When a windstorm blows, roots are strained and grass wilts. Most non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are caught between uplifting gusts of funding and the anchoring tug of their own ideals and those of the people they serve.
Few NGOs in poor countries rely on local member contributions. When foreign funding comes, do they lose their ties to the marginalized communities they serve, causing their vision of social change to wither and die out?
In 2009, I did field research in Nicaragua to find out. As a fellow for an aid efficacy organization, Beyond Good Intentions, I sought to find and profile innovative NGOs working for social change.
I was optimistic. After all, Nicaragua was the international symbol of grassroots mobilization after the Sandinista revolution in 1979. I interviewed almost 60 NGO staff, volunteers and recipients in 16 local NGOs.
Unfortunately, I found that times have changed. Today, foreign-funded NGOs give their opinions on policy issues almost daily in the media. Membership organizations -- sustained mainly by member contributions -- are practically nonexistent and voiceless nationally.
Why does it matter whether NGOs or membership organizations take the national stage?
To understand, picture the world through an NGO director's eyes. Without grants, your staff goes without pay. You have principles, but it's no secret that these are flexible. You are passionate about the poor and marginalized you serve, but they have no vote in the boardroom. When you take funding, every problem you address must fit with the donor's ever-changing priorities, have a solution with quantifiable results, and be solvable within the 2 to 5-year project cycle.
Yet real social justice for those without power is rarely a priority for those donors with power. Worse, it is hard to quantify and it takes generations to achieve.
So, should we be limited to the possibilities imagined by a donor -- or NGO -- in a boardroom? I think not.
Nicaragua presents a paradox. NGOs have been largely unable to stem the broader political-economic hurricane that has ravaged the country since 1990. In a society once shaken by grassroots mobilization many people remain complacent in the face of suffering.
In 1990, the new government slashed Sandinista-era state social welfare in favor of free market reforms. Donors moved funding from the state to NGOs. A non-native species, NGOs have only proliferated since. Meanwhile, grassroots membership organizations have gone fallow as they tried to compete.
Inequality and poverty skyrocketed after 1990 and have remained incredibly high. The World Bank estimates that the richest 10 percent of Nicaraguans own 41 percent of the wealth, and the poorest 10 percent own only 1.4 percent.
Despite this injustice, public apathy was the most common concern among NGO staff I interviewed. Public opinion studies only confirm this sentiment. They show a dramatic and steady decline in public engagement in organizations (of all types) since 1990.
While NGOs may not have been the initial cause, they have been instrumental in reinforcing passivity. There are two mechanisms at work here: NGOs substitute the state and crowd out membership organizations.
NGO staff rail against cuts to state social welfare services. Yet they invariably scurry to collect the morsels of funding from donors to provide a scattered set of services to compensate. Nicaraguans now have a choice: organize for a better future or go to an NGO for a better present?
At the same time, NGOs have crowded out membership organizations. Organizers are given a choice. They must decide whether to organize on a shoestring for uncertain benefits tomorrow or volunteer with an NGO and implement projects for their community today.
Given the choices, it should not come as a shock that grassroots organizers now talk in terms of foreign funding and projects. They rally their community for projects, workshops and marches planned in NGO offices. They have become NGO project delivery systems. Citizens dismiss the government as a lost cause and go to NGOs. The status quo remains constant.
How can we change this? For short-term needs, we can encourage NGOs to actively enhance government services, rather than substituting them. Health Alliance International, in our backyard, is a fine example. More fundamentally, we can push NGOs to become formally accountable to membership organizations that are firmly planted in local communities. The Zapatista movement in Mexico has pioneered this approach.
To be sure, membership organizations have their problems too. They often lack professional skills and capacities. Yet they more than compensate with a vision, stamina, and urgency for change that only those weathering the day-to-day effects of injustice can muster.
However, the expertise of NGOs can benefit membership organizations. Who else would analyze the effects of the Central America Free Trade Agreement's (CAFTA) "free trade" on Nicaragua? Nevertheless, NGOs have been unable to propose real alternatives to the failed political-economic model in Nicaragua because they fear losing funding.
A few thousand professionals can never compare to the strength and vision of an organized public, in Nicaragua or elsewhere. If we encourage NGOs to be accountable to membership organizations, we can perk up drooping civil societies with fresh, nourishing ideas and the energy of millions.