In search of a new space for the expression of citizens
01 / 1999
I worked for two years (Sept. 1995 - Dec. 1997)as a consultant in the harmonisation of relations between the European Commission and the 800 NGO members of the EU-NGO Liaison Committee (CLONG). The first year this work aimed to clarify the role and the concept of NGO and the second year, to draw up a standard contract and harmonise the procedures applicable to NGOs.
This work led me to meet with numerous administrators, department heads and directors who managed, financed, and evaluated NGO projects in the former organisation chart of Directorate-General in External Relations. I also took part in many discussions with European NGO representatives. This long and complex process extended way beyond the two years in which I was working with the European Commission and is not formally finished to this date.
Following are some elements of considerations drawn of this experience, which deserve to be taken further.
1 - The NGO identity in question
* The « good project »: Quality or quantity?
The legible quantitative elements (such as the quantity of funds absorbed, the amount infrastructure completed, the number of people cared for in a humanitarian disaster, etc.)are easier to identify and more often taken into account.
* The present role of NGOs leaves little room for citizens of the North and of the South.
The main actor is the development institution, while citizens of the South are « beneficiaries ». The word « beneficiary » leads to the understanding that the project or the action under consideration is intrinsically good for the populations, since we are dealing with assistance and that its only possible outcome is benefit.
A catalyst role: The catalyst is not the agent of the action, it supports the action. It must therefore rely on the resources (not exploit the needs), know-how, and skills of the local actors and count on them as the factors of change. It puts itself deliberately at the service of grassroots groups in an uncomfortable, moving situation, because intrinsically it changes as the expression capacities of the grassroots actors with which it works progress and their autonomy increases. The NGO is then no longer facing a « beneficiary », but an actor with whom any action must be negotiated.
2 - The NGO-Commission relation: To please rather than to innovate?
I fear that the present system places too much value on the logic of the intermediary entities to the detriment of meaning. In development co-operation, image takes on greater importance than reality.
Thus, EC administrators regularly get paradoxical injunctions from their hierarchy bidding them to use up the totality of the funds (on budgets that have often increased these past years)in financing « good projects ».
As for the NGOs, their attention is strongly oriented toward the satisfaction of the provider of funds and toward an increase in the budgets accessible to them. It is important for NGOs to maintain a good image in the eyes of their providers of funds if they do not want their financial flow to dry up.
My fear is that all of this leads to the organisation of a genuine logic of extroversion. The NGO of the North wishes to please provider of funds, the NGO of the South wishes to please the NGO of the North, the citizens of the South are often just allowed to keep quiet and thank the system. The only ones who have no say in the matter are the citizens of the North and the South who are the real actors of development co-operation.
Social innovation that would require seeking another relationship to the populations, other methods of fund management, and other forms of follow-up in more participatory projects has not been the object of enough research by NGOs because insufficiently recognised by financial backers. Yet this is what ensures the legitimacy of the work of NGOs and illustrates the specificity of NGOs.
Along the same lines, it seems to me that the Commission does have the means it would need to identify social innovation and communicate it to their administrative services as input for their decisions or practices in their budgetary lines.
3 - The difficulty of integrating cross-cultural dynamics
A « cross-cultural » culture needs to be integrated into the legal bases, the criteria for the identification of projects, the forms of assessment, etc. In everyday practice, one can observes that the cultural question is completely marginalized, as much as such (cultural co-operation is practically not financed)as in its potential capacity as overall tool applicable to all the financial tools.
Finally, the Commission has a top-down organisation and does not seem to perceive the time wasted by its members sometimes in fruitless dialogue for lack of translators to facilitate cross-understanding and dialogue within the Commission.
Putting citizens and their culture at the centre of their development by getting the best out of their own knowledge and know-how, and being at the service of such initiatives is the real challenge for the identity of NGOs. NGOs and the European Commission are bound to lose their legitimacy unless they attempt to change some of their practices and their forms of relationship such that citizens are given more room to express themselves.
[[Written for the public debate « Actors and processes of the cooperation », which could feed the next Lome Convention (European Union/ACP countries relations). This debate, animated by the FPH, has been started by the Cooperation and Development Commission of the European Parliament and is supported by the European Commission.]