A polemic against NGOs and the destruction of local innovation – By Jeremy Weate

Occupy Nigera: civil society in action and exceeding the sterile output of much NGO work.

The development sector has for the past few years been criticised for being ineffectual. This has come both from ex-insiders, such as Owen Barder and William Easterly, as well as those outside the sector, most notably by Dambisa Moyo in Dead Aid, who continues to yearn for an African new dawn facilitated by Chinese soft loans and goodwill. However, one issue that has received relatively scant attention is the way in which the notion of civil society has been reduced to being synonymous with non-governmental organisations (NGOs).  This is one area that can have malign and far-reaching negative impacts, which I’d like to explore here.

As any sociology lecturer will tell you, civil society as a construct has its roots in 19th century industrialisation in Europe and America.  As large-scale factories (with ever more exploitative labour conditions) grew in cities across Europe, so too did organised resistance – this came in the form of workers’ unions.  Civil society, as a mobilising space between the forces of government and the private sector in the west, has its roots in the labour movement.

However, in contemporary understanding, civil society embraces a far wider set of sectors than this.  The most obvious extension is to include NGOs.  However, we should consider the media, the legal profession (or at least parts of it), academia, religious organisations and parliamentary representatives (after all, they are supposed to represent “˜the people’) all as stakeholders in civil society.

To this more holistic definition, we may also now include social media activists: the rambunctious Twitter, Facebook and blogging generation is often capable of raising awareness on issues far more rapidly and widely than conventional media mechanisms from the old world.

A wider definition of civil society is therefore a more accurate reflection of our complex socio-political realities than any return to a singular focus on unions, even if many might argue for the on-going importance of organised labour in times when the multinational corporation reigns supreme.

It is therefore curious that a parallel reduction in understanding of the complex realities of what constitutes civil society is at work among development professionals. The overriding paradigm is to reduce civil society to NGOs or to treat them as synonymous.

There are, of course, many shapes and sizes of NGO.  The big international ones we’ve all heard of – Oxfam, Amnesty International, MSF, Care International and the like.  Although these organisations sometimes partner on projects with donors, in most cases, their fundraising mechanisms are via private donations rather than government.  However, these international NGOs and their relative effectiveness are not of direct concern here.  Rather, the focus of my critique is in-country NGOs that international donors like to support – whether in health, education, agriculture, public finance monitoring or “˜gender issues’.

More often than not, these NGOs are completely dependent on donors for their survival; they are rarely supported by local money, except through occasional government contractual largesse.  Again, there are often recurring “˜capacity’ challenges, which tessellate nicely with support agendas from the donors (training, workshops, laptops, study tours, 4-wheel drive cars) and the need for assistance programmes that do not threaten the status quo or the underlying unstated framework of economic diplomacy.

To start with, it’s important that local NGOs are situated in the context of a global media paradigm of what purports to be effective direct action, clearing away the obfuscations of national governments and sovereign powers.  The mirror of local, under-resourced NGOs that appeal to unassailable need, are the increasingly slick operations of western mediagenic boosters, often based in North America.

From Nick Kristof’s heart on sleeve tales of African woe in the New York Times to the bizarre tragi-schmaltz of “Kony2012″, recently we have witnessed a series of well-meaning but completely ineffectual campaigns that speak more to emotional needs of the “White Saviour Industrial Complex” than they proffer practical solutions to complex realities on the ground.  The Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole summed up this phenomenon in a neat series of tweets earlier this year.

The conscience of the globally concerned must be salved.  From earnest Americans with broadband and fancy cameras, to discreet but shabby offices in the middling parts of Sub-Saharan capitals, what we are witnessing are different points along what might be called the “˜salvation value chain’.  The appeal is always on the basis of pristine need (and a sublimated religiosity), rinsed clean of the murky distortions of government blather.

The founding fathers of this paradigm were, of course, Bob and Bono.  Who can forget Geldof’s expletive-laden appeal to just get out your chequebook and donate, back in the perm and hairspray days of Live Aid?  Their faithful sons, John Prendergast and Jason Russell, continue the missionary work in our times.

