By Adele Wilde-Blavatsky
Any attempt to “soften” the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity....True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity.
Paulo Freire, 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed'
'There is an obvious advantage for Tibetans to be articulating the defence of their occupied homeland, and it is a matter of eternal regret that no charismatic and internationally-respected figure has achieved that role in the last couple of generations (though, personally, I live in hope).'
Stephen Corry, Board member of Free Tibet
Two hundred people from forty-three countries gathered in Dharamsala last weekend for the Second Special International Tibet Support Group meeting, the financial cost of which is not publicly known. The meeting was convened by the Core Group for Tibetan Cause-India and facilitated by the Department of Information and International Relations of the Central Tibetan Administration. In a press release, the CTA said the meeting will “explore ways to strengthen support of the international community to press the Chinese government to end its repressive policies that are pushing an increasing number of Tibetans to burn themselves to death in protest.” One can only hope, at such a crucial and agonising time for Tibetans, that this meeting will prove 'symbolic' in terms of showing solidarity with Tibetans in Tibet but also produce something that is substantively meaningful and not become yet another international networking and social event, where press releases and noble statements take precedence over genuine action and initiative. Even the Dalai Lama urged delegates to 'take action'. However, as I argue in this essay, the role and activities of international NGOs need to be called into question; and had Tibet's elected political leader, Lobsang Sangay and the Tibetan politicians in exile worked and made radical political and social linkages with the people who are driving the unprecedented protest movement in Tibet, there would be much less need for such support groups at all.
NGO careerism and funding-dependency
At the time of writing, I was unable to confirm whether or not the London NGO Free Tibet attended the meeting. The quote cited above was given in an email response from Free Tibet Board member, Stephen Corry, to serious concerns made by former staff members regarding the lack of Tibetan voices within the Free Tibet organisation. Although there may be some truth to his statement, sadly, Mr Corry uttered this in relation to concerns about the absence of Tibetan voices in Free Tibet, which he insultingly equated with “whinging about not being given jobs”.
I worked for almost one year at Free Tibet and during that short period of time I was shocked by what I discovered there. Prior to that, I had been under the illusion (as most other Free Tibet supporters no doubt are) that an NGO like Free Tibet is staffed by Tibetans or Tibet supporters who have genuine passion, expertise and experience in relation to Tibetans and the Tibet movement. However, the majority of staff at Free Tibet were non-Tibetan NGO careerists, with little to zero prior connection or expertise on the Tibetan movement, culture, language or religion. There were not even any Tibetan volunteers or a HR policy of actively recruiting Tibetan volunteers in order to develop them into staff positions (Burma Campaign UK have such a policy). This lack of authentic expertise or genuine accountability to Tibetans revealed itself in particular at staff meetings when it became obvious that hardly anyone was interested in the Tibet movement outside of their working hours, even to the extent that staff had to be persuaded to attend Tibet protests in London on the promise of being able to take it off as time in lieu.
In fact, I was so disheartened by the situation, I wrote a letter of complaint to both the Director of Free Tibet and their Board members. My concerns were also backed up by an independent complaint from a former volunteer. Our concerns fell on deaf ears and swiftly dismissed without serious, independent investigation. As a result, on leaving Free Tibet in March 2012, I wrote a public expose about the organisation. This was done despite warnings from within the Tibet UK movement not to do so, for fear of causing disunity. Since writing this expose - although I received some private messages of support and gratitude from former long-term staff members of Free Tibet and Tibetan activists in exile - there has been no public reaction from Tibet's political leader, Lobsang Sangay, the CTA or the Tibetan community in exile.
What is at stake here is not only the lack of Tibetan voices and financial accountability in such international NGOs, but the political issues that arise from the monopolising and funding of the Tibetan cause by such groups, particularly those staffed and led by western non-Tibetans. As Stephen Corry's email revealed, it appears that some non-Tibetan led groups think they are doing Tibetans a service with their 'generosity' and leadership, and that without such help or aid the Tibetan cause would flounder and collapse. Tibetan intellectual Jamyang Norbu alluded to this issue in Seeking the Power of the Powerless:
'The [Tibetan] exile government which had till then operated virtually on a shoestring now began to receive funding from a number of Western nations. Tibetan organizations, especially the Dalai Lama, began to receive invitations to attend all sorts of international confabs. But behind the gestures of sympathy, the invitations, the awards, the grants, and the aid, there often appeared to be a kind of unspoken condition that this might all go away if Tibetans raised the issue (or the "core issue" as the PRC menacingly calls it) of Tibetan independence.'
The catch to all international NGO activity is where the money comes from. Without money, there would be no international Tibet groups. The problem with this is that the agenda of the founder/donors/Board members then determines what that NGO will do, as well as how long it will be allowed to exist. If NGOs can manage without donor funding – sadly, few of them do – then they have the freedom to do what they want. In addition, if Lobsang Sangay were less reliant on the support of internationally funded NGOs then he (and the CTA) could afford to be more radical and progressive in their politics on Tibet and less weary of offending their western, capitalist 'masters' riding the Trojan horse of charity.
