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Jakarta Post

Scaling up NGOs: Best practice or the big lie?

  • Nirmala Nair

    The Jakarta Post

Denpasar, Bali   /   Sat, February 15, 2014   /  10:51 am

In an article on Jan. 5 in The Jakarta Post ('€œPhilanthropies of scale'€), Esther Dyson seems to be convinced that scaling up is the best way to rescue '€œterribly inefficient'€ non-profit and community-run NGOs.

In development circles there is a deep concern that without the possibilities of replicability and scalability, the funds they invest generally are not worth their time and resources. Development experts are also worried about the '€œsmallness'€ of these non-profits.

They believe passion without expertise or management skill is definitely not worth the bother.

In some instances, when the big donor-led projects encounter the small groups, in no time these groups are '€œexorcised'€ of their dreams and passions, and their unique nature '€” oftentimes a local response to locally specific issues.

Totally oblivious to the local nature of the problem, the experts enter the scene and the locals are '€œtrained'€ and manipulated to deliver goods and services that match the resources that big donor funds can garner anywhere in the world.

Like Dyson, these development experts have answers on how to '€œhelp communities run things themselves'€, just like a franchisee getting '€œhelp'€ from a major corporation. Little do they realize, that like the franchise model, these kinds of development programs not only kill local initiative, but also stunt the organic ability of local people to fine-tune, adapt and be resilient to the ever-changing nature of landscapes, be it climatic or economic.

In short Dyson seems to believe that the corporatization of non-profits, small NGOs and community organization are the only solution to non-performing NGOs.

What is being overlooked is that for the past few decades development groups have been engaging in precisely such an exercise through the UN, bilateral and World Bank led/funded organizations. A globalized standardized, replicable model with inbuilt control mechanisms put in place, even for applying for funding as well as reporting progress, leading to a plethora of further supporting agencies focused entirely on such support services to the development industry, has not really manifested the desired outcomes as initially envisioned.

A news item right after the World Trade Organization sessions in Bali late last year mentioned that the obsession with the agenda of growth affecting Lesser Developed Countries (LDCs) that began in the 1960s has managed to achieve very little in terms of dealing with the increasing disparity between the poor and the small minority of their emerging elites. Nor have these attempts managed to address the real issue of poverty, always reducing the discussion to terms of purchasing power of money and the market '€” thereby further reducing the poverty discussion to monetary levels.

Discussion about enabling empowerment, engaging creatively with innovative ways of sifting what works at a local level, bridging these local traditions and wisdom with emerging new simpler technologies that can be managed locally is not on the agenda of development gurus.

So after decades of investing in development the world has ended up with globalized, standardized, homogenized solutions driven by consultancies that seldom have a real interest in local issues.

Without any passion or commitment to see the systemic change-process rooted in local/micro-contexts as an important dynamic driver of development, real development-led empowerment of local communities is at stake.

Suboptimal development '€” such as working on public-sector job creation, road works etc are not really contributing to the well-being of local environments as a whole, but perhaps end up, unintentionally, keeping the people where they are, with very little options for developing real empowerment.

With their aspirations and dreams corrupted by the false drivers of money and the market these impoverished communities of the so-called LDCs forever aspire to climb the ladder of market-led lifestyles by forsaking their culture, traditions and even giving up their natural resources '€” their sources of real well-being '€” in exchange for wage employment, so that they can emulate the life of urban dwellers.

Numbed by the process, their capacity to think clearly or make intelligent decisions on any aspects regarding their well-being is impaired. The world is beginning to see a homogenized globalized face of poverty '€” plastics, processed foods and projects on infrastructure delivery.

Interestingly right next to Dyson'€™s article was one by Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, the Post'€™s chief editor ('€œFrom BRIC, N-11, CIVETS, 3G to MINT '€” the big lie, or the big ploy?'€), from which I quote: '€œIf you tell a big enough lie, and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed'€.

This seems to be the crux of the current development paradigm.

We have many alternative options, however, the development cabal focuses on a mono-culture of development through the blanket deployment of projects without paying attention to local problems that do have local solutions.

Focusing on localized programs would bring together the possibility of working with the local landscape as a whole through economies, eco-systems, communities and local wisdom/tradition and cultures that have sustained changes over many centuries.

Developing a new model will mean working toward a win-win-partnership, increasing livelihood options, salvaging some of the local crafts that can be deployed as engines of growth and employment at a local level, fostering diversity and uniqueness. Should this not be the real focus of a new development agenda?

The writer is founder and director of the School of Practical Sustainability, currently based in Bali.

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