Chris Blattman

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“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.”

12 Responses

  1. So, I felt that my rant warranted a little less charged response… Here it is.
    “Whether the dams should have been constructed is not the point. The issue is one of democratic accountability.”
    I guess this phase is part of what gets me. The replacement of something concrete (‘the dams’) with what is at best an abstraction (‘democratic accountability’), is just problematic to me. To separate out the outcome from the process, and to subordinate the one to the other, is to create a bizzare tear in the fabric of reality. This kind of thinking must ultimately rely on a view that holds that the conclusions about hypothetical outcomes reached through the internal dialogues of a political party carry more weight than the existence of the dam and its real consequences – ecological, social, economic, etc. And,of course, that the party provides the most just and appropriate platform for addressing such issues whenever they arise.

    “The activist opponents of the dams, taking up the cause of the displaced, mobilized their international anti-dam fraternity to protest at World Bank headquarters and with US Congressmen, compelling the World Bank president to cancel the previously promised large loans for dam construction without allowing for adequate hearing from the small farmers who might have benefited.”
    I think there is a definite point here. A point about whose voice was heard in the process. But at the same time, it is not entirely true that potential benfeciaries were denied a voice. Indeed, it is through the agency of these very beneficiairies (the votes and money they supplied) that politicians were busy making use of the political machinery to construct dams in the first place. To assume that somehow the electoral and party political machinery, or whatever form of ‘democracy’ prevailed, provided the opportunity for this to be resolved in a just manner, is to make a very problematic assumption. In light of the implied injustice, some groups organised outside of the ‘legitimate’ channels to give voice to a group who lacked any in the formal political processes despite their constitutional rights. This fundamental failure, I would argue, is at the heart of the phenomenon of rights based approaches and a whole range of political formations actively engaged in resisting oppression. This is not to downplay the significance, indeed huge importance of electoral politics, but it is also to reiterate the problematic foundation on which electoral politics stands. More, specifically, it is to defend the role of minoritarian politics outside of formal or so-called ‘legitimte’ structures of power redistribution. But if legitimate, pragmatic and ethically obscure power can exist outside of these formal structures, per se, then the formal structures’ grip remains always partial and incomplete. And this critique applies as much to its ‘effectiveness’ as to its self-justifying or legitimating narrative (ideology). Consequently, to adopt a position that critiques ‘movements’ or rights based NGOs without also adequately accounting for their original cause; their response to structural injustices and the sustained legitimacy of their mode of action (despite its evident inadequacy) gives me concern. And this concern is created very much by the overall tone which appears to systematically undermine these movements and actors with short asides acknowledging occasional positive contributions surrounded by entire paragraphs demonstrating their flaws. Perhaps a discerning intellectual with a somewhat different conception of ‘the political’ will be troubled by this and will wonder what meaning is derived by the target audience? Does it provide a better understanding of the factors at work in perpetuating injustice? Or does it simply tell us about ‘the problem with NGOs and the rights based approaches in development’ without clarifying the context. Now it might be said that the original article uses the word ‘limits’ and not ‘the problem’ and perhaps I should have paid more attention to that distinction – because it is not insignificant. But either way, I feel that my concern (with what is missing, of what is not accounted for and of what is understood to constitute legitimate political participation) is valid, even as I would urge movements to seek to adopt more heterogeneous strategies and engage more effectively from within established democratic party structures to the extent this is possible. If this article seeks essentially to bash those international agencies that pay no attention to local complexities and simply short-circuit otherwise justly functioning democratic institutions then I am on PB’s side. But if its implications are to throw movements and others making use of rights based and more generally ‘illegitimate’ (non party political representative democratic) forms of action in the search for justice into the ‘bad’ bin then I simply cannot agree. My earlier response was a reaction to feeling the latter as I read the piece. Perhaps that says more about me than it does about Pranab, but I feel it’s important to clarify that it was not just the irrational rant of someone who doesn’t acknowledge that there are flaws in every mechanism for bringing about social change, including movements and NGOs.

