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Why are INGOs Avoiding the Question of Neoliberalism?

Stephen McCloskey

New research from the Centre for Global Education (CGE) and Financial Justice Ireland (FJI) has investigated the extent to which the international development and development education sectors in the island of Ireland are engaging with the economic causes of poverty, inequality and injustice.  More specifically, the research asks to what extent are international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), state development agencies and development networks incorporating an analysis of neoliberalism – the economic system that has driven “development” over the past fifty years – into their education work with the public.  The research findings suggest that “little consideration seems to be given” in the international development / development education sectors “to systematic explorations of global economics or of root causes of poverty, inequality and injustice”. 

Even allowing for the “limited scope” of the research which focused mostly on the Irish development sector and a set number of INGOs and networks, the conclusions of the report should be a matter of great concern for policy-makers, practitioners, donors, educators and the public.  But why is this relevant to us, some in the sector have asked in response to the report, this is a matter of economics, not international development?  As the journalist George Monbiot said of neoliberalism, its “the ideology at the root of all our problems”; it’s insidious, pervasive and lies at the heart of the poverty and inequality plaguing our world.

Fifty years of neoliberalism

Nearly fifty years on from the first disastrous application of neoliberalism in Chile in 1973 following the violent overthrow of democracy by a United States-backed military dictatorship, Oxfam has found that 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than 4.6 billion people or sixty per cent of the world’s population.  While, the global economy has doubled since the end of the Cold War, half the world lives on less than $5.50 a day as economic growth has chiefly benefited the wealthy.  Inequality, suggests Oxfam, is “the product of a flawed and exploitative economic system, which has its roots in neoliberal economics and the capture of politics by elites”.  Neoliberalism, argues Oxfam, has “entrenched systems of inequality and oppression, namely patriarchy and structural racism, ingrained in white supremacy”.  This view is supported by the 2022 World Inequality Report which found that the richest 10 per cent of the global population currently takes 52 per cent of global income, whereas the poorest half of the population earns 8.5 per cent of it. 

So, given the compelling evidence of the soaring inequality and poverty created by an economic system that asserts the needs of the market over the needs of society, neoliberalism is central to the activities of INGOs. Right?  Well, the evidence provided by the CGE / FJI report indicates the opposite.  As the report, compiled by consultant Harm-Jan Fricke, states INGOs “do not provide a significant, let alone comprehensive and systemic analysis of reasons for the existence of the issues” they address as part of their work.  Despite development education’s stated aim of exploring “the root causes of local and global injustices and inequalities in our interdependent world”, the research review of INGO literature and web sites found “a lack of public engagement activities involving a holistic-systemic approach to the structural economic issues that cause inequality, injustice and poverty”. 

Online survey

Perhaps the most significant research finding emerged from the results of an online survey of INGO practitioners in which an overwhelming majority of respondents said that neither the development education or international development sectors “give anywhere near adequate attention to explorations with the public of the economic causes of poverty, inequality and injustice”.  This would suggest that many of those working in international development would like INGOs and development networks to directly address the question of neoliberalism as part of their activities.  There is an even greater moral imperative for them to do so given the deepening spiral of poverty enveloping people across the world as a result of the cost of living crisis, the energy crisis, the climate crisis, and hunger crisis; all crises created by the same economic system and its unsustainable demands made on the planet’s finite resources, eco-system and workforce.

The research report questions whether the international sector is “serious about making a lasting and fundamental impact on global, systemic, poverty, inequality, and injustice”.  The evidence it presents suggests not given the lack of evidence of a systemic approach to exploring the root causes of poverty which should be the development sector’s stock in trade.  Of course, the question hovering over the entire report is why not?  Why are INGOs ignoring the elephant in the room?  Some reasons for this are advanced in the report such as a fear of losing funding from donors or the lack of a specialised education programme to engage the public with these issues.  However, the report accepts that a deeper exploration of the “why” question is needed to explore these issues and their consequences for the sector. 

Challenging the status quo

Back in 2014, CIVICUS, a global network of civil society groups, published “an open letter to our fellow activists across the globe” which flagged many of the issues raised in CGE/FJI’s report.  “We exist to challenge the status quo”, said the letter, “but we trade in incremental change”.  It went on: “Our actions are clearly not sufficient to address the mounting anger and demand for systemic political and economic transformation that we see in cities and communities around the world every day”.  Eight years on and it appears that the open letter fell on deaf ears and the sector remains “trapped in the internal bureaucracy and the comfort of our brands and organisations”.  Unless we arrest this inertia and start directly addressing the “root causes” of poverty as we profess to do, the sector will become increasingly irrelevant to, and detached from, those we claim to represent; the poor, marginalised and voiceless.

Stephen McCloskey is Director of the Centre for Global Education.  The research report highlighted in this article is titled: Fricke, Harm-Jan (2022) International Development and Development Education: Challenging the Dominant Economic Paradigm?, Belfast and Dublin: Centre for Global Education and Financial Justice Ireland, available at: