Do NGOs Have a Future? by John Hilary

What are international NGOs good for? The fact that this question is now being asked insistently in forums across the world speaks of a crisis of legitimacy in the international development sector. Long viewed with suspicion in countries of the global South, international NGOs are now coming under fire in their home environments, where many are accused of abandoning any concern with social justice in their desire to cement new power relationships with capital, philanthrocapital and the state. If they are no longer inspired by a desire for justice, the more fundamental question is: do NGOs have a future at all?

This article seeks to chart the recent history of international NGOs in Britain, which is the context I have worked in for the past 25 years. It calls for a radical re-politicisation of the sector as the only way that NGOs can find their way back to a future in which they are part of the solution, not part of the problem. This is in turn a deliberate echo of the call from social movements around the world that have demanded that NGOs respect their democratic legitimacy and stop seeking to deflect their political agendas. The message to the international NGO community is clear: get radical or get lost.

MPH, before and after

Looking back, the years immediately before and after the turn of the century seem like a high water mark in the global justice movement. By 1998, a coordinated international campaign of resistance had successfully defeated the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, the treaty that had been designed to provide foreign investors with sweeping new powers in expanding their operations across the world. The alter-globalisation movement had burst onto the public scene on the streets of Seattle at the third ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), preventing the launch of a new round of trade liberalisation negotiations in 1999, and sowing the seeds for the WTO’s eventual long-term decline. The Jubilee 2000 movement had mobilised millions of activists across the world and secured $110 billion in promised debt cancellation. For a moment, it looked as if people power could accomplish anything.

International development NGOs had played their part in this ‘movement of movements’, building public understanding of the key issues of the globalised economy and mobilising millions behind social justice campaigns. It was remarkable to sit in public meetings with activists at that time, and to register just how deeply people had learned of the inner machinations of international trade negotiations and of the effects of globalisation on vulnerable communities around the world. It was equally striking to see how able and willing these activists were to challenge representatives of the British government (at that time, a Labour government) over its insistent promotion of free trade policies that would heap more disaster on industry and agriculture across the global South.

Such was the background to the Make Poverty History (MPH) campaign mounted by a grand coalition of 540 organisations during 2005. Structural changes to the global political economy were to the fore in the manifesto agreed to by coalition members in advance of the year. In addition to the central calls for trade justice and further debt cancellation, the MPH manifesto demanded new structures of corporate accountability to challenge the power of capital in the globalised economy, as well as a radical democratisation of the World Bank and IMF as the primary institutions of global economic governance. The overall framing of the manifesto in the language of justice rather than charity was an explicit attempt to move the public beyond the regressive understanding of international development as coterminous with overseas aid – an enduring legacy of Bob Geldof’s celebrity Live Aid concerts back in 1985.

In the final event, however, 2005 saw the aid message drown out calls for structural change in the global economy, not least as a result of the two Live8 concerts organised by Geldof to coincide first with the major mobilisation of the MPH coalition in Edinburgh, and then with the march organised by more radical groups to challenge the legitimacy of the G8 itself. The top line messaging of the MPH campaign itself served to reinforce the framing of poverty as an issue of charity rather than justice, with unprecedentedly high public recognition of the campaign ‘brand’ coming at the expense of any deeper understanding of the political agenda. Powerful though they undoubtedly were, MPH communications became increasingly divorced from the agreed demands of the campaign—indeed, one important lesson from 2005 was that policy demands have minimal relevance to a campaign’s broader impact unless carried through into external communications to the public at large. Another lesson was that global poverty might still be a powerful cause for concern among the general populace, but that most people’s understandings of international development still boiled down to a combination of humanitarian interventions, aid flows and, at best, debt relief.

In the years following the dissolution of the MPH coalition, many of the larger international development NGOs moved away from awareness raising on political issues such as debt, trade and corporate power, towards climate change campaigns or enterprise-driven responses to poverty. Yet in preparation for the London G20 summit held in April 2009, international development NGOs joined forces with major trade unions and environmental campaign groups to form the Put People First coalition. The coalition’s campaign manifesto situated its demands on ‘jobs, justice and climate’ squarely within a critique of neoliberalism and its failure to offer any solutions to the global economic crisis, and deliberately addressed the consequences of that crisis in Britain at the same time as highlighting its effects in the majority world. While the campaign was instructive in uniting a broad range of actors behind an explicitly political message that spanned both North and South, it had none of the public reach of MPH and thus did little to challenge the mainstream public understanding of international development as broadly coterminous with overseas aid.

