Development NGOs: too close to the powerful, too far from the powerless?
Nicola Banks and David Hulme, at the Brooks World Poverty Institute, University of Manchester, have published a paper which argues that development NGOs need to change direction if they are to play a positive role in poverty reduction. At present, they argue, they are too concentrated on service delivery and advocacy on behalf of poor people. What they need to do is commit to empowerment of the poor, so that they can create their own solutions. This critique of the essentially philanthropist, top-down approach to development echoes what many in the trade union movement have been saying – especially those in the south.
The bottom line for the authors of this report is about results. They characterise the current model of NGOs as delivering ‘Big-D’ Development rather than ‘Little-d’ development (the distinction is easier to see in their summary, as the table it reproduces only appears on page 27 of the main study). They say that the difference is that while Development “depoliticises poverty by viewing it as a technical problem to be ‘solved’,” development “recognises the political nature of poverty and inequality that requires long-term structural change.” That’s the model of development that trade unions maintain took place in the north over the last two centuries, and is the only model likely to work in the south.
You can hear more about such arguments at public meetings in Newcastle on Wednesday 18 July from 6-7:30pm, London on Thursday 19 July (at Congress House) from 7-8:30pm and in Manchester on Friday 20 July – details to follow.)
Banks and Hulme argue that NGOs have become too close to the powerful in the chase for donor funds, and too far from the powerless, and that their lack of accountability to the people they are acting for holds them back from truly radical development achievements. In language developed by the disability movement, NGOs are movements ‘for’ the poor rather than ‘of’ them, and, as the disability movement has argued, the organisations ‘for’ should take their lead from the organisations ‘of’.
The paper is not designed as an attack on the (now vast and well-resourced) development NGO community, although it contains a number of stinging criticisms. But they draw a distinction between NGOs and the wider civil society which – in lobbying meetings around structures like the G20 – NGOs sometimes blur, substituting themselves for the voices of civil society that they are meant to be supporting and empowering. It is the lack of a membership structure, the accountability and legitimacy that delivers, that distinguishes NGOs from organisations like trade unions, which are organisations ‘of’, and are driven by their members’ interests. (Of course, some NGOs are southern-based membership organisations, which puts them in a different category – Banks and Hulme are mostly concerned about the international NGOs like, although these are never named, Oxfam and Save the Children.)
And it’s also fair to say that many of the concerns about lack of accountability in NGOs, and the closeness to elites that derives from concentrating too much on seeking influence or funding from donors and governments, can also apply to democratic organisations like unions: as a full-time official of such a movement, I’m aware of how distanced from the grassroots membership any institution can become! But in the final analysis, unions derive their special function from an active, paying membership, and it’s that which distinguishes us from NGOs, campaigns and advocacy organisations.