NGOs and the New Democracy: The False Saviors of International Development

By Kamat, Sangeeta | Harvard International Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview
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NGOs and the New Democracy: The False Saviors of International Development


Kamat, Sangeeta, Harvard International Review


Conservatives and liberals agree that globalization is hastening civil Society's coming of age. Liberals consider civil society the only countervailing force against an unresponsive, corrupt state and exploitative corporations that disregard both environmental issues and human rights. Meanwhile, conservatives celebrate the awakening of civil society as proof of the beneficial effects of globalization for the development of democracy. Thus, in the debate on development and the state, left and right appear to converge on the side of civil society. In advancing this proposition, the dynamic rise of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is offered as proof of the self-organizing capacity of civil society and the consequent redundancy of the state.

The global phenomenon of NGOs reflects the new policy consensus that these groups are de facto agents of democracy rather than end-products of a thriving democratic culture. This is evident in the astonishing speed with which NGOs have emerged in countries on the verge of establishing democracies. The leading role ascribed to NGOs foretells a reworking of democracy in ways that coalesce with global capitalist interests. Global policy institutions are actively enlisting NGOs in the economic reform process, but in doing so, they undercut their popular role as forces of democraticization.

Current debate on the role of NGOs points to the dangers of replacing the state as the representative of democracy. Given expanding market economies and shrinking states, NGOs fill a growing void by responding to the needs and demands of the poor and marginalized sections of society. Pointing to this emergent trend, development analysts caution that, unlike governments and state bureaucracies, there are no mechanisms by which NGOs can be made accountable to the people they serve. Instead, analysts suggest that a balanced partnership between states and NGOs can best serve the interests of society.

Much of the current discussion on NGOs focuses on issues of improving NGO accountability, autonomy, and organizational effectiveness. However, as Robert Hayden's recent essay in the Harvard International Review ("Dictatorships of Virtue?" Summer 2002) illustrated, NGO autonomy is a mirage that obscures the interests of powerful states, national elites, and private capital. If NGO autonomy is indeed a myth, the more relevant task at hand is to understand the nature of developing states' dependency on NGOs as well as the effects on development and democracy.

The evolution of community based organizations (CBOs) is illustrative of the changed environment in which NGOs operate and the grave implications of the new scenario for development, democracy, and political stability. CBOs are locally based organizations seen as the champions of "bottom up" or "pro-people" development. They have been particularly vulnerable to the unexpected patronage of donor agencies. CBOs emerged in the post-World War II period between the 1960s and 1980s in response to the failure of developmental states to ensure the basic needs of the poor. For the most part, the leaders of CBOs were socially conscious middle class citizens, many of whom had been active in women's or radical left movements of the post-independence period but later became disenchanted with leftist political parties and movements. The CBOs promoted a "development with social justice" approach, and established political rights and awareness campaigns alongside health and livelihood projects.

Donor NGOs such as the United Kingdom's Oxfam were eager to fund CBOs directly because these organizations were more committed and effective in reaching the poor than were the governments of developing countries. The nature of their work requires CBOs to interact with local communities on a daily basis, building relationships of cooperation and trust to understand local needs and tailor projects that respond to those needs. Consequently, CBOs tend to have intimate working relations with the people of the community, some of whom are paid staff of the CBO.

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