Can NGOs Escape Professionalism and Become More Like People?
Jan 28, 2014
Can NGOs Escape Professionalism and Become More Like People?
Anarchists in the Boardroom and NGOization reviewed
Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organization to be more like people
More Like People Press
NGOization: Complicity, Contradictions and Prospects
Nuance. Nikolas Barry-Shaw and I heard that word in many difference Canadian cities we visited on our book tour. Our book argued that government-funded "Non-Governmental Organizations" are not just prone to dragging their feet politically, but are actually playing an active role in manufacturing consent for neoliberal policies and imperial military occupations. Almost no one was willing to argue that that's not a major part of what NGOs do, but more than a few NGO veterans who came to our talks demanded nuance where they saw us as making sweeping generalizations.
From an inside perspective, things look different. Many well-intentioned people get caught up in benevolent-seeming efforts that sap support and resources from social movements that could actually challenge the policies that deepen poverty and perpetuate wars and occupations. But there are those few who see the big picture and fight hard for small but important shifts. It's an invisible and mostly thankless role.
It's fair that people who choose to reject the relative smooth sailing of going with the neoliberal flow, opting for a stress-filled life of constant backroom maneuvring and political haggling, should not want to be ignored or erased from the story. Our typical rejoinder was to honour these efforts, but to say that it's also fair to call a spade a spade, even when it contains a rebellion of valiant, tiny hearts.
Were we being too flip? While the complicity of NGOs with the nefarious agendas of their funders seems unavoidable, perhaps there's something to be gained by engaging more directly with the exceptions, the margins and the edge cases. Two new books make that argument (among others) in different ways.
NGOization: complicity, contradictions and prospects is an important contribution to the conversation about neo-colonialism and NGOs. Dip Kapoor and Aziz Choudry, who edited the collection and each contribute one chapter, don't hold back on critique but demand that the reader also pay attention to what amounts to the micropolitics of geopolitics: the pockets of resistance in and around NGO structures, the local movement-oriented NGOs who push back the giant international players, and the ensuing negotiations and their mixed political outcomes.
Kapoor and Choudry link the global expansion of NGOs to the dawn of the Reagan-Thatcher era, and a shift away from governments as the engine of economic growth. The "professionalization and depolitization of community-based NGOs work well," they write, "for neoliberal regimes." A central question of the collection is how to build and strengthen "social movements that will confront capitalist/colonial relations at national and international levels."
"NGOs," Sangeeta Kamat writes in the preface to NGOization, "are the favored institutional form through which every social problem is to be addressed, be it domestic violence, ecological devastation, food security or the aftermath of war." There are now hundreds of thousands (or millions, depending on how one counts) of NGOs operating worldwide, funded by governments, international financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank, various foundations, well-intentioned individuals, and increasingly, corporations. Larger NGOs like Oxfam, Action Aid and World Vision connect these donor offices with projects in the global south, often run by local partner organizations.
Through this three-tier structure, governments and corporations in rich countries can extend their influence all the way down to the grassroots level with unprecedented speed and flexibility. Rich countries send aid to places suffering from their military interventions or economic hyperexploitation, and NGOs follow along, paying influential locals as long as they run their projects and mostly stay quiet about the root causes of the poverty and exploitation they try to address. As Arundhati Roy once put it, "They’re what botanists would call an indicator species. The greater the devastation caused by neoliberalism, the greater the outbreak of NGOs."
The contributions in NGOization extend beyond the aid and development spheres, covering a wide range both geographically and thematically, spanning South African social movements engaged in direct action and giant conservation NGOs complicit with "biopiracy" in Aotearoa/New Zealand, and much in between.
The term NGO is a misnomer much of the time. If warning labels applied, perhaps they would read: "NGOs are not non-governmental; civil society is uncivil." In NGOization, the idea of the "NGO" is quickly exposed in its mind-boggling vagueness.
Adivasi activists in India, interviewed by Kapoor, group all NGOs into one category, describing how they intentionally "demobilize and immobilize movements" that are fighting forced displacement. NGOs, the activists told Kapoor, engage in corporate espionage, coopt opposition, project an appearance of consent where there is resistance, and "provide services until displacement goals are met." These sentiments, Kapoor writes, come from an anti-capitalist movement in "a rural context scarred by violent and unforgiving politics." He hastens to add: "Not all movements would necessarily assess NGO engagements in like manner."
