Opinion: Can aid organizations really be part of social movements?

Photo by: Matthew Henry

I have heard much talk of movements in the aid and development sector of late. It is no wonder that the hundreds of thousands of people who work for aid agencies, NGOs, and contractors have been moved to think about the role of movements. The past years’ elections in wealthy countries reveal to those in the United States and United Kingdom, especially, the extent of corporate political capture, the roll back of progressive policy agendas, and the importance of people-fueled pushback during this critical time.

It’s also no wonder people want to support movements. Most of us joined global development efforts to help people who are marginalized and we are all impacted by the current zeitgeist.

I have seen a worrying trend in the aid sector, however, as more and more people view their organizations as part of movements or as movement builders, or say they want to partner with movements. Some organizations even want to describe their work overall as a movement.

But before we use this language to frame our work, we must first understand what a movement is, and what it is not.

Movements are focused on moving systems, structures, and institutions toward justice and equity — the aid sector is itself an institution. This means fundamentally changing society’s status quo, not just making changes, and it is certainly more than service delivery.

“Movements aren’t projects, they move.”

— Maria Stephan, director of the program on nonviolent action at the U.S. Institute of Peace

Movements build community and momentum in response to a specific need, social condition or vision — or all three. Rather than any organogram, they resemble an umbrella, including and gathering more and more individuals, campaigners, policy analysts, civil society organizations, media makers while taking coordinated steps.

Movements are defined by a shared analysis and agenda in order to take principled, collective, direct action and create targeted strategic pressure. Just as much as they are defined by joint efforts on policy advocacy, community organizing and mobilizing popular support, and narrative shift, movements are phenomena.

What differentiates movements from other social good efforts is that they are rooted in and driven by “the people.” This collective leadership can take many forms, but it is seen in its accountability to people — not boards nor funders.

The second thing we must do is be real with ourselves and our limitations. By the very structure and purpose of development agencies and organizations, accountability to everyday people — in policy, in leadership, in practice —  is still all too rare.

“Downward accountability” was a trend or topic of conversation in our sector in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, the language itself implies some people are “above” others, revealing the problematic nature of a do-gooder mentality still focused on hierarchy and intervention, rather than global solidarity.

Arundhati Roy notably wrote about the NGO-ization of resistance as a hazard facing mass movements around the world in 2014, before Brexit and Make America Great Again. In our sector, we are too protected by the abstractions of our development lexicon and the layers of bureaucracy. We can too easily claim our commitment to “results” or “locally led development” and too easily skip over the roots of the problems we seek to address, including structural racism and the imperial and colonial underpinnings of our work that continue to plague us.

If recent scandals have revealed nothing, it is that this sector has yet to dismantle unjust structures within its own organizations and institutions. Our values are not reflected nor aligned in our operations. We can no longer afford to ignore what’s political and hide under the shadow of “doing good.”

Let us not move too quickly in supporting movements, nor even assume our sector is akin to them or even knows them. We must first do the difficult, internal work of reckoning with our own history and reality.

Unless we continue to open up the conversation on racism, sexism, and privilege in the global development sector, we will continue to perpetuate the same, tired neoliberal-fueled system and make the same mistakes — ones that right now we believe can be solved by best practices and improved indicators.

“Movements aren’t projects —  they move,” reminds Maria Stephan, an expert on nonviolent direct action at the United States Institute of Peace.

Finally, the aid sector can focus on becoming better partners to community-based organizations they already profess to support.

Currently, agencies and organizations based in wealthy countries “outsource” their work, not only relying upon, but extracting the labor, knowledge, and ideas of local implementing partners and staff. Also passed down in the giver/receiver dynamic is the majority of the financial risk. The ethical implications of this are all too rarely considered.

Aid donors explicitly and implicitly demand that community-based organizations meet their conditions and requirements. In practice, this means professionalized and capital-based organizations are often the only ones that can.

By designing, managing, funding, and evaluating faraway, large-scale projects that other people implement, the aid sector remains cut off from the energy that fuels social movements. Professionalizing movements can too easily weaken their effectiveness and reach.

The global development sector — at minimum — should not damage nor co-opt peoples’ struggles for liberation around the world.

The global development sector’s current policies, procedures, and day-to-day practices are actually in conflict with movements’ life cycles. Supporting movements means not determining goals or timetables, recognizing that these are ever-shifting within movements to meet the challenges and opportunities of the day.

If activists are already marginalized, extracted from, and demotivated by the aid sector’s paper pushing and internal navel gazing, how can we possibly presume to support entire movements?

Perhaps supporting movements is a sectoral trend that will fade away as many do. Or, we are approaching a dangerous precipice that could further damage people’s efforts to determine their futures.

Yes, the greatest power lies in the people. We may want our organizations to be part of cultural shifts. But history proves how this happens. Solidarity is shown in action, and the aid sector has a lot of internal work to do first.

About the author

  • Jennifer lentfer headshot2

    Jennifer Lentfer

    Jennifer Lentfer is the director of communications at Thousand Currents, an international grassroots grantmaker, and creator of the blog, how-matters.org. A book which she co-edited, "Smart Risks: How small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems," came out last year. Lentfer has served with Oxfam U.S., Catholic Relief Services, American Red Cross, UNICEF, and Firelight Foundation and in 2012 was named as one of Foreign Policy Magazine's "100 women to follow on Twitter" at @intldogooder.