The term NGO-isation is being increasingly used to describe the assumed capacity of NGOs to depoliticise discourses and practices of social movements. Put simply, the argument is this: that the state stops providing essential services to which its citizens are entitled and the citizens protest. NGOs step in to fill the gap in service provision, which they are unable to implement as effectively or on as grand a scale as the state. This limited service provision, whilst inadequate, satisfies the needs of the population sufficiently that they no longer demand services from the state (Davis, 2006; Petras, 1997).
In order to assess the degree to which NGOs can be blamed for the de-politicisation of poor communities it’s necessary to consider contentions put forward by academics working in the field. Can the presence of NGOs among poorer communities be seen to de-politicise the population at all? Mike Davis certainly found that social moments in urban communities were deradicalised and bureaucratised as a result of NGO intervention (Davis, 2006).
One of the chief proponents of this view, James Petras, most provocatively equates NGO-isation with imperialism, unequivocally asserting that the NGOs in Latin America were funded by neoliberal regimes “to provide ‘self help’ projects, ‘popular education’, and job training, to temporarily absorb small groups of poor, to co-opt local leaders, and to undermine anti-system struggles.” He pulls no punches in denouncing NGOs’ “‘apolitical’ posture and their focus on self-help as, specifically, depoliticising and demobilising the poor” and accuses of them of direct competition with “socio-political movements for the allegiance of local leaders and activist communities” (Petras, 1997). However this view is not universal amongst academics.
Islah Jad, considering NGOs working with women in the Arab world, suggests that only bottom up, grassroots movements have the ability to incite real social change, but acknowledges that NGOS “might be able to play a role in advocating Arab women’s rights in the international arena, provide services for certain needy groups, propose new policies and visions, generate and disseminate information”. While this is hardly resounding support for the work of NGOs, Sonia Alvarez, in considering the role of NGOs from a feminist perspective, concedes some of Petras’ points, but is not so quick to dismiss the role of NGOs in Latin America. She notes “feminist NGOs” political hybridity enabled them to play a critical role in “advocating feminism” by advancing a progressive gender policy agenda whilst simultaneously articulating vital political linkages among larger women’s movement and civil society constituencies” (Alvarez, 1999).
It seems reasonable to assume that some NGOs methods and relationships formed in their specific social settings have resulted in de-politicisation, particularly as it is a fear that is rears its head consistently in academic paper after academic paper. But broadly blaming NGOs generally as a sector – when that sector is so “highly differentiated with organizations performing a range of activities in very different contexts” (McCloskey, 2012) – seems unfair.
Duncan Green, strategic advisor for Oxfam expresses his frustration at academic papers using sweeping generalisations in reference to NGOs with “no acknowledgement of differences in approach, of some NGOs being better/worse than others.” (Oxfam, 2012) He criticises academics who offer a critique of the sector, but fail to consult with them in any way.
Arundhati Roy in a 2004 speech to the American Sociological Association asserted that “the NGO-isation of politics threatens to turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job” (Roy, 2004). However, she prefaced her statement with the acknowledgment that her sweeping statements did not apply to all NGOs, nor was meant as an indictment on the NGOs who continue to do valuable work. For her, the NGO phenomenon could only be considered in a broader political context where NGOs, indeed, “turn people into dependent victims and blunt the edges of political resistance” (Roy, 2004), but are in and of themselves a symptom of an environment created with the opening of India’s markets to neo-liberalism.
That NGO-isation is a result of neoliberal globalisation (Sheppard & et al, 2009, p 104) seems to be widely understood (Petras, 1997; Roy, 2004; Sheppard & et al, 2009 etc). In trying to distribute blame for the apparent de-politicisation of the poor, surely Petras is closest to the mark when he considers NGO-isation as a symptom of globalisation (whether you accept his argument that this represents a new imperialism is another matter) and that de-politicisation a further symptom of the same?
Julie Hearn, in considering the influence of NGOs in Kenya, notes that “Africans successfully fought one of the most totalitarian forms of state power, the colonial state, without donor aid” and wonders “Is it Kenyans or is it donors that need this aid?” (Hearn, 1998 p 99).
The debate requires the defining and positioning of NGOs into one of two development positions: the neoliberal perspective of private sector donor and aid provider, efficiently providing goods and services in response to local needs; and the Marxist view that expects development organisations to address the structural causes of poverty – going beyond mere aid provision to assume a more transformative role (McCloskey, 2012).
