Transformation: Opinion

Is there a role for NGOs in the transformation of society?

In the last five years we’ve published 30 articles on NGOs and social change. What do they reveal?

Michael Edwards
21 May 2020, 8.33pm
Flickr/Shawn. CC BY-SA-NC 2.0.

Over the last 40 years NGOs have played increasing roles in lobbying and advocacy, the delivery of welfare, and humanitarian assistance, but can they also be a force for deep-rooted social transformation? That’s the question that activists and thinkers have been exploring on this site over the last five years, so I thought it would be useful to gather all their articles together in one place and reflect on their conclusions.

At first sight the answer to my question might seem obvious: NGOs - meaning registered charities and other non-profit ‘intermediaries’ - may not be especially radical when compared to social movements or grassroots organizing, but they do provide essential support and services to people who need them, and they help to secure a basic foundation of security and rights - without which the prospects for deeper change would be even more remote. In that sense they form an important part of the ‘connective tissue’ of a functioning civil society.

But such societies only work if those connections are activated, cultivated and held in balance so that one kind of organization doesn’t dominate to the detriment of others. The problem is that the current structure and mode of operation of many NGOs, their increasing bureaucracy and tendency to self-promotion, and their sheer distance from the people they’re supposed to serve, may be getting in the way of making these links effectively. Meanwhile, their actual impact is modest, at least if measured in terms of long-term structural change and not just the number of policy reports issued or children ‘saved’ between January and July.

This is largely because they have little traction over the social, cultural, political and economic forces that act as drivers of transformation - which is why those links and connections are paramount since no organization, interest group or sector can achieve much on its own. As the kick-off piece in the series put it, “too small to influence economics, too bureaucratic to be social movements, banned from politics and removed from the societies they’re trying to change, where do NGOs go next?” Re-reading all the articles in one sitting reveals an interesting range of answers to that question, as well as some insights into why there has been so little positive response to the debate from NGOs themselves.

The early pieces in the series focus on issues of power, size, ‘market share,’ funding and control, concluding that incentives to preserve the status-quo are more influential than internal commitments to reform or transformation, however strongly-expressed they might be on paper in the speeches and policy statements that emanate from the sector:

What’s to be done with Oxfam? By Michael Edwards

Five disempowering traits that international NGOs must drop, by Irũngũ Houghton

Are INGOs ready to give up power? By Deborah Doane

This situation is made worse by the fact that NGOs exist in resource environments which encourage competition for government contacts, foreign aid and voluntary donations within structures shot through by unequal access to funding opportunities. Since there’s little money to fund inter-agency co-operation, alliance-building or organizational transformation, the tendency is to pursue support within the existing system as aggressively as needed; no Board is comfortable with their own group getting less or growing smaller.

Unless these incentives are upended it will be very difficult to lever any deep-rooted alterations in the system, so building up alternative funding frameworks and sources of finance is an important part of the solution (and the subject of a separate series on Transformation around money and social change):

The inconvenient truth about foreign aid, by David Sogge

Could NGOs flourish in a future without foreign aid? By Michael Edwards

Healing solidarity: re-imagining international development By Mary Ann Clements

From development to dignity: a profound challenge for international cooperation, by Jonathan Glennie

A second set of concerns revolve around NGOs and the changing shape of the broader civil society ‘ecosystem.’ Because more public and private funding is directed to intermediaries for service-provision, humanitarian assistance, and advocacy - and less gets to smaller community-based groups and informal associations of different kinds - there’s a danger that the proper balance between different forms of activism and civic engagement is disturbed. If that happens, the ‘whole becomes less than the sum of its parts,’ and the overall impact of civil society may be reduced even though some of its constituent parts are growing larger:

Whatever happened to civil society? By Vern Hughes

When is civil society a force for social transformation? By Michael Edwards

What does ‘A Christmas Carol’ tell us about the meaning of charity? By John Picton

The everyday power of movement activism, by Laurence Cox

Where is civil society when you need it? By Michael Edwards

Social activism and the economics of mental health, by John Picton

Contained within these critiques was the fear that the increasing size and dominance of NGOs would tempt them to move away from their core values (like humility, service and the empowerment of others), and to make compromises on basic principles in order to build, protect and advance their ‘brands’ (corporate influence over the non-profit sector having grown considerably in the 1990s and 2000s).

