On NGOs vs Activism: the Impact of Structure and Donor Trends

« So, did you get the grant? » « Who are your donors? » are sentences that I’ve been hearing more than I care to mention.
Welcome to the lovely world of activism and NGOs, of movements and organisations, where the competition’s so fierce a lawyer’s study seems like a quaint little place in comparison and where half of the people have existential crisis at night, asking themselves if they’re really impacting change on society or merely selling themselves to the highest donor. Or maybe that’s just me.
Srilatha Batliwala from AWID and of the Building Feminist Movements and Organisations Initiative (BFEMO) explains that movements are built, supported, managed and sometimes destroyed by organisations. Organisations can be formal, meaning they’re legal entities regulated by laws and financial accountability and can be external to or created by movements, while informal organisations, such as loose networks and collectives constitute more of an organising structures within movements.
My own observations as an activist and a former NGO worker made me reach the conclusion that informal organisations, that are less professionalised, are more flexible and can adapt more easily. Networks and collectives also leave the door open for creative, dynamic initiatives that will be sustained by the commitment of the activists rather than by grants. Their structure, mainly based on voluntarism, thus less dependent on donors, can have a more important impact on society than a professional entity, a view that is shared by Luther Gerlach, and, to a lesser extent, by Suzanne Staggenborg, for whom professionalisation includes fiscal stability and organisation maintenance but also entails a decline in militant direct actioni.
The decision on the structure of the organisation is, as Valentine M. Moghadam explains, a result of many factors: conscious choice (an organisation can make the decision not to have any paid staff or accept any external funding to avoid any kind of cooptation and lose their independence), the nature of available resources, the constraints on the use of those resources and the type of social movementii. If we take the example of Lebanon for example, Nasawiya is a loose organisation within the women’s movement that had made the conscious choice to avoid NGO-isation and professionalisation in order to allow the maximum of independence to its members within their initiative, thus enabling a wider independence for the organisation as a whole. Talking with other Lebanese activists, it has become very clear that many of them working in more professionalised structures struggle with the issue of resources: they loathe the competition donor funding creates between organisations (who they would tend to see as natural partners in ideology but who become rivals when it comes to access to resources), they have issues with the agenda-bending that donor trends entail, often estimate the system of donor funding unsustainable and almost all of them draw a line to what kind of funding they’re ready to accept. For example, some organisations have policies not to accept funds from USAID while others see no problem in receiving such funds.
The multiplication of NGOs in the Middle East goes hand in hand with the development of neo-liberal policies that slowly relieve the State of its obligations by having NGOs perform what should be its duties. Donor funding only seal this situation by rendering NGOs dependent on them, thus pulling them into their orbitiii, limiting their manoeuvre margin of questioning political regime and society. As Stephen J. Klees excellently puts it:

In many countries, cut throat competition developed among NGOs for funding. Those that succeeded were too often those which took a more compromising, apolitical stance, if not openly right-wing, and those which met the development agenda of their funders,or, at least, did not directly challenge itiv.

The equation really is quite simple: if the donor will give you one million USD to do education in certain areas, while developing a partnership with the Ministry of Education, if you sign that grant agreement you’re legally bound to do so, thus not thinking of being an activist for a system that is flawed to start with. Apart from being a tool for neo-liberal policies and the demise of the state, donor funding is an excellent political imperialist tool: through giving funds, donor governments define their agenda, thus their vision of the world and their political interest, not to mention the information they get out of all the reports they receive on the status of civil society in the countries they give money to. One of the best illustration of this situation is the Palestine VAW Strategy that was launched this year: the strategy is mainly supported by the MDG Achievement Fund, a structure mainly funded by the Government of Spainv. This is how you end up with a much-needed document that could have been considered a full victory for women’s rights had it not almost skipped the human rights violations Palestinian women suffer on a daily basis at the hands of the Israeli government and apparatus. The strategy merely mentions the “ Promoting protection and empowerment mechanisms for women violated by the Israeli occupation”, and that’s about it, undermining the impact of the document.
To go back to our early definition of movements and organisations, it is organisations that become way too dependent and obedient to donor trends and funding who might end up destroying movements, diverting them from their very purpose of activism towards positive change.
This is not to say that all NGOs are bad and should be banned from the civil society landscape: it wouldn’t be fair to discredit the huge amount of work that many committed activists do everyday while working in these structures. Some NGOs have innovative, creative, challenging programmes, carefully choose where they funds come from and try and explore alternative ways of funding themselves in order to be independent.
To bring about real change, NGOs, organisations and movements have to make a daily conscious check not to be coopted or used to advances other people’s and countries’ agendas, which, while difficult in the short and mid-term, will prove to be beneficial to societies as a whole in the long run.
iMoghadam, Valentine M, Globalising Women, Transnational Feminist Networks, John Hopkins University Press, pp 80-82

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