NGO in a box
November 17, 2012 4:08 AM   Subscribe

A polemic against NGOs and the destruction of local innovation However, one issue that has received relatively scant attention is the way in which the notion of civil society has been reduced to being synonymous with non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This is one area that can have malign and far-reaching negative impacts, which I’d like to explore here. And here's another view, this time from India.
posted by infini (22 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I have to say, having worked as a fundraising trainer for much of the last year and last winter with a variety of people who are trying to launch initiatives benefiting Africa. Money is truly tight. Tighter now than it has ever been because of corruption. I have never met a poor African person in my entire time in Europe. They are all refugees in America, my Kenyan and Tanzanian friends all joke.

The reality is that this tightness has affected local aid more than anything else but not so much affected the large white-led NGOs who often create their own programmes and projects instead of relying on local partners. "As long as we are needed", touting one charity here in the UK, has meant 30 years in one location, 15 years in another.

By local, I mean Diaspora-based aid. These are well-funded, often well-oiled operations centred on a sphere of influence, usually a town or capital where a small group of people still have enough influence to get cargo through customs with no trouble. Why certain countries have access to better supplies is often down to this intricate supply chain. The problem is not money, but access to opportunity to make more of it.

Non-governmental organisations have exponentially larger costs than Diaspora aid networks, who will often work for free and tithe more regularly although the donation amounts will be exponentially less. Whereas the Diaspora covers fees for service, the NGO will be paying FTE wages, housing, expenses.

The diaspora argument should not be around innovation but wages if it wants to win attention. All charities need to be transparent to prevent corruption. I do not look at the recent golden handshake given to the leader of Amnesty International and her senior management team, totaling over £300,000, when staff had to be cut at Amnesty UK to know a bad punt.

Unfortunately, it is exponentially easier to be an activist shareholder than an activist donor.
posted by parmanparman at 4:31 AM on November 17, 2012 [8 favorites]

I don't think parmanparman actually read the post: which is about deeper issues that this. That the whole goal of NGOs are basically a lie: self-serving and more like a cancer that get in the way of true accountability through their narrow and non-confrontational focus. More concerned about the appearance of doing good than doing good.

I thought the twitter posts by Teju Cole were particularly insightful:
posted by mary8nne at 5:35 AM on November 17, 2012

Yes, the tweets ring true.

I was in a Canadian development agency many years ago – long before social media. I was sent to a South American country that was experiencing intense political upheaval (bombings and shootings daily). We had weekly NGO meetings regarding the civil violence, so I met many of the NGO high rollers and many of the front line workers. The twitter post “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege”…expresses perfectly my understanding of what was going on.

It was shocking to see who got “aid” money, and who didn’t. I saw local’s loose employment in order for the North American’s NGO’s to have jobs (and the NGO’s were paid ten times as much!). I saw how “aid” money fueled a thriving black market from goods to drugs. There were NGO stores, shops, telephone services and hotels where locals were not allowed (except to work in and serve us, of course). I saw a lot of corruption at all levels. And I met a lot of very emotionally unstable NGO’s.

I’m quite curious now, to find articles on how social media impacts NGO’s influence (damage?) on developing countries.
posted by what's her name at 6:31 AM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I did read the post. I am not going so far as to say NGOs are "more like a cancer that gets in the way of true accountability through their narrow and non-confrontational focus." It would be hard to categorize all NGOs in this way. There is a difference between funding organizations and ground working organizations. The most major challenge of the "cancer"-stricken organisations has not appeared as an NGO, but as a government waving money to groups that agree with their bottom line goals: China.

If you had dug further you would have seen Jeremy Weate's LinkedIn profile which describes him as an "Extractive Industries Expert". His last assignments were advising projects in Kazakhstan, Iraq, and Bougainville, PNG. Does anyone ever ask, "What kind of innovation does the author want to see?" Weate is smart but not smart enough to cover his tracks, which cross oil, gas, coal and mining of all types.

Ask yourself, what kind of innovations is Jeremy Weate really prospecting for?
posted by parmanparman at 6:35 AM on November 17, 2012 [9 favorites]

Mary8nne, you might also see that none other than the Daily Mail called Jeremy Weate's most frequent employer, Adam Smith International (parent of the Adam Smith Institute) a "poverty baron" that takes consulting fees from the UK Department for International Development to advise them about where their money would be spent most effectively.
posted by parmanparman at 6:47 AM on November 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I really like the blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough for a nuanced take on the question on measuring NGOs and determining whether they help, hurt, or just don't do anything. It gave me a completely different perspective on my friends who post Facebook pictures of themselves volunteering at a foreign orphanage for a week. I know my friends, and I know they had good intentions. But good intentions really aren't enough.

