(The Humanitarian Social Network)
Interesting blog from Owen Barder "Can NGOs address the structural causes of poverty" about a new report by Martin Kirk which contends that NGOs can't tackle the real causes of poverty because dealing with these real reasons would go against their ability to appeal to the public for funding and support. I.e. they can't communicate and market whart really needs to change.
I agree that NGOs cannot really address structural causes of poverty, and I agree that *part* of the reason has to do with the manner in which we have traditionally educated the public about what we do / appealed for funding. (Sorry Owen and Martin, but I also think that Ben Ramalingam said it all better in The Humanitarian's Dilemma.)
But to stop there under-analyses the issue and too-easily lets us off the hook of having to come to terms with some challenging and unpleasant notions.
First, there's simply the problem of the (meager) weight of resource we bring to bear. (http://aidspeak.wordpress.com/2012/03/30/know-your-place-aid-worker/) Globally, on a good year, we're one quarter the size of Apple Inc. Not that size and money are everything, but they're certainly something. We're trying to steer the Titanic by jumping into the water and swimming against the bow. Aid chips away at the stone.
There's also the issue of the Menage a trois. (http://talesfromethehood.com/2011/11/08/menage-a-trois/) This is actually, in my view, the more difficult issue. I know some will accuse me of cynicism (whatever), but we're essentially stuck, as NGOs, mediating between beneficiaries (for lack of a better term) and donors who in the vast majority of cases stand ultimately to benefit from the structural causes of poverty remaining largely unchallenged. Assuming for the sake of argument that NGOs are even truly capable of institutional altruism (back to the humanitarian's dilemma, among other things) I wouldn't see this as a fundraising/marketing issue, because the basic dynamics of the menage a trois exist pretty much no matter how we educate our donors.
Finally, there's the overt and questionable assumption that NGOs are at legitimate participants in the "address structural causes of poverty" conversation at all. I'm not saying they're/we're not (I think we are), but it is far from universally agreed. We have to face the possibility that NGOs will become irrelevant (http://www.humanitarian.info/2011/12/12/de-ossification-strategies/). We also have to face the possibility that for-profit CSR or The Military lay as much claim to the right to address structural causes of poverty as traditional aid providers. And regardless of whether we see them as legitimate or not, we have to come to understand our contribution - whatever it is - in a context which includes them.
I agree with J.
Moreover, for me to say the problem lies in marketing is at best, an illusion. At worst, an incomplete thus irrelevant analysis. Or maybe I just have a wider perspective. dont' know.
I think NGO's can't tackle the causes of poverty because its really not their job to do so. World poverty is just beyond them. They should not aim for it , just as I should not aim to escalate the Everest anytime soon.
Should they finally recognise they do palliative work, the world would be a better place. Much crap comes from the fact they believe they can end poverty. So much energy waisted, so many frustrations. The added ethical aspect of saviors of the world worstens it all, blinding any self-criticism that could lead to humility and thus increased efficiency.
But besides this, how could them ever adress the structural causes of poverty? Jeeeez! Its beyond us all. Its beyond any one given actor of this whole mess. well beyond. Well beyond any given institution and frame of thinking.Its beyond institutional. Its beyond government.ITs beyond peoples and civil societies. It's an illusion to think they would. Then they frequently confuse alleviating poverty with ending it. They use "alleviate" thinking for "ending" actions. And of course it does not work.
Poverty is extremely complex. It is at the same time result and cause of itself, influencing and influenced by other things such as violence (in its many manifestations, governance (political will..), climatic considerations....which, in turn, and in their complexity, are interrelating, as we speak, at different levels in the planet. It's a mess, basically.
and then, what is poverty, really? a question of living with less than a dollar a day? not really, no. ? I dont think so. Do you?
Even so, should it be really THE problem NGO's should tackle? why dont we focus on, say, structural violence or governance? after all, they are both cause and consequence of poverty....is poverty the real problem?
then "NGO"...there are so many...most are para governmental, not "non-gov"...and not all have the same goals, vision of what the world should be, and scope of action. Some I know confuse emergency assistance wiuth development, for instance. None put any funding in pre-intervention holistic analysis (if you know one, let me know please!). NGOs have emerged as a homogeneous item in the collective consciousness, the good guys of the world, doing their best. But they are far from being that.
They have built themselves as the saviours of the world, thus exempt of any self critique (do you know any industry more arrogant?), when in fact, the world does not work like that. The world, the dynamics shaping injustice, poverty and violence, do not give a %&/+* about NGOs. And NGO's (and the other aid institutions too) ignore (like in "don't know" and "don't care about") these dynamics.
Complex dynamics producing "poverty" are just that, complex. Next to them, marketing for the next funding or to have a good relation with public support is the least of the problems. Interrelated aspects "causing" and being influenced by poverty are constantly at work, contantly happening beyond a given project or program in a given context, and at the same time at micro, meso and macro levels. I occurrs to me also that poverty is needed if the status quo in the world affaires, dear to so many powerful instances/people, is to remain. Ending poverty is NOT a desired outcome for those dynamics that produce it. NGOs (nor states, as guarants of rights) do not bear this into consideration.
It is most probable that poverty will not be ended, ever. In an attempt to be a bit productive in this post, and not appear as completely ranting about without proposing anything, I would say non-state/para-state actors working for non-profit-in the aid industry and beyond, should perhaps consider changing focus. First, recognising poverty will not end, ever. Then acknowledging that they have no grip on world/planet dynamics (commercial interests that fuel conflict and rights abuses, a complete deregulation of the arms trade and a complete unwillingness to regulate it, the relations between states and the insterests that shape them, acting as barriers to development and rights, pollution that incresingly alters climate patterns, increasing desertification, for instance...). Then acknowledging their place in the world dynamics.
What really needs to change is well beyond NGOs marketing proficiency...
Here you have a good answer to why NGOs can't address structural causes of poverty. Structural causes of poverty go far beyond the role of the aid sector and its capacity to address it:
And here you have another great point on the need for social movements to hold accountable global leaders, UN, World Bank, etc, etc, etc.