Research qualifies NGOs’ role in development work

If you work international development, you probably work at an NGO or with NGOs.  If you’re not in the field, here’s a short primer:  NGOs aim to fill the gap between government services and a community’s needs.

They’re everywhere.  In the world’s capital cities, especially in developing countries, it’s impossible to avoid NGOs.  After Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, I fondly and ironically referred to Port-au-Prince as an “NGO playground.”  White land cruisers – the choice NGO all-terrain vehicle – comprised at least a quarter my morning rush hour traffic.  I was in one of them.

As a proud NGO employee, it was distressing to read that NGOs have atrophied and are now compromised in addressing entrenched causes and systems of poverty.  This is a key argument in a study by Nicola Banks and David Hulme of the University of Manchester’s Brooks World Poverty Institute.  They state that the origin of the NGO is to create an opposition to the government and other hegemonic institutions and provide services where the state could not.  Today, they respond more to the desires of the donors and not the needs of the communities.

This makes sense, and I’ve felt the tension.  NGOs need dollars to survive, and 85-90% of their funding coming from donors.  NGOs have professionalized their policies, staff, and development practices to fall in line with donor-funded interests.  They’ve moved their offices to cities where donors are.  They’ve limited their political interests as not to create unpleasantness with the governments that provide funds.  More than that, NGOs are not responsible to their beneficiaries, as there is no effective way or no will to measure downward accountability.

The researchers go on to argue that the current funding structure does not permit the beneficiaries to mobilize around their own challenges and to advocate against an oppressive system.  Without empowering local leaders and building ties to social movements, NGOs are impotent to assist low-income communities to drive and sustain a movement for lasting change.  This is my favorite line of the whole paper:

… civil society is nurtured most effectively when donors and NGOs do less, stepping back to allow citizens themselves to dictate the agenda and evolve a variety of civil society organizations to suit their contexts and concerns.

To have two UK-based academics critique the international development system has not gone unnoticed.  The Guardian posted a blog entry about the backlash to the report.  The heated debate about this research’s quality doesn’t interest me as much as the core notion that NGOs should return to empowering local communities and advocating for the poor – in addition to providing life-saving services.  I am thrilled that people are illuminating the restrictions of the aid world and how NGOs are becoming collectively uniform, increasingly risk-adverse, and less inclined to hand over decisions and programs to beneficiaries.  Perhaps donors will listen.

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