04 February 2010

Are NGOs killing civil society?

Paul who was in Juba recently has an interesting hypothesis: 
"International NGOs are killing civil society in developing countries."
I'm left with lots of questions. What is the counterfactual? Was there a flourishing civil society before aid? Is there anywhere without INGOs? If the question is about quality rather than quantity is it even possible to properly test this theory? How about Bashir's NGO expulsion as a natural experiment? How will Northern Sudanese civil society compare (with itself in the past, and with its equivalent in the South) in a few years time? What about militias, aren't they non-governmental organisations?


Paul C said...

Okay, here's lots of answers (or semi-answers):

1. The counterfactual is the historical experience of civil society in western countries, and the way in which civil society appears to operate there now. For example, my dad is part of a football club which runs a club bar and various events - clearly civil society at work! - but they feel no need to form an NGO.

2. My argument isn't that civil society is dead (provocative blog title aside) but that the international community and local government privilege one particular form of it over others. One of the things I heard was local groups saying that they needed to form an NGO if they wanted to be taken seriously, and that seems to be fairly common everywhere I've been.

3. Is there anywhere without INGOs - probably not now, but we can look at our own history to see what life was like without INGOs.

4. I think the quantity/quality are linked, but yes, of course it's possible to test if you're discussing quality - you just need to get the metrics right.

5. The expulsion probably isn't a good example because the places of expelled NGOs were taken by - other NGOs. Also, civil society in displacement camps is notoriously weak.

6. Militias are probably quasi-governmental organisations, aren't they? In any case, I'm talking about the formalisation of the term "NGO" rather than the natural definition.

Probably not much clearer.

Lee said...

I'm still confused. Aren't there lots of informal community organisations? There is a football team and a church-run school within 5 minutes of my house.

Paul C said...

Yes, but my point is that many people (in both richer and poorer countries) don't realise that these, too, are important elements of civil society. Most importantly, governments in developing countries a) usually don't realise it and b) if they do realise it have no idea how to encourage it because c) their view of civil society is skewed by the well-meaning interventions of foreign organisations, notably NGOs. Can you clarify what specifically confusing you? 'Cause I'm starting to get confused by the confusion!

Lee said...

Does civil society need government encouragement?

Paul C said...

It needs government to give it enough space to flourish; in some cases, active encouragement might be desirable or necessary.

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