More to the story: the less discussed aspects of NGOs

Articles - General

Last week, Eritrea Profile featured an article titled, “Eritrea – Tail Wagging at the UN”, authored by Sophia Tesfamariam (23 January). The article, which explores a number of issues surrounding Eritrea’s recent appointments to chair the regional Khartoum Process in 2019 and to serve on the forty-seven-member Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council for the next three years, was well-written, thoughtful and perceptive, and presented a number of important insights, including several about international non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Here, I delve further into the topic of human rights NGOs, primarily to extend the conversation begun by Tesfamariam, raise points for consideration that are frequently overlooked, and to hopefully offer some additional clarity and understanding.

NGOs, a term often used to cover the range of organizations which make up civil society, are characterized, in general, by having as the main purpose of their existence something other than financial profit. Having proliferated dramatically since the end of the Second World War, NGOs vary tremendously in terms of size and scope; for instance, some NGOs are locally-focused and have only a handful of members, while others are large, international organizations, boasting hundreds or even thousands of branches and members located in different parts of the world. Notably, NGOs engage in a wide variety of enterprises and activities, and they focus on a large range of different topics, including development, sports and athletics, w i l d l i f e and the environment, humanitarian issues, education, and also human rights.

In terms of human rights, it is undeniable that many NGOs are genuinely well-intentioned actors who contribute greatly to protecting the fundamental human rights and preserving the basic dignity of individuals throughout the world. Inter alia, NGOs can and do play a crucial role in: fighting individual violations of human rights, either directly or by supporting particular “test cases” through relevant courts; offering direct assistance to those whose rights have been violated; lobbying for changes to national, regional, or international law; helping to develop the substance of those laws; promoting knowledge or awareness of – and respect for – human rights among the general population; and offering technical advice and different forms of support to states on improving human rights. Importantly, in many instances, NGOs are also able to address specific issues or reach particular areas that governments are either unable or unwilling to, and they often possess the potential to provide efficient , innovative, and cost-effective  approaches or solutions t o difficult or complex problems (Chege 1999; CoE n.d.).

Although they certainly make numerous significant and valuable contributions to the promotion and protection of human rights, NGOs are also beset by a variety of problems and challenges. For example, many NGOs, plagued by financial challenges and residing within a highly competitive funding environment, are often faced with a perceived need for public success to enhance their reputation and to attract funding, whether from members or external sources. This, in turn, can encourage them to use the “bandwagon” approach, joining in on a popular or media-led issue or simply responding to the latest ‘crises’, and with it a reluctance to pursue the lower profile – yet no less important – areas of work or overlooking longstanding systemic and structural problems. Exposing clear and seemingly “easy to understand” violations is frequently regarded as more “attention-grabbing” and “lucrative” than prevention, which by definition if successful is not only not newsworthy but virtually “un-provable” (Brett 1995: 105).

Of course, being persistently confronted by financial challenges also means that many NGOs can become dependent on governments for backing and support, which can prevent them from carrying out their mandates in a fully principled, objective, and independent manner. NGOs may be pressured to overlook their avowed principles and conduct their work in a manner strictly aligned with or accommodating to the foreign and political interests or policies of their government donors. Unfortunately, it has become all too common and predictable to see NGOs castigate and criticize alleged human rights violations in some nations, not according to the objective reality or actual conditions in those countries, but based upon the degree to which those countries’ governments are considered “friendly” or “politically important” to the NGOs’ donors. In a similar vein, many NGOs have had their credibility attacked and frequently been criticized for conflicts of interests due to their close relationships with various governments (e.g. hiring former or current officials as board members or executives).

Interestingly, one of the positive aspects about NGOs is also something that can potentially lead to substantial weaknesses. Specifically, while the fact that any individual person or group is reasonably capable of establishing an NGO is positive and encouraging in many ways, it also means that many NGOs and their members are incompetent or lack crucial skills, expertise, training, and technical or organizational capacity. This can also increase the likelihood of local or national priorities being neglected, contribute to the overlap or duplication of activities of organizations working at cross-purposes, with simplistic and poorly researched positions, and lack of clearly defined objectives or missions. In many cases, not only may they be ineffective, they can also cause harmful or counterproductive effects.

Beyond the significant points outlined above, many NGOs have been criticized for lacking transparency, as well as accused of being poorly managed and spending far too much on overhead costs. The first criticism is somewhat ironic since NGOs often make it their business to demand transparency in others and, thus, should lead by example, while the latter is particularly problematic because those lost finances could have instead been directed toward specific initiatives to solve pressing rights challenges and problems. Additionally, wasteful or lavish expenditures also signal how many NGOs remain divorced from the needs and realities that their supposed constituents face. It is also important to note that the increasing material incentives, lucrative financial rewards and packages, elite status, and other perks or privileges associated with the “human rights industry” have eroded many people’s confidence and trust in the motivations of NGOs.

As alluded to in Tesfamariam’s article, it is hard to overlook the great disparity in NGOs around the world, with the vast majority being founded and based in the Global North (i.e. the Western, developed countries). Naturally, this has meant that many have been disconnected from and “out of touch” with their constituents or local realities and lacked vital contextual understanding. Discussing human rights groups in Africa, Odinakalu has observed how they are seldom part of inclusive and participatory struggles for justice but that they appear almost by design to exclude the participation of the people whose welfare they claim to advance (Odinakalu 2000). Problematically, many NGOs are afflicted by a saviour complex, reflecting elements of racism, sexism, classism, and paternalism, rooted in the assumption that Africans, women, the poor, and others across the Global South are powerless, lack agency, and cannot speak for or take meaningful action themselves. Today, it is not uncommon to see foreigners, who have never set foot in or completely lack roots to a particular country, provided large platforms to speak loudly about the alleged conditions in the country and pontificate about the steps that it ought to take, while the perspectives, views, and voices of locals are ignored or simply dismissed.

Last, one common topic of debate surrounding most self-professed “human rights organizations” is that they tend to be engaged in the protection of civil and political rights. While these are no doubt important, the issue is that civil and political rights are just one category of the many different human rights, such as economic, social, and cultural, recognized by the international community. Focusing on only one category of rights overlooks the fact that rights are interrelated and indivisible, fails to provide a comprehensive account of the conditions in a country, harms efforts to improve conditions, and can also lead to claims of double standards, hypocrisy, and politicization of rights.