Meanwhile in South Africa, the Democratic Left Front, which aims to support and unite social movements, is described as "in part self-funded," though it seeks monies from donors and NGOs for national events. In this case, "NGOization" is considered as a cultural struggle between those who absorb values of "constructive engagement" from NGO partners, and academics and poor peoples' groups who favour disruptive and often illegal direct action to advance their aims.
An account of UN discussions of Indigenous rights in Geneva spanning several decades comes to a head when UN delegates exclude Indigenous nations from deliberations in favour of NGOs. The national representatives call for a boycott of the proceedings until they are recognized as participants, but the NGO staffers walk past their picket. One shrugs off Indigenous opposition; his board of directors instructed him to go forward with his presentation. "The goal of the NGO," chapter author Sharon Venne concludes, "is to survive and ensure that their staff is are paid on a regular basis. This is a goal of the colonizer: the voice of the land and the nations are not heard."
"Professionalization" is central to the critique advanced in NGOization. Paid staff are often trained in a western business context, which has the effect of marginalizing non-western worldviews and preparing NGO staff for top-down managerialism. NGOs have "a tendency," write Kapoor and Choudry, "to fragment and compartmentalize the world into 'issues' and 'projects'." This separation between a "professional" class and the lived experience of those supposedly served by NGOs means that accountability flows up, not down.
In Anarchists in the Boardroom: how social media and social movements can help your organization to be more like people, Liam Barrington-Bush picks up the same thread, but in a different hue. He takes aim at "industrialism," "professionalism" and the "deeply ingrained assumptions and practices of organizational hierarchy." These include assuming that "someone will have the final say," that we'll always "report to someone," and some will receive a higher salary than others.
Barrington-Bush moves swiftly from critique to solutions, serving up a smorgasbord of appetizing examples of collaboration, network models and anti-hierarchical organizing, drawing inspiration from the early days of hip hop, spontaneous twitter activism, antiglobalization protests, the free software movement, and open space-style gatherings. He persistently urges the reader to consider ways in which their organization can abolish or diminish hierarchy, embrace complexity, be ready for unforseen political shifts, leverage the diversity and lived experience of those involved, share information, and expand creativity.
It's a quick, accessible read, optimized for frequent consultation. Each section ends with italicized tips on how to apply the lessons of the stories, which Barrington-Bush recounts in a fast-paced and engaging style. The book even tackles the blinding effects of white privilege, using a mix of seriousness and aplomb that at least points in the direction of a refreshing unflinching-yet-accessible style that is worthy of note.
Anarchists carves out a space for an almost unrecognizably utopian vision of how organizations -- particularly those devoted to social change -- can be run. Reading the book, one is keenly aware of the contradiction inherent in hierarchical NGOs promoting best democratic practices abroad. Anarchists points up, albeit implicitly, the important relationship between transformative struggle at home and solidarity work abroad.
But are these changes possible? The book is heavy on non-institutional examples, and though it is aimed at those working in charities and NGOs, it highlights precious few examples of large organizations successfully implementing any of the prescriptions the book lays out.
In the last chapter, Barrington-Bush himself seems to throw the possibility of organizational reform into question.
Can organizations be more like people, or do we have to abandon them them to create something new if we want to organise in a way that maintains our humanity, addresses the world's complexity, and gives us the autonomous space to realise our individual and collective potential? My answer? I'm still not entirely sure.
Will readers conclude that they should leave the jobs they're in, or throw themselves into attempts at reform? Or will they keep one foot in the non-profit industrial complex and cultivate experimental utopian projects on the side? Barrington-Bush embraces his own principles by trusting the reader to do what is best.
While everyone is, as Barrington-Bush points out, in a different situation with different needs and challenges, both NGOization and Anarchists point to -- but don't expand as much as they could -- the analysis that could help people make those informed decisions.
Without historical perspective, it can be tough to see how a concerted effort to apply the critiques contained in Anarchists and NGOization would turn out. This is where a more direct analysis of the mechanisms of compliance could benefit both books.
NGOization features a few examples of organizations that started to address deeper issues, and had their funding cut. In the chapter on the former Yugoslavia, an activist from a grassroots network that had opposed Milosevic notes that donors and partner NGOs didn't understand why their group was "opening all these questions up for debate" instead of simply "railing against [then-President Slobodan] Milosevic," Donors, the activist said, wanted more "activism" and less of what they called "philosophizing." The group went forward with planned public discussions that went beyond opposing Milosevic. The donor's response? They "tried to organize a putsch," within the organization and when that failed, informed the organizers that their funding would be discontinued. After Milosevic was defeated in the 2000 elections, the funders' real motives became clear. As another activist recounts, it was clear that in animating broad conversations about what would come after Milosevic, "we had overstepped our mandate," and economic matters were to be turned over to "the designated neoliberal experts" after the election.
