An uncomfortable conversation about the gulf between CSOs and the ultra-marginalized. Can it be bridged?

Spent an enjoyable day last week in The Hague (see yesterday’s post). No I wasn’t on trial, I was opening a conference on ‘Pushing the Boundaries in Advocacy for Inclusion’ (my slides here). The good thing about opening an event is that you can then relax and listen and learn. And as this was a day on ultra marginalized groups – mainly people with disabilities (PWDs) – not my area, I learned a lot. Some impressions:

Not sure if it is something about the Netherlands, or about the disability movement, but there is a strikingly prominent role for academic research and evidence in shaping policy and raising questions for advocates and campaigners. Take a look at the work of the Breaking Down Barriers research programme, where Willem Elbers works, or the Participatory Assessment of Development programme led by Ton Dietz, who also spoke at the conference.

That research has revealed some uncomfortable findings on the inability of NGOs and the wider aid sector to really reach the ultra poor (including a PWDs). Some Dutch NGOs have said OK, let’s give up and work with entrepreneurs instead; others have decided to double down.

Me banging on about something or other. Credit:
John van Hamond

But what they then find is often ‘advocacy capture’ by local, self-proclaimed spokespeople for various hyper-marginalized groups, who are in fact very far away from the ultra poor. In those circumstances, what looks (from a distance) like localization can actually exacerbate (not tackle) tokenism and invisibility. Ouch.

Willem Elbers’ research finds that advocacy supported by donors and INGOs tends to assume that projects drive change, while overlooking marginalised people and their movements. Yet, those movements are often so weak and fragmented, eg between people of different impairment types, that it’s hard to build solidarity. For example, visually impaired people are often better organized and resourced, and not that keen to cooperate with other groups of PWDs.

Elbers argues that outside NGOs can help overcome that by ‘convening and brokering’ conversations between people with different kinds of disability and non-PWD groups, leading to innovative forms of alliance.

Willem also pointed out that the emphasis on political and legal change in current advocacy debates obscures the importance of much-needed personal change of persons with disabilities. Many PWDs have internalized the societal view that ‘disability is inability’. Their low sense of self-worth prevents them from questioning their situation while limiting their assertiveness and mobilization.

Clarice Gargard, our super-energetic MC for the day
Credit: John van Hamond

The other thing that happens at conferences on a topic where you know little is that you have some jaw-dropping moments, like the Nigerian activist who came up to me in the break and told me about her organization’s work with people with dementia, who have no-one to care for them, and when they wander off, risk being accused of witchcraft and lynched. Blimey. Anyone know if this is widespread?

The honest self-doubt extended across the whole day (these are my kind of people). It revealed some inherent contradictions in the way social movements emerge and evolve. There seems to be an evolutionary cycle here, with drivers and risks at different stages:

Social Movements cohere around short-term protests, or emerging new identities (often splintering off from other host movements and organizations). Others focus on long-term survival and self-help outside the state.

As they mature, many decide to turn to long-term advocacy, for which they need to institutionalise to ensure capacity, stability, sustainability etc. Advocacy requires charismatic leaders who can connect with decision makers and the public (another of Elbers’ research findings). But that carries risks of organizations becoming ‘Briefcase NGOs’ chasing the next grant, or of political capture by political parties or leaders.

Is there a vaccine that can prevent this kind of decay? Institutional design and the level of inclusivity and internal democracy must help. But another key issue is the way these transitional organizations are funded – whether the arrival of aid money exacerbates hierarchies and power inequalities.

The cartoon version – when did Conference Cartoonists become a thing?

I fear the aid business has not done well in this regard, contributing to the erosion of social movements, and in some places to their replacement by (or transformation into) NGOs that are more about job creation (‘carpe per diem’) than social change.

How to do better? Many of the usual answers, I guess – give money in small, unconditional amounts, not big, heavily tied grants that squeeze the life out of an organization. Focus more on the ‘enabling environment’ than specific projects, eg by investing in new generations of leaders, or building the capacity for domestic fund raising (to reduce aid dependence).

Overall, it feels like the aid sector is at a crossroads. I hear the same criticisms and pleas for change in many separate discussions, which I faithfully recount on this blog. Two options: find a way to turn these insights into practice, and do aid better; or ignore the evidence, carry on with business as usual that does less good (and some harm) and risk discrediting the whole enterprise.

And here’s the full conference cartoon. Anyone remember Where’s Wally?

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14 Responses to “An uncomfortable conversation about the gulf between CSOs and the ultra-marginalized. Can it be bridged?”
  1. Bezhukov

    The conference cartoons are useless things; if you weren’t at the conference they don’t tell you anything beyond platitudes, and if you were at the conference there’s no point looking at them for more than a few seconds. They’re window dressing; and they all look the same!

    On the women being driven out for witchcraft after showing signs of dementia or other mental illness, there was this photo collection in the Guardian yesterday:

    • Silva

      Conference cartoons are not worse than many conference reports. 🙂 Actually, for visual people… they are much more informative. We should be much more open and welcoming of new possibilities for sharing ideas. We should think how different communication tools can best connect… how can they engage different types of people… rather than dismissing them!

  2. Miroslav Vitous

    Duncan, surely you don’t just “fear the aid business has not done well in this regard…” You KNOW that donors and INGOs consistently undermine authentic movements and grassroots organisations, some consciously and some unconsciously. When are we, collectively and including Oxfam, going to push for real change of the whole “development industry”? Can corporate INGOs like Oxfam be relied on to support real transformation of aid, because it is not really in your interests, is it? Indeed, it seems that the INGOs (and now accounting firms as well) are increasingly vacuuming up available funding with their large marketing budgets and promises and contributing to exactly what you fear. So, as a prominent voice of Oxfam what do you suggest you do?

