NGOs: between buzzwords and social movements

The associations that the term 'NGO' has acquired in development discourse need to be critically analysed in relation to practice on the ground. Drawing on an analysis of the rise of NGOs in Palestine, the author suggests that the development of the NGO movement served to demobilise Palestinian civil society in a phase of national struggle. Through professionalisation and projectisation brought about by donor-funded attempts to promote 'civil society', a process of NGOisation has taken place. The progressive de-politicisation of the women’s movement that NGOisation has brought about has created a vacuum that has been increasingly filled by the militancy of the Islamic Movement (Hamas). As this case shows, 'NGOs' may be a development buzzword, but they are no magic bullet. Rather than taking for granted the positive, democratising effects of the growth and spread of NGOs as if they represented 'civil society' itself, this article contends, a more critical approach is needed, one that takes greater account of the politics of specific contexts and of the dynamics of institutionalisation.