“The problem with NGOs and the rights based approach in development”

One of my favorite economists, Pranab Bardhan, pens an outstanding essay in the Boston Review. One except:

In the policy arena the groups often act as self-appointed lobbies for the poor and the oppressed. While this lobbying is at least as legitimate as that by trade unions, farmers’ associations, or chambers of commerce, such non-party organizations cannot and should not threaten to replace the role of traditional party organizations in a democracy.

Voluntary groups, as single-interest advocacy lobbies, lack the mechanism of transactional negotiations and give-and-take among diverse interest groups that large party organizations, representing and encompassing those varied interests, possess.

This kind of give-and-take is particularly important when resolving controversial issues and requires complex trade-offs and balancing of diverse interests. Those who speak for the poor usually underplay the diversity among the poor and sometimes romanticize their traditional way of life.

A dam may benefit thousands of small farmers in hitherto parched land, even as it displaces thousands of others; a development project may displace some from their ancestral land but provide jobs and more productive livelihoods for others; and so on. Each such case involves complex trade-offs and demands negotiated compromises and compensations across groups and over time.

Such deliberations should take place within a party forum where diverse interests and stakeholders are represented; taking this step is often more productive for all concerned than mere one-sided agitations.

If you feel outraged, read the full thing, as it is more balanced than this passage implies.

The point is that advocacy and NGOs are not a substitute for social compacts and democratic discourse and compromise, slow and messy and full of setbacks though it may be.

You might say “well of course the NGOs and advocacy folks know that.” To which I respond, “you might be right, but you could have fooled me.”