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How NGOs fail their clients – no more stereotypes, please!

March 7, 2010 Leave a comment

It is a very beautiful and sunny day outside, and I had a long walk during which I thought about some things that crossed my mind while at work last week. I am currently working for an international NGO focusing on children and during the past months I got increasingly unhappy about being part of this game because I feel that I have to represent certain things that do not comply with my moral convictions.

One thing for sure is the way we represent the people we claim to speak for and whose lives we want to change. There was a huge fuss about NGOs being the better actors than development agencies during the past decade or so, because they appear to be closer to the people, more independent of corrupt politicians and just “do things better”. Meanwhile this image is changing a bit and – the longer I am part of the game, that is the longer I work for an NGO myself – I have to say that this needs to be so!

NGOs are not per se the better actors. NGOs usually present themselves as being morally and politically correct and many of them (my employer, too), pride themselves of being non-political. But come on, how can you be NOT political working in international development?

But this is another argument, which I might pursue another day, today I was thinking a lot about one of my favourite topics, one that I can go absolutely nuts about.  NGOs are competing for private donations and therefore it is a lot of marketing involved when they report about their work and when they advertise for funding.

They can do good, they can do bad. One issue where many NGOs are doing very bad is the way they represent the people they are claiming to work with. In many cases they emphasize the participatory aspect, community-development perspective, and so on. But then they have all sorts of communications materials and websites presenting poor women, hopeless girls and whole communties which are victims of desaster x.

When I see this, I always want to write an Email to the comms people with just these sentences in it:

– Don’t victimize people.

– Treat them with dignity.

– Tell the public how it is there, not how we believe it is there (that is usually some place in Africa, Latin America or Asia).

One of the most widely employed stereotype is that of poor and oppressed women in Africa. Now anthropologists can quote numerous works which do paint a much more differentiated picture. I remember, for example, how highly enlighting I found Henrietta Moore’s “Space, Text and Gender: An Anthropological Study of the Marakwet” here; Moore describes how apparently power-less Marakwet women do indeed have a lot of power on the household level. While I do not want to suggest that many women indeed DO have a hard life, I also argue that we cannot generalize this and need to be more open towards constant reality checks.

While this is an anthropological commonplace, many NGO  staff do not seem to question things and how they appear. Unfortunately, many NGO staff have never been working in the field themselves and think it is enough to go to the field once in a while with some journalists or so in order to understand the way things work. Sorry guys, that’s not the case. Most of those who never experienced living and working within a developing society themselves are probably not ready to abandon the many stereotypes that populate our minds – partly fuelled by NGOs and the way they present their work.

One issue my employer is recently jumping on is the issue of girls being widely neglected in the developing world. Just last week I flipped through a brand new publication about girls in developing countries. I am not sure who the targeted readers are, but I was shocked, I have to admit, how many racist stereotypes I found in there. What is lacking, is some serious information such as scientific data. No, just commonplace stereotypes and pictures of kids in colourful clothes.

There is, for example, a section on girls not getting proper education. Which is, indeed, a problem. But rather than naming the causes and suggesting solutions, the publication describes how hard lives for girls are, offers some girls’ personalized quotes, such as “Selina, Tanzania: “My three brothers are sent to school, but my parents do not want to spend money on my school fees.”” The whole thing is then seasoned with proverbs from developing countries, illustrating the low status girls have there such as the Indian saying whereas raising a girl is like watering the neighbour’s garden.

Well, thank you. What is this??? Do we sell all our values and our responsibility just to reap more donations? What good do we do when we victimize the people we are claiming to support when we present them as mere barbarians who just have not yet learned civilization?

This may sound overstated, but I really got angry looking at this publication because it just is not true. It is true that worldwide less girls than boys get a proper education. But is this due to millions of parents being ignorant and barbarian? I argue, no, the reality is much more complex than this and contrary what many NGO marketing and communications people say, I bet that we can easily convey this to (private) donors. Instead of patronizingly feeding racist clichés we should support people from developing societies in being heard, but in a way that maintains their dignity and depicts their agency.

And you cannot tell me that communications people just don’t know better. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog by a Danish MS communications worker who I think of being a great observer of developmend in Tanzania!

And, of course, it’s also up to the donor to evaluate the NGO he or she gives for, which should also include assessing their communications strategies. A particularly good post on this here.