Critics of the “NGO as donor” role, like Hulme and Edwards, argue that, in a more depoliticised and top-down model of development, the sector is largely focused on service delivery and unduly led by the agendas of government (McCloskey, 2012). Analysing the ways in which NGO-State-Donor relationships have changed, they argue that as the sector grows it shifts closer towards the interests of donors and loses “important elements of its potential contribution to development” (Hulme and Edwards, 1997, page 3). Advocates of the more “transformative NGO role” (McCloskey, 2012) see NGOs as, “part of a struggle, defined by the relations of power” (Bebbington & et al, 2008) and suggest that to pursue more radical agendas for change relationships should be forged with society’s grassroots.
The implication is that these societies were doing better on issues of social justice before the NGO intervention, or that social justice can only be achieved when a population has been driven to the point of absolute desolation and desperation. Surely it needs to be argued that you need to meet basic needs in order to be in a position to fight for social justice? It is this author’s personal experience that many of the groups administered to by NGOs are those who had no voice. For many, it is through a rights based education, provided by NGOs, that they understand their rights and responsibilities through the state. There appears to be no doubt that many of the poor communities where NGOs work have become demobilised and de-politicised, but isn’t blaming NGOs merely blaming a symptom of a much more complex problem?
Whatever the case, it is apparent that change needs to happen for NGOs to obtain a level of effectiveness of delivery that is satisfying to donors, themselves and, more importantly, to the communities they serve. Hulme and Edwards, among others, express concern for the implications of closer Donor-NGO-State relations, stressing that “effective NGO activity is dependent on the capacity to respond to side pressures and, where these are weak, to help mobilise the poor and disadvantaged so that they can make their own demands – on NGOs, states and donors – more forcefully” (Hulme and Edwards, 1997).
More importantly this appears to be the message that is coming from within the communities themselves and NGOs will need to respond to this growing trend or risk being blamed for more than just de-politicisation (Roy, 2004).
Alvarez, SE 1999, Advocating feminism: The Latin American Feminist NGO Boom, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 1, 2, Academic Search Complete EBSCOhost, viewed 11 April 2014, https://ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=3887927&scope=site
Bebbington, AJ, Hickey, S & Mitlin, D C 2008, Can NGOs Make a Difference: The Challenge of Development Alternatives, Zed Books
Davis, M 2006 Planet of Slums, Verso 2006
Green, D 2012 What Can We Learn From a Really Annoying Paper on NGOs and Development, Oxfam Blog: From Poverty to Power, 15 August 2012, viewed 11 April 2014, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/what-can-we-learn-from-a-really-annoying-paper-on-ngos-and-development/#comments
Hearn, J 1998, The “NGO-Isation” of Kenyan Society: USAID & the Restructuring of Health Care, in Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 25, No. 75, The Machinery of External Control, March 1998 pp.89-100, Taylor & Francis Ltd, viewed on 12April 2014, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4006361
Hulme, D and Edwards, M 1997, NGOS, States and Donors: An Overview, in NGOs, State and Donors: Too Close for Comfort?, published Palgrave Macmillan
Jad, I 2004, The NGO-isation of Arab Women’s Movements, IDS Bulletin, Vol. 35, Iss. 4, pages 34-42 October 2004, viewed on 12 April 2014, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1759-5436.2004.tb00153.x/abstract
McCloskey, S 2012, Aid, NGOs and the Development Sector: Is It Time For a New Direction?, Policy and Practice, A Development Education Review, issue 15, viewed 1 April 2014, http://www.developmenteducationreview.com/issue15-viewpoint?page=show
Petras, J 1997, Imperialism and NGOs in Latin America, Monthly Review, vol. 49, no. 7, viewed 1 April 2014, http://monthlyreview.org/1997/12/01/imperialism-and-ngos-in-latin-america
Roy, A 2004, Public Power in the Age of Empire: Arunghati on War, Resistance and Presidency, Speech presented at the American Sociological Association, San Fransisco, California on August 16th, 2004, transcript viewed on 1April, 2014, http://www.democracynow.org/2004/8/23/public_power_in_the_age_of
Sheppard, E & et al 2009, A World of Difference, Encountering and Contesting Development Second Edition, The Guildford Press, p 104