NGOs and Civil Society: Democracy by proxy? – Ann C Hudock

Literature on NGOs and civil society has its cycles: after a period of intellectual (see Putnam, Gellner and others) and official (see World Bank, UNDP) enthusiasm, more and more critical analysis is coming out. One of the most recent is an excellent piece written by Thomas Carothers (‘Civil Society’, in Foreign Policy, No 117, winter 1999/2000). This fresh criticism is very healthy, long awaited and welcome.

Ann C Hudock’s short book is a critical analysis of NGO–civil society relationships. Her central thesis is that northern support to southern NGOs is often counterproductive. Instead of strengthening the capacity of southern NGOs to help local civil society to flourish, northern aid more often prevents southern NGOs from helping local civil society. Why? Because, according to Hudock, the ways in which northern NGOs channel resources to southern NGOs undermine rather than enhance the capacity of southern NGOs to work with community groups. Southern NGOs too often become dependent on their northern counterparts, and, instead of serving their clients – the local civil society — begin serving the interests of their northern funders.

Frankly, there is nothing original or exciting in Hudock’s findings. We are all too familiar with the old wisdom: He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Hudock’s innovation is that she translates this old wisdom into the rather intricate and technical language of NGO capacity-building. Using case studies from Sierra Leone and The Gambia, she manages to conceptualize various types of NGO dependency that subject NGOs to external control, which in turn severely limits the long-term capacity of NGOs to strengthen civil society, which should have been their distinctive role.
By analysing the degrees of dependency, she makes several sobering points about ‘intermediary NGOs’ and the entire ‘democracy-building industry’ and how and why they fail. Her critique of the myth that NGOs are somehow unique because they operate on a value base, rather than on the imperative to survive, also points to a truth we tend to obscure.

Miklós Marschall is Executive Director for East and Central Europe of Transparency International. He can be reached at mmarschall@transparency.org

NGOs and Civil Society: Democracy by proxy?
Ann C Hudock  Polity Press  £11.99/$24.95 softback
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