In An Increasingly Political World, Can NGOs Afford To Remain Apolitical?

“It soon became obvious that tackling the root causes of poverty was an inherently political business.” 

-Maggie Black

Humanitarian and development aid as we know it has its roots in geopolitics. After World War II, the United Nations was created to replace the League of Nations with a renewed emphasis on peace, security, human rights, economic development and international law. ‘Universal Egalitarianism’ was one of the founding principles of the initiative but, ironically, it also paved the foundation for the dominance of the US as a global leader in the postwar period. Interestingly, by the end of the 20th century, the UN turned out to be an influential apolitical institution, despite its origin in a highly political environment.

For many, the UN defines what development means, in terms of goals, ideologies and implementation methodologies. It has guided the Non-Government Organisations (NGO) sector, on the ‘whats’ and ‘hows’ of the development domain, along with the principle of an NGO as an apolitical organization. When UN bodies consciously took a stand of non-alignment and non-interference in the internal politics of their sovereign nations, NGOs around the world followed suit.

In reality, however, this is either setting oneself up for failure or being hopelessly naive. When social and development causes like healthcare, education, sanitation, welfare etc. are highly political, how can one define where development ends, and politics begins?

As development workers and NGOs continue to derive their morality from the UN, we become stuck in the dilemma and struggle of being apolitical in an increasingly political world.

As a development professional, the integrity of my work and morality of my profession dictates that I set out target goals and by the end of the program, do my best to achieve them. Planning for the implementation process, we fill in the log frames and habitually include ‘political co-operation’ under ‘risks and assumptions.’

For any development professional, this has become a ritual that we almost reflexively perform, without paying attention to its significance. Working methodically in every other aspect of our work, mitigating every perceivable risk, the weak link in our otherwise careful delivery plan may come down to the whims of a politician. But given our ‘apolitical’ stand, mitigation of that one risk remains ‘out of scope.’ On a national and international level, development agendas are compromised because of unfavourable political environments.

The ethics of my work dictate that my organisation and I do not make false claims, and deliver the goals we promised. But somehow, failure, arising due to ‘political’ issues, remains acceptable industry-wide. In any other sector, failure to achieve promised objectives would be considered unacceptable and might also be grounds for loss of a contract. But in the development sector, we are more open to failing in our promises than considering the idea of political advocacy and alignment, which remains a no-go territory.

The apolitical stand of the UN at the international level, crucially followed by national and local NGOs may result in a terrible cost to people’s welfare and wellbeing on the ground. This statement is more real today than ever before, when the development goals worldwide, are being seen in divisive political ideologies. There are many valid reasons for development organisations to be unaffiliated. The simplest one is that their job is to provide services to people irrespective of their ideologies. However, we fail to see that when we promise to deliver those services, a large part of the promise relies on the favourable (to the development and social goals) and stable political environment.

Political leadership with hostile views on development objectives may result in cuts to social programs, as is visible in the current US Administration’s disregard for women’s health (Planned Parenthood), healthcare, children’s education (UNESCO), climate change (notice of withdrawal from Paris Climate Agreement) and international development (USAID).

Similar examples can be seen in other countries like India, where anti-foreign aid sentiment has led to cancelling licenses for thousands of NGOs and development organisations. This step taken by the current political leadership in India is guided either by their Hindu ideology (seeing Christian charities as a hub for religious conversion), anti-NGO sentiment (historical baggage) or corporate quid-pro-quo relationships (strengthening private sector at the expense of environmental stability).

In the face of such hostility from political leadership around the world and the detrimental effects of their decisions setting back decades of development efforts, to believe in strict non-alignment is a simplistic and quixotic approach. When the development goals are becoming increasingly political, can development organisations afford to remain above the divide?

Perhaps the time has come for the development sector to take a stand and become the voice of conscience for the political leadership and help define the vision of a better world for all.

Note: The phrase “above the divide” is taken from an article published on September 25, 2015, by Maggie Black in The Guardian.

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