Our primary accountability must be to all those struggling for social justice

The following is an excerpt from “NGOs losing war against poverty and climate change, says Civicus head“, an article by Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, published by The Guardian on 11 August 2014. The original article can be found here.

In the last 40 years, we have witnessed an explosion of growth in civil society. There are now up to 4 million charities in India (pdf), 1.5 million in the US and 81,000 international NGOs and networks, 90% of them launched since 1975.

This should be music to my ears. The organisation I lead exists to strengthen civil society and citizen action around the world. So why am I worried? Because this exponential growth, and the institutionalisation and professionalisation that has accompanied it, has some serious downsides.

Sure, we’re winning battles here and there, but we’re losing the war; the war against poverty, inequality, exclusion and climate change. Too many of us who work in organised bits of civil society – including myself – have become removed from the forces that drive deep social change; from the causes that first inspired us. In devoting our energies to designing log-frames and reporting to donors, we’ve become mired in bureaucracy.

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photo: Ahmet Ersoy, for WINGS

For better or worse, the biggest NGOs today look and act like multinational corporations. The largest of them employ thousands of workers around the world and their annual budgets reach hundreds of millions. They have corporate-style hierarchies and brands worth millions. Saving the world has become big business.

And big isn’t always bad; just as small isn’t necessarily beautiful. But it’s the effect of these trends on global citizen action that should unsettle us. We – civil society – have been co-opted into economic and institutional processes in which we are being outwitted and out-manoeuvred. Our conception of what is possible has narrowed dramatically. Since demonstrating bang for your buck has become all-important, we divide our work into neat projects, taking on only those endeavours that can produce easily quantifiable outcomes. Reliant on funding to service our own sizeable organisations, we avoid approaches or issues that might threaten our brand or upset our donors. We trade in incremental change.

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.

To bring about radical political change, we need to build from below. We need to help communities organise and drive change. We need more Arab Springs, but we need them to endure. Organised civil society must prioritise meeting the challenge of how we can build upon these sudden upsurges of social energy without suffocating them. When peaks of protest are connected to long-term action, temporary shifts in power have a far greater chance of becoming permanent gains in democracy, equality and freedom. Continue reading here.

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