A few years back I interviewed a recent college grad who had spent a couple years overseas with a well-known NGO, and was looking to get into the environmental field with an entry-level job at my company. I asked him about his experience there, and his environmental management outreach efforts in the small, remote village he had been staying with.

"Our big success was getting the villagers to bury their trash instead of burning it," he said.

I blinked. "Burying? What kind of trash?"

"Batteries and plastic bags, mostly." The other part of their mission involved marketing to eco-tourists, who he said were, for the most part, responsible for generating both waste streams.

"In one landfill?"

"No, in their backyards."

I had to stop and think at this. Yes, burning batteries is bad, but burying them just allows the acid and metals to leach into the soil and drinking water. And burying them in thirty different backyards means you're spreading any impacts all over the village. "Why do it that way? The air pollution from burning the batteries is bad, of course, but the soil and groundwater pollution from burying the batteries are, too."

"That's what the aid manual said to do."

"Why not convince the villagers to put it in one pit? At least that way there'd be only one area of contaminated soil, and they could dig it up in the future if they needed to. And you could line it with clay, to limit the leachate." Or ask the ecotourists to take the batteries back with them to be properly disposed of, I thought but did not say. I suspect most of the batteries had been generated by the NGO staffers. He said they were trying to get ecotourism going, not that they had had any actual ecotourists show up.

"We did what the aid manual said to do."

He was getting visibly upset, so I stopped asking. He seemed like a nice guy, but it obviously hadn't occurred to him to question the aid manual.

Like my friends with their orphanage voluntourism, I know the guy's intentions were good. As donors to NGOs, we need to ask them for measurements and metrics showing that they are actually doing good in the world. We need to choose to put our donations toward NGOs that can harness all the good intentions, and put them towards genuinely good ends.
posted by pie ninja at 8:36 AM on November 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

Pie Ninja, that is a tragic story. It does well (and truly) to document that other perspectives are required in the local services industry so that things like waste remediation are done practically. Here is a good example of a waste service in the Nairobi slum Kibera that provides a great number of benefits and diverts used batteries from being buried or burned.
posted by parmanparman at 8:43 AM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I tend to sit in the back of teh room and play MPesa bingo.
posted by infini at 9:23 AM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

His point about NGOs drawing people away from academia is one I hadn't ever heard before. I think of it as being a really good thing for NGOs to hire local staff instead of foreigners (who command higher wages, distort local economies, can create power imbalances, etc.), and I don't quiiiite see how adding to the ranks of a country's feminist academics is inarguably better than adding to its gender specialists, but it's an interesting point. I'm a little unclear on what exactly it is he is recommending in general. His conclusion, that we need to "support a broader range of civil society organizations," is a little vague. Earlier in the piece he says "we should consider the media, the legal profession (or at least parts of it), academia, religious organisations and parliamentary representatives (after all, they are supposed to represent ‘the people’) all as stakeholders in civil society" - with the exception of parliament (which, uh, by definition is not civil society, but there's a valid point there about working with governments), these are all things that development people think of as civil society. I'm not sure what is new about this. Media, for example - is there anyone who has worked in development and NOT worked with a radio station at some point? (Ok, I'm exaggerating, but just a little.) Legal empowerment is also a growing thing in the development world (community paralegal programs and that sort of thing). Maybe this isn't what he's talking about, but I'm just really not clear on what he wants.

Parmanparman, I share your skepticism about "extractive industries experts," but I am a little confused by your appeal to the authority of the Daily Mail and I also don't get what's wrong with consulting for DFID (being personally acquainted with some very serious, smart, social justice-oriented folks who have consulted for DFID). Could you clarify?
posted by naoko at 9:45 AM on November 17, 2012

Ok, actually looking at the guy's LinkedIn (we are 3rd-degree connections, heh) I'm seeing work with Revenue Watch Institute - this seems like good stuff; I am retracting my suspicions about what exactly he's up to in the extractives sector. What's the problem here, parmanparman?

To me a lot of what this guy is saying about getting away from top-down, donor-driven, apolitical development work is all really legitimate; it's just that he writes about it in a sort of scattered way and also as if the development field hasn't been talking about rights-based development and other new approaches for the last 10-20 years.
posted by naoko at 10:21 AM on November 17, 2012

Parman... I couldn't find batteries mentioned in your wordpress link.

