One year ago, wearing another hat, I attended the UN’s ‘Advance Global Health – Achieve the MDGs’ conference in Melbourne.
The forum is held annually – it is a means by which the UN takes the global pulse to see what issues it should focus on.
The conference was huge by Australian standards, with 1,500 delegates in attendance, most of them representing NGOs from around the world, delivering services to reduce infant mortality, improve maternal health, improve schooling, and so on. The UN wanted to hear how things are progressing.
Generally the news is good, and in some countries it is exceptionally good. The MDG (Millenium Development Goal) benchmarks won’t all be reached by 2015, but the world is definitely trending in the right direction. One dramatic example: The number of people living on $1.25 a day or less in Vietnam fell from 64% to just 22% in thirteen years.
Clearly there is a place for well-resourced development organisations, but they have to know when to step back, too. My abiding memory of the conference was Elena Jeffreys of the Scarlet Alliance. She drew attention to the fact that there can sometimes be a cluttered NGO ‘marketplace’ and the better-known, better-resourced organisations can suck all the oxygen out of it – taking up the media and funding opportunities. The problem, she said, is that they are often self-appointed, yet their voices are being heard at the expense of the more representative but less savvy local organisations. The largest union in Cambodia is the home-grown Women’s Network for Unity. If you’ve ever heard of it, you have done well. There are over 1,000 NGOs working in Cambodia and it is always easier to get media comment from native English speakers.
Ms Jeffreys goes further than that and suggests that rich-world NGOs will often come in and start lobbying in a fashion that is actually counterproductive to existing local efforts. She summed up:
Give us our rights; we can do the rest.
Dr. Claudio Schuftan of the People’s Health Movement echoed her sentiments. He said people in developing nations should not be seen as mere beneficiaries. “Rather,” he said,
we are mobilising rights holders to make their own claims.
This message could be challenging for the relief and development industry. At some level they generally see their organisations as needing to persist indefinitely into the future. Their work will remain necessary, but it will be capable of being done by local organisations and that is infinitely more desirable than having rich outsiders swoop in to resolve problems.
The adjustment could be difficult. It’s exciting and pleasant-sounding to expand to a new country; harder to announce that you are withdrawing from one. Almost sounds like a failure. Yet that is what needs to be done, sooner or later.
The way of the future can be seen in countries such as Chile and Malaysia, which have reached a medium level of wealth per capita and have fewer outside relief agencies operating there. Their neighbours Indonesia and Peru, however, retain a mindset that outsiders should come in and help. We are right at the point where many countries are switching from the latter to the former mentality.
More from the blogosphere (no endorsement implied):
- NGOs in Cambodia: Accommodation with the regime can be very profitable. (slate.com)
- We need the NGOs as much as the entrepreneurs in the world (sriportfolio.com)
- The “Third Force” In Malaysia: Finding Relevance In An Emerging Duopoly (malaysiasdilemma.wordpress.com)
- Attack of the Ngos (tipggita32.wordpress.com)
- Third draft of Cambodia’s associations and NGO law overlooks key concerns (guardian.co.uk)
This video formed part of the opening of last year’s conference