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Reclaiming development?
NGOs and the challenge of alternatives

Diana Mitlin, Sam Hickey, Anthony Bebbington

IDPM, School of Environment and Development
University of Manchester

May 2005

SARPN acknowledges the University of Manchester as a source of this documents.
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Introduction: the challenge of being alternative

NGOs exist as alternatives. In being "not governmental" they constitute vehicles for people to participate in development and social change in ways that would not be possible through government programmes. In being "not governmental" they constitute a "space" in which it is possible to think about development and social change in ways that would not be likely through government programmes. In being "nongovernments" (in Fisher's terms, 1998) they constitute instruments for turning these alternative thoughts, and alternative forms of participation into alternative practices and hard outcomes. This conference asks how far NGOs - of all sorts - have made real these possibilities for alternative approaches to development. Whatever our answer to this question, we will ask "why," and in what ways can this potential for releasing development alternatives be recovered, re-energized, and even expanded under a contemporary context that seems less than auspicious.1

The framing of NGOs in terms of 'development alternatives' has been a persistent feature of development debates (e.g. Drabek 1987, Tandon 2001). The timing of this particular conference rests to an extent on the understanding that this challenge has a particular resonance in the current context. Indeed, at first glance, the "alternative nature" of many NGOs might today seem reduced in scope. Over time many NGOs appear to have grown closer to government agencies and more distant from social movements.2 This has not necessarily been for reasons of their own choosing: financial need or opportunity (spurred by increased competition in the giving market as well as by strategic decisions to grow larger) has pushed NGOs North and South towards government funding.3 At the same time, many of the social movements with which NGOs traditionally worked have also weakened. Other movements, however, have emerged and at the same time as many NGOs seem closer to government, they seem further from these social movements, subject to greater criticism from these same movements, and in certain cases branded by them as just one more part of the elite establishment (we academics fare no better).

These apparent - not always chosen - shifts in the positioning of NGOs have had knock-on effects. With time, government funding appears to have come with increased conditionality. Northern governments are able to ask - and do ask - the Northern NGOs they support to move out of some countries and into others with obvious implications for national NGOs; they are able to - and do - ask for increased focus on poverty impact (and by effect if not design, less focus on other social change goals); and so on. NGOs lose decision making space. At the same time, bilateral and multilateral aid programmes, political parties and even corporations, have assumed languages and terminologies that were once more associated with NGOs and social movements. NGOs lose discursive space. No matter (even if it is the case) that the NGO means something quite different when it says "empowerment," "rights" or "citizenship" - quibbling over the "real" meaning of the term only seems to diminish the legitimacy of the NGO further.

The "boundaries of the possible" appear to have become increasingly limited in respect of economic and political choice, reducing the range of thinking and practice (for practitioners and researchers).4 NGOs are frequently seen as complicit in this narrowing, as having become both a means by which a narrow range of new technologies, ideas and approaches are unproblematically disseminated from North to South, or (perhaps slightly more forgivingly) as mere soup ladles in the global soup kitchen (Commins, 1999). The 'agents of imperialism' critique has proven hard to shake (Townsend et al 2002, Kenny 2005), and has taken on new meaning under the advent of the new 'security' order in which the territorial control of states by the US and its allies is back on the geo-political agenda. This marks a very different concern for NGOs operating in conflict situation from that imagined in previous moments of reflection within and on the NGO community (e.g. Edwards et al 1999), and we return to this issue below.

At the same time, at least in some countries, what is uniquely NGO is now harder to identify. Democratization and avowedly pro-poor governments have blurred distinctions between NGOs and the state in a number of countries; this has been further reinforced as ex-NGO personnel have shifted to take up positions within the state. Increased state involvement in activities which subscribe to core NGO values of participation and empowerment have raised real issues of identity (distinctiveness) for NGOs, followed by (often critical) questions of effectiveness for state and NGOs alike. Privatisation and the growth of public-private partnerships as a means of delivering key services is presenting NGOs with new dilemmas regarding their closeness to the market.

Under all these pressures NGOs, on average, appear to have become instruments of public policy far more than of social movement strategy, and their language and discourse seems closer to that of public agencies than of social activists. Just as in the UK election campaign - the context in which we wrote some of this paper - where the difference between the main parties seems to be more of degree than of kind, and the bigger picture for the UK remains fixed,5 so between NGOs and public agencies there seems little substantial difference of discourse. Attempts to be more alternative are often met with disciplining practices: from government (the security agenda looms large), but also at times from the NGO or its close allies themselves.

Furthermore, all this is happening in a world whose centres of geopolitical power (and thus development finance) have become steadily more conservative. It is also a world in which conservative (though not necessarily reactionary) actors have become stronger, and have begun to create and consolidate their own NGOs and nonprofit think tanks (Stone, 2000; Stone and Denham, 2004). The need for alternative visions, institutions and practices seems at least as urgent as ever: can NGOs, as they currently exist, respond to this need?

This paper aims to layout some groundwork for addressing these questions - answers will come, we hope, from the conference itself. The first part of the paper outlines concepts through which we aim to approach the relationships between NGOs and development alternatives. The second section then reconstructs, in terms of these concepts, a recent history of the place of nongovernmental organizations in development, identifying the changing contexts in which they operate and the new pressures and incentives that this has brought to bear on them. The section also discusses the extent to which these pressures and incentives appear to have affected the discourses, institutional arrangements and practices of NGOs. The third part of the paper explores ways in which NGOs have aimed or might aim to carve out spaces for alternatives, whether new ways of being an NGO lie on the horizon, and the extent to which these might create more space for change.

  1. We do not focus on the internal challenges facing NGOs; even where we examine funding issues, the focus is on the extent to which this shapes their engagement with development alternatives, rather than in terms of organisational capacity etc.

  2. This was a prominent theme in the second Manchester NGO conference, especially in the collection edited by Hulme and Edwards (1997).

  3. The 'North-South' labeling of NGOs has become more problematic in recent years. In particular, it has become blurred with some Northern NGOs seeking a more global identity (such as ActionAid and its SA location) and with groups such as Grameen Bank establishing a funding capacity in the North. One innovative fundraiser is Breadline Africa which now raises significant finance for South African NGO activities through direct mail campaigns in the North (initially in the UK and subsequently in Ireland and Holland). However, whilst significant such blurring remains small scale. It is the beginning of a trend but it is not clear how big the trend might be. In this paper we use the terms Northern and Southern except when referring to authors who have adopted other conventions.

  4. This is probably less true in respect of social development in which there has been a considerable investment in the last decade.

  5. We were preparing this paper in the run up to the UK general election. One of the apparent hallmarks of the campaign was the relative lack of difference among the three main parties and the sense that - even where there were differences - the scope of any party to make significant changes to UK policy would be constrained by the wider structures within which the UK is inserted. Discussion of "alternatives" was limited to specific issues: how many police on the street, how many legal immigrants, marginal differences in public spending, accountability of leaders. Debate on more significant alternatives was severely curtailed - the larger "rules of the game" seemed pre-given.

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