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. Continue reading

Where next for NGOs?

What’s a single issue NGO to do in a multi-issue world? It’s no easy balancing act.

On one hand, funding departments argue that members want to see them campaigning on the issues they’re known for. Too much scope creep, they say, could lead to falling subscriptions, legacies and income. (Sometimes, members are in fact surpisingly open-minded and ready to understand interconnections between issues, and it’s actually conservatively minded staff members, rather than grassroots members, who want to keep things ‘as they’ve always been’.)

On the other hand, the brighter NGO policy departments understand very well that as issues like environment, conflict, development and human rights become increasingly intertwined, it makes less and less sense to focus resolutely on just one piece of the puzzle. Will the Oxfam / Greenpeace / Amnesty generation of NGOs be able to make the shift? Or are we heading towards a new – and perhaps less ‘vertically integrated’ – model of NGO campaigning?

Continue reading