NGOs - do they help?

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NGOs - do they help?

People don’t think NGOs are perfect any more. Dinyar Godrej looks at the problems.

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Not today: a girl walks past a school in Kibera, a Nairobi slum with no water or electricity. There are 800 charities working there. © Noor Khamis / Reuters

If you look at how quickly the number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is growing, you might think the world becomes a more caring place every day.

The many NGOs across the world show that we know that too many people have suffered for too long. They want to ‘capacity build’, ‘reduce poverty’ and make sure that people hear the ‘voices of the least important people’.

But history teaches us that maybe the exact opposite is true.

Organized charities started more than 100 years ago, but the phrase ‘non-governmental organization’ was first used in 1945. It was when a group of international agencies were allowed to go to some United Nations meetings. All the groups promised to work for a social good eg. human rights, the environment or ‘development’.

A few decades later, there are many more NGOs, because of the neoliberal ideology of the Reagan-Thatcher years. The governments wanted capitalism and the free market, so the NGOs needed to look after healthcare and education etc.

So governments started to expect the NGOs to give cheap services. This is still true, with all the cuts. But the government does not give enough money to NGOs to help with the cuts. Money for ‘developing’ countries also started to go through NGOs, not through government organisations. From 1975 to 1985 the money going through NGOs increased by 1,400 per cent.

The Left broke up and idealists started NGOs. Arundhati Roy says the NGOs made people who could be revolutionaries into activists with salaries. They stopped them being radical.

Today, 30 new NGOs are started every day in Britain; and there are 1.5 million in the US alone. 90 per cent of the NGOs we have now started after 1975. Roy says that when neoliberalism causes most destruction, there are more NGOs.

Partnership or challenge?

People see governments and corporations as the two most powerful things in the world. And NGOs are a third power. The big international ones – the BINGOs – have hundreds of millions of dollars and are very powerful. But are they fighting all the time for social justice and helping people who have no power? Some people say the NGOs only talk about reducing poverty, but have not achieved very much.

A lot of their money comes from government and intergovernment aid agencies and businesses. Some BINGOs say this does not influence them, but it must do.

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah (secretary-general of Civicus, a global network of civil society organizations and activists) recently wrote that NGOs have become a part of the problem, not than the solution. Working together with big business, they have lost their power to act. Everything they do must be something the big businesses and capitalist states like. This means it is very difficult to have real activism.

Oxfam made a short film called ‘Does aid work?’ (with money from the European Union). They said that more help from rich countries will help stop poverty. How? By helping with health (anti-retroviral drugs for 1.4 million people in the last few years) and education (40 million children in schools). These are excellent things. But Oxfam does not say how a poor, educated person (on anti-retrovirals) can escape from poverty in a system that only wants them to work for the cheapest possible price.

But Oxfam’s latest report, ‘Even it Up: time to end extreme inequality’, is better. It says that the world’s richest 85 people have the same amount of money as the poorest half of the world’s population. It says we need progressive taxation, we need to stop tax evasion and we need governments to invest in public services. It talks about some of the violence that inequality creates; it praises some countries (Brazil, China – but not the more revolutionary Venezuela) for paying workers more money. It says what should happen – it tells governments to govern in the public interest – but it does not say we should share money more equally. It only suggests the income of the richest 10 per cent should not be more than the income of the poorest 40 per cent.

People have said all this before. Many campaigns that wanted to fight against transnationals became weaker and now just ‘work with business’. Some BINGOs now even look for business ‘partners’ and they promise the business will look good by helping them.

Many leaders of BINGOs come from the business world. A lot of the problem is dependence on money and having a business culture.

For the people who give money

All NGOs, not just the very big ones, have a lot of complex problems. Because of pressure from the people who give money, they now have to say exactly where the money goes. They ask for money too in this way – ‘your $50 will buy mosquito nets for a family of four’. Social change doesn’t work like that, but, more and more, NGOs have to work in this way.

When I was in Burma in 2008, studying the military dictatorship, I found many NGOs run by Burmese people working just across the border in Thailand. People gave me many reports to read. People who give money like reports.

