Thursday, 14 August 2014

Critics of NGOs: Do NGOs create dependency?

Injairu Kulundu will be participating in our upcoming Thinking Africa Colloquium. Sally Matthews recently interviewed Injairu about her work and the role of NGOs in bring about social justice in South Africa. This is part two of two parts of the interview, the first part can be found her Thinking Africa blog


Injairu Kulundu is a creative practitioner, a politics, drama and arts-based enquirer, a social learning researcher and a singer/songwriter. She has worked with the Tantyi Youth Empowerment Programme, Arkwork Collective and the Environmental Learning Research Centre at Rhodes University. More recently Injairu had extended her praxis as part of the ACTIVATE! Change Drivers team.


Sally: Critics of NGOs argue that NGOs create dependency rather than really empowering people. Would people not be better empowered through grassroots organisations or political organisation rather than the intervention of NGOs funded from outside the community?

Injairu: Indeed, people would be more empowered through grassroots movements. The power of grassroots movements is that they are better set up to challenge the status quo. This means going up against the grain and putting into action the change that one seeks to see.  The question of empowerment and the owning of a specific agenda is an important one.  However, what does become apparent within this way of working is the impact of the ‘glass ceiling’ on such movements. There are many examples of grassroots organisations that feel the brunt of challenging the status quo and this often comes with very devastating impacts. Take for example like Abahlali baseMjondolo and the tales that they tell about how their movement has resulted in violent threats against lives of their leaders. The scepticism and violence that grass roots organisations can be met with is serious. But I suppose this is part of the broader ‘struggle’ that they are involved in and it is important for the movement to continue in the face of these abuses.  In contrast to the suspicion that grass roots organisations often face is the welcome mat that most NGOs receive.  Whether we like it or not historically there is a sense of legitimacy that comes with NGOs, or perhaps a greater sense of the world watching when they are involved. This in part comes from the fact that they are often associated with issues of good governance whose language is easily welcome within the status quo and are not regarded with the same sceptical eye as are grassroots movements. There is also the question of resources, monetary or otherwise. In many ways the NGO sector wields this kind of power.  

Despite these dynamics I do believe that political organisations and grassroots movements can be effective in empowering people. NGOs can contribute to the agenda of social change through fostering vital partnerships. I think this sense of collaboration works well especially when people have a sense of their own power.  They can then choose how they can use additional resources or networks offered by NGOs for their own benefit. The power relations here can be worked with strategically in a way that keeps those who are empowered by grass roots organisations in charge of their own agenda. We have found that this works well at Activate. The young people that we have the privilege of interacting with have their own organisations that they are a part of. Our task as Actvate! is to bring together these diverse but like-minded individuals so that they can take the conversation about what they are involved in to another level and begin to have a greater perspective of the collective visions of diverse young change drivers in South Africa. This example shows that seeing grass root organisations and NGOs as completely separate and mutually exclusive does not serve the broader agenda of working towards social justice. Each must be able to contribute the merits of what they have to offer.  

Sally: Another criticism often given of NGOs is that they focus on technocratic or individualistic responses to problems that have socio-political origins. How would you as an Activate Team Leader respond to criticism that building youth leadership skills does not address the underlying socio-political ills that cause oppression in South Africa.

Injairu: Indeed, a focus on skills (leadership or otherwise) in itself is the wrong way to go. It implies that people are empty and need to be filled with skills. It also implies that if you fix the individual then everything else in the broader context will fall into place. This is the hallmark of a ‘risk management’ approach to development. On the contrary Activate! operates with the assumption  that young people need to be seen as MORE than a gaping  hole that needs to be to be filled with skills. The young people that we work with are incredibly capable and are already orchestrating so much in their contexts and this deserves respect. What they could benefit from is a sense of what else is happening around them and what other struggles young people like them are engaged in. This is important because in a highly polarised country like South Africa connection across the poles is in itself is an act of revolution. The central question that we are working with here is: could a critical mass of young people from across the divides build a vision for this country?  This process of meeting other like-minded individuals opens up the space from additional ‘skills’ other than those that respond to an individual need. There is collective intelligence to be garnered in this process that goes beyond what Activate! can offer .The self reflexive dialogue that participants engage in opens up many ways of understanding and working with the social issues experienced across divides.  Skills in socio-political navigation, a broader sense of solidarity and connection amongst other forms of knowledge are facilitated within this space. Simply put it is not really about what Activate! can give them, it is really about what they can give each other as young change makers. It has the ability to solidify their formidable capability and actions. This goes beyond the trying to build up the individual  and instead invests in an image of growing ripples and waves of change that are amassed from Activators collective work. The hope here is that a diversity of young people can speak to and demonstrate their collective strength against socio- political issues they face.

In addition to this it is important to point out that the question seems to assume that we can either have individualistic (local) interventions or broader socio-political ones. There is a tendency to minimise the impact of interventions that are at an individualistic local level and to think that real transformation only happens at the broader levels.  Both levels are necessary for transformation and change. A useful diagram that shows the intersection between the local and the broader highlights the interrelation between these two levels.

 We need what is happening at a local and individual basis to be amplified at a broader socio- political level and what is happening or being worked on at a broader national socio-political level to be relevant to and speak to what is happening at a local level. At this point in time there are very few social mediators that mitigate between these two levels.  This is a crucial space in which work for social justice must occupy.

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