Monday, March 26, 2007

The Severe Limitations of the NGO Format

Something is wrong. There are more and more organizations on the left. But this plethora of NGO’s does not seem to signify an expansion of action on the left and growing impact on society here in Israel. There are signs that there are other processes at work. The following essay can be seen as an attempt by the writer to set off a serious debate on the organizational paths of the left. (1)

The NGO Format and the Work of the Left
The writer readily admits that he is inspired by an organizational model from the not too distant past. In the broadest sense, progressive content calls for progressive forms of organization. A progressive organization is one in which the exploited, the oppressed and those who have allied themselves with their cause associate for the improvement in their situation. The first requirement is that the group must be independent vis a vis the government and the establishment and able to decide its own policy on the basis of democratic procedure. Its political goals and aims must be expressed openly and it must consider itself free to engage in any lawful activity necessary for the advancement of its declared goals. The group itself provides the main financial support for the work of the organization through dues, contributions and funding campaigns and activities aspiring to create the broadest social network of members and supporters. If it enlists support from outside sources this is done in the name of solidarity. Such support is unconditional and the donors do not presume to supervise or control the organization in any form or fashion. On the contrary, any such attempt or suggestion of control would be considered unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of the group.

This kind of organization that appears so totally utopian in the above description was commonplace in the not so distant past. It was and will be the sign of vibrancy and relevance on the left.

The left in all of its various formations and personifications suffered a serious retreat with the demise of the Soviet Union and other related phenomena. Almost, as if in a parallel development, there was an enormous proliferation of non-governmental organizations, which continues to this very day. Many people saw the appearance of the NGO movement as a satisfactory substitute for the traditional left organizations. Even those who tended to express important reservations were hard pressed to oppose the NGO phenomenon which seemed as a welcome development when so many veteran groups on the left were in a state of retreat and dispersal.

This process also occurred, of course, in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. And the NGO’s in Israel, especially those dealing with subjects and raising demands that are generally considered causes of the left, are the subject of the present inquiry.

I cannot hide my opinion that the NGO operation is a poor substitute for vibrant, fighting organizations of the left. But my skepticism does not change the fact that many fine, wonderful and progressive people who are on the left consider the NGO’s as perfectly valid tools for left wing activity. Therefore, since NGO’s will be around for quite a time and may even be considered the main vehicle for day to day progressive activity, it is time to subject the phenomenon to detailed criticism.

NGO’s: People, Money, Office…Politics
On one end of the scale there are excellent NGO’s, staffed by wonderful and devoted people, who do important work. On the other end, there are also highly problematic NGO outfits, whose output is rather insignificant; the operators have secured their own income and spend their time writing for more grants and composing reports about activities that leave no imprint on the local scene.

Any attempt to create criteria for evaluating the different NGO’s must deal with two central aspects of this kind of organization. External funding is the critical common component of all the groups. This, of course, means that none of the groups is a truly independent entity. Moreover, it is common knowledge that NGO’s are not political and not supposed to participate in politics. They do have political impact but it must be registered under some other the heading of another kind activity such as humanitarian, educational, and advocacy related problems. These limitations on independence and the scope of NGO activity tend to tend to inhibit the action of many NGO’s in times of crisis when the resources of the groups and their membership is critically needed by the community.

Criteria for Evaluating the NGO
The following criteria should be employed in any attempt to evaluate the value and effectiveness of any particular NGO. There are important conceptual and practical differences between NGO’s operating in different fields of activity, so these criteria must be applied with due caution and a readiness for revision. It is hoped that the beginnings of the discussion here will inspire a wider debate among all concerned.

Measurement Is Absolutely Necessary and Always Problematic

We shall proceed in presenting criteria which seem to us central to evaluating the functioning of any NGO group.

People: Membership, Activists, Democracy
Who are the people working out of this NGO? How many non-staff volunteers are involved in the group. Are there members and membership lists? What is the ratio between paid staff members and volunteers? Does the group chart the development of membership and members activities?

The principle that we are trying describe here is very basic:
The main, central and essential goal of the organization should be drawing unorganized individuals into the work of the group. The main work of the staff should be attracting, interesting and helping new/old volunteers carry out the work of the groups.

Membership must be real and must grant real powers in running the organization. People are drawn into the organization in order to further its goals, but they can only sense that the group is their own if they have a genuine democratic role to play in determining policy and how the group functions.