It's a pattern well known to those who study the rare examples of NGOs which go beyond the status quo of, in the words of another Serbian activist, fighting against "the symptoms, the result of that system, but not against the cause."
In Canada, the story of Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO) seems eerily similar. In the 1970s, the government-founded NGO was flooded with graduating student radicals, and quickly began to reflect their values. Participatory structures that could be straight out of Anarchists in the Boardroom were instituted across the country. Democratic decisionmaking went hand in hand with a sharp focus on Canada's complicity in the causes of global poverty. After scoring significant victories against some of Canada's more rapacious foreign policy moves, the Canadian government pulled the plug. Officials manufactured a crisis by witholding funding, and forced CUSO to reinstitute hierarchical management. SUCO, CUSO's Quebecois counterpart, refused the changes, and was effectively defunded out of existence.
Stories like these are there for those who look for them. However, if an effort is going to be made to change the culture of NGOs and create alternatives, the specific mechanisms of discipline and punishment that activists will face must be a central feature of the analysis.
At the same time, professionalization and hierarchy must be explicitly understood less as cultural remnants of a less enlightened time, but as the central feature of an NGO system which projects power from the capitals of capital to the impoverished margins where they exploit natural resources and cheap labour. It's not by accident that some Canadian NGOs reputed to be progressive are headed by remnants of the authoritarian left from the 1970s. People with hierarchical if not authoritarian mindsets are in positions of power because the funding system they depend on is not compatible with decisions driven by a democratic process.
A deeply incomplete task of NGO and non-profit analysis is to confront the subsidized delusions of those who work inside the system. Another theme left latent in both books is the extent to which salaries fuel blindness, arrogance and defensiveness among NGO staffers. Confrontations should be rooted in compassion, but not in ways that detract from the pressing need for mechanisms to support those inside the machine to maintain a wider perspective. One feature of the NGO world discussed elsewhere is the apparent rite of passage whereby veteran workers disabuse new recruits of their ideals, and instill what they no doubt see as a "healthy" cynicism which amounts to a drastic reduction of expectations.
A surprisingly undocumented feature of hierarchical systems is that the higher you rise, the more the whole system dedicates itself to telling you that you're more qualified to make decisions than anyone else. No one wants to tell people what to do and believe they're not justified in doing so. The paradox is that during this same rise, you become more limited in your vision as you internalize the logic of the power system you are a part of. The Orwellian lie of pyramidal structures which are ultimately accountable to donors is their celebration of the CEO or Executive Director as a visionary.
More important than any attempt at reform from within is the creation of vital, living alternatives to hierarchical NGO structures. Not unironically, these two books about NGOs are at their best when they're talking about examples that break from the NGO model. NGOization contains good material on what one chapter calls Popular Organizations -- democratically run and funded by member dues -- discussing the challenges they face and the advantages they possess. Anarchists draws almost all of its examples from outside the non-profit world, and when it ventures into NGO territory, it dabbles at the margins.
Funding independence and democracy, it should be said, do not guarantee that organizations will make a contribution to human liberation and global solidarity (a Bureaucratization companion volume examining trade unions is sorely needed). But judging by the evidence presented in both books, funding dependence and hierarchy guarantee that any effort to confront the root causes of poverty and environmental destruction within these structures will be cut short before they become a real threat to the system. The evidence so far shows that organizations achieve independence and alternate relationships of accountability only to the extent that they are able to support -- rather than "demobilize and immobilize" -- movements for social and ecological justice.
Arundhati Roy's speech "Public Power in the Age of Empire" turns ten this year, but it remains one the most incisive and eloquent analyses of the NGO system. In 2004, she said:
The NGO-ization of politics threatens to turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job. With a few perks thrown in. Real resistance has real consequences. And no salary.
Those working inside NGOs have an important role to play in exposing the abuses of the system of power, and shifting organizational culture in ways that dulls the sword of the non-profit industrial complex. To the extent that NGOs will play a supportive role, the interpersonal and cultural challenge remains. It consists of compelling people with salaries and titles like "Executive Director" to acknowledge that theirs is a supporting rather than a starring role. People who have day jobs, less experience, and less time to work on the issues are in fact, collectively, the leaders.
Dru Oja Jay is a writer, organizer and web developer. He is co-author, with Nikolas Barry-Shaw, of Paved with Good Intentions: Canada's development NGOs from idealism to imperialism. He lives in Montreal.