Wednesday, January 4, 2012

How Low Would An NGO Go For the Sake of Money, Even Spite?

The first time I came to East Africa, in mid-2002, I wondered how I could be part of 'development', part of the efforts to change things for the better (despite knowing that some things that go under the name 'development' make things worse, often by design). The changes may be small, but they would make a big difference to some. Etc.

Like anyone else who had similar wishes, I needed to find out what was going on, what was so bad that it needed changing, how to bring about such change, why this sort of change was not already occurring, or if it was, how to do more of that and less of anything that was inimical to development...

I wanted to meet people involved in development, people from East Africa, people not from East Africa, whatever it took. I went back to Europe to save enough money to return and, at the same time, study for a Master's degree that included development, and perhaps some other areas, so I would have some kind of perspective, maybe even some useful skills.

That may all sound very naive, but in some ways I haven't changed that much. Since I've come back I've been working with individuals, community based organizations (CBO), non-governmental organizations (NGO) and the like, hoping to find that some were doing the right thing so I could learn about where I could fit in. Because, as I spend time trying to find out where I fit in, I have to do something. So I do many things, and I hope that continues.

But what do NGOs and others in the developing world do? Well most people know something about some NGO, what might have once been referred to as 'charity'. They do relief work following emergencies, education of various kinds, healthcare work, poverty reduction work and much else. Nominally, they do all the kinds of things that someone 'with a heart' would wish to do, or wish to know that others do or to support, financially and in other ways.

Well, some people do things because they 'have a heart', but not all do. Some make a living out of their work, some make a very good living, some make a fortune, etc. But one expects NGOs themselves to be run, driven perhaps, by 'a heart', whether it's the heart of a person, several people or some kind of community, perhaps a church.

Many organizations in East Africa doing development work are, to a greater or lesser extent, church-based. Now, we all know from experience that being church-based does not guarantee that the work is always well intentioned. Unless the people driving the organization have good intentions, the work will be of little benefit to people who are in need of, say, education, poverty reduction, healthcare, and the like. As I've said, some 'development' work is harmful, and the ideal of 'making things better', however naive-sounding, was never part of the plan.

Perhaps I'm rambling a bit; that is partly my want, but partly my intention, for the moment. But you do come across organizations who say all the right things, tick all the right boxes and go through all the motions, and all that just to survive as an organization. There is nothing else they can do but survive. They look for calls for proposals, find ones they think they can do or ones they can persuade the donor they can do, and apply. If they get money, they do the job, somehow or other, if not they collapse.

So take an organization I shall call; they are a church-based organization, they do all of the above and everyone says that they are very good proponents of their church's teachings. They 'help' poor people, sick people, vulnerable and abandoned people, people with disabilities, people who are in some way stigmatized, they care for them and look after them, up to a certain point; they are unlikely to do so for the duration of those people's lives, unless those lives are short (and many are); projects are usually a few years and no more.

But that's something, because they are doing what they say they are doing, donors love them, they give them money and every few years, when a project ends, they can apply for more money and say 'look at these children and old people and orphans and vulnerable children and disabled people and stigmatized people, this is what we have been doing, if you give us more money we will keep doing it and even find some more beneficiaries'.

But when it comes down to it, the organization is just part of a bigger community, which is part of an even bigger congregation, which is part of a whole lot of congregations and overlapping groups. And it happens that has a neighbour, which's church was able to help out with some land, so that this neighbour could build another NGO, specializing in some of the above needy groups; let's call the neighbour, as an organization, do very well. So well that the church sees the beautiful buildings and, maybe, they  'covet' them. may well tick all the right boxes when it comes to applying for grants and, eventually, reassuring donors that they have spent the money well (and asking for more, of course), but they covet the assets of so much that they ignore the vulnerable, poor, disabled, abandoned, stigmatized beneficiaries of; they threaten to evict their neighbours, to whom they were once so sympathetic.

For me, the question is, if is so concerned about all needy people, some of whom is benefitting, how could they do something that would compromise every single beneficiary? And just for the sake of some assets (plus a fair amount of spite, jealousy, bloody-mindedness, prejudice or anything else that drives such maneuvers)? Shouldn't their donors say 'hey, why do you take our money but continue to impoverish the poor, stigmatize the stigmatized, abandoned again those who have been abandoned?'

If donors don't do that, they are simply accepting that development is just an exercise in identifying some projects that can tick the right boxes, and getting on with the job. So is that all development is? As a person still trying to figure out what development is, I certainly don't accept that it is, effectively, an administrative and PR effort entirely motivated by political and/or commercial interests, with no intentions worthy of a human being as a human being. If development is just another business, and just as unscrupulous as it needs to be, I think many people working in the field will be looking for another way of fulfilling their original intentions.

I'll return to this theme soon and I hope to be clearer about; are their intentions honorable, or is all the 'we're a church-based organization and we follow the teachings of the bible' just posturing, just a way of keeping the donor funds flowing. Because I've heard many claims about 'following the teachings of the bible' and (sharp intake of breath), some of them sounded quite hollow. But that's just my view.


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