Can Ngos Make a Difference?: The Challenge of Development Alternatives

Can Ngos Make a Difference?: The Challenge of Development Alternatives

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Can non-governmental organisations contribute to more socially just, alternative forms of development? Or are they destined to work at the margins of dominant development models determined by others? Addressing this question, this book brings together leading international voices from academia, NGOs and the social movements. It provides a comprehensive update to the NGO literature and a range of critical new directions to thinking and acting around the challenge of development alternatives. The book's originality comes from the wide-range of new case-study material it presents, the conceptual approaches it offers for thinking about development alternatives, and the practical suggestions for NGOs.

At the heart of this book is the argument that NGOs can and must re-engage with the project of seeking alternative development futures for the world's poorest and more marginal. This will require clearer analysis of the contemporary problems of uneven development, and a clear understanding of the types of alliances NGOs need to construct with other actors in civil society if they are to mount a credible challenge to disempowering processes of economic, social and political development.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781842778937
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 04/15/2008
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.19(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Anthony J. Bebbington is Professor of Nature, Society and Development at the University of Manchester. Sam Hickey is lecturer in the International Development at the University of Manchester. Diana C. Mitlin is an economist and social development specialist at the University of Manchester.

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Can NGOs Make a Difference?

The Challenge of Development Alternatives

By Anthony J. Bebbington, Samuel Hickey, Diana C. Mitlin

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2008 Anthony J. Bebbington, Samuel Hickey and Diana C. Mitlin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84277-893-7


Introduction: Can NGOs Make a Difference? The Challenge of Development Alternatives

Anthony J. Bebbington, Samuel Hickey and Diana C. Mitlin

'Not another Manchester book on NGOs!' some bookstore browsers will comment on spotting this text. The short response, of course, is 'Yes, another one.' The longer response is this introductory chapter. In it we argue why this is once again a good moment to take the pulse of the NGO world. This time, though, we take the pulse not merely as a health check, which was the spirit of the three Manchester conferences: in 1992 to check their fitness to go to scale (Edwards and Hulme, 1992); in 1994 to check their fitness in the face of increased societal scrutiny (Edwards and Hulme, 1995; Hulme and Edwards, 1997); and in 1999 to check their fitness in the face of globalization (e.g. Eade and Ligteringen, 2001; Edwards and Gaventa, 2001; Lewis and Wallace, 2000). Instead, participants in a conference in 2005 took the pulse of NGOs to see whether the patient was still alive. The conviction underlying the book is that NGOs are only NGOs in any politically meaningful sense of the term if they are offering alternatives to dominant models, practices and ideas about development. The question that the book addresses is whether – in the face of neoliberalism, the poverty agenda in aid, the new security agenda, institutional maturation (if not senescence), and the simple imperatives of organizational survival – NGOs continue to constitute alternatives.

As the reader will see, the authors are far from certain about the health of the patient, though none of them is yet ready to write the certificate declaring the death of alternatives and the irrelevance of NGOs (an irrelevance that would somewhat invert the scales of Edwards's polemic in 1989 that declared development studies irrelevant to NGOs, the place where real development was being done: Edwards, 1989). There are serious doubts regarding how far NGOs in the North are able to do anything that is especially alternative to their host countries' bilateral aid programmes. There is a sense that their room for manoeuvre has been seriously constrained by the security agenda, increasing political disenchantment with NGOs, the constraints of a poverty impact agenda that will only fund activities with measurable impacts on some material dimension of poverty, and also a sense in which 'alternatives' have been swallowed whole within the newly 'inclusive' mainstream. And there are just as serious questions about NGOs in the South, who, in addition to facing these constraints, transmitted to them through funding decisions and the ever more constraining conditionalities linked to them, have to operate in political-economic environments defined by both the ravages and the domesticating hands of neoliberalism as well as the never-ending struggle to secure the financial bases of organizational survival.