  2. So, Bardhan’s piece veers dangerously close to a call to entrust democratic decision-making to party elites, which can more fairly adjudicate the conflicting demands of economic growth and social justice. He also talks about how “uncompromising support for citizen’s rights can cause more harm than good,” which in this context could be seen as a request for more reliance on “democratic mechanisms,” as long as the right people are invested with the authority to make choices.
    In the interest of full disclosure: I’ve spent my entire life working for NGOs. A critique of them is long overdue, but this one misses the mark. Alex De Waal’s description of the “humanitarian international” in his book Famine Crimes more accurately pinpoints the dangers to democratic governance and local solution-making from the big NGOs:
    * Largely unaccountable;
    * Self-justifying, pursuing organizational survival and expansion;
    * Privileging the policy preoccupations of the major industrialized
    * Prvileging generalized, international responsibility instead of specific,
    local political accountability
    * Privileging technical skill and experience over local knowledge;
    * Promoting “development” or assistance instead of social change.
    Many of us working in the NGO sector take these warnings to heart. Are their “bad” NGOs that do more harm than good? Absolutely. However, Bardhan’s piece paints a far too black-and-white picture, with NGOs in general undermining state structures and systems of robust debate within political parties.
    NGOs can help strengthen local political governance and institutions when they assist in creating mechanisms of incentives and accountability, which they have done in many places. Just like we need to look at NGOs on a case by case basis, we need to do the same for governments, and, well, yes, economists. Not all have the interests of the poor as a priority. Party systems in many places are corrupt, governments venal.
    “NGOs are not a substitute for social compacts and democratic discourse and compromise, slow and messy and full of setbacks though it may be,” but they are part of the social and democratic systems of many countries and can make useful contributions. Bardhan’s piece in the end to me reads like the complaint of the expert, who wishes all the decisions could still be made in the smoky back rooms, where the good old boys go to figure things out.

  3. About the action of NGOs, I hope the french documentary “Basse-cour” (Barnyard) gets translated into English. It’s irony is devastating.
    The small NGO, “we do it all by ourselves because we know big NGO waste all the money in administration ” has no idea how, in an area invaded by NGO since it’s classification as a biosphere reserve, the director of the Senegal school they’re helping actually uses the money. But one day they come to check. Although … they don’t speak the language and they are there only for a couple days.

    Two links about it translated into English.

  4. One of the basic principles of a human rights based approach is to ensure the rights of the most vulnerable are respected – notably when such trade-offs are on the table that typically will lead on the poorest and most excluded people and populations losing out. This is the positive role NGOs should, and usually do, play in development. If democracy is left to play out in “party forums”, you can be sure that decisions taken in the broader interest of society, will be to the detriment of the most vulnerable.

    No wonder inequality is on the increase in India if the approach taken in the essay has broad appeal.

  5. Good points. But not sure I see what it has to do with the rights-based approach to development? Such an approach, anytime I’ve read about it, makes no assertion or suggestion that NGOs should replace political parties. It suggests that development aid should recognize that poor people aren’t passive beneficiaries of charity, but rather active participants and rights-holders in the development processes in their own communities.

  6. I feel this is a very important issue. And I’m glad you and PB are bringing it to people’s attn.
    The problems PB brings up are rife in global health especially. And I do partly hold the advocacy NGOs (and INGOs) responsible. However, it seems to me that they are understandably playing a similar role in developing countries that they do in developed countries: pushing their issue, their policy priority; their group; their disease. In developed countries, (for domestic issues) the multiplicity of pressures coming from such actors is then filtered through the priority setting and budget allocation process in the relevant domains. And it is during these processes that the trade-off decisions are made – hopefully in the broader interest of society. The problem for global health is that: there is no such process at the global level; nor, often, is this process functional at the country level. So, if rich country inhabitants really get energized (parly by advocates) about AIDS or bednets – then that is what will be prioritized in delivery at the country level. No trade offs are considered at the global level, and rarely do trade-offs figure in at the country level either. Which is why when you look at country/donor spending combined for health, you get all kinds of nutty allocations. Clearly the move to budget support was meant to at least partly ameliorate this problem – though the jury is out on whether it has helped.

