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August 15, 2012

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August 15, 2012

What can we learn from a really annoying paper on NGOs and development?

August 15, 2012
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I’ve got a paper I want you to read, particularly if you work for an NGO or other lobbying outfit. Not because it’s good – far from it – but ngo logosbecause reading it and (if you work for an NGO) observing your rising tide of irritation will really help you understand how those working in the private sector, government or the multilateral system feel when they read a generalized and ill-informed NGO attack on their work.

The paper in question is from a reputable institution (Manchester University’s Brooks World Poverty Institute) and authors (Nicola Banks and David Hulme), and is about ‘the role of NGOs and civil society in development and poverty reduction’.  Here’s the abstract:

‘Since the late 1970s, NGOs have played an increasingly prominent role in the development sector, widely praised for their strengths as innovative and grassroots-driven organisations with the desire and capacity to pursue participatory and people-centred forms of development and to fill gaps left by the failure of states across the developing world in meeting the needs of their poorest citizens. While levels of funding for NGO programmes in service delivery and advocacy work have increased alongside the rising prevalence and prominence of NGOs, concerns regarding their legitimacy have also increased. There are ongoing questions of these comparative advantages, given their growing distance away from low-income people and communities and towards their donors. In addition, given the non-political arena in which they operate, NGOs have had little participation or impact in tackling the more structurally-entrenched causes and manifestations of poverty, such as social and political exclusion, instead effectively depoliticising poverty by treating it as a technical problem that can be ‘solved’. How, therefore, can NGOs ‘return to their roots’ and follow true participatory and experimental paths to empowerment? As this paper explores, increasingly, NGOs are recognised as only one, albeit important, actor in civil society. Success in this sphere will require a shift away from their role as service providers to that of facilitators and supporters of broader civil society organisations through which low-income communities themselves can engage in dialogue and negotiations to enhance their collective assets and capabilities.’

A fairly standard critique, and one with which I have some sympathy (apart from the unforgivably long paragraph). So why is it so annoying? (and I realize I will probably come across as just another thin-skinned NGO prig, but what’s the world coming to if you can’t indulge in cathartic rants on a blog?). Here are some of the irritants that I think we NGO types should note and avoid in our own work:

Sweeping generalizations: there’s a standard couple of paras on ‘hey they’re all different!’, but from then on it’s NGOs are this and NGOs are that, with evidence-free assertions across geography, scale and role. No acknowledgement of differences in approach, of some NGOs being better/worse than others. From NGI (non-governmental individual) to large transnational organizations like Oxfam, NGOs are just one amorphous blob (cf ‘the private sector’ in NGO diatribes). The authors’ defence is that this is just a chapter for a student textbook and so has to be a very general ‘synthesis of syntheses’. Just as long as you don’t expect it to describe reality, I guess.

Teaching grandmother to suck eggs (yes, for non English readers, that is one of our weirder sayings): nothing more irritating than having an academic, in ringing tones, telling you the blindingly obvious like ‘while NGOs comprise part of civil society, they are far from synonymous with civil society’ – NSS (no shit, Sherlock). The authors pull the student textbook defence again on this one – it makes me rather worry what our students are being fed (but at least explains why several have come up to me after talks to say how confused they are because they like what I’ve said, yet have been previously taught that all NGOs are evil/incompetent pawns of imperialism).

Argument by assertion, rather than evidence: if you repeat often enough that ‘concerns of financial sustainability and organizational

The case for the prosecution

The case for the prosecution

survival drive the erosion of an NGO’s original values and mission’, maybe the reader will eventually swallow it, despite the lack of nuance or evidence. The authors’ defence is that the paper summarizes ‘the best elements of an enormous academic literature’. The trouble with that is that, like an NGO writing a paper based exclusively on other NGO reports, the process acts as a huge echo chamber, magnifying normative assumptions and prejudices, and bidding farewell to any dwindling link to reality.

Dodgy stats: Citing secondary sources from 2000 and 2006, ‘NGOs depend on donor funds for around 85-90% of their income’. What, all NGOs? (certainly isn’t true of Oxfam). To be fair, the authors promise to sort this one out (but what if I hadn’t bothered to write this? Those poor students again.)

Assuming all NGOs are either venal (endlessly pursuing their own expansion and ‘professionalization’ – which apparently is a Really Bad Thing) or stupid (not realizing that they can’t succeed): Nothing alienates more than a truly condescending tone based on very little actual knowledge. Over the years, I’ve seen some spectacular NGO finger wagging alienate potentially sympathetic politicians – this is right up there.

