Review of “The Earthscan Reader on NGO Management”: The Role of NGOs in Sustainable Development and Heritage Management around the World

This text on NGO management is an edited collection of essays focusing on issues in the goals, efficacy, structure and administration of non-governmental development organizations (NGDOs), and is itself organized in a textbook-like fashion, with an apparent audience of people already immersed in NGOs.  As a result, it succeeds in incorporating both breadth and depth on the topic, but is at times rather dense in style.  Additionally, these essays mostly discuss patterns in NGO behavior and experiences, rather than focusing on individual case studies, which was surprising.  Overall, though, this book provides a thorough portrayal of many of the challenges that NGDOs have faced in recent years – some only in an implicit manner by way of the language and assumptions that authors use throughout their discussions of these organizations.  Many of these points, both those explicitly and implicitly addressed in the text, indicate that NGDOs often struggle to acquire or maintain their legitimacy in the areas in which they practice, but that their cultural contexts at home often easily lead to misplaced high expectations for the degree to which they can affect change in their areas of practice.

This is based on a great many factors, some of which I will address here.  To begin with, it is clear that the concept of NGOs as (usually) organizations that extend from wealthier and more stable societies in Europe and America into poorer areas of the world in order to provide aid money and services is an outgrowth of Christian ideals of charity work, complete with the benefits and contradictions that come with that history.  More specifically, NGOs work under the premise that it is necessary and right to work in these less privileged areas, distributing funds and resources in a manner highly reminiscent of alms-giving, along with other activities that had been carried out almost entirely by religious groups for centuries before the relatively recent growth of secularism in Europe and America.  By pointing out this assumption, I am not arguing that such charity work is inherently misguided at all times; however, I was struck by the fact that apparently more of the success stories alluded to throughout this text took place in other regions whose cultural history included a comparable structure for charitable activities run by comparable organizations (Catholic communities in Latin America and Muslim communities in India, for example), in contrast to the greater number of allusions to struggles for long-term success in regions with historically radically-different social and religious structures (such as some regions of Africa).

Although I nowhere saw the above correlation explicitly addressed in any one essay, this pattern made me wonder if there was a causal relationship between the greater ease with which these organizations found in-field support and built long-term bonds with local communities, on the one hand, and the possible pre-established expectation in those cultures that aid organizations are acceptable, useful and even welcome parts of society.  If so, then that would mean that NGDOs in those areas could increase their effectiveness by building on elements of shared cultural expectations.  In contrast, those in regions of the world that historically have a different approach to charity would need to significantly shift how they structure their activities and communicate with local powers and stakeholders in order to achieve greater acceptance by the relevant social groups, thereby likely increasing their level of success.  For example, in Hindu communities in India, where the conception of poverty as a karmically earned condition has created a common historical resistance to charity work on the scale and in the form that Euro-Americans conceive of it, NGOs would need to have a drastically different approach to convincing local authorities of the need to assist the poor than they would in other societies that encourage charity in their own right.

Relatedly, discussions in these articles often referenced the role of “Northern NGOs,” the relatively new rise of “Southern NGOs,” and the discrepancies between North and South (on a global scale, I gather), with no reference to East and West (which is a distinction I am much more used to hearing, actually).  Although I did not find any significant discussion of how these groups of NGOs approach their work in different ways, there were several implications of how Northern NGOs have begun to feel threatened by the increase of NGOs based in the regions of the Global South, perhaps due to the fact that these latter organizations can more easily understand the subtleties of the environment in which they work and make stronger contacts there sooner, given the fact that most of these at least start by operating in their home region.  Such organizations, in those moments that they succeed where outsider organizations have failed, highlight fields of irrelevance or disconnect for Northern NGOs.  As a result, some have called for the latter to focus more on their own home countries, as even relatively well-off nations continue to have problems with economic disparity and unequal opportunities at home.  I expect that, although such a move would require a significant shift in operations and expectations, it would also allow more of these organizations to function successfully based on integration with their target clientele, given the higher ease of operating close to home on numerous fronts (culturally, financially, etc.), fewer obstacles to mutual understanding, and greater opportunities for accountability, the last of which, in particular, I saw repeatedly called for throughout this text.

Alternatively, another approach that could increase the effectiveness of aid work in a related fashion would be to focus more on operating with more local groups (Southern NGOs or constituents) to address more clearly the concerns of those locals and how they would prefer to receive aid, here meaning long-term help, rather than primarily only funding that often gets lost in the shuffle of bureaucracy or corruption.  As several of the authors in this text suggest, by better balancing the degree to which NGOs work within the system of their target location (whether in their home countries or abroad), on the one hand, and the degree to which they intentionally function as outsiders who are inherently grounded in Euro-American traditions and resources, on the other, NGOs may be able to further their involvement in change towards more positive conditions for their target constituents.  This could occur as the result of greater incorporation of otherwise disparate approaches to value systems, social structures, viable infrastructures, and even conceptions of what change itself should mean and how it can come about.

