Image from a World Bank study showing how migration trumps any NGO intervention.
Sri Lanka in particular is full of interest groups claiming to represent the poor or certain races or groups. I don’t think it works. Representative democracy barely functions, and representation based on good intentions is even worse.
At the end of the day, the system only works if people are able to represent themselves. That’s an incremental, often generational process. You need to get a job, send your kids to school and hope that they have a better life. Or send yourself to school. Nobody can do that for you.
In the Sri Lanka case, there’s nothing the international community or NGOs can do to push rights or democracy beyond empowering the citizens who can actually vote or protest. And for them empowerment may not mean the same abstract rights and institutions that the NGOs imagine, it could just mean a job.
Seriously, most people I meet want a better job (or education) but I’ve met exactly zero people who mention human rights training, or anything abstract. Not that these things aren’t important, but they’re not necessarily important to them. I’m veering into speaking for people, so let’s limit this to people the non-representative Indi has met in his grandmother’s village and, say, Menik Farm. Actually, let’s go ahead and limit it to two people. I know someone in Agalwatte and someone in Vavuniya and they both want jobs. The latter didn’t care directly about democracy (or other words) and the former I didn’t ask. I could be wrong about the not caring, but I’m pretty sure I’m right that people care about having a job more.
Personally, I think NGOs and foreign donors would be better paying people to dig holes and fill them up than hiring expensive Master’s graduates to design and administer specific interventions. I also think that foreign government would do better to allow one person from a village to immigrate and send remittances than to bring in three foreign experts to develop a particular village. It certainly seems more cost-effective.
I also think that intellectual elites demanding things from government elites on behalf of the impoverished is a bad loop. It starts with good intentions, but it trickles down to nothing. Personally, I think that advocacy groups would do better to walk around with a recorder, record people’s issues and complaints, translate and forward them to government officials and media and back off. The current model is to convert their voices into statistics and have their stories narrated by people who studied conflict for years in New York. I once asked someone from the UN once why they needed to get paid so much, and they said because their degree cost so much. Wha? Neither cost nor content effective.
Basically, I think empowerment means integrating human beings with the normal economy, administration and media, not going over everybody’s heads.
How I Got Here
Anyways, I was reading this article by Pranab Bardhan in the Boston Review called Who Represents the Poor? The Limits of the NGO Movement in Global Development.
He’s talking about the issue more in the Indian context, but he makes some interesting points.
Activists who romanticize the pristine life of the poor and the indigenous, and ignore a great deal of misery and stagnation, should keep in mind that the horrors of capitalism fade in comparison with the horrors of pre-capitalism. To be sure, the citizens’ rights-based approach of the activists (as opposed to the dole approach of the welfare state) has much to commend itself. It serves to raise consciousness among the poor and the vulnerable about their entitlements, and remind them that they are not mere supplicants to politicians and bureaucrats. In a weak administrative and institutional context, however, the NGO approach of uncompromising support for citizen’s rights can cause more harm than good. If the structure for implementing some of these rights is weak and corrupt, then the rights are hollow and promoting them breeds cynicism.
Chris Blattman agrees, writing
The point is that advocacy and NGOs are not a substitute for social compacts and democratic discourse and compromise, slow and messy and full of setbacks though it may be.
You might say “well of course the NGOs and advocacy folks know that.” To which I respond, “you might be right, but you could have fooled me.”
So yeah, I don’t agree with the knee-jerk reaction against NGOs, but I get that there’s a rational concern behind it. They look effective on a case-by-case basis, but they’re not actually laying a foundation for generation concern. That has to come from normal processes like migration, economic integration, education and employment that enable people to support and ultimately represent themselves.