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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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Dear Duncan, Nothing is more annoying than an annoying critique of an annoying paper. But to give you credit after taking some easy potshots at the annoying paper you do at least have the sense to suggest that people read the paper and monitor their own reactions. What is really annoying about your critique is that it fails entirely to ask the question 'do these people' have a point. Is our failure to account and be accountable a serious issue to be addressed, by continously supporting failing communities and societies are we developing a dependency culture, why do over 30 per cent of aid and development projects fail to meet their objectives, is there a better way of doing things, is our approach really some sort of latter day benevelent colonialism... If the phrase I am from head office and am here to help you .. is anathema in most well run commercial organisations, isn't it about time to recognise that 'the we are an NGO and we know exactly what you need' approach is just as outdated and outmoded. If you want a really annoying paper toread try one of the DIFID country reports to the Parliamentary Select Committee charged with the oversignt of the department. Then ask yourself whether the broad brush assertions and unquantifiable achievements claimed actually reflect a benefit to the societies and communities involved or justify the arrogance of the NGO community. Let's see some accountability , transparency and exit strategies built into NGO contracts with communities, governments and sponsor organisations then perhaps you really can rail against annoying papers. PLW

Submitted by Anonymous on
Funny, thought-provoking & on target. Thanks for a fun read!

Submitted by Minivan on
The proliferation of NGOs is in the first place likend to the funding. Without the free floating money looking for an NGO they would disappear. We fund NGOs because they seem to have effectiveness and legitimacy. However, the effectiveness is anecdotical or spin. Some NGOs are indeed effective, others not. There is absolutely nothing you can say about the effectiveness of NGOs as a group. It is even not relevant about NGOs as a group as they are so different. Their legitimacy comes from their identification with the civil society, while in fact they don't have any mandate from the groups they claim to speak for. Even worse: where NGOs crop up, the unions and co-operatives cannot compete with the better funded NGOs and weaken. This means that the services delivered by NGOs lead to less empowerment and less accountable government in the long run.

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