How it helps NGOs to treat them as selfish

Let me respond to one major strand of comments on my recent post, Are we allowed to talk about the self-interest of NGO officials? Is it just too cynical to talk about NGO self-interest? Among the kinder comments received were that I don’t “trust anything or anyone not explicitly out to make as much money as possible.” Or that yours truly “says that no one is straightforward about their motives, so I wonder what his truly are.”

Well, political economy analysis actually leads to a MORE sympathetic view of an organization leader – like an NGO official – than a Sunday School world where he/she is personally either altruistic or selfish. Political economy recognizes organizational and political constraints that could leave an official almost no choice on how to behave. For example, NGOs can’t do their work without funds. And fund-raising may require that you (as NGO-leader) take an over-simplistic approach to the problem, over-promise, or (as in the example of my original post) overstate the importance of YOUR issue relative to all other issues. All of these practices may undermine your effectiveness, or hurt the effectiveness of other NGOs. But the alternative could be that your NGO disappears altogether, which could be even worse for the poor, and which few people would accept easily.

Political economy analysis identifies the crucial incentives and constraints, and looks for ways to modify them and improve the outcome. For example, an individual NGO would have a hard time subjecting themselves to independent evaluation if no other NGOs did so. They might get a critical review that wrecks their funding while the other NGOs keep spreading puff pieces about themselves. We can beat up an NGO for not wanting to know if their aid works, (and we do, because it’s still bad!) but it is also important to advocate a “Code of Good NGO Practice” for ALL NGOs, which would include independent evaluation.