Reframing the discourse

Growing concern had long been expressed by more radical NGOs at the persistent prioritisation of ‘more and better aid’ as the international development sector’s primary demand both before and since MPH. Yet the most powerful recognition of the problem caused by this reductive agenda came in the form of a research study initiated by Oxfam and published in January 2011. Based on thinking developed by environmental NGOs into how to sustain public engagement in complex issues over the long term, the report Finding Frames showed how the portrayal of global justice issues in NGO communications had perpetuated a perverse understanding of North-South relations inherited from the 1980s (the Live Aid Legacy), characterised by the relationship between ‘Powerful Giver’ and ‘Grateful Receiver’. The MPH campaign was held to exemplify the central paradox facing international development NGOs in that it had succeeded in mobilising unprecedented numbers of people behind its demands on global poverty, but at the same time had ‘changed nothing’ in terms of the public’s understanding of the issues. The report concluded that NGO communications urgently needed to reframe the international development agenda in order to secure deeper engagement from the public over the long term.

The message of Finding Frames was important in that it highlighted the long-term problems caused by the regressive framing of global justice issues in terms of charity, aid and philanthropy, and ascribed responsibility for that state of affairs to the international development NGOs themselves. Despite extensive discussion of the report’s findings at the highest levels of the NGO community, however, reaching the 0.7 per cent aid target still remained the principal campaign demand made by the international development sector in the period following the publication of Finding Frames. When asked why so little had changed in the wake of the report’s publication, a senior manager in one of the largest international development NGOs replied simply: ‘It didn’t work for us.’ Such remarks serve to confirm the charge already made in Finding Frames that many larger NGOs have consciously used negative framing in their communications, despite its acknowledged consequences, because of the increased returns it guarantees to their public fundraising efforts.

Frustrated at the unwillingness of the larger NGOs to follow through on the recommendations of Finding Frames, a group of senior representatives from campaigning NGOs and trade unions formed the Progressive Development Forum in 2012 to create a space to challenge the dominant discourse on global justice issues. At the Forum’s first meeting, held under the banner of ‘Beyond Aid, Towards Justice’, several participants highlighted the importance of renewing education and outreach programmes around key economic and political issues in order to rebuild the movement for global justice, and the Forum itself was followed by two public meetings in London and Manchester on the same theme. Equally, participants spoke of the need to join forces with new movements for social justice in the domestic context such as Occupy, UK Uncut and local anti-austerity coalitions, and to break down analytical barriers between North and South so as to re-politicise the agenda on both sides.

The IF campaign

There had long been discussions as to whether another campaign coalition similar to MPH should be formed for when the G8 returned to UK territory in 2013. While those discussions had largely stalled within the international development sector’s official coordination structures, the five NGOs that constitute the British Overseas Aid Group (BOAG)—Oxfam, Save the Children, Christian Aid, ActionAid and CAFOD—had engaged in exploratory discussions with the British government over the possibility of mounting a campaign on food and hunger during 2013. The campaign, trailed in the media from April 2012, was eventually launched in January 2013 as the IF campaign – or, to give it its full title, Enough Food for Everyone IF. The policy demands of the campaign would be threefold: more aid for nutrition and food interventions; more transparency from governments and corporations, including tax issues; and an end to land grabbing. According to internal documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the British government had been coordinating its plans with the BOAG agencies over the IF campaign since 2011, and sought to use the campaign to create a ‘golden moment’ prior to the G8 summit that would promote British Prime Minister David Cameron as a leader in the fight against global hunger.

Several NGOs and trade unions that had previously been active members of the MPH and Put People First coalitions declared themselves unable to join the IF campaign. For some, the prospect of supporting an image of Cameron’s government as a force for social justice was politically unthinkable at a time when its policies were sending unprecedented numbers to food banks at home, and having a profoundly negative effect on the poorest and most vulnerable abroad. For others, the IF campaign’s refusal to align itself with the worldwide peasant farmers’ movement La Vía Campesina and its call for food sovereignty was equally unacceptable—not least because those farmers were supposed to feature high among the campaign’s ultimate ‘beneficiaries’. The absence of any engagement with Southern partners had already been identified as a failing of the MPH campaign eight years earlier; by now, international development NGOs’ almost total disconnection from grassroots social movements was calling their very legitimacy into question.

