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NGOs, the Zapatistas, and Post-Development

Ronja Walther


The North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994 (Godelmann, 2014). In liberalising agriculture, it exacerbated existing problems in Mexico’s Chiapas region. The region was characterised by high levels of poverty, and a high proportion of its population was indigenous (Godelmann 2014). The Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), comprised of mostly indigenous people from various communities in Chiapas, protested NAFTA and oppressive practices by the Mexican government, such as non-recognition of communal land ownership (Khasnabish, 2010). After the EZLN seized multiple towns, the Mexican military attacked the region and following 11 days of fighting and 300 deaths, a ceasefire was reached and negotiations started (Godelmann, 2014). 

The EZLN, commonly referred to as Zapatistas, demanded ‘work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and peace’ (Khasnabish, 2010, p. 60). The Zapatista insurgency resulted in the Mexican constitution enshrining political self-determination for the indigenous peoples of Mexico (Godelmann, 2014). After gaining this autonomy, the Zapatistas reformed the health system, education, governance, justice, and security sector—and, in places, established a new currency (Vidal, 2018). They implemented unique approaches based on the region’s indigenous heritage to free themselves from outside influences including established Western knowledge and global power structures (Maldonado-Villalpando et al., 2022). For example, the education system was reformed both in content, covering the pursuit of autonomy and Mayan traditions, and in practices, by learning outside the classroom while involving parents and grandparents. This focus on local agency illustrates the connection of Zapatistas to principles of post-development (Escobar and Harcourt, 2018; Ziai, 2007). Indeed, the Zapatistas are frequently drawn upon to illustrate post-development concepts such as the pluriverse, a world where many worlds can be embraced (Escobar and Harcourt, 2018, p. 3). 

Post-development theory rejects development in all forms that are based on the assumption in the post-World War II international system that some places are ‘developed’ while others are not (Matthews, 2004). Some of the theory’s criticisms of development are that it is based on existing power relations, and does not take into account local diversity (McGregor, 2009). Correspondingly, the search for alternatives to development includes a stronger role for local communities and civil society. Non-governmental organisations are commonly named as an important part of civil society (Hyden, 1997). However, NGOs are not independent of the global power relations that post-development theory criticises. NGOs’ activities can have a wide range of intended or unintended, positive or negative consequences (Cuttitta, 2018). They have power in shaping policies and development discourses. They can influence the developments occurring and pathways taken in the communities they aim to support  (Makuwira, 2018). Recognising their influence as actors in international development governance—directing critical scrutiny towards NGOs—is necessary.

This paper examines to what extent NGOs are helpful or harmful from a post-development perspective, and considers which factors determine their relative impact. As post-development is frequently criticised as not being sufficiently based on lived realities (McGregor, 2009), this paper illustrates practical applications of  post-development theory. It will consider how post-development approaches can survive in the existing international system, and will consider the role of NGOs therein. The Zapatistas can be seen as a real-life illustration of post-development theory. This case study makes it possible to analyse how a local post-development system would interact with the rest of the still-development-oriented world order. The case study is explored through a review of relevant literature. First, post-development theory and its implications are explained. Second, the relationship of the Zapatistas with NGOs is analysed to illustrate the problem. Third, NGOs, their power, and their potential role within post-development theory are discussed. Finally, the paper will conclude by generalising how the Zapatistas’ experience in dealing with NGOs can be replicated elsewhere, and submitting what the role of NGOs in a post-development framework can be.

What is post-development theory?

