In a very thought-provoking post, Alanna Shaikh lists four ways that an NGO can unintentionally do harm to the community it’s trying to serve.
1) You can waste the time and effort of a community by initiating projects which have little chance of success. It’s hard to identify a good project for a small community. Community buy-in is no guarantee of success; possessing deep local knowledge doesn’t make a person omniscient. Projects that have little chance of success include vocational training in sewing and handicrafts, beekeeping, and raising chickens. If you waste a year of the community’s time on a broiler chicken project that never makes a profit, that’s a year of time and effort which could have gone to real income generation or looking after children.
2) You can leave communities convinced that they need outsiders to solve their problems. If you raise $3000 for a backhoe to clear irrigation ditches, then what happens next time the ditches silt up? The farmers’ cooperative will never realize they could have cleared it with hand shovels, or raised the money by charging a membership fee.
3) You can damage beneficial community structures, or solidify harmful structures. Your choice of community intermediary elevates that person or group, by putting them in control (real or perceived control) of valuable assets. If you work with existing power structures, you can support and entrench inequalities, such as sexism or racism, which are already present. If you chose partners who are not part of the current elite, you can destabilize delicate community balances, and erode resilience.
4) You can construct a building and then not provide funds for maintenance or staffing. A school needs a teacher. A clinic needs a doctor or nurse. All buildings need upkeep – painting and repairs at the very least. A building with not funds for maintenance is a drain on community resources in perpetuity, or an eyesore.
Those are all serious risks. I can think of two more:
5) You hire good people to deliver the best service you can. But those people would otherwise have been working for government or another local organisation. The good they could have done in government might far exceed the good they can do in your organisation. There are donors here in Addis Ababa who pay their drivers more than twice what an experienced doctor will get paid in a government hospital. Where do you think the doctors want to work? Reckless hiring by donors can create skills shortages in key institutions and drive up wages so that provision of services becomes less affordable.
6) You establish yourself as an influential player in the sector you work in; you become friendly with Ministers and senior officials; you are invited to key meetings. This is good: you can help to push things in the right direction. But the people you are influencing should be accountable to their own citizens, not to you. And there are three more like you, all pushing in slightly different directions, making it very difficult for any government to maintain a common sense of purpose. And who are you accountable to? With the aim of doing the right thing, you are undermining the legitimate accountability of the system you are influencing.
These risks apply to official government donors and multilateral organistions as much as they do to NGOs.