping movements concerned with indigenous and minority rights to challenge discrimination and abuses based on ethnicity, in a range of countries.

Throughout its work, CIIR saw development as requiring structural change. It believed that global resources, wealth and power should be shared more equitably. It promoted social justice in poorer countries to enable people to empower themselves and defend their rights. In richer countries it sought to mobilise support for changing government goals towards people-centred development on a range of policy fronts. It also worked closely with a range of parliamentarians to build influence and publicise its causes: backbench MP Jeremy Corbyn was one such, who went with CIIR to East Timor to monitor the independence elections there.

I first came across CIIR when working in Nicaragua in the 1980s. It had earlier won the support of 130 MPs and the Labour and Liberal Party leaders to nominate a minister in Nicaragua’s revolutionary government, responsible for its ambitious literacy programme, as a candidate for the 1981 Nobel Peace Prize.

The organisation had a history of activism in Central America from the 1960s, so was well-placed to campaign effectively when the Reagan Administration in the early 1980s turned the isthmus into the latest crucible for its military ambitions. This led to the US’s illegal mining of Nicaragua’s harbours and support for the ‘contra’ terrorists, its backing of Guatemala in its genocide against the indigenous Mayan people and its arming of the murderous regime in El Salvador. As this book observes, “Siding with the poor and helping to bear witness were the hallmark of CIIR’s education work during this period.”

CIIR took sides, but its ideological independence meant that it never became the mouthpiece of  political parties or governments, however progressive. This meant its work was prized by activists for its accuracy, at a time when rival US and Soviet-oriented narratives often blurred the truth.

In a series of Comments on Chile, which continued into the 1980s, CIIR argued that mass repression and controls on trade unions and civil society by the Pinochet regime were not a problem of temporary excesses but a systematic imposition of a radical neoliberal economic model unfettered by democracy. In the late 1970s, it joined forces with other NGOs to set up the Latin American Bureau, an invaluable publishing resource for activists.

 But CIIR also took real risks, infringing local rules in pursuit of its aims, for example in apartheid South Africa. One of its most formidable operatives was Sister Pamela Hussey, who was nearing 60 years of age in 1981, when she started work in the Latin American section of CIIR, only retiring in her eighties in 2007. She was frequently based in El Salvador, a dangerous posting even for a nun, given that the Catholic Archbishop Romero had been assassinated there by a right wing death squad, and four Catholic missionaries had been raped and murdered, in separate incidents in 1980. I will never forget Sister Pamela at a public meeting in London castigating the leadership of the FMLN (the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front – El Salvador’s main radical left wing party) for its abandonment in the 1990s of the armed struggle.

In 2017, CIIR/Progressio, facing financial difficulties with the looming abolition of the UK government’s core funding scheme for international development NGOs, took the decision to close. After years of funding cuts, the NGO had already downsized its fieldwork. Not only was ongoing government funding increasingly in doubt, but there was mounting pressure on the organisation to produce ‘results’. This increasingly emphasised ‘what works’ within the constraints of existing policy frameworks, rather than addressing the need to change them.

The government’s decision earlier this year to close the Department for International Development (DfID), described by Christian Aid as an act of “political vandalism” and opposed by nearly 200 aid charities, is an indication of the bleak future for international aid under the Tories. Aid will increasingly be linked to trade and broader foreign policy objectives.

In reality, there has always been a tension between the commitment of international aid organisations like CIIR/Progressio to challenging the global order that generates inequality and injustice on one hand, and UK governments, on the other, that want the kudos that comes from appearing to support these NGOs’ efforts.  Tony Blair admitted: ““We created DFID in 1997 to play a strong, important role in projecting British soft power.”

Yet things are bleaker for the international NGO sector than ever before. According to a recent report by the BOND network of over 400 organisations working in international development, only about half of its members are likely to be in operation in two years’ time. Their work was already severely hampered by the 2014 Lobbying Act, which prevented charities from speaking out on a range of issues from poverty to animal welfare.  Now the COVID-19 crisis is compounding government funding cuts to force groups to cut staff and operations to the bone.

Under the Corbyn leadership, Labour was beginning to say many of the things that organisations like CIIR/Progressio had held for some time: “Poverty, income inequality and gender inequality are not natural – they are created. They are symptoms of an unfair system that funnels wealth and power into the hands of a few. Our globalised economy has been designed over several decades to benefit a few at the expense of the many.” It is vital that the Labour Party continue with its commitment to a fairer global economy, building peace and preventing conflict and supporting radical action to achieve climate justice.

A Record of Change in a Changing World is a huge work, detailing the entire history of a radical organisation, working across the Global South. Few people are likely to read it line by line but it nonetheless documents in detail the resistance that was mounted by one organisation against an unjust international order. When reflecting on the brilliant work that CIIR/Progressio did, the author confessed to me that writing this history produced some emotional moments.

It should not surprise us that one of the most right wing and nationalist Tory governments ever in office want NGOs like this to disappear. They may yet get their way, but the work these organisations did lives on and should inspire us.

Jon Barnes, who wrote A Record of Change in a Changing World, is on Twitter @JonBarnes3.

Images: Progessio