A polemic against NGOs and the destruction of local innovation

By IndepthAfrica
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Nov 6th, 2012
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By Jeremy Weate

The development sector has for the past few years been criticised for being ineffectual. This has come both from ex-insiders, such as Owen Barder and William Easterly, as well as those outside the sector, most notably by Dambisa Moyo in Dead Aid, who continues to yearn for an African new dawn facilitated by Chinese soft loans and goodwill. 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.

As any sociology lecturer will tell you, civil society as a construct has its roots in 19th century industrialisation in Europe and America. As large-scale factories (with ever more exploitative labour conditions) grew in cities across Europe, so too did organised resistance – this came in the form of workers’ unions. Civil society, as a mobilising space between the forces of government and the private sector in the west, has its roots in the labour movement.

However, in contemporary understanding, civil society embraces a far wider set of sectors than this. The most obvious extension is to include NGOs. However, 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.

To this more holistic definition, we may also now include social media activists: the rambunctious Twitter, Facebook and blogging generation is often capable of raising awareness on issues far more rapidly and widely than conventional media mechanisms from the old world.

A wider definition of civil society is therefore a more accurate reflection of our complex socio-political realities than any return to a singular focus on unions, even if many might argue for the on-going importance of organised labour in times when the multinational corporation reigns supreme.

It is therefore curious that a parallel reduction in understanding of the complex realities of what constitutes civil society is at work among development professionals. The overriding paradigm is to reduce civil society to NGOs or to treat them as synonymous.

There are, of course, many shapes and sizes of NGO. The big international ones we’ve all heard of – Oxfam, Amnesty International, MSF, Care International and the like. Although these organisations sometimes partner on projects with donors, in most cases, their fundraising mechanisms are via private donations rather than government. However, these international NGOs and their relative effectiveness are not of direct concern here. Rather, the focus of my critique is in-country NGOs that international donors like to support – whether in health, education, agriculture, public finance monitoring or ‘gender issues’.

More often than not, these NGOs are completely dependent on donors for their survival; they are rarely supported by local money, except through occasional government contractual largesse. Again, there are often recurring ‘capacity’ challenges, which tessellate nicely with support agendas from the donors (training, workshops, laptops, study tours, 4-wheel drive cars) and the need for assistance programmes that do not threaten the status quo or the underlying unstated framework of economic diplomacy.

To start with, it’s important that local NGOs are situated in the context of a global media paradigm of what purports to be effective direct action, clearing away the obfuscations of national governments and sovereign powers. The mirror of local, under-resourced NGOs that appeal to unassailable need, are the increasingly slick operations of western mediagenic boosters, often based in North America.

From Nick Kristof’s heart on sleeve tales of African woe in the New York Times to the bizarre tragi-schmaltz of “Kony2012”, recently we have witnessed a series of well-meaning but completely ineffectual campaigns that speak more to emotional needs of the “White Saviour Industrial Complex” than they proffer practical solutions to complex realities on the ground. The Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole summed up this phenomenon in a neat series of tweets earlier this year.

The conscience of the globally concerned must be salved. From earnest Americans with broadband and fancy cameras, to discreet but shabby offices in the middling parts of Sub-Saharan capitals, what we are witnessing are different points along what might be called the ‘salvation value chain’. The appeal is always on the basis of pristine need (and a sublimated religiosity), rinsed clean of the murky distortions of government blather.

The founding fathers of this paradigm were, of course, Bob and Bono. Who can forget Geldof’s expletive-laden appeal to just get out your chequebook and donate, back in the perm and hairspray days of Live Aid? Their faithful sons, John Prendergast and Jason Russell, continue the missionary work in our times.

In response to the market opportunity, the NGO sector in Africa has become a thriving cottage industry. Just as evangelical churches have mushroomed since the dark days of a structurally adjusted 1980s, so too has the NGO sector. In both cases, an opt-out from state failure is on offer: just as you must provision your own security, water and electricity to address practical living needs in many African situations, so too can you opt out of earthly citizenship altogether, via donor-assistance from Monday to Friday and worship on the weekend.

It might seem a little impolite, if not vulgar, to query the noble intentions of those who work along the salvation value chain. If one’s aspirations are pure, surely one cannot be damned if results are lacking?

This would be true, if only the bulging NGO sector were not so harmful. Let us take a brief look at the damage they can cause. One specific form the harm takes lies in how donor assistance to NGOs erodes academia and the production of local knowledge and critical discourse. We might wonder how many African academics have been lost to the secluded world of donor-dependent NGOs. What could have been ranks of inspiring lecturers and professors, passing on knowledge and critical insights to the next generation, have been reduced to the bland status of the consultant, forever doomed to crafting ‘baseline studies’ and ‘situation reports’, according to terms of reference dreamt up in offices thousands of miles away.

What networks of academic discourse were thwarted, what student inspiration left un-sparked by this hidden mass demotion? What sources of critical reflection required for fundamental social and political transformation were left undone? How many feminist scholars were reduced to being ‘gender activists’? Put in more tangible terms: in contrast to academic research, donor-funded reports – often filtered through NGOs or using ex-academics – produce private goods that do not contribute to local knowledge production and collective self-understanding.

Channelling focus and funds to NGOs is a distraction away from where the real sources of potential accountability pressure (and therefore better governance) may lie. Let us take just one example. The Occupy Nigeria movement that sprang in response to the raise in fuel prices in January this year was driven by a heady mix of social media activists and ordinary people increasingly aware of the grand scam that was the fuel subsidy programme.

NGOs had little role to play in the protest at the beginning. Ironically, it came to the union leaders to negotiate on behalf of ordinary Nigerians. Whatever one’s views on how effectively they did this, the power dynamics of civil society was stripped bear of pretence, for all to see. Again, the subsequent shut down of Occupy Nigeria is instructive. It was only when firebrand pastor Tunde Bakare (a Vice-Presidential candidate in the 2011 elections) hinted at regime change that tanks were placed on the streets of Lagos. The government recognised in an instant the potent threat of mixing progressive politics with religious mobilising power – an echo of the liberation theology of South America.

It is easy to see why donor organisations prefer to support small, under capacitated NGOs, and avoid the complex volatilities of a broader notion of civil society, in Nigeria as elsewhere on the continent. NGOs represent a chicks-in-the-nest source of need; they are non-threatening; they make for clean and tidy reports and nice photographs back to HQ, no matter that the top of the project log-frame remains unmarked by impact. However, these apparently pristine intentions mask a malign unintended consequence: deflated accountability pressure.

It’s high time for another, more holistic view of civil society to be engaged, if donors are going to play any significant role in increasing political accountability in various African states and move beyond the status quo of economic diplomacy. While undoubtedly a higher risk strategy (and beyond the comfort zone of many donors), supporting a broader range of civil society organisations holds the promise of increased citizen participation and ultimately, better governance in Africa. It’s a risk worth taking.

Jeremy Weate is an expert in the extractive industries in both Africa and Asia. He lives in Nigeria.

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