Whose associational revolution? NGOs’ role in creating a good society

Barry Knight

How do citizens see NGOs? What can NGOs contribute towards a good society? Recent research suggests that in general NGOs are peripheral to the way citizens think about their societies and how to improve them. Unless NGOs rectify this, they are likely to face growing questions about their legitimacy and sustainability.

The Civil Society in the New Millennium project,[1] a major international investigation sponsored by the Commonwealth Foundation in partnership with CIVICUS, involved consulting more than 10,000 citizens in 47 countries. NGOs (and cognates such as charities, voluntary organizations, civil society organizations, third sector organizations) were mentioned in only 24 country reports.
Questions included:

  • What is your view of a ‘good society’? To what extent does such a society exist today?
  • In such a ‘good society’, what roles are best played by citizens and what roles are best played by state institutions and other sectors?
  • What would enable citizens to play their roles more effectively in the development of such a society in the future?

Who was consulted?
Citizens from different parts of society were consulted. The main focus was on ‘ordinary citizens’ – indigenous people, rural labourers, vendors, blue- and white-collar workers. In addition, people who are commonly excluded were included – young people, women, ethnic and other minorities, disabled people, unemployed people. To give a more complete picture, this information was supplemented with interviews with community leaders, together with citizens in influential positions in society, including political leaders, government officials, military leaders, scholars, professionals, media and sports personalities, authors and playwrights and business leaders. To encourage people to talk, creative and sensitive research methods (such as focus group discussions, community dialogues and talk shows) were used.

The social class factor

Social class was one factor that affected people’s perceptions. NGOs figured much less prominently in the minds of ‘ordinary’ citizens than among those with high status. For poor people, the key issue was survival. What they generally wanted was to have their basic needs satisfied. ‘Basic needs’ here had three main components: economic security, basic services, and physical security and peace. When ordinary citizens identified external solutions to their problems, they usually selected government as the key agency.

NGOs were thought significantly more important by people whose basic needs were satisfied, among citizen leaders and citizens with an influential role in society. This higher status group tended to stress the societal importance of ‘association’ (people’s relations with one another through, for example, processes of solidarity or mutual aid) and ‘participation’ (people’s relationship with the political process through, for example, serving on committees or taking part in a social movement). More influential citizens commonly had the resources, networks and know-how to help create a good society, and saw NGOs as one vehicle for achieving this.

What makes people value NGOs?

Comments about NGOs were rated on a five-point scale, from making a ‘very favourable’ contribution to society to ‘very unfavourable’. In the 24 countries where NGOs were mentioned, findings were mixed. In fact, the distribution of scores was virtually symmetrical.

Three main factors tended to account for more favourable ratings.

A vehicle for citizen participation
First, NGOs appeared to be highly regarded when they provided a vehicle for citizen participation in creating new ways of organizing society. The most energetic parts of civil society appeared to be broad-based coalitions, notably in the spheres of women’s rights, racial equality, land reclamation and environment. In the UK, for example, citizen organizing is creating broad-based alliances across racial and religious divides to bring a new deal for the poor in inner cities. In Canada, after three decades of persistent, patient and pragmatic negotiation by aboriginal groups to claim their land, the map of the country was re-drawn and Nunavut, meaning ‘our land’ in Inuktitut, was born. In Trinidad and Tobago, the labour movement, coupled with cooperatives and credit unions, has a strong tradition. The ‘majority populations’ led the drive for independence in the 1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was the ‘Black Power’ movement. In recent years, the women’s movement has become a strong force. In Bangladesh, NGOs are the only hope in an otherwise corrupt and moribund system. In Dominica, NGOs are pioneering new and alternative forms of democracy. In the circumstances described in the above countries, NGOs are seen as important touchstones for change – creating movement, life and energy.

A focus for cohesion and solidarity
NGOs were also highly regarded when they provided a focus for cohesion and solidarity. Community and village associations were important here, providing local people with a vehicle for their energies and commitments. Such organizations are ‘of the people and for the people’, and called community organizations or people’s organizations rather than NGOs. Often, such organizations are so much part of indigenous culture that they are not really seen as organizations in any external sense at all. In some parts of the Pacific region, for example, there are very powerful kinship-based community organizations that create a tightly woven network of local relationships governing social and economic behaviour. At the same time, there is sometimes an overlay of international NGOs, deriving their legitimacy from Western norms and finance, which deliver services and development opportunities to islanders.

But we need to avoid giving an over-romantic picture of the role of community organizations. Traditional associations (based on caste, religion, tribe or ethnic identity) were commonly seen as a mixed blessing. Often, they support a male view of the world, and give little power or scope to women or young people.