No sign of them actually interviewing anyone who’s worked for an NGO in the last 5 years. The authors’ response was that both authors had worked with NGOs over the years, and they’d drawn on writings by ex-NGO ‘practitioner-scholars’. So if you’ve worked with government/private sector, no need to check your analysis with them before slagging them off? Interesting. Get ready for my paper on ‘academics’…….. The authors pull the standard ‘it’s just a working paper and can be fixed’ defence. Sorry, but if you’re serious about feedback you have to actively go out and ask for it.

No case studies of NGOs doing the things they are being accused of. Not one. I asked them about this too. Response? Weirdly, the authors argue that eschewing case studies (in favour of slagging off all NGOs indiscriminately) is somehow an act of kindness. Not sure I follow that one.

I could go on – ubiquitous aunt sallies, lazy use of the passive tense (‘it is argued that….’) – but you get the picture. As far as I can tell, they have not solicited, or read, any internal or published NGO work on these issues (and boy, there’s plenty of it – we agonize constantly about effectiveness, accountability etc). Nor have they sent the draft to any NGO people to review (unlike this blogpost, which both authors have commented on).

Gosh I feel better for that…….. But back to my main point. If you work for an NGO and want to influence, rather than irritate, read this paper and monitor your reactions.

I think I may be hearing from the authors……


  1. Some NGOs in Sweden have decided to get better contact with researchers specialised on development cooperation and the role of NGOs, and spread their work. This is to try to give more quality to the debate about development coooperation in Sweden. But reading this text is a bit discouraging, if researchers can write this kind of generalized and evidence-free texts…

  2. I think we can include one further ‘irritant’ to avoid on future blogs, that of reading a paper through fire-tinted spectacles and overlooking the paper’s overall argument. We’re glad that by the end of it that we’ve made Duncan ‘feel better’…but it’s a pity he did not take the time to see the paper through.

    The paper is not and does not aim to be ‘an attack’ on NGOs. Instead it looks at the problems they face now in living up to their role as civil society organisations – primarily that given the way they are structured and operate they struggle to deal with the root causes of poverty, namely power and inequality. It then considers how best to move forwards in tackling those problems in a practical way. The solution is not NGOs talking about ‘empowerment’, but about finding new ways to structure their operations so that the very process, as well as the outcomes, leads to that goal.

    The problem is that as NGOs have become increasingly prominent they have been largely treated as synonymous with civil society organisations (hence our need to point out the ‘blindingly obvious’), but they are not sufficiently socially-embedded to reach their full potential as civil society organisations.
    The paper’s argument is that this cannot happen unless NGOs re-balance their role, which is tipped strongly in favour of service provision that proposes ‘solutions’ to poverty without addressing inequality or issues of power and redistribution. This would enable them to become more supportive of and strengthen ‘active citizenship’ at the local-level, thereby facilitating greater state-citizen interaction and pressurising governments to be more responsive, accountable and effective. The paper does not argue that these problems are those of NGOs alone, but also of the broader aid chain which must advance and support this agenda if aid is to become effective not only in meeting targets, but also in leading to deeper and long-lasting structural change.

    These conclusions are not the paper’s ‘unique selling point’. Our confusion reading this is why it has generated such a heated response from Duncan when his book, From Poverty to Power, is based on the well-founded premise that poverty is a political condition, and that solutions too, must be based upon transformations and redistributions of power. So why such disconnect? A short two-page section on ‘Making Aid Work’ towards the book’s grand finale argues that such redistributions are best pursued through ‘a combination of active citizenship and effective states’, but falls short of discussing how to radically overhaul the aid system that remains ‘hampered by politics, arrogance and self-interest’ (p378) – perhaps because this requires taking a critical perspective of the whole aid chain, including NGOs, their operations and their activities?

    We can sympathise with his comments regarding generalisations across an incredibly broad sector – there are, indeed, entire academic articles on the problems of ‘typologising’ NGOs within such complexity, but repeating this would not add significantly to the knowledge already out there. That doesn’t mean though, that we shouldn’t also look at NGOs as a sector. Rather than focus on large international NGOs, the focus in most of the paper’s discussion is on those best-placed to work with low-income groups and civil society organisations, which given their cultural, linguistic, and geographic comparative advantages lie with smaller, local NGOs.