Post-development theory originated from post-structuralism in the 1990s, with a focus on criticising development and the entrenched power, knowledge, and language connected to it (McGregor, 2009). Post-development theory provides multiple reasons as to why development has failed. First, it criticises the post-World War II system in which development practices are embedded (Matthews, 2004). The system  aimed for countries to achieve industrialisation, improvements in technology, increased material production, education, and certain cultural values that were regarded as modern (Matthews, 2004; Escobar, 1995). Post-development theory argues that this system increases inequities worldwide and represents fictive truths that reinforce global power relations (Ziai, 2007). These fictive truths include the idea of dividing countries into advanced and backward and prescribing solutions to achieve development (Matthews, 2004). Development is concerned with economic growth and capitalism, and it universalises Western experiences without accounting for diversity (Escobar and Harcourt, 2018; Ziai, 2007; Matthews, 2004). Escobar (1995), based on Foucault, further argues that development discourses lead to a ‘colonisation of reality’ (p. 5), in which colonial discourses and racialisation are reinforced. This can be observed in the portrayal of people in the Global South as vulnerable and people in the Global North as independent. These views then shape reality by influencing the actions taken to achieve development based on ideas of modernization (Escobar, 1995; Ziai, 2007). Thus, post-development theory is close to critical approaches and searches for an alternative to development (Matthews, 2004).

However, post-development theory has been criticised for not offering an alternative to development (Matthews, 2004). Moreover, critics argue that the theory cannot be practically applied, does not take into account diverse forms of development, and neglects successful cases like China and India where people desired and benefited from development (McGregor, 2009). The assumption that traditional practices should be preferred to wishes for development, and the idea of victimhood of communities facing development practices, are the reason for criticism that agency of communities is neglected in post-development theory. These criticisms have been considered and addressed in newer versions of the theory, which proffer more concrete recommendations for communities. 

Newer versions of post-development theory adopt the goal of development to improve people’s lives, but propose means not associated with conventional development practices. Post-development wants communities to be able to identify their goals based on local values and needs (Escobar and Harcourt, 2018; Ziai, 2007). Post-development theorists argue for unique pathways towards the specific ideas of a successful future pertaining to the culture and community in question, reducing the influence of existing power structures (McGregor, 2009). Furthermore, McGregor (2009) mentions the important role of civil society and social movements in post-development. Although the focus is on the individual path of local communities, post-development theory does not see them in isolation. Instead, it focuses on interconnectedness, as the Zapatista concept of the pluriverse illustrates (Escobar and Harcourt, 2018). This paper contributes to this newer conceptualisation of post-development theory by combining local and unique pathways in the Zapatistas’ case with the interconnectedness of civil society actors.

What is the Zapatistas’ experience with NGOs?

In addition to focusing on indigenous autonomy in the Chiapas region, the Zapatistas called on civil society and oppressed social groups, both in wider Mexico and globally, to join them in opposing neoliberalism (Khasnabish, 2010). The Zapatistas’ aim was not to receive aid, but to gain the participation of like-minded actors. Practical ways in which NGOs and other civil society actors contributed to the movement included funding and protection against the Mexican government (Andrews, 2010). The latter part was achieved through advocacy and international pressure, as well as NGOs’ physical presence in the region as observers (Andrews, 2010; Khasnabish, 2010). However, Swords (2007, p. 80) stresses that civil society support for the Zapatistas went beyond advocacy by forming ‘neo-Zapatista networks’ linking them to funders and other international actors—consisting of the EZLN and local communities, grassroots organisations, and NGOs. Together, they exchanged skills and knowledge while building resistance and alternative governance forms. They further pursued the diversification of production, increased food security, and the establishment of economic structures like cooperatives. 


The development of these networks of actors occurred when the Zapatistas became well-known and asked civil society actors to join them, who subsequently called on further NGOs (Ronfeldt and Arquilla, 2001). They then built alliances by comparing their goals and values. The Zapatistas were concerned about which NGOs would be allowed to join, since they had experienced failed development projects and were concerned about NGOs imposing outside agendas (Andrews, 2014). Therefore, the Zapatistas set up Juntas de Buen Gobierno, committees that would evaluate proposed NGO projects and decide if NGOs would be allowed to enter the community and implement them (Andrews, 2010). Frequently, the Zapatistas altered projects to increase their oversight by shifting the focus to fit the region’s structures and priorities, and by controlling project financing (Andrews, 2014). Support from NGOs that did not conform to the Zapatistas’ demands was rejected. In addition to evaluating NGO project proposals, the Zapatistas evaluated their own needs and invited specific NGOs and experts to collaborate. Furthermore, they sent community members abroad to learn relevant skills the movement identified, such as sustainable agriculture (Stahler-Sholk, 2007). 

