by Nathan Hamm on 10/24/2004 · 3 comments

NGOs often end up as part of a special category of villain around here. I personally see them more as presumptious, arrogant fools than intentionally wicked. Rather than rehash experiences I have had with NGOs, I instead suggest reading this Foreign Policy article (via Instapundit).

This story is a tragedy for Uganda. Clinics and factories are being deprived of electricity by Californians whose idea of an electricity crisis is a handful of summer blackouts. But it is also a tragedy for the fight against poverty worldwide, because projects in dozens of countries are similarly held up for fear of activist resistance. Time after time, feisty Internet-enabled groups make scary claims about the iniquities of development projects. Time after time, Western publics raised on stories of World Bank white elephants believe them. Lawmakers in European parliaments and the U.S. Congress accept NGO arguments at face value, and the government officials who sit on the World Bank’s board respond by blocking funding for deserving projects.

The consequences can be preposterously ironic. NGOs claim to campaign on behalf of poor people, yet many of their campaigns harm the poor. They claim to protect the environment, but by forcing the World Bank to pull out of sensitive projects, they cause these schemes to go ahead without the environmental safeguards that the bank would have imposed on them. Likewise, NGOs purport to hold the World Bank accountable, yet the bank is answerable to the governments who are its shareholders; it is the NGOs’ accountability that is murky. Furthermore, the offensives mounted by activist groups sometimes have no basis in fact whatsoever. If you think this an exaggeration, consider the story of an anti-poverty effort in China’s western province of Qinghai.

The medicine is worse than the disease… Read the whole thing.

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Laurence October 25, 2004 at 9:39 am

Nathan, NGOs are not all bad, they do many good things, but they are not all good, of course. It is like “business,” or “government,” or anything else, it depends what they are doing, I think.

I still feel bad about one case. A former student of mine, after graduation from UWED, took a job with a USAID-funded NGO in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. He was one of my most intelligent students, multilingual, I think Tajik, Uzbek, English, Russian. I used to joke with him that he would be mayor of Tashkent one day, he seemed to be able to do anything. He sent me a very concerned email that something was wrong, that USAID was funding a big PR campaign, will billboards and advertisements, as part of a public health effort–“DON’T DRINK TEA!”. He thought this was a stupid waste of time and money, just ridiculous, and that I could do something to stop it. I am afraid he was disappointed when I told him that there wasn’t anything I could do, I was just a college instructor, and had no influence–that there was lots of stupidity, and waste, and corruption in USAID programs, and probably there was some domestic political reason why that advertising campaign was going on.

That was almost a year ago, and I still feel bad about disappointing my student–he never emailed me again!–and bad that America was funding stupid, wasteful projects in Afghanistan through USAID.

This is the crux of the NGO problem, that there is no accountability. If they took a vote in Afghanistan, the people would not pay for a “stop drinking tea” campaign. If they took a vote in the US Congress, no one would vote for a “stop drinking tea” campaign. But the NGO structure, because of a crazy bureaucracy, channels US tax dollars into projects that neither Americans nor Afghans want.

And then insulates the decisions from any mechanism where a complaint from someone such as my former student can be addressed. I was embarrassed to tell him that there was nothing I could do. But I didn’t know what else to say…

Nathan October 25, 2004 at 10:58 am

I hear you. There are some that I really like quite a bit, and they tend to be ones that take their work seriously.

My story has to do with USAID too. I’m unimpressed mostly by their attitude to the work they do. They specifically told other PCVs that as long as results are showing up on paper, they don’t care too much about the particulars.

Najima October 27, 2004 at 11:16 am

I lived in Uganda for one year, and not far from Qinghai for another, and spent the summer traveling through Tibet, so I can’t resist commenting.

My Ugandan friends either didn’t care about the dam at Bujagali, didn’t know about it, or were angry — because the power would not be supplying THEM, it would be going to Tanzania, and the revenues would flow straight into the pockets of their corrupt leaders (or so they assumed). I found it strange the author of your highlighted article did not mention the latter.

Also, Qinghai is most definately considered to be a part of Tibet. For millenia. I’m not sure why the author made the mistake of refuting such. And farmers and nomads are very different groups. Farmers require little space, with highly concentrated resources in that space; nomads need huge tracts of land and can survive on much less. I don’t know the details of the Qinghai project. I do know that Han flippancy regarding environmental consciousness is abhorrant to Tibetan Buddhists, and that increasing agriculture and changing water patterns in an arid place like Qinghai would almost certainly have to affect nomadic lifestyles.

Nathan, I found the article to be a bit slanted in favor of supporting the author’s agenda. He simplified a very complicated matter. In the end, I always try to keep two things in mind: the first is that every issue is multi-faceted; there is no correct answer, and often there is no best way either. The second is that arguing for what “The People” want is really kind of silly. Since when are people — albeit in one geographic area or members of the same ‘cultural’ group — homogenous? There could never be one ‘Tibetan,’ or even less one ‘Ugandan’ opinion.

Which is why the (undemocratically elected) NGOs, as you say, should be very careful about their policies and information campaigns.

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