Academic journal article African Studies Review

Undermining Development: The Absence of Power among Local NGOs in Africa

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Undermining Development: The Absence of Power among Local NGOs in Africa

Article excerpt

Sarah Michael. Undermining Development: The Absence of Power among Local NGOs in Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press/Oxford: James Currey, 2005. xi + 206 pp. Table. Bibliography. Index. $22.95. Paper.

For those concerned about power and dependency in Africa, Sarah Michael's book gives a welcome new perspective about the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Power, in her view, is the "ability of local NGOs to set their own priorities, define their own agendas and exert their influence on the international development community, even in the face of opposition from government, donors, international NGOs, and other development actors" (18). She points out that in Asia and in Latin America, there are powerful NGOs: "The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, SEWA in India and Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina possess brand names that are as recognizable in their countries as those of Microsoft and Manchester United" (7). Why, then, are African NGOs not powerful, too?

She analyzes NGO power in terms of four criteria: space or niche, financial independence, international links, and access to political structures. She describes space as "gaining a level of skills, training, experience and contacts in the field that no other agency could match." Financial independence comes from multiple donors, contracts that adequately cover overhead costs, and local sources of income. International links include other African NGOs as well as Northern NGO donors and international media who can communicate its reputation. Finally, power "would allow African NGOs to criticise or engage with their government without jeopardy" (42-47).

In separate chapters Michaels discusses the experiences of local NGOs in differing circumstances in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Senegal, and shows that while NGOs in each have made progress on some of the above criteria of power, they have not achieved all of them. Interesting as they are, these case studies also challenge researchers to examine other African countries to see if more powerful NGOs exist elsewhere.

In a chapter entitled "Why Power Is Crucial to NGOs," Michaels points out that since African NGOs have local bases, they can mobilize local populations on issues such as gender or democratization and engage in politics without being beholden to foreign agendas. …

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