In response to the market opportunity, the NGO sector in Africa has become a thriving cottage industry.  Just as evangelical churches have mushroomed since the dark days of a structurally adjusted 1980s, so too has the NGO sector.  In both cases, an opt-out from state failure is on offer: just as you must provision your own security, water and electricity to address practical living needs in many African situations, so too can you opt out of earthly citizenship altogether, via donor-assistance from Monday to Friday and worship on the weekend.

It might seem a little impolite, if not vulgar, to query the noble intentions of those who work along the salvation value chain. If one’s aspirations are pure, surely one cannot be damned if results are lacking?

This would be true, if only the bulging NGO sector were not so harmful.  Let us take a brief look at the damage they can cause.  One specific form the harm takes lies in how donor assistance to NGOs erodes academia and the production of local knowledge and critical discourse.  We might wonder how many African academics have been lost to the secluded world of donor-dependent NGOs. What could have been ranks of inspiring lecturers and professors, passing on knowledge and critical insights to the next generation, have been reduced to the bland status of the consultant, forever doomed to crafting “˜baseline studies’ and “˜situation reports’, according to terms of reference dreamt up in offices thousands of miles away.

What networks of academic discourse were thwarted, what student inspiration left un-sparked by this hidden mass demotion?  What sources of critical reflection required for fundamental social and political transformation were left undone?  How many feminist scholars were reduced to being “˜gender activists’? Put in more tangible terms: in contrast to academic research, donor-funded reports – often filtered through NGOs or using ex-academics – produce private goods that do not contribute to local knowledge production and collective self-understanding.

Channelling focus and funds to NGOs is a distraction away from where the real sources of potential accountability pressure (and therefore better governance) may lie. Let us take just one example. The Occupy Nigeria movement that sprang in response to the raise in fuel prices in January this year was driven by a heady mix of social media activists and ordinary people increasingly aware of the grand scam that was the fuel subsidy programme.

NGOs had little role to play in the protest at the beginning. Ironically, it came to the union leaders to negotiate on behalf of ordinary Nigerians.  Whatever one’s views on how effectively they did this, the power dynamics of civil society was stripped bear of pretence, for all to see.  Again, the subsequent shut down of Occupy Nigeria is instructive. It was only when firebrand pastor Tunde Bakare (a Vice-Presidential candidate in the 2011 elections) hinted at regime change that tanks were placed on the streets of Lagos.  The government recognised in an instant the potent threat of mixing progressive politics with religious mobilising power – an echo of the liberation theology of South America.

It is easy to see why donor organisations prefer to support small, under capacitated NGOs, and avoid the complex volatilities of a broader notion of civil society, in Nigeria as elsewhere on the continent.  NGOs represent a chicks-in-the-nest source of need; they are non-threatening; they make for clean and tidy reports and nice photographs back to HQ, no matter that the top of the project log-frame remains unmarked by impact.  However, these apparently pristine intentions mask a malign unintended consequence: deflated accountability pressure.

It’s high time for another, more holistic view of civil society to be engaged, if donors are going to play any significant role in increasing political accountability in various African states and move beyond the status quo of economic diplomacy.  While undoubtedly a higher risk strategy (and beyond the comfort zone of many donors), supporting a broader range of civil society organisations holds the promise of increased citizen participation and ultimately, better governance in Africa.  It’s a risk worth taking.

Jeremy Weate is an expert in the extractive industries in both Africa and Asia. He lives in Nigeria.

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12 thoughts on “A polemic against NGOs and the destruction of local innovation – By Jeremy Weate

  1. A well thought out article that explains a deep challenge that is currently seen as a no loss game for actors. NGOs (in Nigeria) see themselves as being active within the civil society and more importantly being EMPLOYED, while their funders meet the predefined baseline benchmark. However when we go a little further we will see the danger that this jolly ride is causing within the civil society itself. We are consistently drifting from critical thinking and discourse to sensational reports lacking in details and concrete methodological framework in social discourse that is meant to change our society.

