Are NGOs the answer to global poverty or climate change?
Earlier this month, a group of some of the most influential thinkers in global civil society wrote an open letter to their fellow NGO leaders. One of them, Danny Sriskandarajah, wrote about the letter in the Guardian shortly afterwards. They asked whether the growing – possibly now gargantuan – NGO movement has lost its way.
Danny put it this way:
“And so we find ourselves reinforcing the social, economic and political systems we once set out to transform. We have become part of the problem, rather than the solution. Our corporatisation has steered us towards activism-lite, a version of our work rendered palatable to big business and capitalist states. Not only does this approach threaten no one in power, but it stifles grassroots activism with its weighty monoculturalism.”
Trade unionists are familiar – possibly over-familiar – with such debates. Should we be agents for fundamental change or more concerned with day-to-day improvements in working people’s working lives? How far do we accommodate to the system that runs our members’ lives and how far should we dare to demand systemic change? Are we insiders emphasising the achievable or do we follow the 1960s situationists whose iconic slogan was ‘be realistic, demand the impossible’?
Unions, of course, do all of that and more, but one key difference between us and most of the major NGOs which allows us to bestride both sides of the debate is that we are membership organisations deriving most of our income – or at least the most significant element that keeps us functioning and therefore independent – from our members. The open letter correctly identifies the relationship with donors (by which the letter means governmental institutions or major philanthropic organisations, but a similar point could be made about individual charitable givers) as a major problem, and the disconnect with the intended beneficiaries likewise.
Basically, they accuse the sector of selling its soul, for the best of reasons, to those who provide the money. And as trade unions have always known, while people may occasionally give away fractions of their wealth, no one ever gave up power voluntarily, no matter how good the log frame or critical path analysis in the funding application!
Is this just navel-gazing? One key point made in Danny’s Guardian article was that revolutions like the Arab Spring need to be sustainable. And there is one country where Spring is still at least surviving if not yet relaxing into Summer: Tunisia. Is it a coincidence that this was the country that already had a robust trade union movement able to give form to the revolutionary ardour? The role of the UGTT in not only leading the mass protests that overthrew the old regime of Ben Ali, but then peacefully replacing the islamist government that replaced him, so different from the course of events in Egypt, suggests that trade unionism may be what made the difference.
Tunisia was a long way to go, of course. Its economy has still not recovered let alone leapt forward. Its women are still not free, if saved from the slide into deeper oppression that islamist government seemed to presage. The revolution still feels more real in the urbane capital of Tunis than the rest of the country. But we should learn the lesson that the Tunisian people made their own revolution, and it was the trade union movement there that defended its ideals, not the foreign intervention of governments or well-intentioned NGOs. It may well be a model for the global trade union movement, for democrats everywhere, and for the increasingly professionalised and sanitised NGO movement.
Jay Naidoo, the founding General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), was another author of the letter, and he is delivering the keynote speech to the annual meeting of the British overseas NGO movement, BOND, this November. It will be interesting to see what he tells them, and how they react.
Hat-tip to Martin Drewry at Health Poverty Action for drawing the open letter to my attention.