That said, these doubts do not lead the majority of the authors to conclude that 'there is no alternative' and that therefore there is no reason for NGOs to exist. Indeed, the strength of all the chapters – and, we hope, the primary contribution of this collection – is that each takes a hard-headed and theoretically informed look at the constraints on NGOs' ability to exist, speak and act as development alternatives, but then also explores the ways in which NGOs have either found points where the stitching of these straitjackets is coming unpicked, or found ways simply to reframe the debate, to say that the game they were previously playing is no longer interesting, and it is time to design a new one.

In this chapter we flesh out some of the themes that the book elaborates. We begin by elaborating the idea of 'alternatives' that runs through the book, and the ways in which it might relate to NGOs. We then use this framework to give a brief, historical discussion of NGOs and the differing ways in which they have sought to be alternative (both sections rely heavily on Mitlin, Hickey and Bebbington 2007). The third section introduces the middle three sections of the book: a section focusing on the different ways in which NGO-led alternatives have come under increasing pressure in the last decade; a section exploring ways in which NGOs have continued to seek ways of fostering alternative forms of development; and a section that explores how far NGOs have sought ways to simply be alternative, and, in so being, to suggest that there are different ways in which the broader development enterprise might be thought about and engaged in. The closing section of this chapter then charts implications for the future both of NGOs and of the struggle to carve out development alternatives.

Conceptualizing Alternatives


In their history of 'doctrines of development', Cowen and Shenton (1996, 1998) distinguish between two meanings of the term 'development' that have been consistently confused: 'development as an immanent and unintentional process as in, for example, the "development of capitalism" and development as an intentional activity' (1998: 50). Hart (2001: 650) amends this distinction slightly to talk of 'little d' and 'big D' d/Development, whereby the former involves the 'geographically uneven, profoundly contradictory' set of processes underlying capitalist developments, while the latter refers to the 'project of intervention in the "third world" that emerged in a context of decolonization and the cold war'. This insistence on distinguishing between notions of intervention and of deeper forms of political, economic, structural change should not lead us to lose sight of the clear, if non-deterministic, relationships between these two dimensions of development. Rather, it offers a means of clarifying the relationship between development policy and practice and the underlying processes of uneven development that create exclusion and inequality for many just as they lead to enhanced opportunities for others.

The role of NGOs in promoting development alternatives can be thought of in relation to this distinction. Much discussion of alternatives has been in relation to 'big D' Development – NGOs have been seen as sources of alternative ways of arranging microfinance, project planning, service delivery and so on: that is, alternative ways of intervening. These are reformist notions of alternatives and, as Bolnick (this volume) argues, NGOs' location within the aid industry has influenced how such alternatives come to be constituted. However, alternatives can also be conceived in relation to the underlying processes of capitalist development, or 'little d' development. Here the emphasis is on alternative ways of organizing the economy, politics and social relationships in a society. The distinction, then, is between partial, reformist, intervention-specific alternatives, and more radical, systemic alternatives. Importantly, some of our contributors warn against drawing too sharp a distinction between these types of alternative. Both Chhotray and Guijt (this volume), for instance, draw attention to the links that NGOs can forge between apparently technocratic interventions such as service delivery and broader transformations in political development and social relations. Nonetheless, we argue here that one of the disappointments of NGOs has been their tendency to identify more readily with alternative forms of interventions than with more systemic changes, and that there are strong grounds for reversing this trend.

Civil society as an alternative to the state and market

The second element of our framework links these distinctions to a reflection on state, market and civil society. The tripartite division between these spheres is often used to understand and locate NGOs as civil society actors (Bebbington, 1997; Fowler, 2000b). Yet many of these renderings are problematic. First, the treatment of civil society is often excessively normative rather than analytical: it is seen as a source of 'good', distinct from a 'bad' imputed to the state and market. Such approaches understate the potential role of the state in fostering progressive change while also downplaying the extent to which civil society is also a realm of activity for racist organizations, business-sponsored research NGOs or other organizations that most of these authors would not consider benign (e.g. Stone, 2000).

