Editorial (20.6)

Whether Northern NGOs have willingly embraced or tried to stand out against the New Public Management orthodoxies that have increasingly dominated development and humanitarian assistance over the past 20 years, the assumption remains that their interventions make a sustainable difference to people living in poverty, excluded from decisions and processes that affect their lives. Some NGOs deliberately channel their assistance through local organisations, while others are quicker to take an operational role; some define their interventions in terms of human rights (or rights-based approaches) and gender equity, or issues of class; others would emphasise the inequalities that lie at the heart of capitalist globalisation. They would tend to argue that unless they conform to the demands and expectations of their own donors, they could not raise the money required in order to do their work. There have been attempts at NGO self-regulation, most obviously in the humanitarian sector with initiatives such as the Sphere Project and the Humanitarian Accountability Project, with their roots dating back to the 1994 Code of Conduct for The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief; and organisations such as Keystone are looking at accountability for social change (see, for example, Wilford and Jacobs 2010). But the sector overall seems to take for granted that it is basically on the right tracks.

It is, then, particularly opportune for Jenny Pearce to ask whether it is possible for Northern NGOs to fund social change in the South and, if so, what they might need to do differently. She argues that the answers will not be found in imposing more and tighter reporting schedules on local counterpart organisations, but in refining NGOs’ conceptualisations of social transformation, which will in turn shape the kinds of relationship that they form, and the role of resource transfer within them. She further argues that theoretical and political clarity about transforming power, not merely ‘doing empowerment’, will also determine how robustly an NGO will resist or modify bureaucratic pressures that run counter to such an agenda. Such a position may, of course, result in reduced budgets, as there will almost always be amore compliant NGO to step in: would any Northern NGO still claim that its goal is to make its own existence unnecessary? Rosemary McGee writes about the difficult balance to be struck between the headquarters of a Northern NGO and its country offices – in this case in Colombia. While it is understandable that such agencies wish to establish organisation-wide policies and procedures, interpreting them will require flexibility in each specific context, in order to keep faith with the underlying principles. The ‘radical practice of partnership’ is indeed the only meaningful way to work in situations that are marked by complex political violence. Moire O’Sullivan pursues the partnership issue in her article about the realisation by Concern Worldwide of the discrepancy between its definition of partnership and the range of relationships in which it was actually involved; she describes how the agency mapped these relationships in order to help staff to be clearer, and therefore more discerning, about the nature of their engagement with local organisations. Barry Cannon describes an Active Citizenship programme in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, which comprised a number of initiatives aimed at strengthening the capacity of local civil-society organisations
(CSOs) to engage in public action to influence the policy process, and which also included an NGO diploma. This again highlights the importance of having clear theoretical positions regarding, for instance, the definition and role(s) of civil society, and a well-informed sense of the political space within which civil society and CSOs specifically can operate – although recent events in Honduras took even seasoned observers by surprise. Richard English presents brief examples from Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, where collective action has successfully brought about change via well-researched advocacy or has by the power of example influenced national policy.

A further set of articles focuses on economic issues with reference to Latin America. Jason Spellberg and Morgan Kaplan attribute the failure of US policies to eradicate the cocaine trade to the lack of viable economic alternatives for Andean coca producers. This results in the intensification of US military efforts, which further alienates small farmers without achieving the principal objectives. The authors call instead for USAID and other donors to enable local producers to form co-operative industries that would make selling high-quality processed products to international markets sufficiently profitable for them to abandon coca production voluntarily. William F. Waters addresses the current interest in conditional cash transfers as a means of fostering social development, in particular health and education, focusing his attention on their application among indigenous communities in Panama. The lessons drawn from his qualitative research are that, to be effective, programmes depending on co-responsibility need first and foremost to respect and be imaginative about how to incorporate cultural norms and expectations, must be properly explained in the local language, and then should be consistently available to the intended beneficiaries; he argues also that conditional cash transfers are only part of a far wider picture and are not in themselves a development solution. Hugo Santana de Figueirêdo Jr and Bryanna Millis assess the impacts of regulatory reforms on the Brazilian cashew-nut industry, using a value-chain approach to identify constraints and to develop a consensus on necessary reforms, specifically tax and credit regulations, required to make the industry more competitive internationally.

Joel F. Audefroy compares experiences of emergency and post-emergency housing programmes in Latin America and Asia, particularly following major catastrophes, highlighting good practices in relation to the design of temporary shelter and permanent housing, use of local materials, skills, tools, and technology, and the encouragement of participatory processes of decision making and evaluation. Traffic accidents are responsible for 1.2 million fatalities a year worldwide and are a leading cause of avoidable death. Ruth Salmon and William Eckersley argue, however, that much education on road safety is inappropriate and impractical; they present a pioneering community-managed programme in Ethiopia which might be adapted for use in other settings. Finally, Matt Grainger reports on the November 2009 World Summit on Food Security, concluding that despite its obvious failings there was one breakthrough that could, if it gains sustained international support, ensure a co-ordinated global approach to food security. But whether governments will ever voluntarily put the needs of the world’s majority above the demands of their domestic constituencies remains a moot point.

Wilford, Robyn and Alex Jacobs (2010) ‘Listen First: a pilot system for managing downward accountability in NGOs’, Development in Practice 20 (7), forthcoming.