    It seems to me that writing and academic thinking improves with consistent engagement and critical discourse which is lacking in the NGO sector. Many young people engaged in this sector as Jeremy have noted will do better as assistants to Professors at local Universities who will spend time to guide their thoughts and thinking process. In Leuven where I study, I was dazzled on arrival how knowledge is constructively transferred from Professors to the Flemish Student Assistants. Instead of funding these NGOs to produce baselines for reference purposes, I do think that more efforts should be directed at supporting critical thinking processes.

    We also have another silent but important group to the rescue. Think Tanks. From my experience, Think Tanks provide an environment for young people to engage in critical thinking leading to practical policy advice. If we sincerely want to help Africans, lets support the institutions that enhance their thinking capacities.

  2. Thanks Jeremy (and Tarila) for this. We should also remember that this problem has its roots in honourable and wise intention – African universities as centres of intellectual perspective were first ruined by structural adjustment which drove the best minds overseas, and the willingness of some enlightened donors (Scandinavians, Soros, etc etc) to engage with early emergent NGO/CSOs such as CLO in Nigeria at least allowed some of the remaining ‘on-ground’ voices to be amplified. (It is also instructive that CLO had its roots in a membership-format mass movement, since compromised and diluted).

    Although the best systems of overseas support for domestic NGOs and ‘formal’ (i.e narrowly-defined) Civil Society Organisations (the capital letters are part of the problem, as we witness the ‘professionalisation’ of opinion-forming) allow them to articulate the opinions they want, I think in general it is exactly right that the system as currently construed encourages parroting in return for hard currency salary.

    In addition, the best CSOs become the most regrettable victims – ironically, they are victims of their own success: African NGO/CSOs which do acquire a reputation for good and solid work quickly attract the attention of donors who are otherwise beset by the copycat 419 versions, and the donors then beg the good NGO/CSOs to take on their work programmes, thus turning them into execution agencies – ‘local partners’ of the big consultancies, and redirecting their accountability. To preserve both their independence and financial sustainability, the directors must then balance these interests to survive – using teh donor money to try and do what they wanted to do anyway – this is the same ‘extraversion’ as African governments have often exercised in negotiating between donors’ priorities and their own.

    A separate note is to call the author’s bluff. Are you really ready for what you wish for? As you rightly point out, civil society does not properly mean a system of NGOs but of all associative life between the family and the state. So ethno-national and religious movements are equally part of it. In this perspective, the ability of well-organised religious movements to put (for instance) a ban on same-sex unions on the political agenda is as much of a sign of a healthy domestic civil society as is (for instance) the appearance of new feminist perspectives. So are you as keen for African civil society and public domains to originate their own perspectives even if they could be ones you disagree with?

  3. Thanks Jeremy,
    I think the critique of the civil society in Nigeria is very valid. I say so although I work for one.
    When I moved from Nigeria to Sweden to study, I was amazed by the things people do to show support for the values they believe in: at Christmas, simple folks including high school children [who do not describe themselves as “activists”] buy and send UNICEF postcards which are 10 times the average cost of a postcard just so they show support to UNICEF; they avoid certain clothing stores (because the store was said to be exploiting Vietnamese workers), and they are quick to waive change is stores to charities they support.
    And there I was a “civil society activist” “fresh from the field (Nigeria)”. I must say we have nothing like that tradition of ‘practicing human rights’ in Nigeria. It is not even difficult to find human right “activists” who really don’t care; they might march to protest a rape case [pictures of these marches might help certain proposals sent to funders], but over beers in the evening, they hope that the Army would “deal” with Boko Haram [read, “line them up and execute them”] and they gladly call for State of Emergency except when their villages are concerned. So it could only take outsiders like Amnesty to write the report about the highhandedness of the security forces.
    But still, a lot of good work is done in the civil society. Typical Nigerian academics can be grouped in 2: those who write [and read] NOTHING on one hand, and those who write for the civil society. And the students know it; they head to NGO websites to find reports on the MDG for example rather than ask their teachers or even go to the library. It is not a law that learning must be done in the class; if the universities are failing and the NGOs are producing knowledge, then by all means let us converge at the conference rooms of hotels and debate it out. Without the NGO, we probably would never have heard of developments like international conventions, protocols against this and that.
    Tarila, I see it differently. First, many teachers in Nigerian universities are not Professors, there are those who only have M.Scs. Still, to ask a young graduate to serve as assistant to a Professor [who has not published a paragraph in 5 years] at a roadside university instead of reading baselines and situation reports at an NGO in Abuja is a career path I would decline. Secondly, if at all the teachers are writing anything other than occasional journal articles [usually written in the year preceding their promotions], then it is only ‘Baselines’ for NGOs. So in the end, the young are better off starting in NGOs until they have enough experience to move back to the universities or the Think Thanks if they are rescued. But very likely, they would move over to the “funders” and begin to bankroll the next generation of baselines.
    Olly that is a good point. Religious extremism, homophobia, ‘jungle justice’ and ethnic superiority are “values” shared by some local and organic civil society [using Jeremy’s broader definition]. How do we relate with them?

