Has the day of international NGOs come and gone? Are they needed any longer? Would anyone miss them if they went the way of the T-Rex?
This question has been ‘blowing in the wind’ for years but only recently has it become a topic for public polite conversation.
A recent article in the Guardian reported on a conference where the subject was debated by some of the biggest of bigwigs in the industry. It seems the ‘great and good’ of the INGO (international NGO) world spoke in serious tones about the need for ‘northern’ NGOs to be more responsive and sensitive and acknowledged that hard questions must be asked about what value ‘we truly bring to the development equation’.
All good. But seriously, no industry is going to wind itself up in an act of industrial hari kiri. Unfortunately (for the most part) INGOs are an established part of the international development architecture and they will do everything they can to stay crusted onto the rusty bow of the ship. Just like those other suckers, deep Atlantic barnacles.
My own view tends toward the jaundiced. I understand that. I recognize I have the ‘aid malaise. I’m one of those ‘untrustworthy narrators’ you come across in novels. The guy who is constantly ducking and diving and tailing back on himself. Justifying his contradictions.
But even a sick man deserves to be heard.
Do we still need INGOs? Yes, but only for the following purposes.
- To leverage their global capacity of people, technology, funds and equipment in times of major disasters such as the Tsunami or Nepal earthquake.
- To provide expertise and solutions in their own communities and countries.
- To contribute to but not lead, set the agenda of or dominate the global development conversation.
There are other occasions and situations where an international organization, as opposed to the national or local one, can indeed be more effective. Usually in places of conflict where distrust among local players is so intense that only a perceived neutral party can literally deliver the goods. The sorts of organizations with this sort of mandate and reputation and trust are few and far between. ICRC, I would say, is the only genuine candidate on the global level.
But other than these instances, I honestly do not think the world’s poor would miss the sisters of charity.
A few years ago in Australia one of the State Premiers resigned when he became linked to a very expensive bottle of red wine. He had received it years earlier and the opposition was gearing up for some mud slinging. But the next day the Premier resigned and slipped off into obscurity. The nation, so used to pollies clinging to their positions and perks until the absolute last second, was stunned. Here, at last, was a man who truly took the high road and did the right thing. His exemplary action raised the bar overnight. Years on, very few have managed to reach the same level.
Another article on the dark side of the international child adoption industry raises similar questions as the Guardian article. What is the point of these agencies, many of the most successful of which, are ostensibly ‘Christian’?
What connects both groups of international adventuring do-gooders is at core a conviction that as privileged westerners we have an inalienable right to play with the lives of non-western, supposedly poor and easy to manipulate people. What makes it worse is the self-congratulatory brochure-speak that frames the interference in terms of ‘empowering’ and ‘saving’ of ‘rescuing’ and ‘strengthening’. These are powerful words. Addictive as drugs. We believe them deeply. And because we do we turn our eyes away from the damage and destruction, and assuage ourselves with mantras like ‘Do No Harm’.
Is it any wonder that voices as varied as Shashi Tharoor and ISIS reject western do-goodism as just another powerplay designed to keep the West/North on top of the East/South?
I would love Oxfam or World Vision to announce, like that rare Premier, they were moving off the scene. That after 70 years of work they were closing their operations in all foreign countries. “We are pleased to announce,” the press release might go, “our assessment that there are few issues left in the world that require establishment-educated western experts to ‘fix’. Our capacity building programs have been a smashing success. There are now tens of thousands skilled, strategically minded Indians, Albanians, Zambians and Fijians who are better placed to figure this shit out. Goodbye!”