Research: Many NGOs Avoiding the Politics of Poverty

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August 17, 2012; Source: Policy Matters Blog

Mark Tran’s blog posting raises big issues for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in developing countries, but the issues are fair game for domestic nonprofits as well. Tran reports that a paper by two academics from the University of Manchester says that NGOs have lost their way. In Tran’s summary of the research, the study stated that many NGOs have evolved from “heroic” groups promoting innovative social change to bureaucratic organizations “that respond more to the dictates of donors than the people whose interests they claim to represent.”

The paper’s authors, Nicola Banks and David Hulme, charge that as NGOs have changed by moving closer to their donors rather than their intended beneficiaries, they might “no longer be viewed as the autonomous, grassroots-oriented, and innovative organisations that they once were, raising questions about their legitimacy and sustainability.”

The blog From Poverty to Power, edited by Oxfam GB advisor Duncan Green, slams the Banks/Hulme report as “a generalised and ill-informed NGO attack on their work,” filled, according to Tran, with “sweeping generalisations, argument by assertion, ‘dodgy stats’, and the lack of case studies and interviews with NGOs themselves.” Banks responded that her co-authored paper isn’t an attack on NGOs, but is “based on the well-founded premise that poverty is a political condition, and that solutions too, must be based upon transformations and redistributions of power.”

The debate has attracted lots of commentary in the U.K. Tran cites John Hilary, the executive director of War on Want, who says, “Far too many NGOs have lost sight of the long-term, transformative goals of international development, and are instead following a donor-led agenda of aid and service delivery.” Hilary and others who are part of a progressive forum on international development have been ginning up the NGO critique. Tran cites a report from the forum’s July meeting calling on development experts to “cease to be so British and ‘polite’, and instead be more willing to enter into open criticism of NGOs and to challenge those that are beyond the pale in their distortion of the agenda, particularly agencies such as Save the Children that are now reviving unacceptable imagery of the south in their communications.”

Tran talks about a deepening fault line in the U.K. among NGOs split between NGOs such as Save the Children and ONE, which argue for aid targets on issues such as hunger and malnutrition, and critics who argue for a political approach to address the root causes of poverty.

Is there a similar debate occurring in the U.S. (and Canada)? For both domestic and international social entrepreneurs, there are a lot of relatively unchallenged assertions about a depoliticized social sector generating solutions to and cures for poverty limited only by resources and techniques, not necessarily power and politics. It’s easy to find thoughtful blog posts (such as this one) making all kinds of assertions about the power of social enterprise and social entrepreneurs as poverty-fighters, but perhaps the rough and tumble U.S. nonprofit sector is, at least on this issue, also too “British and ‘polite’” to say, “Come on, the real issue is political and depoliticized approaches won’t get very far.”

Is there a sense that the socio-economic class of donors to large poverty-fighting nonprofits, as Banks and Hulme imply, prefers technical rather than political interventions? As many U.S. nonprofits must rely on charitable donations from affluent donors, does that push those nonprofits to avoid any issues of political power tied to the roots of poverty? —Rick Cohen