    The paper emerged from a literature review of the sector, which limited our scope to open access and readily available literature. But, the good news is that in recent years there has emerged a much stronger evidence base that is both cross-sectoral (overcoming some of the earlier critiques of the case-studied based approach to NGO research and its limitations) and written by a diverse authorship of academics, academic-practitioners, practitioners and ex-practitioners, drawing upon a healthy diversity of work and personal experience as well as research findings. This has given us a rich and evidence-based insight into the sector. Trying to rewrite what constitutes research and ‘genuine knowledge’ (Duncan’s words, in an email to us) by claiming that substantive literature reviews cannot be considered evidence regardless of the depth and breadth of peer-reviewed journals, published books, and other sources they draw upon, seems remarkable to us.

    It certainly sounds like this could be the start of a ‘healthy’ debate, and we would be keen to hear further comments or thoughts on the working paper, especially in light of Duncan’s concerns (but do read before you blog!).

    For NGO colleagues, does the paper irritate you too or are you concerned that NGOs talk the talk of’empowerment’ without walking the walk of empowerment? Does this reopen Chambers’ debate on Negative Academics and Positive Practitioners?

    1. Thanks Niki, love the fire-tinted specs, but I started out reading the paper out of genuine interest in the issue – the specs came from the reading (and I’ve read it at least three times, as I tend not to do snark lightly). As I said at the outset, my problem is not with the conclusions (which do indeed echo some of my own work), but the methodology.

      Your comment repeats some of the things I critiqued in the post, eg use of the passive tense: ‘they have been largely treated as synonymous with civil society organisations’ – who by? certainly not by Oxfam or any of its partners, who are quite clear about the difference.

      The problem of generalization is interesting – you say you avoided naming names because you didn’t want to diss particular NGOs. But the result is that you make sweeping statements such as NGOs’ need to grapple ‘with the root causes of poverty, namely power and inequality’, that are indeed ‘blindingly obvious’ and the staple of internal debates in vast swathes of NGOs, whether large or small. the result is not only an aunt sally/straw man etc, but also a not very implicit attack on NGOs as a whole. Hence my annoyance.

      Finally, you argue that this paper constitutes a ‘substantive literature review’. I really don’t see how this can be considered substantive when it ignores all knowledge generated by NGOs themselves, either through interviews or reading their own massive literature on issues of power and inequality, and the challenges of relationships with CSOs.

      But maybe I just need a holiday. Let’s see what the readers have to say and yes, please don’t take the blog on trust, read the paper before commenting.

  3. Duncan you are annoyed at academics interfering in or distorting the work of NGOs. I have long been concerned that NGOs (Oxfam more than most) have been creating massive and practically irriversible problems in Secondary and Primary Schools with their biaised and agenda led campaigns and resources.

    I will be recommending the Banks and Hulme report to teachers across the land as it is a breath of fresh air in a school environment in which criticism of NGOs is tantamount to defecating in a nun’s porridge. Thanks for making me aware of it.

  4. Here’s an example of one of Oxfam’s resources that exasperates and annoys me in the same way that the Banks and Hulme report annoys you Duncan (althought the Oxfam resource is far more pernicious:


    I fully support the fundamental point behind the video and I think intergovernmental aid is vital and often very effective.
    I am against the gross oversimplification and the failure to acknowledge any vested interest. UK kids must not be treated like this as they will believe what they are told in all of its inaccuracy and cannot present fiery blog ripostes in the way that us adults can.

    Therefore, we must appeal to the likes of Oxfam to be as self-critical as they are critical and we must encourage and enable teachers to identify the biais and distortion in NGO resources. Thanks for helping in this Banks and Hulme.

    All credit to you Duncan for airing what is a crucial debate – we all have the same goals and intentions, but must continue to be frank and open in our differences.

