The book is divided into two parts. Part I of the book argues that, contrary to many expectations, NGOs and their self-help schemes have not offered an alternative to the reigning development orthodoxy or acted to empower the poor. In fact, NGOs arose as an integral part of the neoliberal project, serving to reinforce and extend its rule. NGOs are intimately tied up with the politics and ideology of neoliberalism. Part II traces the political trajectory of Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism. After a brief period of radicalism among a subset of organizations, the Canadian government successfully used its funding power to stamp out the “ideology of solidarity.” NGOs have become at best toothless critics which define the limits of dissent, at worst proponents of Canadian imperial interventions.
Part I of the book deals broadly with the “NGO boom,” i.e. the massive growth of NGOs in the Global South in the context of neoliberalism. Chapter 2 looks at the origins of neoliberalism in the 1980s debt crisis and the impact it had on NGOs. In Ghana and many other countries, Canada and other Western governments began financing NGOs to contain political unrest provoked by structural adjustment, setting off the NGO boom. Chapter 3 argues that NGOs evolved as an integral part of the neoliberal project, serving to accelerate the shift of away from state-led development models and placing the burdens of social services and employment creation on poor communities. The failures of self help, and the resentments they have created towards NGOs, are most evident in Haiti, the “Republic of NGOs.” Chapter 4 examines the tangled web of relationships that exist between nominally independent development NGOs and the federal government, in particular CIDA, and discusses how funding pressures and other influences shape and constrain their politics and activities. Chapter 5 addresses the political impact of the spread of Southern NGOs in the Global South. Though NGOs often claim to be building "civil society" and promoting the "empowerment" of the poor, in fact as Southern NGOs become dependent on foreign funds they become less accountable to the poor, and have a depoliticizing impact on poor people's movements that come under their influence. Case studies include the co-optation of the Left in the NGOs in Palestine post-Oslo, the shift from peasant organizing to microcredit among NGOs in Bangladesh, the political differences and class tensions between NGOs and grassroots organizations in Honduras. Chapter 6 looks at the role of NGOs in the overthrow of Haiti's democratic government in 2004.
Part II covers the history and politics of Canadian development NGOs within Canada. Chapter 7 looks at the rise of CUSO and a handful of other radicalized Canadian NGOs in the late 1960s and documents how CIDA eventually stamped out dissent through its control over funding. Chapter 8 is a critique of the divisive role Canadian development NGOs played in the anti-globalization movement in the late 1990s. The federal government consciously funded the participation of the NGOs in the protest movement as an effort to contain its militancy and limit its demands, as one half of a "co-opt and clampdown" strategy. Oxfam's close relationship with the World Bank and the role of NGO-organized counter-summits are examined. Chapter 9 looks at how post-9/11 NGOs have been increasingly integrated with the military, as part and parcel of counterinsurgency warfare's doctrine of winning "heart and minds". Case studies are of the role of NGOs on the ground in the occupation of Afghanistan and the ideological function of NGOs in demonizing the popular movement during the 2004-2006 coup d'état in Haiti.
In conclusion, Chapter 10 proposes solidarity activism as an alternative to development NGOs. Drawing inspiration from the NGO radicals of the '68 generation and other sources, the conclusion calls for a reinvention of the "ideology of solidarity" for the 21st century to defeat neoliberalism and bring into being a humane and egalitarian international order.