The Role of the Transnational Community of NGOs

This is a based on the discussions at the Durham Geography Development Reading Group that gets together every week on Tuesdays to discuss journal articles/book chapters focusing on development and the Global South.
Townsend, J.G., Porter, G. and Mawdsley, E. (2002) ‘The Role of the Transnational Community of Non-Government Organizations: Governance or Poverty Reduction?‘, Journal of International Development, vol. 14, no. 6, pp. 829-839.

Abstract or Description
Non-government organizations working in development form a transnational community which has a new role in imperialism today. We explored the knowledge economy of this community with NGDOs in Ghana, India, Mexico and Europe and found it to be largely donor-controlled and generally top-down, often against the will of committed individual actors. Governability is arguably a greater priority to donors than the most effective poverty reduction. The new managerialism and its audit culture impose demands on NGDOs that tend to work against any ‘listening’ to southern NGDOs or their clients, so that the sharing of local knowledge and ideas is very restricted.
This paper, published about 12 years ago, came out of a DFID (Department for International Development, UK) funded conference/workshop in Durham called ‘Whose ideas’, which brought together prominent researchers from across the world.  The paper seems to summarise and briefly explore the various ideas that emerged out of event.   It brings out many critical issues related to the functioning of NGDOs (non-governmental development organisations), like their donor-controlled and top-down nature.  The authors argue that the “new managerial” and “audit culture” “tend to work against any ‘listening’ to southern NGDOs or their clients” (pg.829).  This heralds an “emerging system of global governance” (referring to Duffield, 2001), which the transnational NGDOs are a part of.  The global governance is supported by professionals working in NGDOs who have become part of “a ‘transnational class’ synchronizing behaviour, outlook and language along common lines” (pg.830 referring to Kees van der Piji, 1998). This uniformity or alignment “along common lines” has helped create a “transmission belt” “carrying resources and authority from the core [donors and transnational NGOs] to the periphery [clients and local NGOs], and information and legitimisation from periphery to core” (referring to Terje Tvedt,1998: 75 & Hudock, 1999: 11), thus reinforcing the “hegemonic neo-liberal mode of regulation” (referring to Hoogvelt, 2001) (pg.830). The authors claim to find evidence of this “new managerialism” in Ghana, India, Mexico and North East England. Throughout the paper, they reiterate that this new governance and management paradigm and its “new meta-language” (referring to Lynn, 1998) are “making organizations accountable to auditors rather than their users or clients”, which results in them attaching “more importance to their [and their funders’] mission or the needs of their recipients than to these demands” (referring to Mawdsley et al., 2002) (pg.832). Thus, “the problem is that donor agencies and NGDOs base much of their legitimacy on ‘listening’, ‘participation’, the ‘local’ and the ‘appropriate’, but employ techniques that tend to exclude these desirable goals” (pg.833). The partnership between the transnational NGDOs or donors and the local NGOs or clients then, “in part about governmentality (the strategies employed by the state to make society governable), rather than about meeting the needs of the poor” (pg.833).  This relationship, the authors warn, could be “more subtle form of external domination, less amenable to resistance than more blatant forms of neo-colonial relations, so it can exclude alternative ideas about change that might be outside the partnership” (pg.834, referring to Fowler, 2000). Finally, the paper concludes that “the whole process [of making the NGDO functioning more managerial] is being directed in the interests of governability rather than of poverty reduction, within the latest form of imperialism”.
Listening to the Poor? 
Although the authors make extensive use of literature to support their arguments, they fail to provide cohesive and detailed explanations or evidence from their case study countries: Ghana, India, Mexico and North East England (which actually abruptly sticks out as part of a country among this list of countries).  The arguments made throughout the article are very valid and resonate well with those who have experience of the development NGO sector. However, whether the paper contributes anything new to the debate is something that is arguable.  We do not have the context of the conference/workshop after which this paper was written to understand the landscape of debates available that point in time.  However, one thing is certain: this paper with its extensive list of references is a treasure-trove for those working on development and the role of NGOs.
References in the order of their appearance in the text:
Duffield M. 2001. Governing the borderlands: decoding the power of aid. Disasters 25(4): 308–320
van der Pijl K. 1998. Transnational Classes and International Relations. Routledge: London
Tvedt T. 1998. Angels of Mercy or Development Diplomats? NGOs and Foreign Aid. James Currey: Oxford
Hudock AC. 1999. NGOs and Civil Society: Development by Proxy? Polity Press: Cambridge
Hoogvelt A. 2001. Globalization and the Postcolonial World: The New Political Economy of Development (2nd edn). Palgrave: Basingstoke
Lynn LE. 1998. The new public management: how to transform a theme into a legacy. Public Administration Review 58(3): 231–237
Mawdsley E, Townsend J, Porter G, Oakley P. 2002. Knowledge, Power and Development Agendas: NGOs North and South. INTRAC: Oxford
Fowler A. 2000. Beyond partnership: getting real about NGO relationships in the aid system. IDS Bulletin of Development Studies 31(3): 1–13
The reflection includes views and ideas expressed by the participants of the reading group on the 4th March 2014, i.e. Dr Siobhan McGrath, Ankit Kumar, Lara Bezzina, Chaoqun Liu, Hanna Ruszczyk, and  Andrew Telford.


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