Great links everyone, while the main link of this FPP is maddeningly difficult to parse, these are all things I thought about pretty much daily on a recent trip to East Africa.
posted by midmarch snowman at 10:29 AM on November 17, 2012

If you had dug further you would have seen Jeremy Weate's LinkedIn profile which describes him as an "Extractive Industries Expert". His last assignments were advising projects in Kazakhstan, Iraq, and Bougainville, PNG. Does anyone ever ask, "What kind of innovation does the author want to see?"

The same high value innovation that fuels prosperity in the West?

A problem with too many NGOs is that they are philosophically opposed to such development, preferring to promote quaint undeveloped handcrafted economies that make us awe at the clever resourcefulness of poor colored folks of the third world. Even if it helps keep those economies from utilizing their full potential.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:44 AM on November 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

A problem with too many NGOs is that they are philosophically opposed to such development, preferring to promote quaint undeveloped handcrafted economies that make us awe at the clever resourcefulness of poor colored folks

posted by rr at 12:46 PM on November 17, 2012

The problem is that extractive industries don't help the local economy unless they can leverage the short term gains into a production economy and mitigate the long term damage and inevitable collapse of the extractive portion of the economy when the resources start running dry. And I don't know of many NGOs that have the clout o go toe-to-toe politically with those who just want to take the money and run.
posted by Zalzidrax at 12:50 PM on November 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

These sorts of arguments against "NGO"s are as old as charitable activities themselves, and haven't changed much over the centuries. The right in England and the US were mocking charitable giving in the 19th century in much the same terms: poor houses were both ineffectual and hugely wasteful, mainly existing to make their rich donors feel good, etc. A slightly more sophisticated version, echoed in the first link (though usually made disingenuously by center-right media), was arguing that the little good these organizations did do was counter-productive, inasmuch as it drained resources, attention, and minds away from ground-up mass movements.

First off, whatever the legitimacy of these criticisms, neither of the linked authors provide anything remotely like systematic evidence. Having worked in and near many NGOs, even the lowest-level report written by the most bleeding-heart undergrad -- imported or local -- would do a better job amassing systemic, and not just anecdotal, evidence to back up these claims. But I suspect the reason the authors here haven't done it is in part because it largely doesn't exist.

Second, if you've worked at all in government or business, you know these organizations, just like NGOs, are hugely wasteful. That's life. What striking is when such criticisms turn into a general argument against the entire edifice. The right does this in its endless stream of criticisms of waste in government activities, converting these local arguments into a general argument against the very existence of redistributive government spending. Similarly, the right and center-right follows the exact same pattern for charitable activities and NGOs: it's all self-serving waste, and participating in it in most cases does more harm than good. And similarly, they also argue that what little good it does do undercuts the free-market/indigenous-organizations, and thus that too is ultimately counter-productive. That "Good intentions are not enough" blog, which I have seen before, could be replicated for every every industry and branch of government, and indeed, the right is largely dedicated to doing just that for most government activities.

I have no objections to oversight, but as the first link makes clear, these are not just "do a better job" arguments: they are arguments against trying to do anything at all. And because it slots directly into the world-view of the right, it has significant larger effects. When I speak to friends and family aghast at some economic injustice or other, the number one reason they give nothing to charity to fight it is due to this remarkably ubiquitous view that those NGOs are wasteful and self-serving. This view is reinforced by hundreds of random articles and blog posts, just as the views on the far right that government services are wasteful "gifts" is continually reinforced by its own set of anecdata.

The problem is that, for skeptical thinkers like pie ninja, the burden of proof has shifted radically far onto the shoulders of the NGOs. The presumption is that they are wasteful idiots who never even thought to bury garbage in a dump rather than in individual backyards, and the panic of the interviewee only goes to show that these people, who have dedicated years of their lives to these activities, have thought less about it than the 10 seconds an interviewer has. Possibly true. But it's not an assumption we regularly make about all the other things we support, and it has huge effects: charitable giving is vastly diminished because of this assumption that it is wasted unless exhaustively proven otherwise (and who has time to do all that research?). And because that money has to go somewhere, it instead goes to mutual funds and banks and the companies they invest your money in instead. The idea that your dollars are better spent investing in Coca Cola or oil stock, or your time is better spent doing nothing rather than running the risk of it being somewhat wasted in a charitable effort, is pretty hard to justify. But justified it is, repeatedly and enthusiastically, by those suddenly struck by the insight that those who seek to do good often like to see themselves as do-gooders, and sometimes waste stuff along the way. Shocker.
posted by chortly at 1:08 PM on November 17, 2012 [7 favorites]

Midmarch Snowman there is a better article in the 2012 edition of FT Wealth, which does not seem to be online, that lays out the business practices at work that keep the oven burning 24 hours per day. One of the business is a waste sorting business which picks through all waste collected and takes out anything that can be sold for recycling, including batteries. I picked up the mag at a conference. If I can find it, I will message you with it. Otherwise, contact Pearson.