  5. Although I routinely read Duncan’s blog and often agree, I do not usually leave comments (sorry, Duncan). However, this somewhat adversarial exchange of views has prompted me to make an exception. I spent a full ten years working for NGOs before I joined Government. From this experience and my different perspectives, I cannot but draw one conclusion: The working paper is effectively irrelevant because of its sweeping generalisations. It compares apples with oranges. It also ignores the fact that most NGOs – irrespective of fruit type – have more interesting things to say when you bother talking to them directly than when you just plow your way through established academic literature, which particularly in the case of NGOs tends to always get the same things wrong. It should also be noted that among existing literature, in the case of NGOs the grey one is usually of more interest. But it is also more work to view and digest it.
    That said, I would be much more interested in a differentiated debate about how NGOs – not all of whom have the luxury to not depend on donor funding – can manage the tightrope act better of “not biting the hand that feeds them” AND at the same time put a constructive mirror to what donors do, fund and believe in. NGOs and their grassroots civil society partners are usually (unfortunately not always) much better placed than donors (and academics) to provide a reality check on what works for poverty reduction. In my experience, many NGOs are struggling with this role, but it is vital for the success of what I believe to be our joint effort: to make hunger and poverty history.

  6. I agree with the previous post- the paper does just compare apples with oranges. I think it’s really important to look at things using the right scale.

    I don’t think grouping NGOs together is helpful- unless you add extra things in as well. So either differentiate (as Iris suggests) or- my suggestion- go broader.

    Why not write a paper comparing the changes in delivery of ‘public services/public goods’ within developing countries?

    Sometimes these services will be delivered by NGOs, sometimes by governments, sometimes by civil society. The ratios between the groups will change. Analyse that.

    The paper starts from the assumption that NGOs should change/adapt- but maybe sometimes they just need to hand over responsibility to national governments/local civil society and get out of the way.

  7. This sounds like a tempest in the proverbial teapot, though with a serious point boiling underneath. Development NGOs like Oxfam struggle to influence the drivers of social change – wow, who knew! A one-page summary of a literature review over-generalizes – blimey, this man’s a genius! Academics and practitioners annoy each-other – as they always have and always will since they have different roles and interests. The serious point is that an exchange like this, which seems overly-defensive on both sides, points to the need for safe spaces in which real dialogue could take place. If Oxfam and others are producing large amounts of their own good stuff, then why isn’t it shared more widely and available for independent critique? If academics like BWPI are conducting giant literature reviews, why don’t they share the results in more rigorous and useful ways than this? Different sides will still argue with each-other of course, but the arguments might lead somewhere.

    1. Fair points Mike, and this blog is after all part of a wider effort to engage in a less defensive way with these debates. Particularly like the safe space suggestion – not difficult really, just involve the subject of the research in the research, which I would have thought was pretty research methodology 101. But I must say, over the years have found myself invariably underwhelmed by most of the academic research I have read on NGOs (apart from yours, of course). I can’t honestly say I’ve learned anything as useful as I get from the internal agonizing sessions. What I don’t know is whether this is particular to research on NGOs, is just me being defensive, or wd apply equally to research on other sectors (private sector, multilaterals etc). What do you reckon?

  8. Interesting they didnt cite the report from a series of conversations among BINGOs that took place in 2008. Admittedly it is not particularly academic or well written, but it is evidence that many in BINGOs are aware of and trying to respond to some of the critiques that are often overly simplistic….

    “This Practice Paper aims to contribute to ongoing reflections and debates taking place among aid practitioners about if, and how, big international NGOs (BINGOs) can be more effective agents of ‘progressive social change’. It summarises a series of conversations that took place among seven members of the Institute of Development Studies Participation Power and Social Change team and staff from eight BINGOs between July 2008 and March 2009. During the conversations, participants considered how internal and external factors influence the potential of BINGOs to contribute to shifts in power relations; greater realisation of rights; and enhanced economic, political and social justice for poor and vulnerable people. All of this was encapsulated in the term ‘progressive social change’. At the end of the process, participants agreed that there is considerable scope for many BINGOs to pursue a more progressive agenda. They recommended that similar conversations need to continue and branch out, both in topical range and in participants in order to stimulate the kind of reflection and organisational learning required to do so. This paper includes accounts of discussions, case studies shared by participants, inputs from academic critiques of BINGOs and practical tools to feed into such deliberations. It explores the types of changes that BINGOs are trying to achieve, the approaches they use – their models of change, and challenges and tensions commonly perceived to prevent BINGOs pursuing more radical social change agendas. Provocative questions are raised as a means to help practitioners identify changes that their organisations need to make in order to more actively pursue social, economic and political justice. In some instances inspiring examples from BINGO participants suggest means to do so. References to organisational theory, meeting discussions and BINGO case studies are used to interrogate assumptions about how large complex organisations behave and to identify lessons that may be used to inform efforts to transform BINGOs into more effective agents of progressive social change.

