Friday, February 14, 2014

"NGOs are bastards:" Community scepticism, NGO participation, and donor politics

Each time I am in the field, conversing with disenfranchised communities about projects of social change and finding entry points to collaboration, I hear a consistent narrative. This narrative is utterly sceptical of NGOs and the work done by NGOs.

Consistent in this narrative across geographic spaces of marginalization is a consistent suspicion of the middle class NGO worker or the elite foreigner who comes in for occasional visits, may be once a year or once every two years.

Like one community member shared, "NGOs are bastards."

She noted how NGOs come and go, with their own donor goals and absorbing most of the donor monies to support their own goals and agendas.

In the voice of another community participant in a disenfranchised Santali community, "The NGOs will do whatever they can to help themselves. So the fancy car, the fancy trips with foreigners, and the fancy life. You ask, how much of this money actually helps us?"

In these narratives, community voices consistently call for accountability. They ask, how much of the money spent on NGO and NGO work actually goes to the community? And how much of the money goes to the NGOs and their workers?

They also ask, what are the real agendas of the donors? What are they trying to accomplish through the money they are pumping in? What motives do they have? And most importantly, do they really care about the people who otherwise emerge as homogeneous masses of poor in their donor reports and evaluation metrics?

These are powerful questions.

These powerful questions call for greater degree of accountability in the work that is done by NGOs. They also render complex our monolithic understanding of NGOs as "doers of good."

Instead, these narratives call for complex understandings of NGOs grounded in points of accountability within communities that are targeted as service recipients of NGO work.

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