Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have had their share of criticism the world over. Some have called them as ‘capitalist tools’, others as agents of American extra-regional hegemony and ‘Christian proselytizers in disguise’ while the more extreme have outrageously called NGOs as CIA agents. Robyn Eversole through her book Here to Help: NGO’s Combating Poverty in Latin America argues that the activities of NGOs in Latin America are for much nobler purposes; to combat poverty but are challenged by a host of circumstances, some being a creation of the NGOs themselves and other more political and sociological complexities that govern the condition of mankind in the developing world.
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Poverty elevation is the duty of governments, which unfortunately has been a weak area in Latin American countries. In the absence of robust governmental institutions, it is the NGOs who are left to fill in the space to act as a bridge between the government and the people. To substantiate this argument, Eversole first refers to the work carried out by two NGOs; Plan International and CARE in Ecuador in the field of helping “indigenous small holder agriculturalists”1. Despite land reforms in the 1960s and the 1970s, the Ecuadorian government’s agricultural policies and subsidies had been haphazard favoring urban settlements more than the rural countryside where the problems actually existed2. Realizing the difficulties and incapability of government agencies to actually resolve poverty alleviation, the government actively courted NGOs to fill in the space. CARE and Plan International thought that they could adopt a holistic strategy to deliver help to the countryside. They realized that any help to the unorganized agricultural sector where land holdings of individual farmers were small would have to take ecology into account and would require the wholehearted participation of the farmers where local knowledge would be complemented with modern agricultural techniques and not displace them. The Plan project worked with the indigenous community of Sunicoral, San Juan over a period of 14 years and was initially successful in reducing poverty in that community comprising of about 75 families3. The project focused on infrastructure development in the initial years with potable water system, sanitary systems and electrification plan to lay the groundwork for further development. Resistance from local politicians was also faced which did hamper the progress of the project for about two years4 but nonetheless, it succeeded with the community pooling in resources and resorting to community based farming that helped reduce general levels of poverty. A later day review however found that while most infrastructure put into place was still functional, sanitary systems had fallen into disrepair as the people had reverted to their age-old customs of defecating in open fields5. Community based agricultural development had broken down after the NGO had exited because of ownership issues and the mixed economy venture of raising pigs and poultry had deteriorated. Final end result of the Plan project was that it had failed on almost all accounts as the customs and rules which enforced an orderly behavioral pattern were alien to the target population who abandoned the project on the departure of the NGO. The CARE project too suffered a similar fate with the targeted families abandoning the conservation cum mixed farming approach and migrating out to the U.S. for jobs6. The reasons why the projects failed ranged from paternalistic behavior of the NGOs, local populace getting used to receiving high technology systems for free and not wishing to maintain them, inability to generate real participation from the targeted community, creation of dependency on the NGOs and a mismatch in cultural contextualization7.
Elsewhere in Latin America, Eversole recounts that even religious affiliated NGOs faced the same problem of trying to align their philosophies with those of the indigenous cultures and then seeking to reconcile the economic concerns that all NGOs place as priority number one. The work of religious NGOs in Argentina reflected similar conclusions that as long as the emphasis was on maintenance of indigenous culture and then on other concerns, the project is likely to succeed8.
Development of cottage industry and tourism oriented industry for subsistence by marginalized communities too face a number of pitfalls. The local power dynamics and cultural issues made real integration almost impossible. NGOs trying to make women self sufficient by making ceramic pottery in Santa Rita, Ecuador failed as local customs and culture were not taken into consideration9. NGOs wanting to implement microenterprise development in targeted areas could not hope for success without the backing of the host government. In such cases, NGOs provided the requisite interface to enable the locals involved in microenterprise have access to larger government policies. The success of NGO ACRE in Bolivia was limited to enabling the locals in harnessing resources that would have “otherwise remained out of reach”10.
Eversole observes that the socio-political landscape of a country makes developmental work difficult. The experience of NGOs working in the Chiapas community of Mexico shows that at times, the government deliberately withheld developmental work because of political reasons. The Chiapas demanded greater autonomy for their region which the central government was loath to agree to. In such cases, NGOs had to carry out a delicate balancing act between developmental work to reduce poverty and not be seen as hostile entities working against the Mexican government. Eversole’s analysis that NGOs in Mexico had played a more political role in addition to developmental work is borne out by Randall who states that in Mexico, NGOs were first connected to the Catholic Church dealing with social and economic issues but later became more involved in political issues in helping the poor discover their path to liberation11. Eversole also remarks on the perception of the indigenous community that the NGOs were using their cause to generate funds, which did not actually reach the community but went to fund external agencies and outsiders12. Having analyzed the operative issues, Eversole offers a macro view that alleviating poverty through NGO vision and NGO cultural prism will almost never work and that for success of poverty alleviation programs, the NGOs require being “cultural translators, helping a donor to see the problem and collaborate on a solution”13.
