The half-life of NGOs

Development Policy28 Dec 2011Ahmed Zidan

‘All NGOs are dead.’ Brazilian hacktivist Pedro Markun opened his session with this heavyweight missile at the conference of the HIVOS’ Knowledge Program, ‘The Changing Face of Citizen Action’, last September.

The remarkable shift from collective action to an individual-based citizen action is radiating through Markun’s opening statement. I do understand him in the light of the eruption of endless worldwide protests, inspired by the Tunisian revolution in 2011. These have left everyone reluctant about their previous comfort-zone-understanding of the composing factors of social mobility; individual, government, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). And the classic individual reactions that lead to such mobility in the long term; consciousness and awareness.

DId the international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) play a significant role in the past? And what’s the exact impact of that role? And are they supposed to progress or regress in a crowdsourced future based on the individual as the building or even the melting point? What are the future challenges for INGOs? It’s very healthy to raise such questions, because a problem would never be solved unless it’s analytically anticipated and acknowledged. However, it’d be hard to isolate and assess the role that INGOs alone have played in the current social mobility, as the latter is the product of many different combinations.

The neo-citizen definition could extend from a YouTube IT specialist in the Silicon Valley to a Tunisian blogger who has called for and joined the Tunisian revolt, to an Egyptian ulta-football-fan who has erupted with street graffiti, likewise Markun has erupted with anger towards a roomful of INGO directors and representatives in the Museum for Communication in The Hague. A neo-citizen is a fully oriented individual armed with effective social media in a critical attention age, or post-information-age.

For INGOs to strengthen their leverage and take such frustrated youth by the hand, they have to mainly stay committed and focused on the organization’s main goal, and to stop, or at least limit, any possible governmental infiltration. This is not a blind conclusion that most of the world’s governments are against INGOs work in a way, but rather an established fact. If governments are lobbying for their own interests, which is normal, INGOs, on the other side, should pursue their intended goals by lobbying for the targeted population and speaking in their name. This is what we’ve done with many projects, including but not limited to, Migrant Rights, Kurdish Rights, Bahá’í Rights, and a handful of other projects. A voluntary spontaneous non-governmental work seems to me the most creative of all, because simply it’s not complicated by the classic bureaucratic structures.

I’m definitely optimistic about the future of INGOs, not only because they’re able to develop new solutions that could satisfy the neo-citizen demands, but also because they’re persistently tackling worldwide problems like poverty, illness, oppression, etc… trying to raise awareness for a better future. Most governments fail to tackle such problems, or approach them in a flawed or parental manner.

‘Proliferation of INGOs is inevitable. NGOs tend to be local satisfying local demands, and because of their success INGOs have come about,’ says Ahmed Naguib, a political science undergraduate and a social-media adviser.

However, on the other hand, I don’t expect an INGO-boom-era that could see an acute strength of INGO impact due to several factors. First and foremost, the funding limitations, second, the commitment to the cause, the number of volunteers, etc… and last but not least, the political orientations of some of the donor organizations.

If staying ‘non-governmental’ would be the number one challenge for a given INGO, full integration with social media tools would unquestionably fill the second spot. And HIVOS’ Knowledge Program is a role model for connecting both worlds of the ground/offline activists with the online activists trying to reach a better understanding of the nature of the new INGO responsibilities, and how to get the best out of them for the good of the humanity.