Nepal: Not many North South NGOs profess faith in solidarity

Professor Chaitanya Mishra

Sociology Department, TU, Nepal

NGO, Civil Society and Government of Nepal

New Predicaments of “Humanitarian” Organization-2

 (Continued from the last issue)

The answer to Henning's second question has to be sought, at least initially, at two mutually interrelated levels, the level of principle and the level of practice.

At the level of principle, a North NGO operating in the South becomes, ipso facto, a North/South NGO or an INGO. This is clear also from the way Henning has framed his emphasis/question. What remains un-said, i.e. what is left unresolved, in Henning’s formulation is the question of whether a South NGO operating in the South (but) in partnership with a North NGO becomes, ipso facto, a South/North NGO as well? I think, it does. Why? Consider the series of political—some might say logical— consequences of a negative answer to the question:

The singularly significant notion of partnership would be rendered inauthentic. A North NGO, by providing a negative answer to the question, would in effect, even if “unknowingly”, be using a South NGO (as an intermediary.) to promote its own politics, policies and programs on an “unwitting, trusting” partner. Partnership, it must be noted at this point, has become the buzzword of INGO-NGO and, often, even donor-NGO relationship. If I were to go further, I would myself not buy the idea either of an “unknowing” North NGO or of an “unwitting, trusting” South NGO. The material and political/ideological forces impinging on the nature of the relationship between a North and a South NGO are aligned in such a way that, under the operating system, it is simply “beneficial” to either of the parties to feign/will such sentiments. I do not wish, at this time, to go any further on this issue save to point out that this specific structure of the relationship between a North and a South NGO is fundamentally rooted in the nature of the present global order. It may also be noted that it is the NGOs themselves, together with the academia perhaps, which need to explore it at a much greater depth.

# The key platform of the ownership of the program would come under serious questioning. Why and how would a South NGO “own” a program it has not formulated itself in the political sense? One could, then, ask: When North-based NGOs call for local-NGO ownership of a program within a partnership relationship, is it only technical or bureaucratic ownership that is being hinted at? Or, is it broader political—and, of course, technical, bureaucratic, financial etc. ownership as well-that we are after? To the extent that it is the commonality in (political) vision that is of prime concern, direct, unmediated participation of the South/North NGOs in the politics/policy-making body of a co-working and co-owning North/South NGO would have to become mandatory. In essence, the politics, policy and program would become a platform that is “North/South-neutral” and bilaterally owned, in which each of the partners would contribute, give and receive.

The key and prized principles of transparency and accountability would come under a heavy cloud. Is it enough for a North/South NGO to become transparent only to its constituency/stakeholders in the North? In other words, is the constituency of a North/South NGO, in relation to transparency, limited to the civil society, donors and, possibly the government, in the North only? Should accountability conceived of, and practiced, within a similar frame suffer a similar fate? I would myself answer all these questions in the negative. Nor is transparency a matter that pertains to the financial domain alone; it has distinct political dimensions as well. Further, why should, and how can, a South NGO remain accountable to the Southern (and, for me, Northern as well) constituency remaining within an agenda in the crystallization and development of which it has really had no effective, un-mediated, voice in?

# The key policy objective of cultural exchange would become seriously vitiated from the outset. Of course, not all North/South NGOs seek to attain this objective. Fulfillment of contractual work—delivery of services in particular, in agreement with larger and financially stronger NGOs, governments, banks, and even transnational companies, is the primary occupation of many North/South NGOs. For such North/South NGOs, a policy objective which falls in the category of cultural exchange, is either too soft or unattainable and, therefore, not worthy of attention. However, we are not concerned here with the “hardware delivery” North/South NGOs either. All that can be said about them here is that they hold dear the implementation of the image of a donor and deliverer, howsoever contradictory it may be to NGO principle and practice. Those North/South NGOs that do profess cultural exchange as a key policy objective—not as a matter of strategy but as an article of principle—on the other hand, are necessarily obliged to internalize a deep and abiding faith in the equality of cultures and peoples. Of course, there can be cultural differences; indeed, that is why one speaks of exchange at all. But, at this juncture of human history, after two hundred years (approximately ten generations) of the triumphal march of the European civilization, it is extremely difficult, for both the South and the North, not to conceive of culture in hierarchical terms. (Nor is a hierarchized conceptualization of cultures limited to the North/South interface alone: My graduate students habitually utilize the hierarchical frame when comparing cultures within Nepal/South Asia as well.) But for those North/South (and South/North) NGOs that do believe in the essential equality of cultures, swimming against the swirling tides is exactly what is called for. As indicated, this is a challenge of the highest order. (For the analysts who are going to content-analyze the various contributions for the completion of the task the think tank has set itself, I can offer you an additional burden!—of further reviewing a sample of related classics: Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth; Edward Said, Orientalism; and Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development.) To turn back to the theme, those who accept the challenge of cultural exchange must, at least in principle, accept that avenues must gradually be opened for a direct, un-mediated and effective voice of a South/North NGOs in the evolution of the politics, policy and program of a partner North/South NGO. In essence, the politics, policy and program must become “North/South-neutral”, bilateral, wherein the North and the South cooperate together, give and receive. This opening-up is intrinsic to a policy objective of cultural exchange. A closure, ipso facto, casts serious doubts on the profession of the cultural-exchange objective.

# Another key platform, that of solidarity, would also come under serious dispute. Again, not many North/South NGOs profess faith in solidarity. For those that do, however, solidarity must imply a collective fashioning of bilateral politics, policies and programs within a partnership frame. A collective fashioning would necessarily imply the entry of the South/North NGOs into the policy-making organs of the North/South NGOs. Obversely, it would also imply a similar stake holding of the North/South NGOs in co-working South/North NGOs.

We can now address the operative part of Henning’s question on “the felt need and practical capabilities of South NGOs for participating in the policy formulation of North/South NGOs like MS”. First, “felt need”. To put it blandly, and as far as my experience goes, an overwhelming proportion of South/North NGOs appears not to have “felt” this need. Substantively, South/North NGOs in this category are precisely those that I characterized as being highly dependent on the North/South NGOs in relation to their “developmental” or “operational” role. Their day-to-day “felt needs” are almost always expressed in terms of financial and technical assistance requirements. Such NGOs merely adapt and adjust to the policies of the North/South NGOs.

Text courtesy: From the book on NGO, Civil Society and Government in Nepal published, 2001, by Sociology and Anthropology Department, TU in cooperation with FES, Nepal office.

PS: I This is a slightly revised version of a paper prepared for the Think-tank on Humanitarian Organizations For the Future”. Copenhagen. Denmark. The earlier version was published in the Danish language with the title “Ny forudsaetninger for de humanitaere organisationer” by the Danish Association for International Cooperation, Copenhagen. in Folke/igt, Festligt—og Forandret: Rapport fra en Taenketank: Bilag in June 2000.

With due permission from  the distinguished author and the publishers. To be concluded: Ed. 

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I agree