False dilemma: Development NGOs and public criticism

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.

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12 Responses to False dilemma: Development NGOs and public criticism

  1. Marion Steff says:

    Hey Sunit, good stuff there and very true. I was yesterday at a meeting at the parliament and one politician joked about the fact that there is not much pressure applied on them because everybody thinks they are corrupted anyway… There is definitely a need to work with donors to be more constructive and more critical to face a field which is already very lively and complex.

  2. John Hilary says:

    Great post, Sunit. Surely one of the most important functions of the non-governmental sector is to speak truth to power. However, so many NGOs are now effectively GONGOs that donors like DFID can get away with anything just as long as they keep the aid budget flowing, even if vast sums are handed over to the private sector for its own benefit. Certain NGOs now see their own growth as an end in itself that is more important than any impact in the real world, hence their fear of challenging the root causes of poverty and injustice. International development NGOs have really gone backwards in this regard over the past decade.

  3. Ale Botta says:

    Hi Sunit.

    Indeed, the relation between an NGO and its Donor have been always tricky as a loving one.
    Love and hate. Reasons are different, but I guess that a common point
    can be found in the inevitable relation that chains Ngo’s and donors together:
    one exists if only the other one does.
    The moment you borrow money from someone, here the relation starts
    and the donor controls the relation.
    Too many common interests are involved in the relation between the two.
    On top of that, in the challenge against poverty, they share same responsabilities
    concerning expectation of results, achieving or missing objectives.
    Probably this is just one, of the possible answers to the false dilemma.

  4. sam says:

    interesting blog

  5. Grant Dansie says:

    Hey Sunit,

    Very interesting piece. I can only really relate to the situation here in Norway, but it seems the situation here is somewhat different. Constructive crticism and crtical debate with civil society is encouraged. Lately the public broadcaster had shown a documentary series regarding Norwegian development aid, which has led to a critical debate of development aid in Norway, yet even within Norad I hear colleagues talking positivly about this debate, happy that development aid is on the public agenda.

    I do agree on your point about being pragmatic and constructive and finding the right balance in engaging donors. At the same time as civil society highlights donors failings it is also important that they contribute with concrete suggestions/policies on how to improve policy. Donors will react much better to dialogue and debate rather than pure crticism. It is also important to note that it is the politicians that set the development agenda, and donor staff are required to implement this agenda, regardless of their individual standpoint.

  6. Sunit Bagree says:

    Thanks for all of the comments.

    @ Marion, regarding the politician’s ‘joke’, yes, some people are disengaged with politics for various reasons, one of which is disillusionment with politicians themselves. I am often dissatisfied with politicians yet I choose to engage with them, as I know that they have the potential to achieve some very important things (and sometimes they do – for good and for bad). My blog was not so much about NGOs who don’t engage with politicians but rather those that do (and the manner in which they do so). I think that NGOs always need to be constructive but they should be more willing to be more critical of donors (and politicians), including in public spaces.

    @ John, I agree, the ‘N’ in NGO is often lost. You’ll note that I discussed aid and deliberately linked to the private sector controversy (WDM’s paper), although there are many factors that reduce the quality of aid. I also think that you’re correct when you say ‘certain NGOs now see their own growth as an end in itself…’, and one of my (rhetorical) questions raises this issue.

    @ Ale, some NGOs (like the ones I mention in the blog) receive funding from official donors but still publically criticise those donors (although such NGOs are few in number – hence the blog!). Regarding responsibilities, civil society and governments don’t have the same obligations under international human rights law, and rightly so, as civil society does not possess either the capacity or the democratic mandate that governments possess (or should possess). In terms of results, yes, both are (supposedly) results-driven, but the big questions here are what are one’s objectives and what sort of results is one measuring? Are one’s objectives superficial? Is one measuring things that are relatively simple to measure or the things that matter the most (sometimes these can be the same thing but often this isn’t the case)?

    @ Grant, Glad to hear that the situation in Norway is different. Although I do wonder how the government would react to genuinely tough criticism (e.g. http://www.eldis.org/go/topics&id=50449&type=Document). Personally, I haven’t found civil servants in NORAD particularly open. I agree that criticism for the sake of criticism is pointless. Just to be clear, my discussion of donors included the politicians who provide overall leadership for these agencies.

  7. Grant Dansie says:

    Hey Sunit,

    Thanks for the reply, can you send the link again, it didn’t seem to work

  8. Ellen says:

    Hopefully NGOs are not as averse to being the subject of public criticism either Sunit!
    Given the examples you mention of NGOs such as Oxfam engaging in a seemingly productive and sustainable relationship with donors that encompasses both partnership and critique, it is interesting that other NGOs still consider this approach not just a risk, but a risk that is too big to take. Is it that they lack confidence to do anything other than roll over and beg (in public at least) or is the choice only really available to the most weighty of the NGOs dealing with the least sensitive donors?
    As you say, if the fears of non-adversarial NGOs are founded on any basis of truth then by colluding in a trade off between their garnering some support for projects, in exchange for remaining publically unchallenging and mute about a flawed ‘bigger picture’ that may involve actions and in-actions that ‘create and perpetuate’ poverty ultimately lets down those they are there to represent. NGOs are some of the best placed to know what is going on, which surely confers some responsibility on them to challenge and channel those who have the power to impact both positively and negatively on society?

  9. Davinder Kaur says:

    Interesting topic….I agree largely with John Hilary (hi John!), international development NGOs seem to have gone backwards with regards to this. By being afraid to publicly criticise donors IDNGOs not only hinder the progress towards eradicating poverty but they also put their own credibility on the line. There are some are exceptions here of course. One of the things I’ve noticed is that when donors ARE criticised publicly its often done in such a polite manner that you could easily miss it. I think more courage and boldness is required in this area but i guess ‘biting the hand that feeds you’ is a scary concept to many.

  10. Sunit Bagree says:

    Thanks again.

    @ Grant, here’s the link: http://www.eldis.org/go/topics&id=50449&type=Document
    I’ve checked and it works. If you still can’t access the link, then search for ‘Doublethink: the two faces of Norway’s foreign and development policy’.

    @ Ellen, although NGOs don’t have the same responsibilities as states (as I said to Ale), they should be open to criticism (including public criticism). Whether they are or not is a very complex question and worthy of further research. I absolutely don’t think that it’s only larger NGOs that have the ability to publically criticise official donors – one of the four organisations that I mention, War on Want, is relatively small, yet is the most critical (disclaimer: I am a member of War on Want).

    @ Davinder, that’s a great point about criticism that is so polite that it virtually doesn’t exist. I think that it’s really important for NGOs to get away from the ‘biting the hand that feeds you’ mentality.

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  12. susana says:

    And what about changing the NGO concept… Because being called non-government orgs is rather ironic!! One of the strongest streams of income are grants from public funds.. from governments.. Their dependency on government is obvious and strong as discussed in this article.. so why not begin by having organisations honestly acknowledge what they really are, and reform from there..

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