NGOs and the Political Economy of Development: An Irish Perspective

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DSAI Working Paper 2018/001
NGOs and the Political Economy of Development: An Irish Perspective
Tanja Kleibl and Ronaldo Munck

As reports broke in early 2018 that senior Oxfam GB officials had paid for sex during the Haiti emergency with probably underage girls, it was noticeable that there was not really a shocked reaction in the ‘development sector’. Shaista Aziz – a past aid worker with Oxfam and other organisations declared that “I wasn’t surprised. Nor was I surprised when it became clear that it had been covered up and that further allegations of sexual abuse, bullying, harassment and intimidation in the aid sector soon followed”. It transpired that this was clearly not an individual case of abuse but, rather, a structural feature of these large, well-funded, well-connected and still widely respected organisations. 

In Ireland we have had the quite different, but equally damaging in its impact, debacle in relation to Goal the third largest development NGO in the state. A U.S. government report in 2016 expressed concerns around three areas: “procurement system weaknesses, mishandling of conflicts of interest and inadequate financial function”. The story which emerged of collusion and bid-rigging in Southern Turkey, where the aid operations in Syria were centred, eventually went far beyond these seemingly innocuous phrases. In the event both the US and Irish funders of Goal decided to accept the resignation of a senior officer (as happened in the Oxfam case linked to sexual abuse) and a commitment to “put their own house in order” as sufficient remedy. 
These recent events, which once would have once been seen as unthinkable, highlight for us the general power dynamics of the NGO/majority world relationship, the macho modus operandi most of the more aggressive ones adopt, their cavalier attitude towards due process, and the prioritisation of the organization above development goals, which explains the denials and cover- ups that have occurred in both cases. We see the events described in a nutshell above as just the tip of the iceberg, not an anomaly, and symptomatic of a much wider structural malaise that is not really acknowledged (at least openly) in the NGO milieu. We would argue that the many sincere members and supporters of the development NGOs deserve the type of open, self-critical analysis we are trying to foster here.

To reflect on whither the NGOs after these crises, the effect of which is hard to overestimate, we need to understand how we arrived at this situation. The once proud bearers of an alternative development model now seem mired in controversy and more or less unable to confront the challenges posed. In terms of what drives their mission, the overarching paradigm most development NGOs have operated within is arguably the ‘human rights’ frame. Indeed, one of the defining features of the globalisation discourse was the global institutionalization of human rights. They were to become the meta-narrative of the new era, part of the benign spread of Western modernity to the Third World under the aegis of the free market in capital, finance, land and people. It legitimised the ‘humanitarian wars’ of the Balkans and more, giving cover for NGO integration with the imperial war machine. It generated and was based on, a comfortable liberal cosmopolitanism which, much like the concept of ‘global civil society, had a direct parallel with the belief in the civilizing mission of colonialism characteristic of an earlier period of ‘North-South’ relations.

In more practical terms the orientation of many Irish development initiatives, despite the many good things they are promoting, appear fixed from the top, directed downwards through a results-based management (RBM) framework to local partners and beneficiaries. This dynamic will not change naturally to a more desirable social justice orientated grassroots empowerment project that most Irish development NGOs in principle desire to carry forward. In reality, Irish NGOs, as most other INGOs, depend substantially on government funding which secures its employee’s salaries and funding for partner’s work. From their position in the aid chain the big INGOs tend to exclude local NGOs and social groups from accessing direct funding and hence decrease the potential for supporting locally grown initiatives for development. At the same time, Irish NGOs themselves are sharply restricted in terms of unrestricted funds and can only work within strict boundaries and procedures as defined by their institutional donors

Critical scholars have sought to problematize the system of donor policy conditionality, highlighting the fact that it confronts local partners or beneficiaries with Western development concepts. Social problems and their root causes are in fact quite complex and context specific. Applying external problem definitions, and in many cases solutions, to other regions of the world carries increased potential to colonize non-Western life-worlds with external thoughts and ideas of development. From a postcolonial perspective, this has of course, in different manners, always been the case since colonialism started. We argue that Irish NGOs have not sufficiently reflected about the power dynamics this entails and the consequences it produces both for global development and their own role therein.
We wonder, finally if politics or, rather the lack of politics is the underlying issue behind the crisis of perspectives in the Irish NGOs. Development, human rights and poverty reduction are somehow portrayed and felt as if in some way they are ‘beyond’ politics. As with all faith- based organisations, and here the intimate connection between faith-based and development organisations in Ireland comes to the fore, politics is left outside in the mundane world as it were. Yet global development is in reality a highly political affair, as is also something so seemingly innocuous and a ‘good thing’ as human rights. Until the Irish NGOs enter into a properly political conversation with other forces in civil society they will be  constrained by the cosy pink glow of being on the side of good while refusing to engage with the contradictions of their mission. And, lest we forget, with the voices of the global South, the once colonised, enslaved and still exploited by the global structures of capitalism for whom the international NGOs now form an integral part of ‘soft power’ and neoliberal governance modalities. 

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