Further to AE Beacon’s Post, “Perspectives on NGOs Abroad”

January 22, 2007 at 3:31 pm (Michael's Posts)

I decided to make this comment a post so we could get it back in the mainstream of the conversation. It’s an important topic that didn’t get hit enough the first time around.

Here’s a link to the original post by AE Beacon. Read it first.

Beacon and Erin (and all)-

Sorry it took me a while to get back to this. Hopefully we can get the conversation going again. I just didn’t have the wherewithal to get into this at the time it was published, but I want to. So here goes.

I think that we owe a debt to the colonized world. To be frank, Westerners screwed them out of the productive parts of their society (young men and women and capital) for centuries and part of the reason some of these countries are in the dire straits they are in is because we put them there. The centralization of wealth and prosperity, and hence “progress” and “development,” is not a mistake. It’s not a cultural difference, either; the idea that somehow there is a “work ethic” that Europeans possess that the rest of the world is bereft of is an asinine idea. The reason the Global North is wealthier is because we sucked the gold out of the Global South. Systematically. And violently. Mali was once a golden empire that stretched across the Sub-Sahara that we now know as one of the most impoverished places on earth. India had wealth that Europe could only dream of. China was also wealthy beyond Western dreams before imperial conquest came to their shores.

Finally, we have a system through which we can give back some of what we stole. It’s not White Guilt that is at the root of my comment. It’s the idea that economic justice ought to be served. Morally. NGOs are a fantastic way to channel the resources that were stolen back to those who they were stolen from in the form of a redistribution of skill and services. It is an opportunity for those of us in the “developed” world (i.e. in the context of my rather radical and pissed-off subaltern economic perspective, the “thieving world”) who are aware of inequality and sick of it to try to right some of the wrongs we see. They are potentially a powerful method of redistribution.

Also, NGOs can get close to the ground-level in a way that government agencies cannot. Bureaucracies are built of offices whose officers sit behind desks and give reports but who rarely walk the streets with their fingers on the pulse. NGOs are essentially designed to be local where bureaucracies are designed to be super-local so they have great efficacy when it comes to actually getting things done. They have been instrumental in some of the successful health campaigns in recent years (Brazil’s HIV/AIDS campaign relied heavily on NGO input and logistical capability). They can be flexible and fast in ways that government cannot and thus can supersede the government in many ways.

These are the benefits to NGOs that I am sure you are taking into consideration.

You seem to express concern about this ability. The concern is that again, Western-influenced interlopers are taking control of local situations and doing with them what they see fit. However, the motive this time is giving, not taking. Does this matter? Well, in countries whose governments are often incredibly corrupt and whose populations cannot turn to them for support because of corruption or because there simply are not resources to address needs, we have to consider the fact that even if the government wanted to take care of their citizens, they are often not able to. Why? Because we crippled these countries and have not been actively involved in working out ways to get them back on their feet (I do not count foreign aid for a number of reasons that I will not go into now). So in the light of ineffective governments (and probably/possibly ineffective due to the actions of the Global North), NGOs are the next best thing. Even if they are staffed by nationals of former colonials. And maybe that is a good thing in light of my argument above.

Ought they be staffed by locals? Yes. Absolutely. No one knows more about problems than those who live with them. Do Northerners have expertise that they can bring to the situation to improve potential outcomes? Again, yes.

Erin raises a great question, though. How much of what is meant to go back to these places of now-great-need actually goes into the pockets of corrupt organizations and individuals? A considerable amount. NGOs are a business in “developing” countries. We can only control this hemorrhage of well-meant resources by effective oversight. Givers should not give unless there is oversight and accountability that, at the same time, does not infringe on the ability of the organization to perform its local functions (a great book on this is Michael Edwards and David Hulme: “Beyond the Magic Bullet: NGO Performance and Accountability in the Post-Cold War Period.”). This is indeed a problem that needs much attention.