  9. Regarding ‘research methodology 101′ – “just involve the subject of the research in the research”

    This is common in some disciplines such as anthropology but not so common in others such as economics and political science.

    The idea of involving people in something that concerns them is something that development agencies and practitioners are particularly weak on.

  10. tks Duncan, I think it’s a general issue about knowledge and knowledge-creation – how different kinds of knowledge, different producers and different processes fit together, or don’t (I’m very into ecosystem analogies these days!). So that’s where I would start, using NGOs as the frame, although one could use anything really, I agree. I think that would be more useful and productive than whether “a is better than b” in terms of internal/external, academic/practitioner, micro/macro, quantitative/qualitative, stories/data etc. etc. Maybe some of the leaders in the NGO and academic/NGO world, like you and Hivos, and people at Manchester and the LSE and ISS, could put something together on this? Or the DSA, which used to do this kind of thing and I thought were having another go recently? Oh, and pay me a lorryload of cash to speak at it of course….

  11. I don’t know if the post is a rant. I think it’s at least emblematic of a very real and widespread problem that needs changing. My comment, however, will definitely be a rant. Apologies in advance if you endure.

    It appears to me as a spectator that the common norm in the grand political arena is that actors -be that NGOs, academics, government, policy wonks etc- present their arguments in reflection to caricatures that no one will recognise reality or themselves in. It at least seems that these are the ones rewarded.

    Economists are attributed with minds that know of no other incentives than monetary. Politicians with minds of indifferent puppets. NGOs and anthropologists as bongo-playing sophists.

    While these wrapped, packed and ready-to-go arguments or analysis may have their qualities in being well-suited for power-point prsentations, I can’t see how it’s not fatal for constructive dialogue and progress, if the interests or people you’re supposedly disagreeing with are likely to laugh off the criticisms.

    (Any comments on why (if so) it recently took 5-6 posts before the debate on this blog about the role for markets and governments in education actually got interesting?)

    I can see the many incentives driving this state of affairs. Heck, one (among many) reason for my own status as an eternal (soon-to-graduate) student is that it has been a real struggle and an immense amount of work to insist on acknowledging different positions on their own terms, encompass the complexities and move on from there.

    But, I don’t get why we’re accepting this.

    The reason I choose to comment, aside from letting off steam, is that the post made me think of the video recording of the conversation about Theories of Change between Duncan and Simon Batchelor. In it, you discuss how ToC tend to scare people away. I have yet to understand if ToC is any different from the philosophy of science. And the philosophy of science in higher education certainly seems to have scared people away to the point where it’s hardly taught anymore.

    So, I’ve started to worry that part of the reason we’re accepting this use of aunt sallies and strawmen in arguments -if we’re even aware- is that people generally aren’t trained in a language which allows them to recognise and lay out the assumptions about the world and what we can know about it that we all base our further thinking and work on.

    Lets hope Theories of Change (or whatever we need to call it to make people less afraid of ontology and epistemology) catches on. I think there’re big rewards if it does.


  12. One reason I have decided not to support Oxfam in particular is that I have made several estimates over the years to ask questions about content posted on blogs (not this one!) or on their website, and they never responded to a single inquiry. My questions were genuine questions, challenging but hoping to have a useful conversation from which I could learn something rather than to make points at Oxfam’s (or anyone else’s) expense. The culture of intolerance begins at home, Duncan: you may wish to consult with other members of your own organization before you get bent out of shape about such criticism. It seems eminently appropriate in the present context.

    1. Thanks James (just to break our duck on responding to comments). Sounds like ineptitute and/or lousy systems rather than intolerance, but will see what I can do – it IS hard to respond to every blog comment, though (I certainly have to pick and choose).

  13. I sense that the discussion is reaching its end life, but I would like to reiterate that the hyper critical note that began the debate should be tempered by some self-criticism. Go on Duncan, show us that you can get as good as goood as you can give!

  14. Yes, the paper is a little irritating. But it is also a chapter in a book that looks like it is marketed as a student text. So broad generalizations are to be expected.

    That said, I think that this kind of friction is far from unique when critical academics research organizations (David Mosse has a great paper on these issues: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9655.2006.00371.x/full. Sorry about the paywall.)

    I think that if there is an irritation here it is that the voice of the chapter seems to suggest that it is speaking to ‘us’ but not with ‘us.’

