An Ode to Effective NGOs
By Hans Zomer
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to address the AGM of one of our bigger member organisations. It was a great opportunity to get to know better one of our 46 members.
I reminded people that our members represent a great diversity of backgrounds, ways of working, specialisations and perspectives, and that such diversity is a sign of strength, not of duplication. Development NGOs represent ordinary citizens – people in Ireland that do not want to remain passive in the face of poverty, injustice. People who believe that working together works. People who share a belief that fighting poverty is about redressing imbalances; Imbalances in power, access, participation, fairness. A belief that poor people, and poor communities, deserve a voice.
I also spoke of the rapid, fundamental changes that our sector is experiencing, arising from such diverse factors as the MDGs, the “Aid Effectiveness” agenda, the changing concepts of the roles of the private sector/ the State / civil society, and the erosion of faith in institutions/authorities. Throw in economic crisis in the mix, and it means we are on the defensive, and that the “golden age” of NGOs may well be over.
Then I returned to my favourite theme that in Development, good intentions are not enough. Our work is impacting on other people’s lives, and we therefore have a moral imperative to do more than “our best”; NGOs must aspire to always adhere to the highest ethical standards, and ensure that they always act professionally. It is precisely because they are active in a “business of the heart”, that professionalism, accountability and responsibility are required. If aid is given badly, it can hurt the very people it is supposed to help. (See eg. the recent reports about clerical sex abuse in Africa)
And that is why the members of Dóchas have spent much time discussing what “smart aid” looks like. What works, and what doesn’t?
In recent decades, collectively, we have learned many lessons. But very often we have failed to apply those lessons, and we have failed to fully share those lessons with others.
Too often, people and organisations are re-inventing the wheel, or worse, denying that the equivalent of new wheels are needed. The NGO sector prides itself of its ability to innovate, but in reality, we have not demonstrated as much creativity, curiosity and innovation as we should have.
And we have let a situation arise where those that are the loudest and brashest are often seen by the general public to be the best at what they do.
When we all know that good development work is largely invisible. Good development is not about logos, brochures, sound bites – it is about making a real difference, a lasting difference. Not necessarily doing, but making space for others to act. Not simply addressing the symptoms, but the root causes of poverty and injustice.
Good aid is not about giving, but about encouraging. Aid is about empowering people, giving a voice to the voiceless. Allowing people to take control over their own lives. Harnessing the strength of people power.
And that is why I believe in the work of NGOs.
And it is also why NGOs can, and must, do better.