  1. emlsewhere said,

    Michael, An interesting post on an issue I hope gets a lot more discussion…

    My first thought after reading this was about the potential consequences of foreign NGO involvement in what are potentially political issues. There are obviously problems with bureaucracies both in the US and abroad. Governments are oftentimes extremely ineffecient at delivering services– quality healthcare, decent education, etc. NGOs can definitely be better than governments at addressing problems directly and with less red tape. One worry, though, is that means NGOs can just end up picking up the slack of governments. In terms of delivering services, this can mean good things short term for people in need of healthcare, education, etc. There are a ton of NGOs out there doing great work.

    However, it just leaves me wondering about where it leaves governments in terms of their responsibility to provide these services? Do people have a right to education? To healthcare? To clean water? And if they do, does it matter what instituation–government or NGO–delivers these things? Who can be held responsible when healthcare or education or some other basic service is not available?

    I suppose that I am talking less about “Western-influenced interlopers are taking control of local situations and doing with them what they see fit” (though this can be a concern) and instead saying that perhaps NGOs can act as a barrier to long-term political solutions. By stepping in and helping in situations that governments aren’t addressing, can’t NGOs perpetuate negative, potentially-repressive political situations? NGOs can provide a sort of temporary band-aid for situations that require some major political/social surgery. When is stepping in okay, and when does it become irresponsible?

    Perhaps I am more comfortable with NGOs stepping in if they put pressure on the government instead of alleviating it and allowing health/education/etc funds to line the pockets of rulers while NGOs pick up the slack. I know that oftentimes, NGOs can act as catalysts for political change and long-term solutions, but even well-intentioned organizations must worry about the day-to-day, the bottom line, and short-term accomplishments in order to survive. I suppose my point is that we must be sure that by supporting NGOs we don’t forget that leadership must be still held accountable.


  2. aebeacon said,

    Michael and emlsewhere,
    I appreciate you reviving this debate; I personally find it as interesting as it is vital to the West’s international aid efforts.

    From your posts, it appears we agree (at least in part) on the positives and negatives of NGO involvement abroad. Your comments on NGO mobility, particularly at the sub-district or regional level, are right on. Additionally, you make great points on the etiology of global poverty.

    However, I take considerable issue with two central tenets in your arguments. First, the presumption that funneling resources through NGOs eliminates wastefulness and corruption is fundamentally false. The West has established an implicitly pretentious conception of foreign aid which insists on its own capability in delivering results while decrying the efforts of many developing countries as fraught with corruption and squander. This presumption is false. Sure there are people within developing countries who want to defraud their governments, hoard resources and institute systems of inequality which ensure their continual benefit at the cost of the underclass. It’s even not uncommon to see as much as 70% of the state’s resources to be concentrated in as little as 3% of the population. I know this because I live in one of those countries; the United States.

    It’s as hypocritical as it is insidious to presume corruption plays anywhere near to the role that it has been billed in developing countries. In reality, many of these countries have no money and no resources, that’s why programs aren’t working, that’s why there’s no school and that’s why people are sick. Inefficient? I’d say they’re poor and, as we again find a union of opinions, poverty is mostly our fault.

    My second point is on NGO mobility, independence and accountability. Here I believe we agree on the central properties of NGOs but disagree on their ethics. The flexibility, rapid response time and relative wealth of resources and information enable NGOs to provide service rapidly to a given population. Fantastic. But who decides what is done fast? Are priorities decided in Khartoum or Cambridge? The programming and funding decisions quietly made behind closed doors in Washington, Boston, Atlanta, Geneva, Paris, London and all around the developed world boarder on the transparency and equity characteristic of the G8. Of the 22 member board that directs the international NGO CARE, I count one person (looking at their bios) from a developing country. When will the voices of the poor and sick we claim to protect get a voice at the table? If they are not represented we are simply acting with speed and power, not unification and humility.

    Æ Beacon

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