NGO’s: who really benefits?

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This post was originally meant to be a comment on Ida’s ‘In whose interest do the NGO’s and aid-agencies work for?’, but after writing for about ten minutes, I decided that this warranted its own post.  This is indeed an interesting topic that links to a much deeper philosophical discussion on ‘service’ work.

I did a course called Global Citizens last year at UCT (University of Cape Town) that sought to develop students already engaging in service. Through discussions and workshops on subjects like ‘What is development?’ and ‘who does service benefit?’, we were introduced to the idea of volunteering and agencies in an African context.  A few things resonate from the course that I think are quite relevant to Ida’s post and the subsequent comments: Firstly, I don’t think you can lump all NGO’s into two categories: local and foreign. There is a broad range of NGO’s out there with varied purposes, values and means of operating.  Yes, some may do things for all the wrong reasons, some are ill-prepared and some do more harm than good, but what about the enormous number of NGO’s who actually make a significant impact on the lives of millions? The question is, how do we differentiate? Although there are many ways to categorise service-organisations, I like Morton’s ideology: charity, project and social justice. The article ‘Irony of Service’ describes this well (if you have some time to skim through). In a nutshell, Morton’s point is that each of the separate paradigms have their place and can be necessary and relevant. But as a service worker or agency, it is not which paradigm that is important, but the depth and sincerity of your engagement.  Do you do this for the right reasons? Are you passionate and are you engaging with the right problem? Are you communicating with the community, understanding their values and motivations or are you merely imposing your solutions? I’ve grappled with these questions and paradigms, relating to diversity in the field of engineering: Engineer-Chic: Approaches to Diversity.  Forgive my terrible comic-drawing skills! The second thing I’d like to mention in relation to the original post is something that I have come to know through my work with Engineers Without Borders etc.. Service is not exclusively about the community or the ‘receiver’. It is as much about the individual engaging in service as well as the organisation. There is an entangled and inseparable relationship that exists between the three entities and the challenge is to find the place where the goals and ends of all three are being met.  For example on the individual level: the real-world experience that my engineering student team-members (not least of all myself) have benefited from by engaging in developmental projects or the overwhelming feeling of connectedness and purpose as a human being. On the organisational level, this  is defined through their values and constitution, remembering that every organisation is made up of individuals. Back to the question: in whose interest do NGO’s work for? I really cant say that NGO’s work exclusively for the interests of the community, because I don’t believe they do or should. What I can say, is that it is the purpose of the organisation to ensure the best possible benefit to the community, and the role of institutions such as universities and NGO’s to ensure they develop their members to this end.  Either through maintaining strong values of communication, understanding and serving mutual goals (community and organisation) or through service-learning initiatives such as Global Citizens at UCT.

Finally, the last thing I’d like to point out is that in the end, perfection is close to impossible.  Everyone makes mistakes or gets it wrong sometimes, even if they have the best intentions at heart. (This is not counting those that do not have the community’s best interest at heart however). What is important is that there are people out there who still care, still engage and still believe in a better world, and that we are learning from our mistakes. We’re being criticised in forums such as these and turning our shortfalls into learning opportunities for the benefit of other NGO’s and ultimately the communities we work to serve.

See: EWB Failure Reports,           Guardian Article: NGO hopes to benefit from failure,   

Some more reading if you’re interested. Engineer-chic: Global Citizens, Critical Reflections

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