    • Duncan Green

      A very live issue as we think about our next strategy Miroslav, watch this space! One clarification, ‘NGO interests’ are hard to define – for CEOs there is an element of kudos in increasing income (and shame in losing income), but that is not the core mission, even for them. No-one gets a bonus if income goes up! So you need to think about ideas and institutions, more than interests, IMO

      • Miroslav Vitous

        I certainly will be watching Oxfam’s new attempts to redefine its strategy, but I am not as hopeful as you sound. Part of Oxfam’s challenge is to empower country program practitioners to work with flexibility, to be allowed to take the time that is needed, with long-term goals in mind, to find and build relationships with authentic grassroots leaders and initiatives and to offer adaptable support, real solidarity, unencumbered by over-promised deadlines and deliverables, set by Affiliates in Oxford, the Hague or Boston. And to be allowed to fail because its risky business. This is the opposite of Oxfam’s strategy now, which despite its rhetoric, is generally risk-averse. At present Oxfam is caught in the business-minded, project-dominated system of upward accountability to (over-staffed, bloated and expensive) Affiliates, who, being liable to donors, must doggedly hold onto their real power. That is the space to watch for change. But I suspect you will tinker here and there in your new Global Strategy and Model and sprinkle on a few feminist principles as dressing and the gap will stay as wide.
        The problem is that I am not sure the current “aid business” system will tolerate a downward accountability strategy and practice in Oxfam (unless it is challenged by a movement of CSOs). To keep yourselves afloat you have to remain complicit along with the other INGOs in keeping it going. You say you support local leaders to challenge their hierarchies but do you have the courage to do the same with those who hold power over you and prevent you making transformative contributions to authentic change leaders and initiatives?
        But it is not surprising because ultimately, a transformed “aid business” that has integrity and is truly developmental may require the dismantling of corporate INGOs and donors like Oxfam, into smaller, agile, personable and more activist support agencies and grantmakers who can bridge the gaps.
        And so Oxfam does have interests to protect, Duncan, very existential ones too (assuming that you have integrity). And the corporate staff who would have to consider these possibilities would probably be the ones to be let go of first! Are these uncomfortable conversations possible in the Global Strategy and organisational re-modelling conversations?

  3. Dear Duncan, thank you for the informative summary. One issue is whom progressive CSOs overlook. Another, related one, is whom they do liaise with. I looked into this for 3 areas at the forefront of media attention in the global North: climate justice, refugee rights, and women’s rights. There some unanticipated new constellations emerging, with strengths and weaknesses regarding coherence, continuity and impact. Here’s the reference & link: Gabriele Koehler. Creative Coalitions in a Fractured World: An Opportunity for Transformative Change? Occasional paper 4 under the UNRISD project on Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilization.

  4. Tom Palmer

    On the topic of acronyms, please Duncan stop using ‘PWDs’. It’s great that you are talking about disability inclusion and I appreciate that you have to fire out blogs in double quick time but using acronyms to describe people is dehumanising and stigmatising. This is particularly important for a group who have had to fight for the right to not to have language used to belittle and discriminate them. This may seem like special interest semantics (and you may have heard some disability activists using the acronym) but I promise you that this is long-held and justifiable bug-bear of the wider disability rights movement. Too often people take this shortcut in writing and conversation and it runs counter to the Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities which calls for person-first terminology precisely to challenge language which perpetuates disability-related stigma and discrimination. It may be a bit annoying to type out ‘persons with disabilities’ every time but it helps to remind us that they are persons-first and are not defined solely by impairments. (Stepping up of my high horse now and ready to challenged if I’ve got this wrong.)

      • Duncan Green

        Out of interest, do you think this should apply across the board, eg stop using IDPs for the internally displaced? What other acronyms are out there that we should be questioning?

        • Tom Palmer

          It’s a good question. I have never been challenged for using IDPs but perhaps that’s because I’m less exposed to advocates for the rights of displaced persons. PIN (people in need) could be another example. Perhaps it’s case by case. The LGBTQIA+ community have taken ownership over that acronym to describe the multiplicity of sexual identities (although it is has become unwieldy and has limitations for inclusion.) Beyond acronyms there are many examples of dehumanising language which are used habitually in our sector and can contribute to stigma and discrimination (e.g. beneficiaries, victims, the vulnerable, the marginalised, the elderly). As a general rule I think we need to always question any language or process which leads to us perceive people as one-dimensional, passive, other, or less than ourselves.

  5. Karen Andrae

    Duncan, regarding your jaw-dropping moment and the questions if this was wide-spread:
    You may have heard about persons with Albinism being attacked and/or killed in several African countries by having body parts chopped off. This relates to a particular myth that body parts of persons with Albinism (including children) bring great fortunes. Persons with psychosocial disabilities are, in many parts of the world, considered to be possessed by evil spirits and, therefore, are often abandoned or attacked.
    Other myth about disabilities coincide with gender-related myth, for example that having sex with a girl or young woman with disabilities (again, often girls and women with Albinism) will heal diseases, including AIDS.
    Overall, persons with disabilities, in many parts of the world, are considered a curse, or a punishment for transgressions in this or previous lives.
    So, there is not shortage of myths, misconceptions, and discriminations based on disability, often coupled with other intersecting factors, especially gender, that put persons with disabilities at great risk of serious harm and extreme violence.

  6. Angela Bailey

    These blogs always provoke so much thinking. Perhaps tangentially related to comments on acronyms … “advocacy capture” – do we need new jargon for what looks like good old fashioned “elite capture” of advocacy agendas? Gets to the heart of who sets advocacy agendas in the first place, and who “represents” affected people.

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