    In any event, I think it is important to understand that the problem at the country level comes from the combination of NGOs (doing their natural advcocy thing) AND the absense (or weakness) of the priority setting/ budget allocation process that brings to bear the full range of society’s needs and preferences. NB: donors contribute very much to the weakness of this process as we know. And likewise at the global level. Though to be honest, it is hard to imagine what kind of mechanism could support the priority setting/ budget allocation filtering process at the global level. The Copenhagen Consensus process is one example of what a solution could look like. But it would need to happen more often; and frankly, it would need to have more bite.

  7. So here’s the conundrum that often times faces individuals trying to make these arguments:

    1. Use specific examples. Bring the ire of those organizations on your head, while simultaneously giving people a few points to “explain away” in one way or another, when you’re trying to make a broader point about the state of an entire system.

    2. Don’t use specific examples, and be accused of straw man arguments.

    There’s simply no winning when people have already made their minds up.

  8. I don’t think this is a terrible essay, but it’s not exactly new ideas. Folks have been writing this sort of thing since at least Edwards & Hulme in 1996. The NGO literature is rife with claims that NGOs aren’t the legitimate actors they claim to be. Usually the argument is that they’re accountable to donors, not communities, so this is a slight tweak.

  9. I tend to agree with Andre – this piece is weak and littered with straw men. Like many attacks on NGOs, none are named, there are just vague accusations that ‘some’ NGOs romanticise the poor or simplify complex issues.

    NGO advocacy, wherever it is, tends to arise from failures in the democratic system, particularly the unrelenting tendency of governments, however democratic, to side with the powerful against the powerless.

    And its the height of silliness to claim that NGO judicial activism in India will destroy the credibility and legitimacy of the judiciary as it leads to unenforced court orders. If a judiciary’s decisions aren’t able to be enforced, then it is this lack that is destroying its credibility, not those who exercise their right to seek its rulings.

  10. I assume this is a reference that applies exclusively to advocacy work at a level where interested parties actually have a stake in democratic processes (e.g. national or sub-regional). It’s a huge problem on the international scale as well, but one where there is no evident solution. U.S. policymakers most often have no incentive to negotiate with communities in India or Uganda who are underprivileged or otherwise having their rights violated.

  11. Outstanding? I would call this weak if not pathetic. The failure to adequately describe ground realities in India, the bizarre faith in formal democratic processes and government institutions, the failure to explore the basic dysfunctionality of the State that lies behind much of the unrest and movement-related activities in places like India and the hopeless blurring of NGOs and social movements, makes me think that this is written by osomeone who lacks any real grasp of local politics, the caste and economic dynamics that systematically thrust injustices on marginal groups and who writes from a cozy little economist’s bubble. While I appreciate that certain potentially beneficial investments in dams might have been averted, there are countless studies on the benefits (and their distribution) of dams that have been built around the world and they are quite telling. On another count, while he might be annoyed for NGOs that speak on behalf of relatively more marginal groups and thinks that a corrupt ‘decmocratic’ process would be better, what about ecological issues? Who speaks for the environment? Do we get angry at scientists and even activists for speaking on behalf of rivers, forests, biodiversity, the climate? Because if these people had not been making noise I can only conclude that what little chance humanity has of extracting itself from its multiple global crises would be far slimmer than it currently is. This article was just lazy and disappointing.

  12. Well, I agree with Pranab that NGOs shouldn’t and can’t replace politcal parties or subsitute a public system. However, NGOs are a vital part of this system and the democratic discourse that is needed in many States. In a vital and plural society, the NGOs should pormote their interests, but also respect the decisions made by those who are eleceted to represent the people – the politicians. It looks to me that Pranad would prefer more totalitarian regimes, where only State aprroved NGOs are allowed to exist ?

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