Growing up, my general notion of non-government organizations (NGOs) was that they always did good work. I never imagined it possible that NGOs could do more harm than good. My perception changed, however, when for my Writing Seminar class, I read the book Killing with Kindness by Mark Schuller.
As an anthropologist, Schuller spent years living in Haiti working with two different HIV/Aids NGOs: Sové Lavi and Fanm Tet Ansanm. By drawing comparisons between these two organizations, Schuller presented thoughtful, well-reasoned analyses of the relationships between the structure, funding and politics of NGOs – all of which must be understood before they can be critiqued. Killing with Kindness offers a coherent picture of how three factors – participation, hierarchy, and funding – work together to affect the degree to which an NGO succeeds in helping their intended beneficiaries.
Reason #1 Differing Markers of Successful Community Participation
In particular, Schuller claims that the success of “community participation” must be more clearly defined. He argues that people who work with NGOs measure the success of NGOs differently than local community members measure it. For example, Sové Lavi workers considered one of their events successful when it received lots of press coverage; however, few local community members actually attended the meeting. Anecdotes like these demonstrated to the readers that markers of successful community participation need to be better defined in order to determine truly effective activism methods.
Reason #2 Organizational Hierarchy and Inequality
Schuller also emphasizes that the restrictive hierarchy and inequality that plagues NGOs affects how much freedom the NGO volunteers have to address the needs of the community. After observing NGOs, Schuller realized that divisions of hierarchy sometimes manifested themselves blatantly in the structure of the NGOs’ buildings. For example, Schuller believes that the NGO Sové Lavi incorporated more hierarchy and inequality than Fanm Tet Ansanm did. Reflecting this, within Sové Lavi, the people with the higher titles worked on the higher floors, somewhat disjointed from the local community. In contrast, Fanm Tet Ansanm had a front/middle/back office structure where everyone passed by each other when either entering or leaving the building, forming more of a community.
Regardless of these differences, however, the people working downstairs (in Sové Lavi’s case) or in the back office (in Fanm Tet Ansanm’s case) were the only members in the organization who interacted with the people of the local community. Most importantly, in both these cases, these members felt that they possessed little deciding power and were subjected to the opinions and decisions of their higher-ups, thus creating a disconnect between those who decide what the NGO does and those with a firm understanding of what the community actually needs. What this means, of course, is that the communities’ needs aren’t fully addressed.
Reason #3 The Issue of Donors: their Funding and their Influence
In his final point, Schuller describes the relationship between donor groups and NGOs. He points out that an NGO’s willingness to stick to and support a cause is affected both by the organization’s dependency for monetary aid and by the funding groups’ goals. Donor groups, understandably, only look to provide funding to NGOs with aligning interests. Unfortunately, this means that NGOs in the most need for aid may agree to projects unaligned with their organization’s mission in order to receive funding. Schuller witnessed this while working at Sové Lavi. He noticed that Sové Lavi focused on appeasing donors in order to guarantee receiving funding from them; essentially, they agreed to the projects donors wanted, even if the projects conflicted with the NGO’s fundamental purpose.
Additionally, Schuller recognized that NGOs with only one investor, such as Sové Lavi, have much less autonomy from donors than organizations that receive funding from multiple sources, such as Fanm Tet Ansanm. Fanm Tet Ansanm knew that if one donor pulled out, they could still run their NGO with the monetary aid from other groups. Due to this, the leaders stayed more true to their values and more successfully directly benefited members of the community.
Moving forward, I am glad that I have been able to read Schuller’s book. After reading his piece, I now have a better sense of not only how NGOs succeed but also how they can improve. These findings don’t intend to show that all non-governmental organizations are bad, but they do allow some food for thought when it comes to the NGOs that my peers and I might want to donate to, work for, or even start.