In the end, the IF campaign claimed success for securing new aid for global nutrition initiatives and for seeing the issues of tax and transparency appear on the agenda of the G8 summit held in Fermanagh in June 2013. Yet in terms of public framing of global justice issues—the outstanding challenge identified in Finding Frames—the IF campaign further reinforced previous stereotypes of the Grateful Receiver awaiting generosity from the hand of the Powerful Giver. Media coverage of the government hunger summit that was held to coincide with the IF campaign’s main rally in London’s Hyde Park focused almost exclusively on the $4 billion pledged to nutrition projects around the world, and IF campaign representatives welcomed the new aid sums as a ‘historic breakthrough in the fight against hunger’. David Cameron was duly rewarded with his ‘golden moment’ at the IF campaign rally when he was heralded as a leader in the fight against global poverty by billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates.

Beyond colonialism

Despite periodic efforts to redirect it towards the structural failings of the capitalist world system, the dominant NGO discourse on international development is firmly locked in a colonial mind-set. The demand for humanitarian action ‘on behalf of’ the peoples of the majority world draws its inspiration from the same wellspring as the original ‘civilising mission’ that provided justification for nineteenth century colonialism, in which the Other must be effaced or silenced in order to be granted salvation. The religious undertones are never far from the surface: while colonial missionaries sought to save souls, today’s aid agencies, according to their own preferred formulation, ‘save lives’.

Appeals to this tradition have been highly successful in sustaining the fundraising income of international development NGOs over the years. It is unclear whether such levels of support can be sustained indefinitely: recent surveys of public opinion reveal a growing scepticism as to the credibility of NGO messaging on international issues, and in particular the exaggerated claims made by aid agencies for what they can achieve in ending world poverty. More importantly, however, the past few years have seen international development NGOs increasingly distance themselves from any challenges to the power structures or ideologies that cause poverty, inequality and injustice, whether at home or in the majority world. Driven by the metrics of donor relations, international development NGOs have calculated that it is in their interests to work in active collaboration with the powerful in order to achieve tangible advocacy ‘wins’ (however illusory), which can then be reported back to supporters as proof of continuing influence. By contrast, mounting long and difficult challenges to power holds little attraction in such calculations.

The decisive rupture that needs to be made is political and radical. International development NGOs must engage once more in political analysis that goes to the heart of the continuing scandals of global poverty, inequality and injustice, articulating a transformative agenda which is consonant with the demands of social movements across the world, not (as at present) in opposition to them. Action on the basis of such analysis will allow NGOs to reclaim their place as allies in the broader global justice movement, from which they have been largely absent for many years. Taking on the structural issues of the global economy in turn means building new communities of activists by means of political education programmes that connect the global with the domestic, and explore the myriad alternatives to capitalism from across the world.

Any such political action will necessarily entail a radical break with the colonial mind-set that has for so long afflicted the communication of global justice issues. By establishing a continuity between the neoliberal economic policies visited on the peoples of South and North alike, we can at last dispense with the idea that action in solidarity with the oppressed in the majority world is a sacred duty towards the Other, rather than part of a global fight against a common enemy. This latter conception of solidarity as a commonality of interests that unites people across geographical divides is the dominant understanding of solidarity in the socialist tradition. NGO engagement with such forms of active, reciprocal solidarity could unlock the huge potential of movements for transformative social change.

If the NGO community were to unite behind a programme of radical action that challenged national leaders to abandon pro-capitalist policies, it could still make a significant contribution to the cause of social justice. Such a programme would by necessity take us into the political arena, drawing on inspiring examples of social movements rising up in successful opposition to entrenched elites in Latin America and elsewhere over the past decade. While NGOs cannot pretend to command the legitimacy or power to effect such revolutions in their own right, they can form part of movements for transformative change and engage in partnership with others in those movements by means of the particular contributions they have to make. International NGOs still have the potential to make a genuine difference in the fight for a better world, but only if they choose to do so.

About the author

John Hilary

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