Have INGOs lost their emancipatory roles?

Civic Action21 Dec 2011Rosalba Icaza

I was invited to respond to the article by Michael Edwards on the future of NGOs given the present context of ‘thick problems’ and the ‘thin solutions’ these seem to be offering.

I am thankful for this opportunity and would like to contribute through a story, the story of Valentina Rosendo Cantu, indigenous Me’phaa (tlapaneca) woman from Guerrero, Mexico, and her fight for justice with dignity. Nine years ago, Mexican soldiers who were deployed in Ms. Rosendo Cantu’s community raped her. At that time, she was only 17 years old and had recently delivered a baby girl.

Just a couple of days ago, the Mexican state offered a public apology to Ms. Rosendo Cantu for its acts of omission in the procurement of justice. This public apology constitutes one of the actions ordered from the Mexican state by the 2010 Inter-American Court of Human Rights sentence against it and in favor of Ms. Rosendo Cantu.

The message of Ms. Rosendo Cantu to the Mexican government, NGO representatives and the media, was the following: “I continue fighting, with the dignity of an indigenous woman. I am proud to be who I am. My message to other women is that to fight is to never give up, to break the circle of impunity”.

To various degrees and extents, local, national and international NGOs over the years have been committed to support Ms Rosendo Cantu’s fight for justice with dignity. During this process, these organizations have faced the ‘thickness’ of a national judicial system characterized by its impunity, racism and discrimination against indigenous women. This ‘thickness’ and more importantly, the suffering but also the solidarity it creates, has nothing new for indigenous women in Mexico – nor for many other discriminated communities in the South or the North (i.e. migrants).

Like sixty years ago, the then emerging NGOs were confronted by the complexity of inequality, poverty, violence, repression and destitution. Is the experience of 1970s dictatorships in Southern America by those who were repressed, tortured and imprisoned less thick/complex? Maybe one needs to ask if in that context NGOs initiatives were less ‘thin’ than what they seem today. However, more interesting questions might be why in the present era NGOs seem to be offering ‘thin solutions’, why NGOs became ‘intermediary’ organizations with a supposedly privileged gaze and capacities to efficiently manage solutions for others. How might this be related to the NGOs’ loss of their emancipatory goals and their acceptance of the dominant narrative that made them into ‘outsiders experts’ bringing solutions to local communities? What might be done to revert this trend?

Having Ms. Rosendo Cantu’s story as background, I can only offer some initial ideas about NGOs and their possible contributions towards emancipatory and just futures. First, NGOs need to question the dominant narrative that exists about them as ‘experts’ or ‘more efficient’ channels for ‘change’. This can be done if their original goals and aspirations, methods of intervention and ‘delivery’ are critically re-thought through ‘simple’ but fundamental questions: for whom and for what purposes do NGOs intervene in the first place? Who benefits from their interventions?

Second, feminist thinkers have long ago provided us with adequate terminology to distinguish between strategic and urgent issues that emancipatory initiatives might entail. In the case of Ms. Rosendo Cantu, protection for her and her family was an urgent issue in her fight for justice with dignity. Local and international NGOs were crucial to protect them by contributing to the political visibility of her fight among different spheres of power: the Mexican federal and local governments, EU Parliament, US Congress, and so on. However, the suffering of Ms. Rosendo Cantu cannot be appropriated by ‘intermediary’ organizations who fill reports to donors. Or in other words, the search for justice with dignity and what this entails, doesn’t fit within the NGO log frames.

Third, NGOs must be humble about their contributions and capacities while learning to support without pre-designed ideas of ‘what people need’. At the same time, NGOs need to be aware of and offer alternatives to the unintended consequences that their interventions might create.

Fourth, NGOs need to re-politicize themselves. By this I mean, they need to be attentive to the cracks and fissures in the system of multiple and interrelated oppressions in which they operate (e.g. capitalism, patriarchy, racism, eurocentrism) and that current struggles for a good and dignifying life make visible (e.g. Zapatista autonomy).

Fifth, NGOs need to re-think themselves as one of the many collective and individual actors, who in moments of crisis, violence and massive deprivation might (or not) play a crucial role for the actual survival of people. And they need to know that they are just one of the many actors, who moreover need to step back to let other Valentinas speak and be heard by women struggling around the world.