Second, even if the need to understand the three spheres in relation to each other is often recognized, the relative fluidity of boundaries between the spheres, and the growing tendency for people to move back and forth between NGOs, government and occasionally business, have received less attention (see Racelis, this volume, for a discussion of some of these relationships in the Philippine context). Such movements have further problematized the understanding of NGOs as being an integral part of civil society, something already called into question by those who argue that NGOs can be more accurately seen as corporate entities acting according to the logic of the marketplace, albeit a marketplace in service provision (Stewart, 1997; Uphoff, 1995). Perhaps more important, though, is that NGOs are a relatively recent organizational form, particularly when compared to more deep-seated social arrangements such as religious institutions, political movements, government and transnational networks of various kinds. Why NGOs exist, what they do, what they say, who they relate to, can only be understood in terms of their relationship to more constitutive actors in society, as well as in terms of the relationships among these constitutive actors, and between them, state and market.

Civil society – and the place of NGOs within it – must therefore be treated carefully, historically, conceptually and relationally. Within development studies, civil society has been predominantly understood in two main ways, at each of two main levels (Bebbington and Hickey, 2006). At the level of ideology and theory, the notion of civil society has flourished most fruitfully within either the neoliberal school of thought that advocates a reduced role for the state or a post-Marxist/post-structural approach that emphasizes the transformative potential of social movements within civil society. At the conceptual level, civil society is usually treated in terms of associations (so-called civil society organizations), or as an arena within which ideas about the ordering of social life are debated and contested. Proponents of both approaches often present civil society as offering a critical path towards what Aristotle described as 'the good society' (Edwards, 2004).

We work from a broadly Gramscian understanding of civil society as constituting an arena in which hegemonic ideas concerning the organization of economic and social life are both established and contested. Gramsci (97) perceived state and civil society to be mutually constitutive rather than separate, autonomous entities, with both formed in relation to historical and structural forces akin to our processes of 'little d' development. He was centrally concerned with explaining the failures of both liberalism and socialism, and of the role that counter-hegemonic movements within civil society might play in promoting social and also revolutionary change. The resulting contestations, and the hegemonies which emerge and the roles (if any) that distinct NGOs play in this, must in turn be understood in terms of the relationships and struggles for power among the constitutive actors of society. Importantly, this also means that agents from within the state may join forces with civil society actors in forging counter-hegemonic alternatives as well as dominant hegemonies (see Chhotray, this volume).

These contestations over hegemony are thus closely related to our framing of 'alternatives'. One can imagine certain alternatives in the domain of 'big D' Development that challenge ideas that are dominant, but not foundational. For instance, dominant ideas about how health care ought to be organized might be contested and challenged by NGOs proposing distinct models of provision. Such alternatives, important though they may be in welfare terms, do not challenge the more basic arrangements that order society (as Bristow suggests in her chapter). Conversely, one can also imagine hegemonic ideas that are far more foundational – for instance, in the present moment, neoliberal ideas regarding how society and market ought to be governed; or ideas about property rights. These ideas thus require contestation in relation to alternatives that relate to the domain of 'little d' development – akin to what Escobar (1995) frames as 'alternatives to development' rather than 'development alternatives'.

Glocal NGOs

While concepts of global civil society may have their difficulties, there can be little doubt that, as the most potent force within late modernity, globalization has (re)shaped NGOs and ideas about NGOs. One effect has been that (at least some) NGOs have increasingly become a transnational community, itself overlapping with other transnational networks and institutions (Townsend, 1999). These linkages and networks disperse new forms of development discourse and modes of governance as well as resources throughout the global south; and some southern NGOs have (albeit to a lesser extent) begun to gain their own footholds in the North with their outposts in Brussels, Washington and elsewhere (see, for example, the Grameen Foundation, BRAC, Breadline Africa or the Asociación Latinoamericana de Organizaciones de Promoción – ALOP). Yet these transnationalizing tendencies, especially in the form of global advocacy networks and campaigns, may have also excluded certain actors and groups for whom engagement in such processes is harder (Chiriboga, 2001). Thus these moves to scale have simultaneously increased the distance between constituent parts of the sector and led to the emergence of international civil society elites who come to dominate the discourses and flows that are channelled through this transnational community. This raises serious questions as to whose alternatives gain greater visibility in these processes.

