“Babylon Makes the Rules”: Compliance, Fear, and Self-Discipline in the Quest for Official NGO Status



As untrained social agents endeavor to create new, grassroots nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), they quickly discover that in order for their nascent organizations to gain official status, and thus enjoy the benefits that come with it, they must first do the compliance necessary to register with the government agency or agencies responsible for regulating and monitoring their practices. Although it may not be regarded as such, the official registration process is more than just a means to an end; it has the power to produce new subjectivities that organize and constrain the social experience of NGO activism. As discontented citizens attempt to realize their unique visions of social justice by entering the field of NGO-based social activism, they “fall into” a habitus that disposes them to certain patterns of thought and behavior while rendering other patterns undesirable. This article uses ethnographic accounts of the evolution of a local development NGO founded and administered by Rastafari elders in Trinidad, West Indies, to illustrate how this habitus, a product of the iterative experiences surrounding the establishment and maintenance of an official NGO, structures the way grassroots social activists, with little or no prior administrative experience, understand, and respond to the problems and situations they encounter as they attempt to create their own NGOs.