  4. the ngo business in nigeria is been under series of attacks lately because of the failure of both donors and field offices to come to terms with basics of these organisations. First, the need for an NGO/Civil Society Organisation is suppose to be an acknowledgement of the failure of State and governance to provide services and equity. Do we for example consider that a nation as rich as Nigeria need all the aids pouring into the country? And Secondly, how much difference has all these NGO/Civil Societies make in the indicators? Not much. certainly not better than the government would have done or is doing. So why do we need and do NGO/Civil Society? If the root cause of NGO/Civil Societies, which in Nigeria for example government fiscal recklessness and corruption is not address, the NGO/Civil Society effort will continue to remain a joke and in the long run as this writer highlights, will end up creating set of problems for the country. THE QUESTION IS, WHY IS THE WORLD SO KEEN ON TREATING SYMPTOMS AND NOT THE DISEASE? If a country needs aids it is because its government has fail or it has suffered a natural disaster, we provide aids in the second instance to help the country recover and move on but how does our aids/donations help a very inefficient, corrupt and irresponsible country? It helps by excusing the corrupt government from further responsibilities and opening more opportunities and justification for corruption. Cure the disease, instal functional governments and stop chasing the wind with endless ineffective aids and donations!

  5. Alas, unfortunately so very true which prompted this reflection: Does Africa require a New Electoral System?

    An electoral system is [merely] an administrative logistical process designed to ensure that an expressive choice by an entity is both registered and designated to a specific individual or organization without bias or any other form of administrative intimidatory malfeasance.
    Africa does not require ‘a new electoral system’ in that the fundamental civic electoral ontology of probity and trust is no different than that element of trust with the requisite administrative conduct which is required in other electoral jurisdictions whether in North America or Europe.
    The civic electoral administrative system ought not be suborned to a particular geographic or ethnic region. An electoral system to be effective must be deemed ‘trust worthy’ and be held to strict public administrative disclosure ensuring that the expressive choice has been expressed in the manner indicated by the elector.
    African electoral systems do require localized ‘tweaking’ to ensure that the local African electors are capable of registering their intent without fear or favour. Such tweaking may include pictographs for those people unable to read or write. Logistical extensions in terms of time may be built into the African indigenous electoral process recognizing that transportation of the electoral materials do require time as weak fragile local infrastructure may require additional time to ensure full delivery material compliance. Media and related public policy concerns must be addressed to ensure that the localized conditions are appropriately represented and addressed ensuring value neutral respect of the civic electoral administrative process.
    This in no manner indicates that the essential electoral process is different or requires fundamental intrinsic modification as the essence of the process is no different. Choice registered–choice counted–choice expressed without any external bias or corrupt manner of practice designated to confer an unwarranted advantage to another.
    In regions of political administrative fragility, greater concern must be addressed to the electoral system fundamentals ensuring that the fundamental civic electoral integrity is not compromised which ought to be an essential consideration for all electoral systems in the world.