    So here’s another voice for a safe space for academics and practitioners to come together. As a small step towards creating that space, I suggest that academics must to be willing to step outside of a world of simple typologies and binaries (big D and little d development is a bit tired, eh?) and practitioners have to be willing to ignore our strategic communications teams and commit the discussions that we have over beer, tea whatever, to the written record, warts and all.

  15. You’re bound to find a few token ‘warts’ on your otherwise perfect body with a quick look in the mirror. How about a proper internal and external check up? When was the last time Oxfam went to the integrity doctor? It might be very useful to take an objective perspective on an outsider’s opinion.

  16. This has been an interesting if depressing discussion.

    I think the dilemma is this: on the whole, the research/knowledge/evidence base on development NGOs (what they are, how they work, what they achieve) is still surprisingly weak. For a range of reasons.

    This is partly the fault of academics/researchers and the ways they go about things, but not entirely. It is also because NGOs – who despite what Duncan says about Oxfam’s research and reflection – are not always open with information and are generally (and understandably) impatient/sceptical about what research can achieve.

    Yes, this is probably a good subject to talk about in more depth in a ‘safe space’ – but what is it that we all need to be safe from, exactly?

    1. Good question David. Not sure perceived risk (eg of exposing our failings) is the main deterrent (tho it might be in some quarters). My fear would be more, would what we learn be sufficient return on the large investment of time? In some areas, I think the answer is an unequivocal yes, but they tend to be with academics who are experts in things we want to know more about (complexity, political economy, climate change etc), rather than those bent on studying ‘us’ as NGOs, where the timesuck issue seems greater (and the reward less certain).

  17. Any organisation should spend at least the same amount of time on self-criticism as it does on criticism of others – I cannot understand how criticising others is seen as a valuable use of time and self-ctiticism is a ‘timesuck’ with few benifits. Surely this is the epitomy of a specious argument and the root of all ideological self destruction.

  18. Don’t want to get all defensive again , but to comment on 16/17 above. As someone who helps reply to enquiries on OxfamGB’s behalf , I’d say we reply to every question we get to enquiries@oxfam.org.uk. Time considerations apply to us too , but we’re simply here to reply to queries, unlike the blog author who likely has 1000’s of other things to do too. Please give us a try if you are stuck for a response

  19. Duncan,

    First off – it is refreshing to hear such passion and a visceral reaction that lets people get things out on the table. There is not enough of that in development, and you should be applauded for that.

    However, you may have jumped the gun in writing your blog. The way that you have responded to this paper reveals a little more than at first meets the eye. Humour me:

    At the risk of simplification, you are basically saying that you agree with the broad conclusions and issues bar:
    – the generalizations (which in my view are to some degree inevitable when you try to draw broad conclusions – and broad conclusions are also important, albeit flawed, for taking on some of the bigger questions around development) – this is a working paper, I have read this and the authors are not saying that this is the final word but is a review of what has been relatively rigorously documented (hence drawing on academic literature heavily)
    – the methodology, including the fact that they did not use NGO literature (which is often not rigorous research). Anyway, perhaps the authors should state more clearly the strengths and limitations of their methodology – which is true for every paper.

    Am I right?

    If so, then you are missing the (critical) point: you must engage with the substance – the argument and its implications.

    If not, you really do sound ridiculously over-defensive and have provided, up to now, no substantive way to convince me (who works in development and a big supporter of Oxfam) that their paper is not, on the whole (with exceptions like every paper) on the mark. My experience in a number of developing countries ALSO WORKING FOR NGOS and interviewing thousands of NGO and donor beneficiaries tends to bear it out; and the literature does too.

    The paper is also sympathetic to certain KINDS of NGO in many ways; as am I. You/we do great jobs, with passion, we care, we do (sometimes) make really important sustainable changes etc. (especially when it comes to short-term humanitarian assistance, and perhaps less so in long-term development)
    It, however, does talk about the systemic and structural difficulties NGOs face in fostering real development and empowerment. At the risk of simplification, one example might be that Oxfam should have a strategy for writing itself completely out of business, globally – but I have not seen one yet. And we all know that NGOs (and others) are often chasing funds to implement the next innovative project that – often – has limited impact and limited sustainability.

    Let’s be totally frank here, Duncan – a collection of success stories purposefully selected (like your own ‘bias’, methodologically flawed book) could be EASILY outweighed by an honest collection of failure stories.

