Note to Development NGOs: Time to become a Don Juan, not a Don Quixote.

22/08/2013 at 8:45 pm 1 comment

By Jolein Baidenmann and Maaike Blom, who are partners at ISDuurzaam consultancy, working on issues of international cooperation and sustainability.

The Irish Government’s new Policy for International Development highlights the role of civil society organisations in the delivery of services to marginalised groups in society and in raising awareness of global development challenges at home.  And it sees a ‘watchdog’ role for NGOs and other civil society groups in the promotion of transparency, accountability and human rights.

In this article, Jolein Baidenmann and Maaike Blom advocate a new role for the development sector. Instead of fighting like a Don Quixote against alleged perpetrators of injustice, the sector should aim to be a ‘seducer’, a Don Juan.


The global challenges of climate change, resource scarcity and poverty are large – and many in the private sector are arguing that increased trade is having a clear positive impact on them. NGOs are not so sure, and some argue that civil society should be ready to scrutinise the activities of multinationals and governments.

We advocate that the Development sector should interpret its watchdog role in a way that is broader than simply pointing the finger when something somewhere goes wrong. We argue that NGOs should position themselves as a virtual ‘Don Juan’, instead of a ‘Don Quixote’, by offering an attractive alternative vision of the future and seducing relevant parties to act positively towards the achievement of that vision.

A first task for the development community, then, is to interpret. NGOs must seek to explain to the public how global resource scarcity is intrinsically linked with energy supply in Europe, with the land grabbing activities of emerging powers such as China, the impact on biodiversity in Latin America and with rising food prices in Africa, for instance.

Secondly, NGOs must offer an inviting prospect. This is perhaps the main challenge for civil society in Europe: formulating an attractive vision for the future, a picture of how ‘the world we want‘ might look. And this needs to be an attractive picture to all relevant partners, not only to NGO’s.

This vision for the future – and this profound understanding of global linkages – can then determine our course of action; What are the leverage points that are strong enough to affect change in a large, global system? Who are the ‘movers and shakers’ and at what level do they have influence?

The next step is the ‘seduction’ of those levers and groups able to change the parameters – by making a concrete proposal for action.

We use the terms ‘seduction’, as our vision and proposals for change need to include an attractive perspective for the other parties. Which means we must learn to think like the people we want to convince – Speak their language, understand their interests and desires. And we must learn to quantify the benefits to society, also in terms we don’t often use, such as financial benefits and actual business cases for the parties involved.

If we base our work on this clear vision of what buttons need pushing, and of the constraints under which other sectors operate, then we can play our watchdog role in a seductive, effective and honest way.

For a watchdog does not always have to act as a hot-tempered terrier; it can also be benign Irish setter, who can pull you a few meters along, without you really noticing it.

This article first appeared in Dutch on

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