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Kirk Helliker delivered a clinical dissection of the role of NGOs in his Think!fest talk last Friday. The head of Sociology at Rhodes University problematised the relationship between intermediary NGOs, civil society and rural mobilisations.
He brought up the interesting point of NGOs themselves being subject to upward pressure from global donors who have their own agendas.
“The primary objective of an intermediary NGO is to bring stability … and their survival depends on the status quo, ” Helliker noted.
By implication, if NGOs are not completely independent from the economic and ideological concerns of their funders, the waters between an NGO and the society within which it operates become muddied.
NGOs then, without any real mandate, form social movements for the supposed upliftment of the rural area they service.
“NGOs become saviours for rural mobilisation,” Helliker said - often to the detriment of local rural movements. Dependency on the NGO is so fostered, Helliker argued, creating a self-perpetuating cycle.
In the end, rural ctizens cannot see the merit in their opinion and personal involvement. Upliftment and funding are seen as being brought about solely by foreign saviours.
There was a place for intermediary NGOs in post-apartheid South Africa, however, but only when agrarian reform and rural concerns were prioritised.
This happy balance is not always the case with NGOs, so when they and governments continue to economically and mentally disenfranchise a country's poorest citizens, social movements create alternative living spaces and different means to their goals.
Helliker used the example of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a squatter movement that advocates emancipatory politics by denouncing representational politics, as practised largely by the state and NGOs.
“Speak to us, not for us” is one of the movement's catch phrases and it neatly sums up their disillusionment with the top-down approach to resolving poverty.
This idea of making the road by walking it is echoed globally. Helliker gives examples from Latin America. The Zapatista and El Alto social movements presented a radical departure from the conventional way of tackling grassroots issues. Citizens act themselves to bring about a better life.
Think!fest convener, Anthea Garman, spoke in support of Helliker’s argument, acknowledging the struggles rural, township and squatter populations face.
“In Kirk [Helliker’s] talk, he emphasised that people themselves have something to say and do about it, whereas previous talks about land issues and social change have been mainly in the field of law and politics,” Garman said.
* Appasamy and Makhubela are on the Future Journalism Programme (FJP) at Rhodes University for 2013.