The purposes and competencies of NGOs

Objections to Greenpeace’s strategies by Extinction Rebellion (XR), the environmental movement whose supporters occupied Greenpeace’s offices last year, as well as its own successes, highlight contrasts between the strategies of organisations and citizens’ movements. Loose citizens’ movements are often more effective as advocates for change. History abounds with examples: such as the Arab Spring citizens’ movements in 2011 which upturned dictatorships; the nation-wide anti-corruption movement in India in 2013 which led to the downfall of the Congress-party led government; and the mass civil disobedience movement with which Mahatma Gandhi wore down the British Empire in India, and whose methods for changing public attitudes and government policies have been adopted by civil rights movements in the USA and elsewhere.

Venerable international NGOs are facing an existential moment of truth now, with the UK Charity Commissioner indicting Oxfam and its investigations into Save the Children, and XR’s challenge to Greenpeace. Civil society movements form to advocate for causes and bring about change in established systems. They apply pressure on governments to change laws and re-allocate public resources.

In fact, Mahatma Gandhi had convened a meeting of India’s Congress Party immediately after India got its independence. He suggested that, with a change in its role, from an oppositional advocate against an established power to responsibility for bringing about structural change within India, the Party must change its strategies and structure. Gandhi was assassinated before the meeting. However, the Congress’ leaders did meet. An account of their deliberations is recorded by his grandson, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, in Gandhi is Gone: Who Will Guide Us Now?

The Congress Party had its moment of truth in 1948. Venerable international NGOs are facing an existential moment of truth now, with the UK Charity Commissioner indicting Oxfam and its investigations into Save the Children, and XR’s challenge to Greenpeace mentioned before.

Civil society movements form to advocate for causes and bring about change in established systems. They apply pressure on governments to change laws and re-allocate public resources. Gandhi’s insight was that civil disobedience is effective only when (1) it is mass, and (2) the participants are seen to suffer personally, not merely cause pain to others. Actions by groups of motivated strikers to disrupt governments, which inconvenience the masses, are not effective in the long run because they diminish public support for the organisation and may even harm the cause. Indeed, this is a complaint about Greenpeace. Such actions have lost public support for labour unions and sadly have dampened societal support for the rights of working people. In contrast, the approach taken by Japanese unions, where workers worked longer and harder to shame the management, produced more lasting respect for workers’ rights. Similarly, Gandhi persuaded Indians to make personal sacrifices to show their support, and not merely demand change from others. In the same vein, movements for the care of the environment are more effective when people are persuaded to change their own behaviors and consumption habits, not just demand actions by governments.

A valuable role that civil society organisations play is advocacy for change in the established order. Advocacy strategies can be confrontational or persuasive. Confrontational strategies can be sharply disruptive like Greenpeace’s or peacefully persuasive like Gandhi’s. An alternate strategy for persuasion is thought leadership. An organisation must choose its strategy, and it must develop suitable competencies for execution of its strategy.

Whereas participative movements can be effective instruments for advocacy for change, they are generally unable to produce the coherence required for implementation. This was the fate of the Arab Spring movements. Recognising the need for stronger organisation, the anti-corruption movement in India spawned a political party, the Aam Admi Party (AAP) with a requisite hierarchy. Formal organisation has bred internal power politics and burdens of internal administration in the AAP that Gandhi had feared would overtake the Congress Party as well as it transitioned to power. The organisation would begin to serve itself, not the people. However, Jawaharlal Nehru countered that a tightly managed organisation was necessary to deliver relief efficiently, with famine in the country, and millions of people displaced by the Partition. Moreover, a strong organisation was necessary to impose law and order.

Any organisation or movement must be fit for its purpose. Governments are expected to perform three roles: provide law, order and stability; deliver public services and relief; and catalyse development of the society and the economy. Juxtaposed with this, civil society organisations perform three roles too. And just as political parties and governments need organisational structures to perform effectively, civil society organisations need appropriate organisational strategies too. 

A valuable role that civil society organisations play is advocacy for change in the established order. Advocacy strategies can be confrontational or persuasive. Confrontational strategies can be sharply disruptive like Greenpeace’s or peacefully persuasive like Gandhi’s. An alternate strategy for persuasion is thought leadership. An organisation must choose its strategy, and it must develop suitable competencies for execution of its strategy.

International civil society organisations must introspect on their purpose, the roles they should perform, and the competencies they require. Their leaders are realising they would require a radical transformation to become effective, and acceptable, catalysts of change.

Not-for-profit civil society organisations can provide public services, such as education and healthcare. They may also deliver charitable relief to people in distress. In delivering these services they can be effective partners of governments. Scale and efficiency of delivery are required in these roles. Business management can provide good role models here, and it is not surprising that as civil society organisations ‘scale up’ to deliver they adopt business-like practices of management and governance.

The third role, catalysing development of societies with changes in their social and economic structures, requires very different capabilities as Gandhi had pointed out. Mind-sets and organisational formats that business organisations and governments adopt for control of operations and delivery at scale are not appropriate for performing the role of a catalyst for the development of a community. The governance of catalytic civil society organisations requires power-shifts and mind-shifts that leaders of historically control-oriented and charity-oriented organisations are finding hard; but they must make these shifts if they wish to serve society well.

The world is changing. The old order is passing. People everywhere want to take charge of their own lives and become responsible for the governance of their own affairs. They do not want to be considered as any other man’s burden. International civil society organisations must introspect on their purpose, the roles they should perform, and the competencies they require. Their leaders are realising they would require a radical transformation to become effective, and acceptable, catalysts of change.

(Arun Maira is Chairman, HelpAge International)