Why do most development NGOs refuse to criticise official donors in public?
One reason relates to the different perspectives that NGOs possess regarding the role of official donors in overcoming global poverty. Those who view donors as largely benign (albeit flawed to various extents) partners in the struggle for development are unlikely to ever consider using public criticism when conducting advocacy.
An alternative view (which I share) understands absolute poverty in the 21st century as the result of unacceptable failures on the part of powerful actors – including the governments of rich countries and multilateral institutions – to promote development. Furthermore, these powerful actors continue to fail the world’s most vulnerable people to this day, by creating and perpetuating poverty, as well as by not doing enough to reduce it. Unfortunately, even when this ‘power and injustice’ view is accepted, some NGO staff believe that official donors will become alienated if publically challenged. Yet this argument is deeply flawed.
To begin with, entitlements (and other policies that benefit excluded people) are rarely simply provided by those who govern; rather they must be actively claimed by citizens. Regardless of whether change proves to be slow and piecemeal or rapid and dramatic, public as well as private criticism is always necessary to create and maintain pressure on elites.
Moreover, as long as one’s arguments are evidence-based and constructive, official donors should be able to handle criticism. If they can’t, then they have lost the argument before it has even started. In reality, while donor staff probably don’t enjoy being made to feel uncomfortable by NGOs, they tend to understand that the role of civil society isn’t to act as a cheerleader for governments or multilateral agencies.
This brings us to the issue of official funding. A few NGOs in the UK (such as ActionAid, Christian Aid, Oxfam and War on Want) demonstrate that it’s possible to publically criticise the British government and still receive funding from the UK’s Department for International Development. However, even if it were true that donor funding for NGOs could be jeopardised if NGO staff sensibly challenge donor policy and/or practice in public (and there is no evidence of this being the case), then a whole set of questions would need to be answered. What is the price of silence? What are the implications of pretending that the world needs tweaks rather than radical change? Is an NGO getting more money going to solve the world’s problems? How would poor and excluded people feel if they knew that their NGO partners were biting their tongues in order to maximise income?
While it’s so disappointingly rare to see a development NGO speak truth to power in public, I must stress that this is not an ‘either/or’ debate, i.e. the choice isn’t simply either (a) remain quiet or (b) attack donors with all guns blazing. Public advocacy needs to engage with complexity and thus should be multifaceted and dynamic. And of course NGO staff must always act in a professional manner. But beyond this, instead of fretting about hurting donors’ feelings, NGO staff should seek not to be liked by donors but respected by them. Only then will NGOs be able to demonstrate genuine solidarity with those who are marginalised and oppressed. This is critical to the legitimacy of NGOs and thus to their efforts to remain relevant in the 21st century.
NGOs must be particularly wary of falling into the ‘either/or’ trap when supporting the British government’s commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on aid. Defending this commitment shouldn’t obscure the need to challenge controversial aspects of aid policy or to highlight the wider macroeconomic and governance problems associated with aid dependency. In addition, NGOs shouldn’t refuse to criticise the government’s anti-development decisions beyond aid, which often have far greater impacts on poor countries’ prospects for development. Instead, NGOs need to work together and rise to the challenge presented by both those making ill-informed contributions to the aid debate and those in power when their policies hinder rather than help development.
The cooption of NGOs by donor governments was a hot topic when I began to work professionally in this field a decade ago, as was the increasing efforts of Western governments to manipulate humanitarian agencies into serving political or military objectives (and thus undermine their traditional role in emergencies). It doesn’t appear that these lessons have been learnt.
The reluctance on the part of most NGOs to publically criticise official donors continues to unnecessarily restrict their ability to achieve positive change.