Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Uglier Side of NGOs

The NGO world is a funny place. There are many successful, well-meaning organizations like mothers2mothers (I’m drinking the Kool-Aid—I loved it before I even started, and the more I learn, the more enamored I become of m2m), but for every good deed and success story, there’s another organization that is not always so well intentioned or is so dysfunctional that it hurts more than it helps. I do not mean to point fingers at any specific group or groups—this is all accepted knowledge in the NGO world, and there are lots of excellent articles about the problems that come with the territory.

Some organizations try to stay in business, never actually solving a problem so much as keeping cushy jobs, nice houses, and drivers. Others mean well but do not have themselves set up in a way so as to be effective and can even do more damage when they don’t have the resources, knowledge, expertise, and support to do what they set out to do. Many organizations close because they don’t have enough money and leave a vacuum behind them of clients who no longer have the support that they needed and local staff out of jobs and in need of the same services that have now disappeared. A huge problem is that are limited funds out there for organizations to snap up—and competition between rival NGOs can be beyond fierce—it can be dirty, corrupt, and downright nasty. This is the nature of the job. But it’s sickening at times to hear stories of the lengths that some organizations will go to in order to sabotage competitors.

There’s no solution, probably—it’s the nature of the world we live in. NGOs are not immune to the ugliness that occurs in the private sector merely because they are doing something for the benefit of others. When businesses close, there’s often a reason—there isn’t a market or demand for their services, or the business had bad luck, or there were too many competitors, or they didn’t do a good job at what they offered. It’s the same with NGOs, and the closure of both of these tends to have serious ramifications in the communities in which they operate. NGOs, however, are often serving people that are lacking basic necessities—food, clean water, housing, medical care. NGOs have of course suffered in the current economic climate—donors aren’t giving as much as they used to, endowments have shrunk as the stock market fluctuates, and governmental grants are smaller, or cut completely.

Anyway, all the same, despite the fact that competition is unavoidable in the NGO world, it still leaves a bad aftertaste. There has to be some way that we can work together instead of tearing each other down—two different NGOS working to prevent and treat TB, for example, are both trying to accomplish the same thing. Maybe it’s naïve, but I wish I didn’t have to keep hearing and reading about these ugly behind-the-scenes disputes.

Then again, when an NGO is truly hurting more than helping, it needs to close—it should recognize this fact on its own and bow out with dignity, but there comes a time when others need to step in. Incompetency is too dangerous, too damaging, to allow it to continue.

It can be hard to see beyond your own organization, to see both sides of an issue, especially when all you hear are nasty stories about the other side or feel that you’re being attacked. But it’s time that NGOs looked beyond their own borders and saw how they fit into the global community of those who do work for the betterment of humankind. If they’re doing harm and cannot self-correct, they should step aside. If they can cooperate instead of compete with other organizations, they should reach out and offer the olive branch. And most importantly, organizations need to realize that the ultimate goal, the best-case scenario, is working themselves out of a job, out of a country, out of existence, instead of trying to sustain their presence at the cost of curing the ills that they target. Imagine what it would be like to say “I used to work in HIV prevention, but we’ve been able to achieve an HIV-free generation, and my services are no longer needed.” The NGO community cannot be truly sustainable until organizations are able to do these things. We will not truly claim that we work for the benefit of humankind if we cannot set aside the ego and whatever else divides us.

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