‘UK charities have lost their radical soul’

Continuing the previous two themes, the Guardian has this morning published an interview piece with me in which they look at the depoliticisation of international NGOs in the UK, including how renewed campaigns on structural issues such as tax justice might offer a way back to something more inspiring. Interestingly, exactly this conclusion came out of the Bond member forum held with senior INGO campaigning and advocacy staff last month in London. In the break-out groups, table after table reported that they felt their campaigning and public messaging had become too bland, too professionalised and too distanced from any grassroots social movements, and that there is an urgent need to restore a radical politics to the sector. If everyone is now saying this in forum after forum, it raises the deeper question as to why the NGOs are not making the changes that everyone sees are so urgently needed. What’s the blockage here?

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About John Hilary

Executive Director at War on Want
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3 Responses to ‘UK charities have lost their radical soul’

  1. Brian Pratt says:

    The answer is simple
    1) The nature of the work they now do has changed . There has been a move from supporting local civil society which provided their legitimacy as foreigners , to now mainly carrying out their own programmes . Some of these will be social welfare /Humanitarian ( where at present the money is ) At best local groups are treated as sub sub- contractors and at worst local civil society is swamped and undermined by transnational NGOs ( similar to small shop keepers and the mega stores ).
    2) An increasing proportion of the funding of the larger NGOs comes from the state ( this is increasingly the case not just in the UK ) compromising their independence not just of thought and advocacy but also of their programmes which are increasingly sub contracted work from the state rather than a genuine response to local demands . In other words many INGOs have become a part of the official aid programme rather than of an independent people to people or civil society to civil solidarity movement .
    3) Self interest, few if any INGOs still believe they are there to work themselves out of a job. They now see an indefinite future for themselves and if possible one in which they grow in terms of turn over .Often then have grown such that like the proverbial juggernaut with complex management system and , internal interest groups, they find it difficult to change direction or consider how to cope with changes. The only way is to keep going!
    4) Finally we have a generation for whom development is a technical issue , rather than something you feel passionate about. Hence we see technical solutions being proposed for blatantly political issues , we see an avoidance of controversy where INGOs may come into conflict with their donors state or local business interests . The topics taken up are bland and generic enough to avoid upsetting anyone , hence have little real teeth or relevance to the really important issues confronting the poor . Perhaps this is why some of the environmental and human rights NGOs are taking more of the limelight because they still feel passionate about their issues and are willing to take on wrong doers….
    Our work on civil society@cross roads (www.pria,org) has shown how many radical civil society groups have grown away from traditional NGOs in many developed and developing countries. This resonates with studies by Civicus .
    Brian Pratt (Founder INTRAC).

  2. Sunit Bagree says:

    What’s the blockage? My perception is that many of the very top (Directors/CEOs) staff in NGOs just don’t genuinely believe in this approach. As for other staff with influence who may be more sympathetic, it’s easy to talk, actually challenging people (particularly more senior people) internally can be hard work. I also wonder if people are adopting (and by this I mean taking cover behind) a ‘wait and see if someone else jumps first’ mentality, which clearly won’t work considering the powerful structures and systems that we are up against, and in any case doesn’t sit well with principles of solidarity and cooperative behaviour.

    I’d like to see the PDF become more inclusive, and welcome people (regardless of which NGO/CSO they work for) who identify with the PDF’s core concerns (we’re not all going to agree with the detail on everything, which is natural) to meetings and other forms of discussion. You’ve done a great job getting the Guardian to discuss some of the key issues through the interview. But we need a greater number of critical voices – and a greater diversity of critical voices – to get heard, both within organisations and in the public domain.

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