A Narrative Construction of the Organization by an External Party: The Nongovernmental Organization Narrative by the United Nations

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ABSTRACT

The focus of this paper is the narrative construction of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) by the United Nations. How the NGO is conceptualized and communicated by a legitimate institution like the UN is critical for both the sustainability of NGOs and the social benefit created by them. This is because the allocation of resources to NGOs is directly affected by the understanding of what an NGO is. The data come from the 20 speeches of the 54th annual conference (2001) titled as 'NGOs today: Diversity of the Volunteer Experience' at the UN headquarters. The results of the study are derived from a critical reading of these 20 narratives. This is a procedure of reading the texts several times, back and forth. Through a participative process, the UN narratively constructs NGOs in terms of volunteerism, diversity, civil society, cooperation with governments, global problems, professionalism, and youth involvement. A preliminary theory of participative narrative construction is outlined.

INTRODUCTION AND RATIONALE

Organizations are social constructions by the interactions of people. Stories or narratives are one way of the member interaction and the resulting, ongoing, reconstruction (Humphreys and Brown, 2002a, 2002b; Pentlad, 1999). They define and redefine the organization and provide sensemaking resources for the members (Currie and Brown, 2003; Patriotta, 2003). Organizational narratives can be produced and diffused from within as well as imposed or communicated by an outside party (Watson and Bargilea-Chiappini, 1998). The external narrative may not directly determine the meaning of the organization but provide a specific framework to cultivate the meaning (Watson and Bargilea-Chiappini, 1998).

The focus of this paper is the narrative construction of the organization by an external party. I develop a preliminary theory of the participative narrative construction by an external party by applying and extending on past theory and research on narratives in organizations. Specifically, I look into the narrative of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) as constructed by the United Nations. In this study, NGOs are defined as self-governing, independent, and not-for-profit organizations that are geared to improving the quality of life of disadvantaged people (Vakil, 1997: 2060). I use the term narrative 'to refer to thematic, sequenced accounts that convey meaning from implied author to implied reader' (Barry and Elmes, 1997:431).

How NGOs are conceptualized and communicated is critical for both their sustainability and the social benefit they create (Cheng, 2005; Ebrahim, 2001; Leach, 2007). The allocation of resources to NGOs is directly affected by the understanding of what an NGO is. One of the primary supranational institutions, the UN is a powerful -external- stakeholder for many NGOs all around the world (Leach, 2007). NGOs are increasingly incorporated into the UN system through conferences and projects (Alger, 2002, 2003). In return, the UN is a 'major target' for NGOs to work with (Martens, 2004: 80). Already recognized as a legitimate organization by national governments, the UN provides its partner NGOs with entrance to different development sectors in different countries (Martens, 2004). It is also a means to communicate development discourses, the acceptance of which is generally a condition for funding (Ebrahim, 2001). In fact, 'the UN system plays a key role in supporting NGO institution building and in helping to direct associational energies into policy making' (Sollis1 1995: 539). Its definitions reflect the international consensus among the member nations. The UN is a primary reference for the donor organizations and the general public, which are likely to provide funding and support for NGOs, to understand the NGO activity. The UN agencies like UNDP and the World Bank are major supporters of NGOs (Makoba, 2002) and might direct their funds to particular NGOs, the practices of which reflect the dimensions of the UN narrative. …