DisNGOization in practice

I have been here for three weeks that have run so fast that it seems I landed yesterday.  It is time to focus on the main reason of me returning to Sierra Leone.  I have to find a way to create an occasion for sharing my research conclusions with the key actors of the disability movement here. Not that I have neglected this objective so far. I have gone through the official steps: I identified somebody that I esteemed to be in a good position to act as a facilitator and a mediator between the different fractions of the movement.  He is part of the National Union (Sierra Leone National Union for Disability Issues, shortly: SLUDI), at the same time he has always been overtly critical of the main line of SLUDI’s leadership.  Although he was part of it, he accused publically members of the executive of abusing power and using it to politicise the movement, linking it voluntarily to the governing APC party.  My chosen facilitator owes his relative independence to his status (which comes with a paid job – a rare resource!) at the Human Right Commission.  He was happy to intercede in my favour at the Disability Commission, the latest government-led Human Rights institution (indeed one of a series), specialised in issues related to disability. The Commission was created in 2012, as the first step towards the implementation of the Disability Act, which had been enacted the previous year.  Ever since there has been no second step: the free health care and free education that the Act foresees for people with disabilities remained an empty promise. The three government-run rehabilitation centres are dormant because of lack of resources, although at least the employees are paid by government – which is not always the case of public servants. The only major progress to be seen in the domain of disability rights is in the gradual increase of the staff of the Commission, which has got a lot of ambitious plans (including the setting up of a medical board having the power to check and register people with disabilities so that they can benefit from the advantages yet to be introduced; the establishment of a nation-wide database listing all people with disability and all the disabled-related organisations) but obviously little capacity to carry them out. Bearing in mind that even rudimentary statics are missing in the country as far as disability is concerned, it is to be feared that if full systematisation is required before any practical step is made, then the practical steps will not come very soon.

I had several meetings at the Commission until I obtained an official hearing from the Chairman himself. The Chairman is a returning diaspora member, like some of the staff too.  He was brought back to the country by the president himself.  He is visually impaired. These two facts – being a quasi-foreigner and being a member of the blind-community cost him some conflict with SLUDI, the executive of which is dominated by people with physical impairments who have been in the local movement for many years.  My negotiation with the Commission went well, yet yielded few concrete results.  To my relief it was proposed that my intervention should be included in one of those big collective events mobilising most leaders of disabled people’s organisations (DPOs). In this way I could avoid calling a special meeting which to my taste would be somewhat too pretentious. The problem is only that these occasions now are rare and rather uncertain. The date of the 17th of November was evoked, for which the Commission wanted to call a meeting for the participation of DPOs in the ongoing constitutional review.  That was not exactly the occasion I was waiting for but provided that it mobilised a large public it still could be an interesting option. Unfortunately though, one week before the prospective date no funding is assured to the event yet, that is, in this way, very likely to be annulled.  I might have a second chance, joining the celebration of the International Disability Day (IDD ) on the 3rd of December, but – as I learned –  this year the official celebration would happen in Makeni instead of the capital, and I am afraid that most of my friends and contacts from the “disabled community” in Freetown will not be there.  I have no other choice now but to wait patiently for the best occasion to appear.  I am not too worried.  Something will surely happen, probably in the last minute, like usual.

For me contacting the Disability Commission as a first instance was a strategic move, as I knew that if I start by discussing with any of the DPOs, let alone with SLUDI, I will surely be criticised for short-circuiting the government.  It was also apparently a necessity, because – as I gradually found out – those regular disability forum meetings that I used to know some years ago – were simply not happening any more. Even the prospects of a joint celebration of the IDD were decidedly uncertain. In the past the IDD would have been one of those rare occasions to mobilise almost everybody in the disability world and even competing organisations would put away old animosities to show unity under SLUDI’s leadership.  This year, instead, I received half-joking demands from different smaller organisations to support financially their own celebration.  The Commission’s decision to put an emphasis on Makeni (a provincial town) this year instead of Freetown was a way also to mark symbolically an evident division.  I knew that SLUDI’s claim to represent all the organisations and to talk “in one voice” for all of them has always been based on a fiction rather than on reality, but now I had the impression to find the movement more fragmented than ever.  There was something ironic about the fact that many years of top -down “civil society development” and  “capacity building” promoted  by international organisations and institutional donors often in partnership with government seemed to have weakened the capacity of collective action of people with disability, instead of strengthening it. This was ironic but not unexpected.

In my doctoral dissertation I identified the process leading to this kind of weakening, calling it “NGOIzation”.  To avoid all misunderstandings:  for me speaking about “NGOization” is not a way to speak about wrong doings of NGOs.  Rather, I use the term to describe a general tendency which led to conceiving  formal NGO-type organisations as somehow natural incarnations of civil society, in a way that in some parts of the world civil society and the NGO sector have become synonymous.  This conceptual shift was a necessary step towards giving NGOs and CSOs (civil society organisations) a major role in the execution of social tasks previously attributed to governments.  By the same move, many formal organisations were put in the inconvenient position of becoming simultaneously service providers for the government while pretending to be part of a control mechanism checking the transparency, legality and efficiency of the State in protecting the public good. The incompatibility of these two functions, combined with a chronic under-funding of the services required from it, obliged a large part of the officially recognised civil society to operate from compromise to compromise.

