The Duck of Minerva

Foreign Funders Should Donate More Wisely

11 March 2010

James Ron has a guest post at Steve Walt’s blog about the problems of NGO dependence on Western funding. His argument is a logical extension of his earlier work with Alex Cooley on the negative externalities associated with the political economy of the NGO sector, and it also builds on newer scholarship critically assessing the relationship between domestic NGOs, targets of influence, third-party governments and private donors.

Ron offers an answer to the question in the title of his post: no, foreign funders should not stop donating to local human rights NGOs, but they should donate more wisely:

To build a locally sustainable and legitimate NGO sector, Western donors will have to provide smaller grants, and will have to condition their funds, whenever possible, on matching local monies. They will also have to spend money on boosting NGOs’ capacity to raise funds locally, connect with local stakeholders, and adjust their message accordingly.

If donors and NGOs don’t break their unhealthy co-dependence, civil society outside of the West will never be sustainable.

I think it’s an interesting argument. It’s too bad that because he happens to use the current backlash against human rights NGOs in Israel as an example, commenters at Foreign Policy are obscuring his wider point with a lot of partisan accusations about being an “Israel-basher.”

The post isn’t about Israel per se; it’s about human rights advocacy generally. And the point is that NGOs in any country are vulnerable to the claims that they are simply lackeys of outsiders if they secure their funding from foreign donors instead of building strong networks of support within their own societies. As Sally Engle Merry has written, human rights advocacy is often most powerful to the extent that local groups create strong ties within their cultural context, rather than being perceived to import money and ideas from “outsiders.” This is a general finding; why should it constitute “Israel-bashing” if Israeli NGOs turn out to be vulnerable in precisely the same ways as women’s organizations in Afghanistan or religious organizations in Mali?

[Cross-posted at the new Lawyers, Guns and Money. Come check us out!]