    Monte McMurchy

  6. As one who has worked and studied in this sector for several years, these truths are painful to admit but you are spot on. There is too little dialogue about the “professionalisation” and “NGO-isation” of burgeoning civil society movements in Africa, and it is something every organisation should be more aware of. To say nothing of the unintended but inevitable undermining of accountability between African citizens and their governments by international NGOs.

  7. This argument might be interesting if the author had presented even a single iota of evidence to support it, instead of simply a series of generalisations and assumptions.

    Moreover, some of the logical leaps are a bit bizarre: if not for NGOs, more smart people would go into academia? Well, if there were no private sector more people might go into academia as well; if do away with corporations, will that save the ivory tower? I doubt it.

    The example cited as evidence of his theory (Occupy Nigeria) uses flawed logic and fails to support his thesis. To wit, if Occupy Nigeria is X and NGOs are Y, the author would argue as follows:

    X produced positive change;
    Y did not contribute to X (at least not ‘at the beginning’);
    Therefore, Y is destructive to positive change.


    I have no particular reason to discount the writer’s thesis; I haven’t been to Nigeria in a decade and know little about the civil society sector there, so it’s entirely possible that he’s 100 percent right. If that’s the case, it’s unfortunate that he’s failed to provide any evidence whatsoever to that effect.

  8. Excellent analysis but doesn’t go as far as it should be. In the social contract theories, civil society comes before government and is at its origin. In the countries where western NGOs operate, there is rarely a government which is the product of the civil society, which means that the civil society is non existent, taken over by religious dogmatics, militants, organised crime, etc…which means that western NGOs operate by preventing the emergence of a real civil society because they replace it.

  9. I think another problem here is that donors and international CSOs adopt models of political change which require local civil society interlocutors of a certain kind.

    Jeremy and I have both worked on the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which creates a protected space for CSOs to be involved in its activities in each country that applies its rules. Whatever you think about the value of the EITI, and that’s a long discussion, I’d say the fact that this space even exists is good, all things considered (where else on this planet does a community organiser from Africa get the same voting rights as ExxonMobil?)

    But the space needs to be filled and that need sucks in NGOs which are mainly of the type that Jeremy describes. Some are very committed and capable and others are … less so.

    Jeremy’s post has got me wondering how or whether an essentially technocratic and processy kind of instrument like the EITI can engage usefully with a wider array of people in society, either directly or through a reimagined relationship with NGOs.

    Or should the EITI (and donor-driven initiatives like it) just retreat and leave room for a more organic, less externally-influenced growth of civil society in Africa?

  10. I think this post is interesting, and I agree completely that we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking civil society = NGOs only. I think few people do this, though. And it belies the fact that in most places, over 99% of staff are local. Why, moreover, does it have to be EITHER “broad civil society” OR NGOs? Why can’t we have both? On the whole, I tend to agree with the assessment by tsp in the comments.

    As for the actual polemic/rant you put forward, you don’t seem particularly educated about the range of NGO activities. Sure, there are bad ones that aren’t helping – and are actually hurting. But why throw the baby out with the bathwater? What about nationally-based (local) NGOs that lobby governments for human rights, that provide civic education campaigns in local languages, that run election monitoring? How are these not contributing to accountability?

    The issue of African universities stems from problems with the universities. If there were jobs that looked attractive in them, people would go to them. The fact of the matter is that they are exceedingly underfunded and faculty are underpaid. I doubt that the author would be willing to work at one, at local level pay scales. Why should Africans do so, if he won’t? Seems something only a rich foreigner would say. On the other hand, there are plenty of African academics at think tanks and at universities who do consulting on the side, paid by donors or NGOs. The same is true about academics at American universities. So? Seems like the point is to make NGO and donor reports public, not to destroy NGOs and force people into low wage jobs because we (outsiders) think it’s better for their development.

  11. Are their aspirations pure? Anybody who knows the people involved in NGO work might have their doubts. In any case, outsiders in any shape or form -and however many dollars they bestow on those who agree to their agenda – can hardly help the Nigerian case, which was always a matter for Nigerians. Yes, indeed, one saw no evidence of the self-appointed guardians of our human rights during Occupy Nigeria but perhaps they were skiing in Switzerland at the time.

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