Only the constitution of a clearly-defined membership can avoid the manipulation that comes when it is not clear “who decides.” Regular general meetings of the membership must monitor the work of an elected administration and approve annual reports and [re] elect the leadership.

In summary, the NGO should be devoting its main strength to mobilizing volunteers and empowering them in the administration of the group.

Funding and Staffing
Funding is the heart of NGO activity and its main problem. Obviously, the first duty of any group is to know the identity and the reputation of the funders, since all money is not “kosher.” The next central question is the relation between salaries and operating expenses. If the whole or almost the whole of the budget goes on salaries, then it is obvious that very little efficient work is actually being done. Here, I make the assumption that there is usually a sharp and clear distinction between internal work and work in the field. Simply said, every sustained effort outside of the office is “work in the field” and most of the expenses and most of the time of paid staff and volunteers must be in the field.

The group that wants to believe in its mission should be able to contemplate its continued existence without the bulk of its current funding. The organization should of course work seriously on generating its funds from the conventional sources abroad. But the group must recognize the ever present danger that the means become the goal, and it is the scramble for outside funding which justifies and perpetuates the existence of the organization. Moral and spiritual independence requires of the membership a determination to reach and maintain a modicum of financial and political independence. This spirit is the main guarantee of the group’s ability to transform itself in the face of different circumstances. The central conclusion is that any group worthy of its existence should be devoting serious efforts to local fundraising and covering some part of its budget from “internal sources.” In this respect, it is worth observing that there are many progressive middle class, affluent and even relatively wealthy people who could support progressive activity in the country. It seems that in some ways, the local NGO’s are influenced by the local Israeli mentality which has been conditioned to look abroad for funding without ever looking into its own pockets.

It goes without saying that all financial operations be subject to the most stringent version of regular accounting procedures. The group and its members must be guided by the principle that public funds are sacred and should be treated with a sense of respect.

Is there a policy regarding staffing. One of the danger signals is the existence of one or two “big chiefs” for whom the NGO has become a personal power base. These may be and are usually talented and devoted individuals with a record of devoted service to the goals of the left. But the very fact that it is clear to all concerned that everything rises and falls on the “big chief” means that the NGO is sacrificing, as it were, democracy and values to so-called efficiency. The NGO is usually structured as to become a stronghold for forceful individuals. The problem is that sooner or later this imbalance dis-empowers all others connected to the group. Indeed there is a danger that the NGO reproduces completely (or almost completely) the values and the mechanisms of the society which it is challenging in one form or another. Therefore, policies regarding staff positions, remuneration, work conditions and hiring-firing policies must be declared openly as a basis for the group’s operation.

The Non-NGO’s
It is worth mentioning that even in the period when most groups on the left are NGO’s, the left’s most impressive achievements of come out of groups which are not NGO’s. Women in Black, Yesh Gvul, Ta’ayush, Anarchists Against the Wall, Machsom Watch and the Refusenik movement chose to ignore the “convenience” and the advantages of the NGO’s format. After all is said and done, it is spontaneous moral urgency which is the best motivation for action. The existence of an “office and a staff” and connection with an overseas funding operation, are often an impediment to action.

The Media – Ah, the Media
In a world, where the measurement of effectiveness is indeed difficult and problematic, there is a tendency to over emphasize the importance of media coverage. There is something very ephemeral and even mystifying in counting lines in the press, or seconds on television as proof of effective activity. The point is not that these outlets are not important, but that they can be deceiving and act as a substitute for real action and activity. The tremendous expansion of media outlets has led to a major devaluation in such coverage. Moreover, successful and thoughtful action by the organization can generate coverage without ignoring the most important organizational questions: the educational value, the sense of empowerment, the activization of more and new people.

Respect and Self-Criticism
The writer realizes that he has not dealt with all the important aspects of the question on hand. He also wishes to stress that many devoted and capable people on the left are involved, as a result of circumstances, in NGO work. However, there is also a real danger that for generations to come, the NGO format will appear to be the main or exclusive format for the left’s action. This was and is not true and the main purpose of this article is to remind us that autonomous, independent, politically informed membership-based organization is not a thing of the past, but the hope for the future.

(1) The reader is directed to “The Emergence of a Palestinian Globalized Elite”, Sari Hanafi and Linda Tabar, Muwatin, Jerusalem 2005. See also an important article by Arundhati Roy, Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2006 on problems and limits of NGO’s in third world settings