These fears seemed to be confirmed by a wave of scandals that hit the NGO sector in 2018, at least in the minds of external observers if not the agencies themselves. First in the firing line was Oxfam-GB, which was accused of failing to deal adequately with allegations of sexual exploitation by a small number of its staff based in offices overseas:

What’s to be done with Oxfam, part 2? By Michael Edwards

What’s it all about, Oxfam? By Phil Vernon

Then came a series of articles about Save the Children-UK concerning how it had handled allegations of sexual harassment and bullying against two of its senior managers, made worse by aggressive attempts to shut down commentary about these cases in the media - a point made forcefully by a Charity Commission Inquiry that released its findings in 2020:

The courage of difficult women, by Leslie Francis

At what cost? A reflection on the crisis at Save the Children UK, by Jonathan Glennie

At what cost? A second reflection on the crisis at Save the Children UK, by Jonathan Glennie

Sexual exploitation and abuse: why pick on charities? By Mike Aaronson

Don’t shoot the messenger, by Michael Edwards and Mary Fitzgerald

A common theme in these pieces was that the NGOs concerned were spending too much time and money protecting themselves, and too little in opening up to serious reflection about what had happened, why, and how it might be linked to their broader trajectory as organizations. At around the same time other NGOs faced controversies of their own, including WWF-UK and Amnesty International, signaling that a sector-wide moment of questioning had arrived:

What happens when NGOs are accused of violating human rights? By Domenico Carolei

It’s time to take our charities to the cleaners, by Michael Edwards

However, the response to this ‘moment of questioning’ has been fractured. Oxfam-GB, Save-UK and Amnesty International have addressed issues of internal culture and altered their personnel policies to protect their staff and members of the community with whom they interact from bullying and harm. That’s a very good thing, but it doesn’t seem to have triggered any deeper changes in their strategies and modes of operation, perhaps because they don’t see much connection between isolated instances of harassment and exploitation and the broader debate about the role of NGOs in society.

By contrast, writers from outside the NGO community see such connections everywhere, and have seized on the chance to push for much deeper transformations in roles, structures, relationships and resourcing that should have been initiated years ago, and which were brought into sharper focus by the scandals and the wide public attention they created. The latest pieces in the series have a much more concrete focus on what needs to change and how, whether through re-orienting funding towards local groups instead of launching mini-versions of Oxfam and Save the Children in other countries (a strategy known as ‘localisation’); strengthening partnerships and alliances between NGOs and social movements as equals rather than ‘donors and recipients’; and ‘horizontalizing’ their structures and diffusing power and authority through democratic forms of decision-making:

#ShiftThePower: from hashtag to reality, by Jenny Hodgson and Barry Knight

An open letter to International NGOs who are looking to ‘localise’ their operations

Can NGOs and social movements be authentic allies? By Michael Silberman

NGOs and social movements: partnership or solidarity? By Madhuresh Kumar

Horizontalising international NGOs: can it be done? By Robin LeMare

Other contributors advised NGOs to learn from the environmental movement, return to the values of their roots, and utilize the coronavirus pandemic to re-imagine their role around solidarity and mutual support:

What INGOs can learn from Greta Thunberg and the global climate strikes, by Stephen McCloskey

100 years of Save the Children UK: what have we learned? By Mike Aaronson

How should civil society respond to Covid-19? By Alex Jacobs

Taken together, the series provides a great deal of rich material for anyone interested in the links between organizational transformation and the transformation of society as a whole. To achieve their stated goals of abolishing poverty, curbing inequality, ending injustice and addressing the climate emergency, NGOs will have to accept a smaller role in a larger system, since that is the only way that enough pressure for change can be mobilized and exerted. For the same reason, power and resources must be shared widely and diffused throughout society, placing people, not intermediaries, at the center of decision-making. There will be a price to pay in terms of organizational change and downsizing which must be carefully prepared for and managed. But the benefits, in terms of the potential for deep-rooted social change, will be huge.

However, is anybody beyond the critics interested in doing these things? To judge from current practice, not most NGOs themselves. CEOs and Board members come and go, often with much fanfare about their intentions, yet little changes where it matters most. A few tweaks here and there, more speeches, and lots of nodding heads when critiques like these are circulated internally, but that’s about as far as it goes.

Who will be the first to prove me wrong?

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