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In whose name do they speak? Challenging the development dinosaurs

Local level consultations in Bangladesh

I’m writing a book about the challenges faced by International NGOs (INGOs): “Problems with International NGOs: Challenging the Development Dinosaurs.” The publishers want to print it because of the interest and concerns raised by failings of staff at Oxfam, Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières and other agencies which hit the headlines this year.

In my writing I’m drawing on research, on many field visits, on more recent work with a global network of mainly small NGOs, the Global Network for Disaster Reduction (GNDR), and our most recent project, supported by a grant from GFCF, which enabled eight local NGOs to share case studies of local learning and action, and to learn from those about how to work more effectively.

Understanding disaster recovery work with NSET Patan in Nepal

In the public pronouncements and claims which INGOs make, in whose name do they really speak? A word which keeps coming up as I write is “disconnect” – describing the increasing distance between INGOs and the people they are meant to be in business to serve. There’s a clear trend in the INGO industry towards increasing size and budgets, and a growing dependency on funding from governments and institutions. The money comes with strings attached and “upwards accountability” to donors becomes tighter, while “downward accountability” to the local level grows weaker. They have become disconnected from local experience and priorities. 

All of this will probably come as no surprise to you! Many voices have been raised, for example at large scale at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit with its “Grand Bargain”, promising greater localization of aid. The principles of community philanthropy, which I experienced first hand at Tewa in Nepal last year, are a direct response to these concerns. Tewa provided the venue, also, for the discussions with local NGOs I mentioned above. Coming from as far afield as Kiribati in the Pacific and Cameroon in West Africa, they emphasized the need to work shoulder-to-shoulder with local communities. Their case studies and discussions are being shaped into a special journal issue. 

Workshop at Tewa in Nepal

I’ve had the experiences of community philanthropy and of small local NGOs in mind as I’ve been writing for both the book and the journal. Today I came across some data which challenged my perceptions again: the “Views from the Frontline” local survey project which we developed at the GNDR has been consulting people locally since 2009 on their perceptions of progress in “disaster risk reduction.” It’s been used to challenge the perceptions and claims of the UN international framework, which tends to put a very positive gloss on progress. The programme continues and the programme coordinator showed me the latest data, from the Philippines. This suggests that the views of local NGOs participating in the survey are closer to those of local government – claiming substantial progress – than they are to local community views, which are much less positive. This suggests that even local NGOs can be disconnected from local communities, failing to engage with their concerns and drawing closer to government perspectives. The coordinator agreed that the NGOs surveyed in the Philippines seemed more focused on sectoral, rather than community concerns. 

In my book, I have been arguing that the challenge facing INGOs is the increasing disconnect from communities they are meant to be in business for. This latest piece of evidence suggests that even at the local level NGOs may need to be challenged to “put the last first.” I’d be interested to hear other experience and views on this point! 

By: Terry Gibson, Independent Researcher at Inventing Futures.  

« Insights from a newcomer to community philanthropy – my summer in Covasna County | Main | “Perfect / Imperfect” - how the PACT Foundation turns “failures” into learning »

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