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What Can We Learn From a Really Annoying Paper on NGOs and Development?

Duncan Green's picture

I’ve got a paper I want you to read, particularly if you work for an NGO or other lobbying outfit. Not because it’s good – far from it – but because reading it and (if you work for an NGO) observing your rising tide of irritation will really help you understand how those working in the private sector, government or the multilateral system feel when they read a generalized and ill-informed NGO attack on their work.
 
The paper in question is from a reputable institution (Manchester University’s Brooks World Poverty Institute) and authors (Nicola Banks and David Hulme), and is about ‘the role of NGOs and civil society in development and poverty reduction’.  Here’s the abstract:
 
‘Since the late 1970s, NGOs have played an increasingly prominent role in the development sector, widely praised for their strengths as innovative and grassroots-driven organisations with the desire and capacity to pursue participatory and people-centred forms of development and to fill gaps left by the failure of states across the developing world in meeting the needs of their poorest citizens. While levels of funding for NGO programmes in service delivery and advocacy work have increased alongside the rising prevalence and prominence of NGOs, concerns regarding their legitimacy have also increased. There are ongoing questions of these comparative advantages, given their growing distance away from low-income people and communities and towards their donors. In addition, given the non-political arena in which they operate, NGOs have had little participation or impact in tackling the more structurally-entrenched causes and manifestations of poverty, such as social and political exclusion, instead effectively depoliticising poverty by treating it as a technical problem that can be ‘solved’. How, therefore, can NGOs ‘return to their roots’ and follow true participatory and experimental paths to empowerment? As this paper explores, increasingly, NGOs are recognised as only one, albeit important, actor in civil society. Success in this sphere will require a shift away from their role as service providers to that of facilitators and supporters of broader civil society organisations through which low-income communities themselves can engage in dialogue and negotiations to enhance their collective assets and capabilities.’
 
A fairly standard critique, and one with which I have some sympathy (apart from the unforgivably long paragraph). So why is it so annoying? (and I realize I will probably come across as just another thin-skinned NGO prig, but what’s the world coming to if you can’t indulge in cathartic rants on a blog?). Here are some of the irritants that I think we NGO types should note and avoid in our own work:
 
Sweeping generalizations: there’s a standard couple of paras on ‘hey they’re all different!’, but from then on it’s NGOs are this and NGOs are that, with evidence-free assertions across geography, scale and role. No acknowledgement of differences in approach, of some NGOs being better/worse than others. From NGI (non-governmental individual) to large transnational organizations like Oxfam, NGOs are just one amorphous blob (cf ‘the private sector’ in NGO diatribes). The authors’ defence is that this is just a chapter for a student textbook and so has to be a very general ‘synthesis of syntheses’. Just as long as you don’t expect it to describe reality, I guess.
 
Teaching grandmother to suck eggs (yes, for non English readers, that is one of our weirder sayings): nothing more irritating than having an academic, in ringing tones, telling you the blindingly obvious like ‘while NGOs comprise part of civil society, they are far from synonymous with civil society’ – NSS (no shit, Sherlock). The authors pull the student textbook defence again on this one – it makes me rather worry what our students are being fed (but at least explains why several have come up to me after talks to say how confused they are because they like what I’ve said, yet have been previously taught that all NGOs are evil/incompetent pawns of imperialism).
 
Argument by assertion, rather than evidence: if you repeat often enough that ‘concerns of financial sustainability and organizational survival drive the erosion of an NGO’s original values and mission’, maybe the reader will eventually swallow it, despite the lack of nuance or evidence. The authors’ defence is that the paper summarizes ‘the best elements of an enormous academic literature’. The trouble with that is that, like an NGO writing a paper based exclusively on other NGO reports, the process acts as a huge echo chamber, magnifying normative assumptions and prejudices, and bidding farewell to any dwindling link to reality.

Dodgy stats: Citing secondary sources from 2000 and 2006, ‘NGOs depend on donor funds for around 85-90% of their income’. What, all NGOs? (certainly isn’t true of Oxfam). To be fair, the authors promise to sort this one out (but what if I hadn’t bothered to write this? Those poor students again.)
 
Assuming all NGOs are either venal (endlessly pursuing their own expansion and ‘professionalization’ – which apparently is a Really Bad Thing) or stupid (not realizing that they can’t succeed): Nothing alienates more than a truly condescending tone based on very little actual knowledge. Over the years, I’ve seen some spectacular NGO finger wagging alienate potentially sympathetic politicians – this is right up there.
 
No sign of them actually interviewing anyone who’s worked for an NGO in the last 5 years. The authors’ response was that both authors had worked with NGOs over the years, and they’d drawn on writings by ex-NGO ‘practitioner-scholars’. So if you’ve worked with government/private sector, no need to check your analysis with them before slagging them off? Interesting. Get ready for my paper on ‘academics’…….. The authors pull the standard ‘it’s just a working paper and can be fixed’ defence. Sorry, but if you’re serious about feedback you have to actively go out and ask for it.
 
No case studies of NGOs doing the things they are being accused of. Not one. I asked them about this too. Response? Weirdly, the authors argue that eschewing case studies (in favour of slagging off all NGOs indiscriminately) is somehow an act of kindness. Not sure I follow that one.
 
I could go on – ubiquitous aunt sallies, lazy use of the passive tense (‘it is argued that….’) – but you get the picture. As far as I can tell, they have not solicited, or read, any internal or published NGO work on these issues (and boy, there’s plenty of it – we agonize constantly about effectiveness, accountability etc). Nor have they sent the draft to any NGO people to review (unlike this blogpost, which both authors have commented on).
 
Gosh I feel better for that…….. But back to my main point. If you work for an NGO and want to influence, rather than irritate, read this paper and monitor your reactions.
 
I think I may be hearing from the authors……

This post was originally published on From Poverty to Power

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