    I do agree that there should be a distinction drawn between kinds of NGO but I still cannot hear much substance from you to challenge the overall conclusions drawn (however they got there).

    I know that it must be very annoying to hear what seem like high-minded academics (which I don’t think they are) taking pot-shots, but it seems like you really are ‘protesting too much’…
    You have taken a defensive shot at the wrong target….and I’d like to hear a more grounded evidence-based (where possible) response that takes aim at the right target.

    Signed Anon (apologies for being anonymous but I have good reason!)

  20. Corrections to the Anon post:
    – Interviewing ‘hundreds’ not thousands of beneficiaries.
    – Your book is brilliant – but it is has methodological bias (like all research!) – flawed is not the right choice of words.

  21. I heard a someone close to Oxfam saying that if the general public knew the minute percentage of their donations to Oxfam that were spent in the “Third World” as opposed to the running of Oxfam [payment of salaries, admin etc.] they would stop giving. The explanation was that the majority of Oxfam’s funding comes from DfID and cannot be spent on organisational costs so the running-costs have to come from somewhere. Is this true?

  22. I took a masters in humanitarianism, hoping to get closer to the sector, but what I learnt of above all else was the huge – and unhelpful – divide between academics and practitioners.

    It is interesting that you acknowledge and identify your knee-jerk reaction, whilst being unsure of what to do with it! As arrogant as academics can be, it is too often the response of NGOs to argue, rather than debate; to defy rather than engage.

    That said, it does seem like a fairly mundane article, of the type that has come, and come again, since at least the nineties. Clearly it is not helpful to talk in absolutes such as ‘NGOs have lost the plot’, or ‘what we need is participatory development’ or post-participatory development, or whatever it is we have now.

    The criticisms raised in this paper are questions that every NGO needs to ask of themselves at every turn, calmly and in conversation with as many as possible.

  23. Where to start? There is so much to say but I will stick to a few bullet points:
    1. The kind of article written is a useful overview of the literature and research available and as such is a valid piece to engage with rather than deride
    2. Like Mike and others I have tried for over 25 years to get NGOs and academics to talk together, with some tiny successes along the way. There are barriers on both sides but the dismissal by NGOs of external critiques, which is so common, makes having a discussion very difficult.
    3. AsDavid Lewis reminds us NGOs are often untransparent and while interesting ideas/work go on behind closed doors, little is in the public domain and research with them is challenging.
    4. Many critical and valuable reviews, evaluations etc , both internal and external, exist within NGOs but few share them externally and the publications arising have often been heavily edited
    5. Case studies are dismissed as anecdotal or unrepresentative; attempts at wider analysis are seen as generalised – what kind of evidence would in fact draw people into a constructive debate about the multiple issues facing the sector today?
    6. How does belittling people and their work enable any kind of serious learning or reflection about what NGOs do well/badly and what is changing and what needs to change?
    7. So many NGO staff will discuss ad infinitum behind closed doors but as a generalisation I find to be valid very few feel able to speak out about concerns and issues (some raised in the Hulme paper) in wider forums.
    8. It feels such a dead end to slag off serious questions rather than trying to engage – with evidence- in some of the valid questions being raised.
    9. There is internal research and reviews existing in several large and medium sized UK NGOs that would support particular points being made in the paper, and it would be good to start having a debate about them and sharing experience and evidence on all aspects ~(for and against) – rather than dismissing everything as annoying

  24. At least, no one still hasn’t said bought priesthood or ivory towers. 😉

    As unfair as it may or may not be to have this conversation in the context of a specific paper, does the blog post not address a general issue … on more than one side?

    That was at least what I got from reading the post – not that all the paper’s conclusions aren’t probably true for some NGOs and some for all NGOs. What I’m about to write are general observations. It isn’t comments to the paper.

    Is it not so that standard practice in research is in fact not to discuss the analytical or interpretive framework with informants and subjects of the research? And increasingly leaving it implicit rather than explicit in the text?

    Is it not so that quite a bit of research is carried out in the context of ideal types or statistical averages that are (easily conceived as) irrelevant to the individual?

    Is it not so that quite a bit of research, for simplicity, assumes away or at least freezes ‘other factors’ that are in fact highly dynamic and fundamental for the context?

    If so, is this not problematic in the interest of research up-take?

    I think that is at least as legitimate a discussion to have, as why NGOs are so often immune to research findings.

