Former professor sheds new light on NGOs

Jennifer Jones, a former visiting professor of political economy at the College, gave a lecture in Paresky Auditorium last Wednesday evening titled “Invasion of the NGOs: Nature, Territory and Identity in Tanzania.”
“I want to talk about actors; I want to talk about power and who has got it and why; and I want to talk about money and who has got it and why,” Jones began. She noted that she hoped her talk on non-governmental organizations (NGO) would be provocative. “I want to rustle a few feathers,” Jones warned, acknowledging that she did not intend “to offer any quick, silver-bullet solutions.”
In framing the lecture, Jones, who teaches for the International Honors Program’s Beyond Globalization program, outlined three guiding questions: How are power and hierarchy related to conservation and nature in Tanzania? Who is benefitting within this idea of conservation? How are big international non-governmental organizations fitting into the idea of conservation and nature?
Jones explained that many, if not all, NGOs are born of a Western, scientific way of constructing nature within our minds as something that must be preserved separate from human civilizations, and she stressed that this construction “is only one way” of viewing nature.
She noted that many NGOs began as humanitarian missions but now have expanded to become growth industries. There are now 40,000 registered NGOs, Jones said, and undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of other local groups existing without registration.
“It’s a growth industry,” Jones said. “And I don’t mean that in a good way.” To underscore this idea of growth, Jones highlighted one data point: The revenue earned in 2009 by the three biggest NGOs was $1.6 billion in total. “They’re meant to be non-profit,” Jones said. “That’s a lot of money.”
Jones explained that although NGOs have many average citizen members who donate, membership is not their biggest source of revenue. She said that today much of the NGO budget flows from the United States government. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, these budgets began to center largely around funding causes like pollution remedy, climate change and the conservation of nature, “which means these conservation NGOs are feeding back … into funding foreign policy,” Jones said. She added that such groups also receive inter-governmental money from organizations such as the World Bank, foreign governments and big corporations.
“These companies are the very ones in many cases who are destroying nature and local livelihoods around the world … In my view, many of these corporations are the problem,” Jones said. “But now they’re giving the money to the NGOs to go and ‘fix the problem.’”
Jones spent a significant portion of her talk discussing “territorialization,” both in terms of physical land on the planet and in terms of NGOs establishing themselves as experts on their relative causes and crises, consequently framing the crisis and influencing the public in how it conceives of nature and the planet. “These donors don’t just give money and say go off and do great things. These donors set the agenda,” Jones said. Groups are often “incentivized … competing for the same amount of money.
“This means,” Jones concluded, “if you want to get the money, you have to be the one that has the next biggest, sexiest crisis.”
Throughout the lecture, Jones continued to return to the idea that corporations are “the root problem” with regards to territorialization.
“I’m the problem,” she said. “How I live my life, my culture, the country I grew up in, the country I live in today. I’m the problem.”
Jones identified this “problem” as the Western mentality of “going around the world to save nature from local people.” She said that society often wrongly thinks that “poor people make bad decisions … they have no stake in nature … [and] overpopulation is the problem.”
But Jones noted, “Poverty doesn’t just happen. We create poverty. I create poverty. Flying, eating, consuming – all of it is happening and creating poverty.”
Jones focused much of the second portion of her lecture on Tanzania as an example of the effects of globalization. She used an overhead projection of a map to demonstrate that 39 percent of Tanzania’s land falls within “protected” areas, some of which are populated but most of which are not.
“As more land is being put aside to save nature, to conserve nature … we’re actively doing it today by forcibly evicting people from their native land,” Jones said.
She explained that about one third of Tanzania’s national budget comes from donors and 17 percent of Tanzania’s income is based on eco-tourism of areas such as nature conservatories and the Serengeti. Jones concluded that the locals of Tanzania – mainly the Maasai, a pastoral, cattle-raising semi-nomadic people – are forced out of their native lands because the Tanzanian government, in conjunction with NGOs, is aiming to promote eco-tourism to support its economy.
Jones said that “the Maasai are heavily discriminated against by Tanzanians,” as they are an ethnic minority in the country.
“If the Serengeti is unpeopled today, it is only because the local people were forced out in the 1950s,” Jones said. She noted, however, that the Serengeti, often a region promoted for its tourism prospects, exists as it does because of the Maasai, as the grazing patterns of their cattle mimic nature.
Jones believes that eco-tourism poses a problem for Tanzania and other African countries because “foreign money will only stay so long.” Jones claimed that the money which tourists spend on airfare, safaris and the like “either starts and stays in the U.S., or it comes to Tanzania and just visits and then comes back.
“Very few jobs are being created, and the ones that are being created are dead-end jobs,” Jones said. “And even those the Maasai can’t get because of the discrimination in the area.”
She said that the reason behind the separation of the Maasai from the tourist attractions and nature conservation areas is that tourists essentially do not want to see unexciting Maasai agriculture, such as “people’s cows mixing in with the zebra,” Jones said. She noted that, at the same time, tourists often think that “the Maasai should be there just enough” for photo opportunities.
She recalled a conversation in which a local Maasai individual said that he was “tired of their young people prostituting themselves for tourism.”  She added that oftentimes the Maasai are taken advantage of even without their knowing.
“I’ll never forget driving down into the crater and seeing buffalo and zebra lying on the side of the road dying of thirst,” Jones said of a visit to Tanzania during a drought. “When I went back to my tourist campsite … I had a flush toilet,” she said. “I had a hot shower. A few more miles down the road, I went for a swim … while these animals are dying of thirst. That water is being captured and used for tourism.”
Jones made the point that even though the original intended purpose of NGOs is often conservation of nature, often this goal is not reached and is sometimes even ignored.
Jones used the black rhino as a poignant example: Several decades ago, 600 black rhino existed in the region, but now there are only about two dozen.
“When the Maasai actually lived there, they kept those animals safe,” Jones said. “The Maasai don’t hunt.”
At the close of her talk, Jones underscored her view of NGOs as a losing game. “Tourism’s winning,” she said. “The rhino aren’t. Cattle aren’t. The Massai aren’t. A lot of the nature is not.” The clear winner? “Me and the NGOs,” she said.

Jones tempered her presentation with a disclaimer: “I don’t want to speak for the Maasai,” she said, “but they asked me to share this story. And that’s why I’m here: to share this story as it’s been shared with me. They want tourism and development, but they want a stake in it. They want tourism and development on their own terms.”