Monika Krause author of “The Good Project” argues that NGOs are incentivised to continually churn out “good projects”. That in reality, once you scratch away at the political veneer, what you uncover is an industry inspired and underpinned by a capitalist – some would say neo-liberal – ideology. Here, Kris Gulati explores this perspective-changing book and sees what it can tell us about NGOs.
Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have been described as many things in recent years. Some describe them as institutions which continue to maintain and impose post-colonial rule. Some Foucault-influenced thinkers believe they are an extension of governmentality, in which NGOs are a camouflaged extension of governing bodies permeating the remit of civil society (see Townsend et al).
The crux of Krause’s argument is that humanitarian relief NGOs do not follow through with what they campaign and fundraise for, that is helping the neediest. Rather, Krause argues that NGOs construct themselves, their aims, and their projects in order to make “good projects”– an entirely different logic. Indifferent of their stated intentions, NGOs must produce projects, because successful projects allows for further funding and the NGOs sustenance. Funding from donors comes with demands; often the need to appease external requirements and evaluations. This shapes the allocation of resources:
“Agencies produce projects with a defined outcome and a defined budget or price. Agencies seek to make a difference and seek to do projects that “add value.” When agencies consider adding value, they consider resources, access, and their own prior experience.” (Emphasis added)
Following this logic, relief agencies are considering factors which are not directly relevant to their specified end goal (helping those in need). Faced with comments such as “But your competitor is doing this much for that many people much cheaper elsewhere” gives an insight into the hyper-efficient marketplace of donors, which coerces NGOs to ‘add value’ and increase efficiency in what one would expect of a firm in a competitive market.
What is underpinning this argument seems to be a form of Marxian thinking – commodity fetishism – in which these seemingly altruistic interventions have actually been commodified and as such are now packaged as projects. This managerial logic (creating projects) has repercussions. It harms the people who need aid the most as those projects are the hardest to fulfil.
To add to her critique, Krause compares the logic of media organisations with the aid industry. She does this by utilising Smythe’s rethinking of the product in media production (See below). This ‘rethinking’, questions the received wisdom of who an organisations intended audience is. The media is perceived as producing its output for its audience (the viewers). However, in reality media organisations are producing a commodity in order to sustain its existence and maximise profits from the advertiser. The traditional relationship has been distorted. The audience is now an afterthought, after the advertisers needs have been satisfied.
Now the donors and their funding are the primary goal and the “beneficiaries” or recipients of aid are but an addendum. This is a powerful re-conceptualisation of the donor-NGO relationship.
Krause also analyses the ‘log frame’ which is a tool used comprehensively by NGOs (see below for an example). The log frame is “a tool for improving the planning, implementation, management, monitoring and evaluation of projects.” It allows for the direct comparison of projects. Krause argues that this changes the focus from relief for the end-point users of aid, to a programme with a focus on cost-efficiency. Organisations now have to compete for funding by producing the best results.
However, despite the criticisms, there is a need for the log frame. The author understates the importance of technical projects, which generally require more mechanistic interventions. Often overlooked are the needs of the aid-recipients who ask for schools, medicines, and clean water. Yes these projects require some levels of dynamism but ultimately they are technocratic projects, which require technocratic expertise and thus technocratic interventions.
Overall, The Good Project is a welcome addition to a long list of critiques of the aid industry. This is perhaps because of Krause’s utilisation of an innovative approach. She goes straight to the heart of where the decisions are ultimately made by interviewing the desk officers.
Despite the potency of Krause’s argument, there is a double-edged sword to her methodology. Krause’s’ interviews were with the people who are central to the system. Indeed, Krause’s “appendix on methods” acknowledges that she could have focused on a multitude of different organisations (178).
However, it is perhaps the agencies who are the smaller cogs (often the grass root organisations) which are trying to subvert the system. They seek alternative methods around the saturated marketplace of donor funding. These NGOs attempt to forge their own “spaces of resistance” by challenging the donor structure and attempt to reach those most in need by ‘playing’ the system.
Krause touches upon this in the penultimate page, although it is understated. As such, Krause’s argument overgeneralises NGOs and doesn’t reflect the heterogeneity that comes with this broad category. Overall, her book is an eye-opening and insightful critique. However it neglects the fact that there are NGOs that escape the Krauseian idea of “the good project” and despite the precarious space they hold, do not fear the potential existential threats, and instead truly attempt to produce good projects for those who need them.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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