To keep up, change NGOs must

By Josie M Fernandez

azlanWe live in very challenging times. The ongoing economic crisis has been described as the worst since the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s. The Welfare State is under attack.

Austerity drives through various cuts such as in education, health and subsidies make media headlines regularly. Price increases of essential goods are beginning to have serious effects particularly on low-income families. The devastating effects of climate change and food shortages are causing misery in almost every corner of the planet.

Against this background of daily challenges for ordinary citizens, NGOs need to re-examine their roles and functions to remain relevant and effective.

NGOs are often referred to as the third sector, after the public and private sectors. NGOs in most developing countries perform varying functions such as delivering services, creating economic activities and carrying out advocacy work. The functions of NGOs are primarily determined by the needs and situations in the countries where they operate

azlanIn Malaysia, NGOs as part of civil society have played important roles in national development since the 1970s in the areas of consumer and environmental protection, women’s rights, child labour, the rights of workers, human rights and many forms of charitable work. NGOs continue to provide services such as managing orphanages, and shelters for abused and trafficked women.

More recently, NGOs have begun to participate in the fight against corruption and campaign for better governance and more democratic space.

The functions undertaken by NGOs are determined not only by their philosophy and ideological orientations and financial resources, but also by the economic and political spaces available to them. The political space determines the operations of NGOs even if their ideals are universal. It has been acknowledged that the vibrancy of a country’s NGO sector may indicate the social development and political characteristics of the state.

Meeting social needs

A primary function of the state is to provide the basic needs of its citizens, including food, housing, health and education. The market’s role is to supply adequate quantities of goods and services efficiently and at a low cost. The community too has a role to meet social needs through such activities as religious giving and other philanthropic ventures. Citizens also benefit from sharing community-owned resources such as forests, parks and irrigation systems.

Bangladesh, where extreme poverty has crippled human development, for example is one of the countries in Asia which ranks among the top countries in terms of the extent of NGO activities providing services and economic activities.

Through advocacy, NGOs can change the political space available to them, and some of them make this function central to their operations. Some NGOs choose to focus on the economic space and gear their activities towards providing services.

taiwan student protest 101108 08For example, in countries where economic growth has brought wealth to the people, such as in Singapore and Taiwan, there has been little political space for decades. However, in the case of Taiwan, advocacy NGOs have focused on the democratisation of governance and decision-making processes with some success.

The political and economic spaces are not the only factors that demarcate the boundaries of NGO work. How NGOs utilise these spaces depend on a number of factors such as culture and religion, and the leadership and capacity of the NGOs.

But can NGOs continue to operate as they have done in the last 30-20 years? Should they transform? Or is the role of NGOs being reduced as the state and market dominate our economic and social lives?

Within civil society, do counter-hegemonic movements pose more challenges to NGOs? Are state agents joining forces with counter-hegemonic groups that could undermine the work of NGOs? There is also growing concern that NGOs may shift to state-market-civil society arrangements.

Need to transform and reshape

In order to remain relevant, NGOs need to transform their institutions, ideologies and operations. NGOs must reshape the way Malaysians and the media view them as they are often portrayed as charitable organisations and as providers of services.

NGOs must begin to play greater roles in policy responses and provide strategic people-oriented inputs in the formulation of national development plans and their implementation. NGOs are after viewed as reactionaries and not agenda-setters and a powerful force.

But NGOs do have their sources of power – their values, their creativity and ideas, their relationships with their constituencies which includes the Malaysian public.

health care malaysiaThese sources of power offer NGOs many opportunities for transformation and change. Engaging the public through policy briefs on key national issues such as the economy, healthcare, food security, human trafficking, impact of climate change etc requires knowledge-generation by NGOs.

Malaysia lacks research-oriented NGOs. Non governmental organisations need to combine grassroots work with research, knowledge generation and publications to broaden their roles in the public sphere. The research and knowledge produced by NGOS could become powerful tools in influencing government policies which too often have been shaped by neoliberal think-tanks from the West.

The not -for-profit nature of NGOs enables them to undertake research and generate knowledge in ways that universities are not able to do.

Reflecting new realities

The agenda-setting powers today are China and India. NGO research and policy interventions must reflect these new realities.

NGOs must be able to intervene strategically in the political processes through lobbying and advocacy campaigns for better governance and accountability. NGOs need to contribute to public debates, for example, on the ravages of corruption and authoritarianism at the national level.

Today governance issues have become critical and there is growing unhappiness with political processes, parties and politicians. Corruption is a serious concern. NGOs must campaign against politicians benefiting from corruption and the culture of impunity. Such campaigns will be far more convincing if they are supported by research on the local situation.

Importantly, NGOs need to weave community-based activities simultaneously with policy advocacy. Multiple community based initiatives by NGOs such as projects for better housing for the urban poor, livelihood programmes for single mothers may appear minuscule but such projects have brought relief to the lives of many disadvantaged by an unjust social system.

A key challenge for Malaysian NGOs is access to resources as European and American donors do not consider Malaysia as an aid recipient nation. Developing a Malaysian donor community to support research, policy advocacy, lobbying and campaigning for change is not easy as Malaysians tend to contribute more to charities. But as NGOs transform, build their capacities and engage the public more, the local resource base is likely to respond.

If NGOs are to make any profound difference to the many challenges confronting ordinary Malaysians, they will need to collaborate, share resources and knowledge for effective participation in the economic, social and political development of the country. – Mkini
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JOSIE M FERNANDEZ is currently an Asian Public Intellectual Fellow, director of Philanthropy Asia, consultant and researcher. Working on sustainability, philanthropy and anti-corruption actions are some of her current passions besides writing.

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