An uncomfortable conversation about the gulf between CSOs and the ultra-marginalized. Can it be bridged?

February 7, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Spent an enjoyable day last week in The Hague (see yesterday’s post). No I wasn’t on trial, I was opening a conference on ‘Pushing the Boundaries in Advocacy for Inclusion’ (my slides here). The good thing about opening an event is that you can then relax and listen and learn. And as this was a day on ultra marginalized groups – mainly people with disabilities (PWDs) – not my area, I learned a lot. Some impressions:

Not sure if it is something about the Netherlands, or about the disability movement, but there is a strikingly prominent role for academic research and evidence in shaping policy and raising questions for advocates and campaigners. Take a look at the work of the Breaking Down Barriers research programme, where Willem Elbers works, or the Participatory Assessment of Development programme led by Ton Dietz, who also spoke at the conference.

That research has revealed some uncomfortable findings on the inability of NGOs and the wider aid sector to really reach the ultra poor (including a PWDs). Some Dutch NGOs have said OK, let’s give up and work with entrepreneurs instead; others have decided to double down.

But what they then find is often ‘advocacy capture’ by local, self-proclaimed spokespeople for various hyper-marginalized groups, who are in fact very far away from the ultra poor. In those circumstances, what looks (from a distance) like localization can actually exacerbate (not tackle) tokenism and invisibility. Ouch.

Willem Elbers’ research finds that advocacy supported by donors and INGOs tends to assume that projects drive change, while overlooking marginalised people and their movements. Yet, those movements are often so weak and fragmented, eg between people of different impairment types, that it’s hard to build solidarity. For example, visually impaired people are often better organized and resourced, and not that keen to cooperate with other groups of PWDs.

Elbers argues that outside NGOs can help overcome that by ‘convening and brokering’ conversations between people with different kinds of disability and non-PWD groups, leading to innovative forms of alliance.

Willem also pointed out that the emphasis on political and legal change in current advocacy debates obscures the importance of much-needed personal change of persons with disabilities. Many PWDs have internalized the societal view that ‘disability is inability’. Their low sense of self-worth prevents them from questioning their situation while limiting their assertiveness and mobilization.

The other thing that happens at conferences on a topic where you know little is that you have some jaw-dropping moments, like the Nigerian activist who came up to me in the break and told me about her organization’s work with people with dementia, who have no-one to care for them, and when they wander off, risk being accused of witchcraft and lynched. Blimey. Anyone know if this is widespread?

The honest self-doubt extended across the whole day (these are my kind of people). It revealed some inherent contradictions in the way social movements emerge and evolve. There seems to be an evolutionary cycle here, with drivers and risks at different stages:

Social Movements cohere around short-term protests, or emerging new identities (often splintering off from other host movements and organizations). Others focus on long-term survival and self-help outside the state.

As they mature, many decide to turn to long-term advocacy, for which they need to institutionalise to ensure capacity, stability, sustainability etc. Advocacy requires charismatic leaders who can connect with decision makers and the public (another of Elbers’ research findings). But that carries risks of organizations becoming ‘Briefcase NGOs’ chasing the next grant, or of political capture by political parties or leaders.

Is there a vaccine that can prevent this kind of decay? Institutional design and the level of inclusivity and internal democracy must help. But another key issue is the way these transitional organizations are funded – whether the arrival of aid money exacerbates hierarchies and power inequalities.

I fear the aid business has not done well in this regard, contributing to the erosion of social movements, and in some places to their replacement by (or transformation into) NGOs that are more about job creation (‘carpe per diem’) than social change.

How to do better? Many of the usual answers, I guess – give money in small, unconditional amounts, not big, heavily tied grants that squeeze the life out of an organization. Focus more on the ‘enabling environment’ than specific projects, eg by investing in new generations of leaders, or building the capacity for domestic fund raising (to reduce aid dependence).

Overall, it feels like the aid sector is at a crossroads. I hear the same criticisms and pleas for change in many separate discussions, which I faithfully recount on this blog. Two options: find a way to turn these insights into practice, and do aid better; or ignore the evidence, carry on with business as usual that does less good (and some harm) and risk discrediting the whole enterprise.

February 7, 2020
Duncan Green