Re-Designing The World

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about for some time, and finally had a talk about it with a sociologist friend last night. It is my opinion that the current operating structure of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) is insufficient and ultimately destined to fail. Experience has shown that grassroots efforts, i.e. agencies and programmes born directly of the target population’s stated needs and fueled by their energies and manpower, are the most potent and ultimately sustainable. They are also, for the most part, the most ethical, since the agendas of external donors and managers are mostly kept out. This is why when we started our tsunami relief agency in Sri Lanka, we chose the grassroots model.

But anyone who’s ever visited an NGO-colonized nation, like India or Guyana (places whose NGO culture I know a lot about), quickly realizes that each agency is a monolith and that the plurality of NGOs acts in loco of the state, performing services that the state is supposed to provide. The result? A culture that obviates the need for the state to take responsibility for its people. NGOs are supposed to be an intermediate step between crisis and stability. Instead, they have become the norm and the first stop for anyone in one of these countries seeking a service.

Complicating this scenario is the nightmare of donor coordination. In Guyana, for example, our project, spearheaded by the CSIH NGO and funded by the Canadian government, found some of its services being duplicated by an American-funded enterprise that arrived a year later. The Guyanese government wasn’t about to complain, since their funding was effectively doubled. And since funding of each enterprise by its sponsor government is a bureaucratic process, it’s near impossible to re-task the project after it’s been greenlit. Thus, it became a Herculean task to get all the local NGOs together for monthly meetings to minimize overlap and to make sure we were all on the same page.

So there are many forces conspiring to prevent a unified national presence in any country, among them competing donor agendas, each NGO’s political slant (an abstinence programme has little overlap with a pro-condom programme), the host nation’s own power trips, and the mind-dumbing bureaucracy that coordination often entails.

Yet I maintain that we need to compel the evolution of NGO “colony” to state-run services, or else forever be tied to this unacceptable donor-recipient relationship with the developing world. I’m interested in exploring new models of NGO governance, new models for building communities of NGOs and for facilitating the transfer of NGO best practices into state policy, to encourage the eventual transfer of complete service delivery responsibility to a better equipped and empowered host government. And I’m serious about this. If we as a concerned community can assemble a viable methodology, I would very much like to implement it as a test case in any number of possible nations which might benefit from this approach.

So please think about this and send me your ideas. If there’s enough interest and a critical mass of enthusiastic thinkers, then the formation of a working group is not out of the question. This is an example of how the blogosphere might actually positively affect the world in a real physical sense.