While these practices make the Zapatistas a successful example of community control of development, aligned with post-development principles, the extent to which this can be replicated elsewhere is questionable. Indicatively, the Zapatistas’ leverage was enabled by their high levels of organisation and their presence in international news (Andrews, 2014). Three main reasons why NGOs complied with the movement’s demands can be identified. First, there was willingness to replace predetermined project goals and structures with the Zapatistas’ priorities and ways of organising (Andrews, 2014). Although some NGO representatives mentioned that it was difficult emotionally to give up control over projects they had prepared, others emphasised common goals, or the ‘shared struggle for radical democracy and against neoliberalism’ (Andrews, 2010, p. 100). Second, these NGOs, which shared the Zapatistas’ values and saw the legitimacy and reasons behind their demands, then pressured other NGOs to comply in a form of horizontal accountability (Andrews, 2014). Third, the structure of NGOs and their funding mattered (McGregor, 2007; Andrews, 2014). Reporting requirements to donors complicates flexibility in responding to local demands, so smaller NGOs with more malleable structures and general funding were better able to cooperate with the Zapatistas. Demonstratively, Andrews (2014) discusses an NGO that obtained funding for gender and environmental protection by finding elements along these dimensions that were implicitly present in the Zapatista movement.

Can NGOs further post-development goals?

As mentioned previously, communities need certain characteristics, such as publicity, in order  to make demands. This restricts the generalisability of the Zapatistas’ experiences. Communities and movements are competing for the limited resources of supporters while having uneven levels of knowledge and power (Bob, 2001). To be successful, communities need to be able to make their cause known and successfully align their interests with supporters, which requires skills in framing and public relations. Even then, there is a risk of declining support for communities making demands if attention is redirected elsewhere (Andrews, 2010). NGOs are more willing to support movements if being associated with them is in their interests. For example, they might gain status if it is a famous case, or be more interested if the movement is a symbol of another issue the NGO is working on, such as NAFTA in the Zapatistas’ case (Bob, 2001). Often, there is also resistance to funding a southern NGO because it might risk the existence of the northern NGO, and there can be prejudice related to the perceived lack of expertise and institutional capacity (Manji, 1997).

Even when NGOs are willing to listen to community demands, they must have the capacity to do so, which is inherently connected to global power structures. In general, there is significant variance in how NGOs reinforce existing power structures and discourses in the political economy, ranging from organisations that emerged from missionary work to NGOs that primarily try to achieve structural power changes (Mitlin et al., 2007). There are power relations between international and local NGOs, between NGOs and governmental actors caught between influencing and being influenced by policy discourse, and between NGOs and the local communities they aim to support, for example by influencing path dependency (Makuwira, 2018). Within this structure, NGOs that try to achieve a post-development agenda are restricted in their ability by dependency on other actors, such as donors and domestic governments whose regulations registered NGOs need to follow (Andrews, 2014; Sotiropoulos and Bourikos, 2014). 

If funding is needed to achieve community goals, donor demands can stifle innovation and maintain the status quo by posing requests that are based on larger institutional frameworks, such as capacity building. This aligns projects with the traditional and mainstream values in the development space (McGregor, 2007). Regarding governments, NGOs can comply with their policies, contest them, or step in for their deficiencies (Hyden, 1997; Fisher, 1997; Sotiropoulos and Bourikos, 2014). Contesting governments becomes harder with higher levels of bureaucratisation, formalisation, and institutionalisation (Sotiropoulos and Bourikos, 2014). Therefore, in some spaces, informal solidarity organisations are preferred to NGOs that are covered under state legislation. These informal networks have the advantage of increased flexibility, however, less funding is available to them. Similar problems arise from the size of NGOs. Larger NGOs are less flexible than smaller NGOs because of their established infrastructure, centralisation, and frequent lack of knowledge about local needs (Schöneberg, 2017; McGregor, 2007). Smaller NGOs, on the other hand, may not know how to navigate bureaucracies and access funding (Mitlin et al., 2007). This poses problems for the implementation of post-development ideas that emphasise local independent changes and creativity.