  25. This debate is fundamentally about openness, transparency, accountability and genuine engagement with the poor. My question, [where does the money come from and where does it go to?], goes to the heart of this debate but is initially batted away and then censored by the moderator. Interesting. Though this post will, presumably, meet a similar fate.

  26. Duncan, if you are looking for a critical take on NGOs that features detailed case studies (including Oxfam’s dubious role in the anti-globalization movement), I humbly suggest you check out:

    Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism by Nikolas Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay


    I don’t know how things are in the UK, but if Canadian IDS students were “taught that all NGOs are evil/incompetent pawns of imperialism” we might not have bothered to write this book in the first place.

  27. Hi to many friends contributing to this, at times, over-heated but also rather familiar, exchange. Part of the academic problem is having to refer to a wide range of organisations in terms of a negative (i.e. non-government). We need more sophisticated terminology for the needed sophisticated debate. Also, given Edwards and Hulme ‘Too Close for Comfort’ in 1996, or my own ‘States without Citizens: the problem of the Franchise State’ 1994, this feels like re-hash from old protagonists. Obviously INTRAC has engaged with these isssues over 2 decades now, especially with neo-liberal governments seeking contractors for their aid policies–making a longstanding mockery of the ‘non’. With my DSA President hat on, assuming Council colleagues agree, perhaps the 2013 one day conference could be the neutral space for a setpiece debate? Finally, the CIVICUS indicators of social capital density do offer more challenging criteria for ‘N’GO performance away from short term aid results to ones with more structural significance. It is interesting that the Dutch government is prepared to have its aid support to NGOs evaluated in this way. So let’s get into the substance of the issue, and away from the rhetoric. And hats off to all protagonists for tickling this one up again.

  28. 41 – thanks for reposting, Ken. Interestingly, my response to your original post was censored. Quite why is beyond me. It pointed out that published accounts of large businesses are uniformly opaque on matters of detail largely because they tend to deal with global sums. So the Oxfam accounts do not provide an answer to the question posed long ago in 32. Those accounts [which I have looked at] do not demonstrate with open or transparent detail, precisely how the money that comes in from public donations [as opposed to DfID] is spent. So, the questions posed in 32 remains unanswered.

  29. OK – reposted from above – happy to deal with any questions via enquiries@oxfam.org.uk

    Don’t want to get all defensive again , but to comment on 16/17 above. As someone who helps reply to enquiries on OxfamGB’s behalf , I’d say we reply to every question we get to enquiries@oxfam.org.uk. Time considerations apply to us too , but we’re simply here to reply to queries, unlike the blog author who likely has 1000’s of other things to do too. Please give us a try if you are stuck for a response

  30. I read that offending report and didn’t find the problem. It seems to suggest that some NGOs are so large as to replace normal government functions. That allows governments to avoid their own responsibilities. It also said that some NGOs work closely with governance and democracy issues and must give up some of their autonomy in order not to be thrown out of country by a government that is not in total agreement with foreign plans to reorder things. Further, it said that it’s time we start looking at NGOs (they do receive a great deal of government money) to see what, exactly, they are doing.

    A few years ago I consulted with Disney World (Florida) on their emergency managment plan. Essentially, they had no plan because the corporate culture told them that nothing bad ever happens at Disney because it’s a magical place. They’d bought into their own marketing too deeply and didn’t recognize the business issues that might attend a hurricane or terrorist incident that left dead people in the parking lot.

  31. NGOs or Non- governmental organizations made their first appearance in the mid of the nineteenth century, just after the World War II. The basic aim of forming these organisations was to provide support to the common people who had suffered a major loss in the post-World War scenario. Since that time NGOs have become increasingly influential in the development of the society and the people living in it.

    The role of the NGOs in the developing world is quite critical, their responsibilities and work spans across different levels, and fields; and in order to perform all those tasks with utmost accuracy and efficiency NGOs are quickly becoming more structured and organized. These non- governmental and on-profit organizations mainly run on donations and charities, and they work with the motto of effective development at the grass root level, which can bring a radical change in the progress of the society as a whole. To know about the top ten NGO s browse various online sites like https://www.sparo.com/.

    With time, the country has experienced rapid growth; but, the growth has not been able to touch every level of the society in the same way. On one hand, when more and more people are becoming habituated with an annual foreign trip, a major part of the society is hardly able to earn the bread for a day. NGOs take significant steps to reach out to these grass root level and help them to have a better life through their own development.

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