In many parts of the world, but certainly more in Eastern Europe and in Africa where the booming of Western-type NGOs were the result of the adaptation of an imported model rather than of an organic development, NGOIzation threatened the authenticity of local organisations by shaping their objectives and operating mechanism making these compatible with goals set far from the cultural and geographical area of the interventions imagined by officials having little interest in or knowledge of local realities.

Also, while NGOs as service providers were supposed to complement the efforts of government, in reality in many domains they became rather its substitutes (particularly in areas where the government was failing or lacked the will to concentrate resources), contributing to a gradual abandon of (in the case of Eastern Europe) or wilful negligence (in the case of Africa) of state functions related to provision of welfare services and to the protection of citizens’ rights. NGOization is thus a way to keep public (and sometimes private) money dedicated to development in core sectors in circulation, channelling it into short time, one-off projects with limited geographical and social scope, rather than into long term comprehensive programs developed with a strategic vision to bring improvement in particular sectors.

NGOization affects also the language: it contributes to the creation of an artificial idiom, producing a series of buzz words that are only loosely indexed to any kind of reality.  By abusive use it empties important concepts -like Human Rights, civil society, partnership, participation, transparency or, for that matter, anti-discrimination – of their meaning, thus turning these into simplified universal solutions instead of encouraging a contextualised analysis of the original question that awaits an answer.  As a result, many a time, the theory of change behind them remains sheer theory indeed.

Finally, despite the militant language, NGOIzation transforms local organisations struggling for survival into mere executors of donor-led policies -in the best case; or into fierce competitors  fighting for the same scarce resources – in the worst case.  In either way, NGOIzation contributes to the fragmentation and depoliticisation of the civil sector. Depoliticisation happens paradoxically at the same time as over-politicisation, in the sense that party politics – or at least the obligation to relate to it – comes to substitute political activity as a means of enforcing meaningful social change by collective action.  All these tendencies I have seen in Sierra Leone, in the civil sector, in general, and in the disability movement, in particular.

These are some of the things I intend to speak about in front of the representatives of local DPOs. Convinced that today there is both a need of and an opportunity for transformation, I would like to urge disabled members of civil society here to start a serious DisNGOization. This would begin by banning project language in order to gain a fresh perception of reality, it would imply setting new objectives (or redefining old objectives with new words) which address real needs, instead of presupposing needs that call ready-made solutions. I would urge them to claim for more ownership and independence in analysing the problems they face and in identifying the change they wish to bring. I would encourage them to form strategic alliances based on issues they esteem important to tackle (education, health, housing, rehabilitation, to mention a few), instead of closing themselves in identity-based coalitions based on the false presumption of “one voice”.  But before all I would like to tell them that despite the difficulties they face, they have incredible achievements that they should be proud of, both as Sierra Leoneans and as disabled, as they live in a society which – despite all the legitimate claims for improvement  – instead of segregating people with disability, live fully in community with them. Following a somewhat non-orthodox integration pattern, people with disability were even capable to create living spaces offering shelter, economic opportunity and social protection for disabled and non-disabled members alike.

Notwithstanding the uncertainties, I will certainly find a way to speak to DPO leaders about these issues.  In the meanwhile I am just travelling in the country and speak with different sorts of people: local and international NGO workers, government officials, disability activists and other members of local civil society.  By doing so, I have arrived to a strange conclusion.  While previously I had been afraid that my proposals would be found too provocative in a society so profoundly NGOIzed, all of a sudden they seem to resonate with the intuition of almost everybody I talk to. This should not mislead me – I know – as I have always been impressed by the quality of critical analysis people are able to come up with in informal discussions, which does not modify the least their conventional views voiced in most public settings.

The situation today however seems to be new. Time seems ripe for change. My friends who lead a local NGO engaged me to accompany them to their yearly tour “assessing” their local partners.  They do it with the help of a questionnaire their donor prepared for the purpose. Despite my previous experiences, I  am shocked to see how little this questionnaire is conducive to getting real information from the partners concerning their activities, let alone for establishing a sincere dialogue.  This is not only my opinion.  We all agree. Then we start the process. We first transform the questionnaire, and by doing so, we transform also the dynamic.  It is getting better. As we visit new partners, what resembled to an inquisition at the beginning, slowly turns into a discussion, which, if it still is not totally sincere, at least aims now at searching together for problems and solutions. It is also decided that a feedback will be given to the donor, explaining them why certain of their questions are not relevant in the circumstances and why the setting of the questionnaire seems totally strange to the reality in the field. This is certainly a minor revolution, if it is at all, but I have the feeling that something has started. I also wonder if this is not the best way to engage dis-Ngoization: instead of speaking about it, transforming routines in real-life practice. Small-small, i.e. slowly and step  by step in Krio.

DisNGO

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