The transnationalizing of 'big D' interventions (e.g. structural adjustment and the subsequent phenomenon of poverty-reduction strategy papers, or PRSPs) reflects structural transformations in the workings of national and international capitalisms and the nature of organizations in capitalist society (Craig and Porter, 2006). These changes make it important for any alternative project (in a Gramscian sense) to work simultaneously at different points within these chains of intervention. The specific forms of intervention have also involved the increased channelling of (national and multilateral) state-controlled resources through NGOs – a channelling in which resources become bundled with particular rules and ideas regarding how they must be governed and contribute to the governing of others. This bundling has meant NGOs become increasingly faced with opportunities related to the dominant ideas and rules that travel with development finance – in particular in the current context, ideas related to neoliberalism and security. Acceptance of such opportunities has made life difficult for many northern NGOs, who in turn pass on these difficulties to their partners.


Excerpted from Can NGOs Make a Difference? by Anthony J. Bebbington, Samuel Hickey, Diana C. Mitlin. Copyright © 2008 Anthony J. Bebbington, Samuel Hickey and Diana C. Mitlin. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents

One: Critical challenges
1 Introduction: Can NGOs make a difference? The challenge of development alternatives - Anthony Bebbington, Sam Hickey and Diana Mitlin
2 Have NGOs 'made a difference?': From Manchester to Birmingham with an elephant in the room - Michael Edwards
Two: NGO alternatives under pressure
3 Challenges to participation, citizenship and democracy: Perverse confluence and displacement of meanings - Evelina Dagnino
4 Learning from Latin America: Recent trends in European NGO policy-making - Kees Biekart
5 Whatever happened to reciprocity? Implications of donor emphasis on 'voice' and 'impact' as rationales for working with NGOs in development - Alan Thomas
6 Development and the new security agenda: W(h)ither(ing) NGO alternatives? - Alan Fowler
Three: Pursuing alternatives: NGO strategies in practice
7 How civil society organizations use evidence to influence policy processes - Amy Pollard and Julius Court
8 Civil society participation as the focus of Northern NGO support: The case of Dutch co-financing agencies - Irene Guijt
9 Producing knowledge, generating alternatives? Challenges to research oriented NGOs in Central America and Mexico - Cynthia Bazán, Nelson Cuellar, Ileana Gómez, Cati Illsley, Adrian López, Iliana Monterroso, Joaliné Pardo, Jose Luis Rocha, Pedro Torres, Anthony Bebbington
10: Anxieties and affirmations: NGO-donor partnerships for social transformation - Mary Racelis
Four: Being alternative
11 Pressures on international NGO's: Time to reinvent the system. A view from the Dutch co-financing system - Harry Derksen and Pim Verhallen
12 Transforming or conforming? NGOs training health promoters and the dominant paradigm of the development industry in Bolivia - Katie S. Bristow
13 Political entrepreneurs or development agents: An NGO's tale of resistance and acquiescence in Madhya Pradesh, India - Vasudha Chhotray
14 Is this really the end of the road for gender mainstreaming? : Getting to grips with gender and institutional change - Nicholas Piálek
15 The Ambivalent Cosmopolitanism of International NGOs - Helen Yanacopulos and Matt Baillie Smith
16 Development as reform and counter-reform: Paths travelled by Slum/Shack Dwellers International - Joel Bolnick
Five: Taking stock and thinking forward
17 Reflections on NGOs and development: The elephant, the dinosaur, several tigers but no owl - David Hulme

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'This is a timely addition to the literature on non-governmental organisations and development. Up-to-date, critical and historically informed, its seventeen chapters are written by a potent combination of both well-known experts and original new voices.'David Lewis, London School of Economics and Political Science 'This book offers a novel and reflective framework for revisiting NGO's efficacy in fashioning alternative forms of development in the post-NGO boom period. Against current security agendas, the authors envision types of NGO practice, orientation, and focus that that hold out hope for their foundational mission of "being alternative." 'Arturo Escobar, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill `These essays ... provide a number of useful insights into the NGO world.' - North South Magazine