I was impressed with one feminist group. They had reports and educational and income-generation activities. But also, they were talking to the Burmese opposition political groups. They were building up feminist values, helping social organization in the refugee camps, looking after children who had lost their parents, helping to look after other refugees who were in hiding as ‘illegals’ in Thailand. The group was communicating with communities in Burma and fighting against the military regime - it would have been easy to give up hope.

These women could adapt to new challenges and the people they worked with respected them. But this didn’t get money. So they also did the conferences and presentations in hotels and complicated project applications to get money from other countries. Most media looks at how NGOs use the money, to show the people who donate money. But what about their responsibility to the people they help?

Many people complain that the way an NGO helps has to relate to the kind of services they offer. Diana Jeater (historian) writes about her experience: ‘When I first started working in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, I was impressed by how all the NGO workers I met said how important it was to listen to rural women. Then I saw that they were only listening to find out how to present what they wanted to do to make it acceptable to rural women.’

A more serious complaint is that NGOs take energy away from fighting the real battles. And they divide the communities who lose land and power. ‘They take groups of people,’ said one Indian activist, ‘and only look after them, not the others. They help with small things, not the big problems.’

Many of the most radical popular movements today do not accept money from NGOs. They only work with NGOs when they can help. They only work with the NGOs when they can help spread their message.

Types of NGOs:

INGO – International NGO

BINGO – Big international NGO

TANGO – Technical assistance NGO

RINGO – Religious NGO

CONGO – Corporate-organized NGO

DONGO – Donor-organized NGO

GONGO – Government-organized NGO (not really an NGO)

PANGO – Party NGO (started by a political party, not really an NGO)

Briefcase NGO – NGO started only to get money from donors

CBO – Community-based organization

Do they help?

So do NGOs help?

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Advertising: Turkana women in Kenya carrying the Merlin medical charity’s bags given by a health post. Merlin joined Save the Children in 2013. Frederic Courbet / Panos

We could start with Bangladesh. It has the world’s largest national NGOs. They are like a second government – they give more money to development activities than the government does. Most of the people they give money to are still very poor. People say their market model of development is not good. They rely on microcredit, which creates individual people who want to make money, but doesn’t help the community. And many people stay in debt.

Or we could look at the Philippines. I saw how the small radical NGOs work very well together there. The government has tried to get NGOs to work with government departments for many years. So have they joined the government? They have had some local success. But they have had no effect on the basic problem in the Philippines – nearly all the money and land belong to just a few people, and the top people control the country. The 25 richest Filipinos continue to get richer. They earn about the same per year the 55 million poorest citizens.

Maybe it is not realistic to expect the NGOs to make very big changes in structure if governments do nothing to change the structure.

Some specialist NGOs are the first to help in world emergencies. People often criticise them later for having too many groups doing the same thing, or not organising it well. But it is much better than doing nothing.

Some of the largest activist NGOs fight for the environment. Their members are not afraid of risk. But, also working for the environment, are some of the NGOs who are closest to big business.

NGOs have achieved a lot fighting for individual campaigns, eg. stopping slavery, banning landmines and getting HIV medication to people who need it.

When NGOs fight for human rights, they often make governments angry eg. fighting for political prisoners or helping sexual minorities. It is this kind of work that governments want to stop when they try to ban NGOs or to stop them getting money from other countries.

But not all NGOs have the same values. NGOs in the west sometimes criticise problems with human rights in the Majority World, but not in their own countries. People say Human Rights Watch works too closely with the US government. In 2009, Tom Malinowski (advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, who was special assistant to Bill Clinton and wrote speeches for Madeleine Albright) agreed with some CIA actions. Also, they are often not objective when talking about war crimes by Israel and Palestine.

Even the large BINGOs do a lot, but will they fight, with the 99 per cent, for more equality? If the very rich people want to look good and give away their money, is it good for NGOs to take it? Can they please do more than give help (which is very political and often harmful) and return to helping people fight for justice?

People expect NGOs to be non-political, but everything they do (in the way power is organised by money and control) has to be political. So they should really start to change things.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/features/2014/12/01/ngos-keynote/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).