It can be hard sometimes being a young woman in the international women’s movement. Sometimes I feel there is a sense that my commitment will never be enough because I know what I am worth. There is an idea that to truly be committed you need to work in the movement for nothing or next to nothing, you have forgo comfort and struggle so that you are hard and tough and can relate to the women you intend to serve. Older women in the movement seem to have an idea that you need to pay your dues in the harshest way possible before you are worth anything to the movement.
I believe strongly that there is value in experiencing how people other than myself live. However I do not believe that not being to work in an NGO for next to nothing for the rest of my life means I am any less committed to the international women’s movement. Women’s work is devalued over an over again by the various societies we live in. What is the point of re-creating this pattern within our own organisations? If you want committed, strong and capable staff you cannot expect them to sustain themselves purely on passion forever.
This work is valuable to society and the world and balance needs to be found in providing services and advocacy and looking after staff in whatever small ways we can so that they know their contribution means something, that their work is valued and so that their passion and commitment are not questioned every time they have to beg for just a little bit more so they can keep going a little bit further.
Over time I am becoming more and more frustrated and disgusted when it comes to the funding of NGO’s. Funders seem to have no clue what it takes to actually provide services or achieve outcomes. I strongly believe that it this is in large part due to the lack of value care work has to contemporary society because it has in the past always been done for free by women.
NGO work is in a lot of ways on a macro societal level what a home maker does on a micro individual/familial level. Trying to make sure that everyone one is cared for, that they have clothes and food and are as healthy as they can be, that they get a reasonable education, They they stay out of trouble and away from things that could harm them.
These tasks in contemporary society both on the micro and macro levels have often been considered of little value because they are not related to income generation or economic development.
The only way our capitalist system can fucntion is if there is someone to do this care work. With the advent of the dual income family there has been the rise of cheap domestic labour travelling across borders. With the advent of governments being unable to provide baisic services to their needy citizens NGO’s have stepped in to fill the gap.
However just because this work is now being paid for does not mean it is valued any more than in the past. In the vast majority of countries domestic work does not count as ‘real’ work and is not covered by labour laws leaving (the almost all female) domestic workers open to exploitation. NGO’s have to fight tooth and nail to get money for actual staff, even programme staff and finding money for support staff is a joke. There is an expectation that these things can just happen without people being paid even a fraction of what they are worth.
This way of thinking is deeply embedded and needs to change, some work is considered important and some is not and it has very little to what you actually in real terms contribute to the world. I challenge you to think about how you view the people in your life that do domestic work, I challenge you to think about all the mundane things that make it possible for you to live the life you do.
I’m not going to lie. I have a problem with large multi-national NGO’s (LMNGO’S). I vaguely alluded to it here.
Why do I have such a problem with organisations that are allegedly doing a lot of good work? Because they aren’t doing good work. To be fair my actual personal experience is limited to amnesty international but the criticisms I have of them can be extrapolated to other multi-national ngo’s (although not all).
LMNGO’s are Bureaucratic machines
Organisations such as Amnesty International spend the vast majority of their funds on administration and getting more funds. Anywhere from 75-90% of funding can get spent on bureaucracy. I certainly understand the need to fund operational costs but when you consider that small local NGO’s who cannot rely on the goodwill of the public to get funding are usually capped at level of 10% operational costs – even when they are providing services- this seems ridiculous.
LMNGO’s Are Not Effective
It is very hard for these organisations to actually provide what people who are on the ground doing activism need. By their very nature they are not local organisations. They often do not have a nuanced understanding of the local contexts in which they are trying to help social change come about and rely on briefings from privileged experts who may not have any idea what daily life is actually like for the people they are trying to help. They also tend to neglect gendered analysis. This has time and again resulted in ‘solutions’ that do not actually help the people they are trying to help.
LMNGO’s Divert Attention and Resources Away from Organisations which Are Actually Effective
Because of their marketing clout and the substantial effort given to branding, the giving public tend to trust LMNGO’s and they get the largest share of individual donations. The problem is this money is then diverted into bureaucracy and ineffective projects when it could be going straight to small local NGO’s who actually have a nuanced and contextual understanding of the issues.
I guess my main point is that LMNGO’s are like trying to use a hammer when you need a scalpel.
I don’t believe that these organisations are totally useless – but they have diversified from their original purposes – often to their detriment. Amnesty International for example has no history has a development organisation – they were founded to free political prisoners and do political activism around the world and they were very good at it. There is no infrastructure for development work in AI they do not have the in house expertise for it and the they are not good at finding a range of perspectives. Often they end up doing more harm than good.
There are a vast number of smaller local NGO’s out there struggling to do what they know needs to be done. If you are planning to donate money to NGO’s I beg of you – please look past the big ones. It may be harder to find one which you trust but your dollars will go much further.
It is both understandable and reasonable that philanthropists want bang for their buck when they are making grants. They need some kind of certainty that their money will be well spent that it is not going into the pockets of individuals , that it will not be misappropriated, that it will lead to positive results. There is however a key difficulty. In the name of efficiency most philanthropists will not allow more than 10% of a grant to go towards funding operational costs (as opposed to programme/project costs) if they fund operational costs at all. Part of this is due to a public perception that a NGO or not-for-profit with high operational costs is misusing funds that could or should be going towards programme or service costs. However the magic number of 10% does not really tell us anything about the efficiency of an organisation. It is simply a shortcut and it is a shortcut that hurts many NGO’s.
Spending only 10% of available funds on operational costs does not necessarily mean an organisation is an efficient. This target is perhaps achievable for an aid delivery organisation but for any type of service provider it is a serious handicap. Like any other organisation an NGO or not-for- profit is only as strong as the people who make it up. There is a strong assumption that people who do this kind of work should do it out of the goodness of their hearts – and work tirelessly never asking for any kind of reward. However people with strong social consciences still need to put food on the table and survive just like anyone else.
Having a 10% operational cost cap means that organisations have to rely heavily on part- time and volunteer labour. This does not result in greater efficiency – it results in greater inefficiency. This is because tasks that could be done by one high quality full-time staff member have to be spread over part-time and/or volunteer staff – who while they may have excellent intentions do not necessarily have the right areas of expertise.
Instead of using these arbitrary and false measures of efficiency Philanthropists should look at outcomes to see the effectiveness of an organisation. What have they achieved, how many people have they reached, what kind of impact have they had, of course keeping in mind that not all outcomes can be quantified. They should look at whether NGO’s actually truly serves the community is purports to aid. Unlike say an organisation like Autism Speaks – which is heavily funded and yet does not actually have any Autistic people involved in the running of the organisation and is heavily critiqued by actual Autistic individuals, people who it claims to ‘speak’ on the behalf of.
These are much more robust ways of determining whether an organisation is using funds efficiently and effectively. Philanthropists if they want to be involved in making lasting change in the world have to listen to the organisations that try to make it happen. They need to start giving what these organisations actually need rather than what they believe they should have. There is no point having programme money if there is no money to pay for the people and the venues and the water and the power and all the other mundane things that are required for the day to day operations of an organisation that allows programmes to happen. It may not be as sexy but it is very important.