Based on a successful partnership with the state
NGOs were also well regarded when they were part of development arrangements based on a partnership with the state that yields progressive outcomes. It is important in these circumstances for NGOs to retain their independence. Where they were seen not to do so, as in Uganda or New Zealand, they were criticized.

What factors produce unfavourable ratings?

The main factor that produced unfavourable ratings was lack of contact with people. This was mentioned in 11 of the 24 reports (Gambia, Kenya, Malawi, Seychelles, Swaziland, Pakistan, Malaysia, Ghana, Guyana, Malawi and Vanuatu). Ordinary citizens, particularly the poor, tended to see NGOs as part of an establishment system made up of people who already have resources.

Ineffectiveness was another factor. In some places NGOs were too weak to have much effect. This applied particularly in Namibia, Pakistan and Tonga, where capacity was said to be very low. In Vanuatu, NGOs were seen as lacking in financial and human resources, run by a loose cadre of activists, and with little relevance to the concerns of most local people. Lack of clear vision was mentioned in Cameroon. Wasteful duplication and competition was noted in Ghana.

Corruption was mentioned in several reports. There were two main forms of criticism that might be roughly categorized as ‘milder’ and ‘harsher’. In the milder form, NGOs were seen as keeping resources for themselves that did not trickle down to local people. This was focused on use of vehicles, limited access to services, and forming an in-crowd of people who help each other to get a bigger slice of the cake. The harsher form involved suggestions that people from NGOs were creaming off the top, that money meant for beneficiaries was finding its way into the pockets of the providers.

What do these findings mean?

This paper reports on work in progress, but even at this stage several points can be made that may be relevant for all who work in the third sector.

The key question is ‘whose associational revolution’? Lester Salamon has suggested that the growth in NGOs at the end of the twentieth century might be of comparable significance to the growth of the nation state at the end of the nineteenth.[2] If that is the case, it is clear that this revolution is passing unnoticed by many ordinary citizens. It is a middle-class revolution with apparently little significance lower down the social scale.

This is not something that is relevant just to third sector researchers. The starting point of the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project was that the non-profit sector had to become more visible if it was to grow. But visible to whom? Johns Hopkins has undoubtedly put NGOs on the world map – but whose map? Is it the map of governments, business, major institutional players and societal elites, or is it the map of ordinary citizens?

NGOs have a tendency to look up, to the organizations that fund them, rather than down to the people they are supposed to be working with and for. But if NGOs are to be sustainable in the long run, and to fulfil their claims of serving the interests of the poor, they must have popular acceptance by poor people. They must be seen as a way of achieving long-term change and improvements in people’s lives. They must be citizens’ organizations, supported by citizens – not just in terms of funding but also in terms of making the case for support to governments and other policymakers.

Implications for researchers

This has major implications for the way we do research. The dominant paradigm of research on the third sector is a top-down one, looking at civil society as a coefficient of organizations and sectors rather than as a field of human endeavour. The findings of the current study point to the limitations of this approach. If we are to understand civil society and the role it can play in improving people’s lives, and to yield more insights that are relevant to policy and practice, we need to move on to more sensitive approaches, particularly participatory approaches that enable us to include citizens’ perceptions in our picture.

Critics may argue that people’s perceptions may not reflect reality. NGOs may in fact be doing work that people value without realizing it is done by NGOs. But people’s reflections surely reflect a different reality – not what is in fact provided by NGOs but the potential of civil society to effect change.

Many third sector researchers have unconsciously assimilated the values of the field that they are studying, swallowing wholesale the idea that NGOs are good. Occasionally, articles have footnotes referring to the ‘shadow-side’ of voluntary action, but these are rarely seen as anything more than the odd exception.

To make serious progress, we need to adopt a more critical mindset. The current study highlights the importance of focusing upon citizens and their local associational life as the foundation or building block of any society. Without this focus, the term ‘third sector’ is in danger of becoming equated with ‘elite sector’.

1 See Commonwealth Foundation (1999) Citizens and Governance. Regional reports are shortly to be published, and a full-length academic report is in process. For further details, contact Andrew Milner, Communications Officer of the Commonwealth Foundation’s Citizens and Governance Programme, at milnerwhitaker@netscapeonline.co.uk or visit the website at http://www.commonwealthfoundation.com/programmes
2 Lester Salamon, ‘The Rise of the Nonprofit Sector’ Foreign Affairs, Vol 74 No 3 (July/August 1994).

Barry Knight is Secretary to CENTRIS, UK. He can be contacted at centris@rtipub.co.uk  Colin Ball is Director of the Commonwealth Foundation. He can be contacted at ballc@commonwealth.int

This article is based on a paper presented at the ISTR Conference in Dublin, 5-8 July 2000.

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