Edward Said was brilliantly correct when he quoted Disraeli: 'The East is a Career'. Yet, as Bruce Robbins points out in 'Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture', even those 'professionals' from what used to be called 'the East' are now making metropolitan careers out of what is now called, with no more precision, 'the Third World', to such an extent that it is now almost possible to say 'the Third World is a career'. There are people who are making a good living out of Tibetan activism as a career. There is no doubt, some of their work has been of benefit. However, in my experience at Free Tibet, people who are careerists like any profession, try to rise in the hierarchy and tow the correct line. They lose their independence and freedom. They compromise on their original ideas and integrity. They might be seen as very good workers within the NGOs, but they become conformists.
In addition, despite the fact that it is Tibetans who are leading the way in terms of smuggling out and disseminating information from Tibet, risking their and others' lives to do so, international groups such as Free Tibet and ICT, both led by non-Tibetans, are still being selectively sought out and quoted by the mainstream media as the most suitable sources of information.
Members of Tibetan-led and staffed NGOs and campaigning groups have privately expressed their frustration at this apparent media bias too. One Students for a Free Tibet member, who preferred to remain anonymous had this to say:
'By monopolizing their relationship with mainstream western media, Free Tibet has done a great disservice in not allowing Tibetans to speak on their own behalf. Free Tibet does not represent the true majority of this movement. To most young Tibetans, Stephanie Brigden is just another name being dubbed "expert". Unless Free Tibet yields to the other groups who truly speak for the Tibetan cause at large, they may find themselves cut out of the picture and truly resented. It must end now when the time is critical for this cause."
Reasons as to why the international media are selectively choosing to quote non-Tibetans are hard to pin down or rationalise. Privately, people in the Tibet movement have suggested it is because the western media do not 'trust' Tibetan-led groups and think their information might be exaggerated. Such a biased view is particularly ironic (and orientalist), considering that most of the information received and confirmed by these international groups comes directly from the work of courageous Tibetan men and women in Tibet and exile. For example, Free Tibet's predominant activity of reporting and releasing media statements is actually, for the most part, a replication of work that is already being adequately performed by many other Tibetan groups and people in exile. Free Tibet supporters are giving 'money for old rope' as we say in the UK.
One well-known Tibetan exile online publication, who would not publish my expose on Free Tibet, justified their decision by stating that they felt Free Tibet were still doing something useful in terms of raising awareness about Tibet in the international media. While it is certainly true that such groups have helped raise the profile of Tibet, it is difficult to say how much this is due to the media selectively choosing to quote them as opposed to them doing anything of great note. On the other hand, some international groups have often used language that de-personalises the Tibetan struggle to cold, statistical facts as well as completely ignoring or undermining the Tibetan claim and goal of Rangzen (full independence of Tibet from China).
Even the work of international NGOs working in Tibet should be called into question. Such organisations are heavily monitored by the Chinese authorities and are shut down if they do not tow and conform to PRC demands. Akong Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher based in the UK who founded the international Rokpa charity, allegedly attended the Chinese government propaganda event, 'Liberation Day' in Lhasa a couple of years ago. Reasons as to why he did so are unknown. However, it seems very likely that he would have attended due to his interest in continuing the charitable work of Rokpa in Tibet. According to reliable Tibetan sources in the UK, Rinpoche even had a private meeting with the Chinese political leader in a five star hotel in London and benefits from relatively unrestricted travel to and from Tibet. What is certain, is that Rokpa, like all NGOs working in Tibet, has to be very careful in terms of the nature of their charitable activities and their promotional literature certainly conforms to Chinese propaganda demands, referring to Tibet as the 'Tibetan plateau' or 'Tibetan areas of China'.
When such NGOs have to bend to the will of an oppressive agenda or leadership to carry out their work, questions surely have to be asked about the merits of having such organisations there at all. Is the short-term aid and benefit of a limited number of Tibetans in Tibet, which may involve perpetuating the propaganda and imperialism of an oppressive regime, really worth sacrificing the long-term principles, integrity and aims of six million Tibetans?
Radical, progressive political leadership reduces the need for NGOs
There is no doubt that some international NGOs are doing admirable work for Tibetans and the Tibetan cause. However, at such a crucial time, with over seventy Tibetans having bravely and non-violently burned themselves alive in protest at the Chinese occupation of Tibet, it is high time there is greater accountability and pressure being placed on all the international Tibet groups regarding their non-recruitment of Tibetan staff/volunteers, their lack of genuine 'expertise' and interest if there is none, their lack of transparency in their financial affairs, the background and election of Board members, and the need for more emphasis on how productive such groups are in terms of their activities. Let's hope some of these issues were raised at the Special Meeting in Dharamsala this weekend. If Tibetan politicians and their elected political leader, Lobsang Sangay, do not even have the nerve to call such groups to account then what hope is there for calling the Chinese government to account?
Tibet has an incredible history of 'drubchen' scholars, leaders, and practitioner activists such as Gedun Chophel (1903–1951) and Druptop Urgyenpa (1230-1312) who said and did radical things, went their own way and did not accept compromise; going beyond the dominant ideological positions of the time. The Tibetan nation's painful struggle for truth, freedom and justice should neither be about developing one's career, nor about perpetuating and promoting the values and needs of western capitalism or Chinese imperialism. Tibet NGOs can bring about some beneficial change, but they also cause donor-dependence and conformity. What is clear is they have not been successful in bringing about political change on account of consciencisation, which is what a strong, radical, progressive Tibetan exile political leadership should be doing. Tibet needs a Gedun Chophel or Gandhi not a US-styled President Obama.
Adele Wilde-Blavatsky is an independent scholar, activist and writer based in Dharamsala, India and London, UK. Article submitted by the author.
The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.