Is coal extraction a "high value innovation" that fuels prosperity in the west? I do not think you can call mining an innovative industry ever. Is fracking similarly innovative in your opinion? Innovative because it pollutes groundwater from underground, perhaps! It took me two seconds to find out about the wages in the US coal industry. Here is a report on wages in the US mining industry in 2011-2012. "the laborer illustrating with a low of $10.71 an hour, an average of $22.43 an hour, to the maximum of $33.73 an hour." "Count yourself lucky if you are working at a high-paying mine," says the author.

Even the World Bank had to rebrand the extractive industries to be more "innovative" in how they capture the attention and imagination of the public. They call low-level mining "artisanal mining" and there is a think tank about it. 7.7% of workers in mines in Africa are children. If you read about mines in Britain in the 19th and 20th century you would know mining is one of the "Worst Forms of Child Labor". 20 million frontline workers and 100 million dependent on an industry. Your cell phone and mine the probable product of "innovative", low-wage, unlicensed mining with little oversight and a powerful owner. Strengthening the "legal basis" of mines is important but legality and localism are not the same.

Naoko, I would love to agree with you about grassroots alternatives being needed. But, Nigeria, for example has no income tax to raise revenue for grants and social services. The only social contract is cheap oil. Can we trust the oil, gas and mining industry to create solutions to social problems in Nigeria after deregulation? We cannot.

As to the Daily Mail reference. I will reference anything I want. Thanks!
posted by parmanparman at 3:06 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can we trust the oil, gas and mining industry to create solutions to social problems in Nigeria after deregulation? We cannot.

Not sure who or what argument you are responding to here. Certainly not me and I don't think Mr. Weate, who from what I can tell appears to be interested in extractive industry revenue transparency and that sort of thing rather than whatever it is you think he's trying to promote.

Chortly I generally agree with you - I thought the linked pieces were sloppily argued and unoriginal, and I think the NGO world often takes an unfair drubbing - but I wonder if you're tarring all critiques of the aid world with the same "right-wing haters" brush, just a little? I generally like the Good Intentions blog, I reveled (probably a little too much) in the anti-Kony2012 smackdown, and I do think there are some bad charities and bad projects out there. But this is the world I work in too, and I do believe that on the whole it's worthwhile to try to make it better, rather than to give up.
Critiques of the system make people in our industry defensive, especially when it's the same old shit people have been saying for years, and when each one adds a little more to the public getting skeptical, throwing up their hands, and saying to hell with it. But we somehow have to figure out how to inspire confidence in the good work done by NGOs while still owning up to our failures. I'm not entirely sure what the answer is.
posted by naoko at 3:55 PM on November 17, 2012

Thank you, Chortly, for giving these rehashed neo-liberal cliches the response they deserve.
posted by smoke at 4:40 PM on November 17, 2012

I might add, anyone who champions Moyo's and the deeply, deeply flawed and methodologically decrepit Dead Aid as some kind of valid contribution to the aid sector clearly cares more about scoring points that align to a pre-defined (neoliberal) worldview than actual evidence.

The number of ill-informed people I've had lectures on aid from, based on a cursory reading of that wretched book is well into the double figures now.
posted by smoke at 4:43 PM on November 17, 2012

Is coal extraction a "high value innovation" that fuels prosperity in the west?

It clearly was. The problem here is that many in the West look down on such ventures because we can afford to. "You should stay out of that extractive industry because we're so over that."

There are thousands of NGOs out there, most not obnoxious. But if an NGO were to take the view, that we in the West know better than locals, as would be displayed by a blanket disapproval of resource extraction, that would rank among the most obnoxious of NGO paternalism.

Chortly, you're more invested in attacking a political line in the sand. All well and good, but a different subject altogether. The articles are attacking NGOs that seem to exist more for their own benefit than not. The defenses here aren't terribly convincing, relying on "Don't badmouth our good intentions, dude. If only people gave more..." Again with the emphasis on how the NGO benefits rather than the local populations.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:59 AM on November 18, 2012

None of these people are naming names, 2N2222. That's as much part of the problem than arguing over the symptoms and disease.
posted by parmanparman at 12:59 PM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

A problem with too many NGOs is that they are philosophically opposed to such development, preferring to promote quaint undeveloped handcrafted economies that make us awe at the clever resourcefulness of poor colored folks...

So explain why West Virginia, which is thick with such development, gets so much "handcrafted economies that make us awe at the clever resourcefulness of poor white folks" press.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:33 AM on November 19, 2012

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