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.
Today is just one of those days where I feel sucked dry and exhasted. A large part of my job right now involves reading about the many ways people choose to hurt each other.
Sometimes fighting the good fight is really shitty
Something I have noticed quite clearly in my admittedly short time working for NGO’s is how frequently they reinforce the very behaviours, attitudes and structures they aim to dismantle. In many feminist and/or women’s rights organisations it is fairly common in my experience to not make proper allowance for women who have children, to rely heavily on unpaid work, to operate from a heavily hierarchical structure where those who have not actually contributed to projects but are more senior in the organisation get to enjoy the ‘perks’ of those projects (such as attendance of conferences, book launches, activities etc…).
I personally find this deeply problematic. I understand that some of these practices are driven by pragmatic concerns – funding for not for profit organisations is never easy to secure and most philanthropic avenues do not seem to think that funding operational costs is a valuable use of their money (something I will comment on at a later point). Thus there is a very real need to keep operational costs down – including the cost of staff. Hence the heavy reliance on voluntary labour, howeber I do not think there is enough analysis of why such practices are deeply problematic despite their practical neccessity.
The devaluing of women’s work has been one of the cornerstones of patriarchal social structure. Care work has been particularly devalued but women’s contribution outside the home has also suffered. Women are paid far less than men for doing exactly the same work, Women’s achievements are often co-opted by their male superiors or co- workers, women are expected to do the crappy jobs no one else wants to do and not complain about it. A famous example of this dynamic is the historic discovery of the double helix shape of DNA – credited to James Watson and Francis Crick but was actually initially made by Rosalind Franklin who found the shape via X-Ray crystallography. She shared her prints with Watson and Crick who published it. History is littered with examples where a women’s professional contribution has been undervalued or credited to someone else.
Looking at this context it is deeply problematic to me that this history of undervaluing women and women’s work is continued in the very organisations that purport to work to benefit women. Furthermore women who speak out against this system of internalised exploitation are attacked and criticized for not being sufficiently committed to the cause, or for acting too entitled. This is a form of silencing that is very damaging. I understand the practical limitations that constrain most women focused NGO’s however I believe that small changes to ensure organisations are critiquing this patriarchal dynamic rather than reinforcing it. Allowing volunteers or people lower down the food chain to enjoy the fruits of their labour by attending a conference perhaps. Simply acknowledging that the current situation is less than ideal but it is all we can manage right now and reinforcing that all contributions are valued can go a long way to subverting rather than reinforcing patriarchal attitudes towards women’s work.