Come on, NGOs, raise your game!

In comments on Jules’s post on the Put People First march, the Bretton Woods Project’s Peter Chowla takes me to task for what he argued was a sloppy and unfair critique of PPF’s policy platform that I made in my own comment on Jules’s post. 

Actually, Peter’s right.  I said PPF had a “shockingly weak policy position: just warmed up leftovers from Make Poverty History”, and that there was almost nothing to it other than the traditional calls for more aid and less conditionality.  In fact, as Peter accurately points out, there IS more to PPF’s platform than that: he cites its positions on tax havens, reform of the IMF and World Bank, Green New Deals and investing in public services, for instance.

On the other hand, I don’t think I was exaggerating that much.  On some of these areas, as Peter admits, work is still underway within the PPF coalition to clarify its policy position.  And I stand by my argument that PPF’s position on a post-Kyoto climate deal really is shocking: the 2 degree C temperature limit it advocates has been EU policy since 1998, and says nothing about the much more fundamental issues of (a) what this means in terms of a climate stabilisation target expressed in parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent and (b) how the resulting global emissions budget ought to be shared out.

Still, fair’s fair: it was a snippy comment, and I should have reflected PPF more accurately.  But my deeper frustration with NGO coalitions like PPF remains. NGOs are supposed to set agendas; to open up new political space; to dream up big ideas about possible futures. Sure, you can’t pursue big ideas without big coalitions.  But equally, what’s the point of big coalitions without big ideas?

 What we have today is a situation in which civil society always seems to be one step behind the curve.  Back at the time of the Make Poverty History, for instance, it was clear to anyone that wanted to see it that climate change was the coming issue in international development.  Yet it was absent from MPH’s policy position; ironically, DFID’s 2006 White Paper was way ahead of where development NGOs had got to on climate.  (I remember thinking at the time: isn’t this supposed to work the other way round?)

Now, the context has changed again: and again, civil society is lagging.  Look around the international development landscape.  Scarcity issues like energy security, water scarcity and food prices are joining climate change as defining features on the map.  There’s serious cause for concern that the post-Cold War decline in conflict in developing countries may be bottoming out. The real discussion about power-shift in the international economy is finally starting. Security of supply is set to become the biggest issue in international trade (and has already led to the collapse of a developing country government.) Emissions trading holds out the potential to become the most important source of finance for development. And so on.

So where are all of these issues in the PPF policy platform? Nowhere!  Instead of opening up new agendas – at a time when vast tracts of virgin political space are opening up – NGOs are staying right in their comfort zone, articulating the same policy positions as they were five years ago.

Part of what makes this so frustrating is that some of the most exciting thinking on development over the last few years has in fact come out of the civil society domain.  Think of Matthew Lockwood‘s fantastic book on governance in Africa (written while he was at ActionAid), or Duncan Green‘s writing about active citizenship as the necessary concomitant of effective states (written while head of research at Oxfam).  Look at Tearfund‘s pathfinding work on climate change – way ahead of Stop Climate Chaos – or at the Bretton Woods Project’s work on IFI reform. Look at how Avaaz weaves multiple single issues together into a progressive package that’s more than the sum of its parts.

Above all, look at the people who don’t shy away from the question: ‘what would a definitive solution to [insert name of global challenge here] look like?’.  You may agree or disagree with the proposals for global currency reform set out in George Monbiot’s The Age of Consent (now endorsed, six years later, by the People’s Bank of China).  You may or may not accept Aubrey Meyer‘s proposal that convergence to equal per capita emission rights is the most realistic way of sharing out a global emissions budget (now endorsed by Nick Stern, Kemal Dervis, and governments from Africa to India).  But in either case, these are both people who are asking the central questions

The same can’t be said of NGO coalitions, alas.  Despite the fact that serious thinking can be found here and there in civil society circles, if you know where to look, the fact remains that NGOs consistently fail to rally behind it.  Instead, they fall into the trap of failing to endorse the big ideas while failing to put forward alternatives of their own – as if confirm their belief, as Monbiot suggests, that “slogans are a substitute for policies”.

So you have to wonder: why doesn’t civil society use its clout to set new agendas, open up new political space?  Why is it that despite the fertile soil for fresh thinking that we now find in front of us, NGOs aren’t out there cultivating it?  Why, for that matter, didn’t they plant seeds in that soil five, ten, fifteen years ago?

It’s now two years since I wrote a post asking ‘where next for NGOs’, which quoted a 2004 study commissioned by British Overseas NGOs for Development (BOND) that argued,

While British NGOs remain central in campaigns around debt relief and trade justice, they somehow seem to have lost touch with the groundswell of radical activism which is mobilising large numbers of people around the same causes as they espouse. There is a danger that NGOs will be squeezed out of their niche, unable to recruit volunteers and experiencing falling donations, and that they will be rejected by a whole new generation of activists as irrelevant, co-opted, or a part of the system which they are fighting.

But as I noted at the start of 2008, it’s not as if the anti-globalisation movement is in much better shape these days (and there was always the difficult question of what it was in favour of). Now, as developed country publics start really feeling the pain, the window of opportunity for far-reaching ideas may start to dwindle unless we get our act together fast; throwing bricks at Fred Goodwin’s windows may seem to many to be a more satisfying form of activism.

The one spot of hope in all this, perhaps, is the potential for social network technologies to move into the gap.  Obama’s election campaign offered real signs of progress on that front; and though we’re taking baby steps at applying the same principles to global level organising, initiatives like We20 could yet prove to be the start of something really significant if they manage to fuse aggregation with content generation.

But in the meantime, NGOs remain probably our last best hope. Their membership numbers remain much higher than political parties; although they’re having a horrendous time on the fundraising front, they still have powerful resources; and their positioning gives them a platform to engage with the right issues.

But this will only work if their policy positions stop being so lowest common denominator – and start asking the biggest questions, tackling the most political global issues head-on, and above all taking some risks. Come on, NGOs: get your act together.  We need you.