Monday, November 16, 2009

Depoliticization of the NGO sector

More evidence this week of the systematic "de-politicization" of the not-for-profit sector with the decision by the WA Branch of Amnesty International and Kulcha Multicultural Arts Centre to axe a play critical of Israel's occupation and military offensive in Gaza.

The Play Seven Jewish Children which was written by English playwright Caryl Churchill in response to the 2008-09 war in Gaza was to be performed during Amnesty WA's ARTillary Youth Festival at Kulcha*. (you can read some of the issues raised by the play here here here and here). The play has been shown around the world and across Australia.

Under pressure from the Jewish Community Council of Western Australia Amnesty International (who were putting the play on) and Kulcha (the venue where the play was to be performed) decided to drop the play from the Festival

There has been plenty of press coverage of the decision and the debate on various websites (here) and blogs has been heated. It would appear that both Amnesty and Kulcha have been less than direct about the real reasons for their decision and tried to deflect responsibility for the decision. The CEO of Kulcha was reported as saying that the play was too political, did not fit with the NGO's charter and would attract controversy.

Anyone who has dealt with Amnesty would not be surprised by their decision. In Australia, Amnesty has long been overly concerned with their image, often putting their relationships with the powerful ahead of the interests of the powerless they claim to speak for. Those of us who were involved in the struggle against the Howard government's refugee policies remember well the unwillingness of Amnesty to take positions that directly challenged the government, and their hesitancy to move on issues that required urgent action. And who can forget their unwillingness to criticize Minister Ruddock who continued to wear his Amnesty pin whilst implementing draconian refugee policies.

The decision raises important and troubling questions- about censorship, about the power of the Jewish community, about the desire to stifle public debate and about the direction of organizations that purport to represent and give voice to the powerless- which need to debated in various forums.

But the decision is further evidence of the systemic depoliticization of the not- for- profit, non government sector here in Western Australia, and in Australia more generally. Many NGO's have allowed themselves to become agents of the state, providers of service on behalf of government and willing accomplices (with governments, corporations and the private sector) in dismantling the role that NGO's once played as "countervailing power". It is now rare to find mainstream NGO's willing to take a political stand, to challenge power and take a stand against injustice, or to advocate for social justice causes that unsettle power centres.

* Kulcha is WA's multicultural arts agency which specialises in fostering and promoting world cultures within Western Australia.

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