Eversole’s analysis that NGOs often make the mistake of projecting their world view on indigenous communities is quite accurate. It has been found that western constructs and western ideas of social interaction do not necessarily compliment those obtained in an indigenous setting. Thus efforts of NGOs that fail to recognize this dichotomy almost certainly result in failure. Western concepts of individualism and positivism do not necessarily reflect as a reality amongst traditional societies. Thus what may seem to be quite logical and advantageous for an indigenous society may not be viewed as such by that society for not everyone has the same yardstick and importance for economic prosperity as the western society has.
Eversole’s analysis is decidedly pitched towards a liberalist view of the world where the NGOs have only the welfare of humankind as their core interests. This interpretation overlooks the possibility that there are a vast number of NGOs who operate from a Realist prism of human affairs and their motives and intentions may not be as benign and as idealistic as Eversole would want her readers to believe. In fact “the majority of European NGOs reject the view that political democracy and economic redistribution can and should be conceptually differentiated”14. There are a vast number of NGOs who do represent special interest groups who exploit weaknesses in the developing world for their own gains. Another view which has not been explored by Eversole is that there has been a proliferation of NGOs in Latin America that has actually dented their legitimacy15. In fact there were 550 NGOs working in Latin America in the 1990s inspired by the success of some NGOs in resisting Argentine dictatorship16. There are also numerous NGOs who operate at the behest of national governments for the national interests of those nations and not out of any real empathy or sympathy for the downtrodden. Some even accuse NGOs of undermining “democracy by taking social programs out of the hands of the local people and their elected officials to create dependence on non-elected, overseas officials and their locally anointed officials”17. These NGOs do propagate the government line of their parent countries and thus become suspect in the eyes of many people. Petras observes that in Bolivia “the NGOs did absorb many of Bolivia’s former leftist intellectuals and turned them into apologists for the neoliberal system”18.
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In conclusion it can be reiterated that this book provides sufficient background information for understanding the dynamics of NGO operations in Latin America. Eversole’s analysis provides an easy reference of ‘Do’s and ‘Don’ts that NGOs need to take heed of. The book impressed the author of this book review for its frank assessment of the failures of NGO projects in Latin America but at the same time, failed to create a holistic impression as Eversole had not comprehensively addressed all aspects of NGO involvement in Latin America. This failure is especially evident in the absence of comprehensive criticism of NGOs pursuing a Realist agenda on behalf of their parent governments and special interest groups. In the final analysis this book could be a useful primer for all students of sociology, anthropology and humanitarian studies.
Bebbington, Anthony, and Graham Thiele. Non-governmental Organizations and the State in Latin America: Rethinking Roles in Sustainable Agricultural Development. NY: Routledge, 1993.
Eversole, Robyn. Here to Help: NGO’s Combating Poverty in Latin America. NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2003.
Grugel, Jean. Democracy Without Borders: Transnationalization and Conditionality in New Democracies. NY: Routledge, 1999.
Korey, William. NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Curious Grapevine. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.
Petras, James. “Imperialism and NGOs in Latin America.” Monthly Review Vol 49 No. 7. 1997. Web.
Randall, Laura. Changing Structure of Mexico: Political, Social, and Economic Prospects. NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.
- Robyn Eversole, Here to Help: NGO’s Combating Poverty in Latin America,(NY; M.E. Sharpe, 2003),3.
- ibid, 4.
- ibid, 9.
- ibid, 11.
- ibid, 14.
- ibid, 20.
- ibid, 21.
- ibid, 82.
- ibid, 103-105.
- ibid, 116.
- Laura Randall, Changing Structure of Mexico: Political, Social, and Economic Prospects, (NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006), 491.
- Eversole, 191.
- ibid, 198.
- Jean Grugel, Democracy Without Borders: Transnationalization and Conditionality in New Democracies, (NY: Routledge, 1999), 127.
- Anthony Bebbington & Graham Thiele, Non-governmental Organizations and the State in Latin America: Rethinking Roles in Sustainable Agricultural Development, (NY: Routledge, 1993), 56.
- William Korey, NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Curious Grapevine, (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), 283.
- James Petras, “Imperialism and NGOs in Latin America”, Monthly Review Vol 49 No. 7, 1997. Web.
- ibid, ¶25.