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Review of Undermining Development: The absence of power among local NGOs in Africa


By John Plastow

Undermining Development: The Absence of Power among Local NGO's in Africa. Sarah Michael. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2005. pp. 206. ISBN: 0253217725, (Pb) £12.86/ $22.00

Development is a fickle business. Periodic big ideas dominate the agenda and then the vogue for them moves on to another new theme. The rise of non-government organisations (NGOs) seems to have been a mainstay for a relatively long time from around the time of the mid-1980s. In recent times though, their importance, at least in the eyes of some of the major donors, seems to have come into question, as both the private sector and government have been increasingly championed as pivotal actors for development. Trade not aid is a growing mantra that highlights the role for private sector investment, while the recent push for General Budgetary Support being led by the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) aims to channel the vast majority of aid through national treasuries and marks a break from the old projectised mode of supporting development. Both of these approaches are resulting in the space and resourcing for NGOs being squeezed.

Given the length of time that NGOs have enjoyed privileged access to aid one might expect their place in development to be unequivocally assured. Sarah Michael’s book reminds us that this is very far from the truth and that in Africa in particular the roots of NGOs are still generally quite shallow and their hold on power invariably tenuous. This analysis in itself provides an interesting counterpoint to trends to reinforce the role of other actors for development in the continent and reminds us that the evolution of civil society in developing countries is a journey that still has a long way to go.

Michael’s book is based around three case studies on the character of NGOs in Senegal, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. The analysis is framed around concepts of power and takes as its reference point the very real power that has been achieved by some NGOs, particularly in South Asia but also in South America. She highlights the considerable clout of the likes of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) and Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India. These mega-NGOs, some with tens of thousands of employees, reach millions of beneficiaries. They have annual budgets in the hundreds of millions, obtained through a mixture of self generated funds as well as large grants from donors, the terms of which are in large part dictated by the NGO themselves. Michael identifies four elements which she sees are a key determinant of NGO power which are used to assess where African NGOs stand: possessing space within development; financial independence; strong links to the international development community and willingness to engage in the political aspects of development.

Unsurprisingly perhaps the characteristics of the NGO world in the three case study countries are significantly different. In Zimbabwe she finds that while local NGOs are professional and experienced they face competition from government and international NGOs. In Tanzania she describes an NGO culture based on a voluntary ethic and practice with strong links to academia, the media and northern based funding NGOs but again squeezed by international NGOs as well as community based organisations. Finally Senegal is characteristic for a highly effective umbrella organisation and a collectively well regarded NGO sector, but is still highly dependent on donor interests. In each case she concludes that African NGOs fail to perform strongly in more than one of the key areas of power. She argues that African NGOs need to much more deliberately focus on strengthening their own capacities (financial, leadership and institutional) as well as to raise their profile as leaders in particular sectors or areas of competence and to engage in the political aspects of development. Finally she asserts that they must much more self consciously forge linkages with a wide range of national and international actors to make themselves and their peers more aware of their wider contexts in which they operate so as to become players with roles and analysis beyond their own limited local contexts.

Michael’s book provides a useful in-depth assessment of the character of NGOs in Africa. The free flow of the book is at times hampered by its clearly having grown out of a research thesis. The case study chapters are rather formulaic and punctuated by an unnecessarily large numbers of quotes from key informants. Some of the specific conclusions about the character of the NGO world would be contested by those who have worked closely in given countries. The presentation for example of the strength of the links with academia and the core voluntary character of NGO staff are at odds with recent direct experience of the Tanzanian context, but that could be because the environment, as has certainly been the case in Zimbabwe since the writing of this book, has changed rapidly.

Overall then Michael’s book is a useful contribution at a time when aid architecture is a subject of increasing focus. NGOs find themselves on the back foot after many years of growth and increasing prominence. Her book reminds us that the formulation of an alternative and independent space for non-state, non-private sector actors is a process that evolves over many decades and will not be achieved in the often very truncated horizons that those calling the shots on development frequently work to. At a time when budgets for support to NGOs society are being squeezed in many African countries this book is a good reminder of why donors and NGOs themselves need to have a more profound reading of the state of civil society.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 68 (2006), pp. 110-111]

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