Thursday, 4 August 2011

If you build it and they don't come

TalesfromtheHood is annoyed. Annoyed by three things.There are too many NGOs, NGO-style development doesn't work and provincialism. Mostly (*deep breathe and furtive look to check that no-one is watching*) I agree.

Except that sometimes it does work. NGO-style development. Not in the meta-sense of manipulating the development and functioning of markets and growth. But if one considers the poor as ordinary people who have just the same likelihood of succeeding or failing at whatever venture they attempt as anyone else... This is the general concern with the NGOs are 'saviours' to 'end poverty' for 'the poor' paradigm. I am increasingly uncomfortable with this narrative, especially the more I meet and work with poor people. But if one considers 'the poor' as active agents deciding their own fate then NGOs that play a role in increasing the options available to those neglected by the market, then NGOs are achieving something because 'the poor' (oh, how I hate that term) are more likely to be able to make the choices that best suit for them. NGOs are not saving anyone, they are (should be?) offering services to clients who can choose to take up those services or not.

And in that scenario, the number of NGOs becomes a feature of competition. Market forces should weed out those that are not providing a service that people want, either because there is no demand for it or because the inferior customer-service drives clients elsewhere.

There are too many NGOs because the measure of whether an NGO is allowed (through donor funding) to go on delivering a service in an area is not whether clients want it but politics, reputation or (it sometimes feels like) how well-known the brand is. The only way we get fewer NGOs in the development sector is if funders stop funding 'great ideas' that the people on the ground demonstrably do not want. If you build it and they don't come, it's time to close down and try something else.

This all, of course, is completely different to aid. Development NGOs provide service or options to those whose choices are constrained by poverty, usually because poverty excludes them from market or government services and options. Aid supports those whose choices have been removed as a result of natural or man-made disasters. Which, for the record, seems to suggest that the same large organisations would have to have pretty general missions and rather vague focus to be able to do both effectively.

On the Provincialism, I really do agree. No-one is going to prevent business hiring excellent managers out of one country to start up or run operations in another. This is more complicated than business.

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