And such a shift appears to be crucial to NGOs developing and maintaining any ability to assist with productive changes in their target societies.  Indeed, NGOs may be discussed in more popular media as noble agencies with great powers to bring equal human rights and opportunities to “barbaric” or impoverished areas of the world in a non-partisan fashion, but the actual forms of their successes differ notably from such images, and with a much higher level of governmental funding and influence than is widely known.  Apparently, NGOs with specific visions to help on smaller tasks than the broad concept of human rights or democracy tend to have more reasonable timelines, greater success in coordinating with local powers to promote the changes with which the NGOs hope to assist, and more likelihood to actually work with local interests in a way that could lead to longer-term results.  This is in contrast to those organizations whose goals are so lofty as to be impossible to enact in any kind of sustainable fashion, as such goals often would require too many elements of the target society to change more rapidly than is reasonable to expect; this may be true of those hoping to bring America’s version of democracy to the Middle East any time soon, for example.

This is not to say that components of unequal societies cannot change: for instance, an Afghani girl I knew in college has returned to Afghanistan and, inspired by her own life-long struggle against the Taliban for education and by her experiences witnessing the opportunities for education in America, has begun both a boarding school for girls and a related organization dedicated to increasing understanding about the importance of educating females as well as males on a global scale – and she has already met with some success.  But in her case, she is a woman from the area, who knows the region and culture’s challenges and beauties better than any American likely could, and therefore she is able to give her own NGO the insight and legitimacy that would be hard for an outsider to match.  Similarly, her organization does receive funding from a range of sources in America and Europe, but since it is primarily driven in person by Afghani women seeking to assist other Afghani women, the accountability in place seems to be to themselves and the women they help, instead of primarily to a foreign funding government, as in the case of many other NGOs that struggle to succeed when the needs of their targeted constituents do not match the desires of their funding sources overseas.  Moreover, this organization has specific goals, tasks, needs, and relevant communities, along with a focus on the immediate education of girls and long-term shifts in how their communities value those girls as human beings with potential, which I expect helps this organization to function more in accordance with that focus through reasonable steps along a long-term path.

Since the fields of aid work mentioned in this text that seem to face greater challenges for long-term success are those that lack strong frames of reference in the receiving community for the concept that an NGO is trying to promote, I question the degree to which NGOs focusing on heritage preservation can succeed in affecting their targets in way that the organizations would consider sustainable and the locals would consider useful, as, in many areas of the world, heritage preservation and sustainability are both imported concepts from Europe and America with little history of existing in the form Euro-American preservationists tend to conceive.  For example, with the WMF’s work in Angkor, they have managed to physically stabilize several architectural structures that architectural and cultural historians consider quite significant, and have attempted to work with the local administration to promote tourism controls that will help reduce damage to the structures in the future.  However, there are enough stories and photos (including from the WMF themselves) to indicate that without the local administration valuing the site in the same fashion and with the same goals as the preservationists, they lack the incentive to handle the tourists in the way the WMF would consider physically sustainable for the site.  Moreover, this heritage-preservation focused NGO has a fairly different point of view on how people should interacted with the sites, even locals who want to live near, worship at or use the sites for various other purposes for which they may not have been intended either initially or by the preservationists, such as hanging wet cloths on restored stone carvings.  While such discrepancies remain between the NGO and those regularly interacting with the sites that the WMF manages (tourists, controlling administrators, local users), the latter will never fully succeed in its goals, and those otherwise using the site will continue to clash with one of the groups of managers, whether local or foreign.

So to what extent is it appropriate for foreign NGOs to go in to another culture and seek to change how sites, objects and traditions are treated as “heritage”?  To whom should they be accountable?  Who determines the definition and degree of success achieved by that organization’s work?  What constituents should that NGO primarily seek to serve?  To what extent is it necessary to incorporate local points of view, participants and pre-existing cultural or practical infrastructures?  All of these questions would need to be answered on a case by case basis, of course, just as would be the appropriate course of action for any other kind of NGO/NGDO.  Moreover, the process of answering these questions would be important to keep in the self-aware context of NGOs as coming from the Euro-American tradition of charity organizations, which, from most of the world’s point of view, is a foreign organizational structure based on foreign assumptions about how the privileged should assist the less fortunate.

In turn, the discussion that would result from considering these questions for any one historic site could also carry implications for the extent to which UNESCO and its World Heritage Convention are appropriate to involve in the management and interpretation of that site.  Perhaps, in line with the recommendation some authors in this text made about how Northern NGOs should tend to the problems faced in Northern nations rather than so often heading South, the practices of UNESCO could be most appropriate in Europe, the home of many of UNESCO’s values, and instead should be adjusted when dealing with other areas of the world.


About E. Emmons Hahn

I am a cultural historian specializing in heritage and museum studies - particularly issues surrounding the ownership, interpretation, and presentation of historic works, sites and landscapes that are connected to identity narratives. I am also a writer, editor, and photographer, with a penchant for applying these skills to topics related to travel, cultural and natural heritage, and the arts. Throughout my work, I am passionate about teaching - helping others to develop their skills, deepen their understanding, question their assumptions, and realize their visions.
This entry was posted in Angkor, Asia, Community Participation, Europe, Management Practices, North America, Sustainability, UNESCO and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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