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Women shelling peas by World Bank

From issues to institutions

Jur Schuurman | 24 December 2011

I think the questions that are asked and discussed are based on tacit assumptions about the role of development INGOs – irrespective of whether their work is ‘thick’ or ‘thin’ in its scope – that I have difficulty saying I share.

Being very pleased with the invitation to participate in this debate, I think the questions that are asked and discussed are based on tacit assumptions about the role of development INGOs – irrespective of whether their work is ‘thick’ or ‘thin’ in its scope – that I have difficulty saying I share.

Since it is he who started the debate, I will begin with some telling sentences from Michael Edwards’ article:

“The good news is that NGOs can act as bridges between ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ (…), extending their impact into the deeper structures of society and becoming agencies of transformation in the process.

For example, instead of conventional microfinance and micro-enterprise development they can support more radical interventions that alter the whole manner in which wealth is produced, distributed and used, (…). Climate change will force NGOs to shift from a focus on the fairer distribution of abundance to the much harder task of managing scarcity and its personal and political implications, since we know only too well that copying the consumption patterns of the rich world is unsustainable (…).”

These paragraphs lay bare the core assumption, which comes back in many contributions to the debate that, in some way or another, it is the INGOs from developed countries that have to think up the solutions for the problems (microfinance, climate… the list is endless) in developing countries. This is basically a paternalistic attitude: “let us be the agents of transformation, you over there are not capable of that”. 

Why should an INGO make an exhaustive analysis of the credit problem or the climate change crisis and carry out the presumed solutions in developing countries? Would it not be much better if INGOs focused on enabling their partners in developing countries to analyze the problems themselves, as well as to propose the possible solutions? If not, the current situation is going to perpetuate itself: ‘we over here’ think we have to have the answers and make them generously available to ‘them over there’ (our counterparts in developing countries), who apparently have no analytical capacity of their own – and will certainly continue not having it if we go on thinking and proposing for them, and making this acceptable by way of sending bags of money along with our ideas.

Take agriculture. An INGO can develop a view on agricultural problems in certain countries, formulate proposals that would solve those (perceived) problems and, then, with project money as lubricant, easily find the partners in developing countries that can put in practice the pertinent activities. It is however a lot more sustainable and authentic to enable the actors in those countries to think about the problems and their solutions. That is, INGOs should not advocate development paths; they should develop the capacities of the relevant stakeholders to make and negotiate their own development choices. If INGOs don’t do that, they are in fact denying developing countries the perspective of ever becoming capable of autonomous debate and decision-making.

That is why in Agriterra we strengthen farmers’ organisations so that they can participate in political debate and development programs – but we do not tell them what opinions they should have on climate change, microcredit, GM agriculture or what have you. In the end, they and their members (because we are convinced that membership organisations are the best counterparts to be strengthened: they always represent the ‘end users’ of development, i.e. the main stakeholders. If they cannot speak for themselves, who will?) have to be sustainably able to figure all that out for themselves. That’s the best way for INGOs to become agents of transformation: to enable the very stakeholders to also become such agents.

What all this makes clear is that there are two basic kinds of INGOs. We have the INGOs that have chosen issues and themes, formulate an agenda and find the organisations and counterparts in developing countries that can make that agenda happen. And we have the ones that work the other way round: they choose to support membership organisations (trade unions, farmers’ organisations etc.) in those countries, making them so strong that they can formulate their own agendas, strengthening society as a whole in the process: without strong membership organisations that know what they want, the people who this is all about will not be represented and do not really participate in shaping their future. This leaves a weak and non-cohesive society. It is evident that I hope that the second kind of INGOs, now a small minority, become the vast majority – regardless of whether that is to happen in the form of retirement, replacement or rejuvenation. 

Photo credit main picture: Women shelling peas by World Bank

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Jur Schuurman

Jur Schuurman was head of the support and quality department at Agriterra, the Netherlands until...

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