Back in the day, when moving money around the world was a difficult operation and moving resources and people equally difficult, specialised international development NGOs made sense. Nowadays, communication and transport technology makes keeping in contact with people in developing countries easy, and moving large quantities of material is seen as undesirable and largely unnecessary.
Technology is making rich-country NGOs an unnecessary ‘middleman’. Why not have donors directly fund poor country organisations?
Philosophically, and economically, it makes no sense to have NGOs based in rich countries, while proclaiming their accountability to people in poor countries. If aid recipients are really the ones calling the shots, shouldn’t international development NGOs be established and operated by the poor themselves? Rather than rich-country NGOs setting up offices in poor countries to disburse funds to local partners, will we see poor-country NGOs setting up fundraising branches in rich countries? Or will web-based promotion and fund-raising activities make a physical presence in rich countries entirely unnecessary?
Currently, the need for rich-country NGOs stems from their ability to add trust to the process. Many donors do not trust poor-country NGOs as they do the familiar (white) faces and accents of Oxfam, World Vision, Save the Children, et al.
But perhaps this is changing. Small MONGO (My Own NGO) agencies, often little more than fundraising operations reliant on personal contacts to deliver aid, and close relationships with donors, may be more able to build a more trusting relationship with donors than multi-national operations. Possibly, development NGOs will become polarised with a large number of MONGOs, working largely autonomously, and a small number of big professional agencies with close relations with government and business donors.
MONGOs, rightly or wrongly, see little purpose in putting energy into forming relationships with the ‘development sector’. They are happy to focus on their small practical projects, ignore larger debates and campaigns, and have little vision beyond their practical projects, while large NGOs are increasingly focused on political positioning, referred to as ‘aid effectiveness’ or ‘development effectiveness’.
The debate over ‘development effectiveness has happened before – in the industrialised and industrialising countries of the late 19th and 20th century. It’s often forgotten that the great ideological debates between variations of capitalism and socialism were largely about ‘development effectiveness’. Ideological differences weren’t mere academic arguments, but were about what you thought would drive development fastest, and towards the most desirable social goals.
In those days it was recognised that holding differences of opinions about the aims and methods of the development process was valid. Today, the hegemony of the west’s mash-up of neo-liberalism and social democracy is regarded as the only game in town (despite all the cracks appearing in the model), and a fake ‘global consensus’ is proposed. A lot of people won’t be included in this ‘consensus’ – the groups that are challenging both the methodologies and assumed monopoly on the formation of ideas of western governments, academics and organisations. The development theories of Hugo Chavez, the Andean movements, the Zapatistas and many of the world’s indigenous peoples won’t get a look in.
There’s a certain hubris about this project. Every now and then in political activism circles, I run across a naive, evangelical or power-seeking individual or group talking about ‘uniting everyone’. Their projects always fail as there are real differences between political players that can’t be erased by positive thinking or convenience. To try and carry out the same kind of project on a global scale is even more naive, or just plain cynical.
But probably it won’t matter much. Just like previous ‘global consensuses’ the result will be a vague mish-mash of a document that the ‘development sector’ merely pays lip-service to in after dinner speeches at international conferences.
Rather than producing documents of dubious merit, Large NGOs could be turning their attention to the development work that needs doing in rich countries (and when it comes to domestic development, the suggestion of being locked-in to a global consensus is fiercely opposed). The possibilities of so-called ‘South-North’ cooperation – bringing expertise from poor countries to help people in rich countries tackle their social and development problems – is another activity that NGOs could facilitate.
There’s also a need for greater efforts in educating people about international issues (particularly as this organisation closes down). As globalisation increases, global awareness, at least in rich countries, appears to be falling. Too many televisions, too much tourism; not enough talking and thinking.