Discussion and conclusion

In light of this discussion, we can identify that the role for NGOs in post-development discourse is determined by the extent to which their practices can be helpful towards local communities and, we can identify the factors which influence this impact. In turn, this showcases how post-development approaches can emerge from an existing international system with existing actors enabling change. 

Both NGOs and local communities like the Zapatistas illustrate ways to challenge conventional practices and power relationships whilst implementing post-development ideas. The Zapatistas were successful in establishing control over NGO projects, finding like-minded actors, and thus gaining support to further local goals that challenged power relations (Andrews, 2010; Andrews, 2014; Ronfeldt and Arquilla, 2001; Swords, 2007). However, this strategy cannot be generalised to all contexts. It is necessary for communities and movements to gain leverage, for example through gaining attention, sustaining public interest, and aligning with the goals and values of external supporters by successful framing (Bob, 2001; Andrews, 2010). For NGOs, first, willingness to listen to local movements and give up control is needed (Andrews, 2014). Second, willing NGOs need to be able to flexibly adapt, for example by low levels of bureaucratization, centralization and institutionalisation, and by achieving independence from donor demands (McGregor, 2007; Sotiropoulos and Bourikos, 2014). Thus, informal organisations and smaller NGOs are more likely to implement a post-development framework (Schöneberg, 2017; McGregor, 2007; Mitlin et al., 2007; Sotiropoulos and Bourikos, 2014). They are then challenged with navigating the larger established development network. However, the Zapatistas are an example of such an approach being successful through building transnational networks aligned for a common cause (challenging capitalism), with specific mechanisms such as horizontal accountability (Andrews, 2010; Andrews, 2014; Swords, 2007). 

Concretely, NGOs can implement a post-development framework by focusing on existing structures, assets and beliefs of communities, working with existing social movements that directly seek to challenge existing power structures, and providing education in privileged societies (Matthews, 2006; McGregor, 2007). NGOs can put relevant actors in contact with each other, provide guidance on how to access funding and navigate structures, and strength the confidence of communities in traditional knowledge and their ability to innovate independently (Matthews, 2006). To be able to do so, NGOs should review their structure to gain flexibility, for example through decentralisation. Communities should look into how they can use the existing development system for their unique goals by increasing their leverage (McGregor, 2007). This can be done through gaining publicity to attract third-party support, and thus more power—for example, by forming alliances with NGOs (Bob, 2001; Haque, 2002). Both communities and NGOs should look into ways to manipulate the system, for example by reducing transparency to donors to gain leeway (Townsend et al, 2004; McGregor, 2007). If this approach is taken, attention needs to be paid to avoid sliding into corruption. 

A limitation of the study was the focus on the Zapatistas as a unique, famous movement, whose strategies cannot necessarily be translated to other contexts, and arguably a product of the particular state of the development system in the 1990s. Hence, further research should be undertaken to find more case studies in other countries that can be compared with the Zapatistas’ experience, to see which other strategies communities can use to influence existing development actors and navigate the system. This should include movements with less influence and publicity than the Zapatistas. To this end, first, more cases of recent movements that are consistent with the post-development framework should be identified. Additionally, research should focus on how the existing development system can become more flexible to incorporate unique local approaches that challenge power structures. Overall, research should further look into how a post-development framework can practically be developed from within an existing development system. Thus, ‘a world where many worlds can be embraced’ (Escobar and Harcourt, 2018, p. 3) can be created.


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