NGOs and the risk of believability, By Emmanuel Okaro

Emmanuel Okaro
Emmanuel Okaro

After reading an article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) about how the CEO of Timberland (makers of boots and foot wear) dealt with an attack of their business operations by the non profit organization (NGO), Greenpeace, I was struck with the thought that there is something not quite right about the relationship between NGOs (or civil society organisations as they are sometimes also called) and their communities. Communities in this case being the corporations, government agencies and members of the public who are usually on the receiving end of their agendas and programs. The raison d’etre of NGOs is to get people and/or institutions to do something, start something, stop something, and/or believe something but in quite a number of cases they go about this with a limited perspective.

The article, which covered the resolution of a real life environmental problem flagged by Greenpeace about the impact of Timberland’s business, raised three ethical questions. These questions center around issues which most NGOs, including those in Nigeria, must find ways of dealing with. The first is the issue of funding. The second is the issue of strategy (confrontation instead of negotiation) and the third is the issue of sustainability.

On the issue of funding, because most NGOs are not set up to make money and thus have to rely on the benevolence of others who support their cause, NGOS are often accused of dancing to the tune of those who fund them. The allegation is that what gets picked up by some NGOs as the focus of their advocacy is less about what might be most important or beneficial to a community and more about the funder’s agenda. While this is not a crime, it is not quite ethical. This situation breeds suspicion in the communities within which the NGOs operate and leads to the tiresome questioning of the basis of how or why certain causes and not others get picked up on. Despite the fact that citizens, activists and NGOs have a right to choose their cause based on life experiences and/or ideology such questions persist and weaken the impact of advocacy.

In situations such as this – i.e., where the dependence on funds dictates the cause, then societies also find themselves with NGOS whose strategy is confrontational and geared towards drama – this is the second problem. For instance in the HBR article, the Swartz points out that Greenpeace never approached Timberland to explain what Greenpeace had judged them guilty of. Instead Greenpeace’s strategy was to launch a very public online attack on Timberland and other corporates – the type of action that is not ideal for negotiations and agreeing on joint solutions, but the sensational type which donors and funders love. Public actions with catchy headlines are considered incontrovertible evidence of NGOs being busy and passionate about the cause. Besides, loud action also attracts loyal supporters – who will donate to the cause and volunteer.

In Nigeria, any study on the public or media based communication between NGOs and corporate entities will show that the type of language many Nigerian NGOs use when communicating their grievances about the operations of some corporations is extremely hostile and counter productive. While some say this is a carry over from the military era when NGOs had to be confrontational to get the attention of the authorities, it is quite plausible that the ‘go-to-battle’ tactic has more to do with the attention grabbing, funding attracting objective. Unfortunately, this strategy, which is a favorite of a fair number of NGOs, does not lend itself to the type of solutions or compromise that turns things into a win-win for everyone. Instead, with public attacks, they put the target on the defensive and only rarely can the parties turn around from the bitterness of initial aggression and counter attacks to fashion out solutions which will benefit the larger community.

This leads to the third question: how sustainable are the current operations of NGOs if they do not change? The funder as agenda setter and the public confrontation style means not only that NGOS are less effective than they could be, but also they are coming under increasing scrutiny. Already, there are a growing number of countries, particularly those where democracy and human and social development are weak, which have enacted regulation to track the flow of funding for NGOS. This is with the belief that funding determines agendas. Other regulation attempts to cap what NGOS can get from international donors or provide internal government funding for NGOS. All these developments are dangerous, because it also strips the NGOs of independence from the interference of governments which some of them are watching over.

In Nigeria, all the scenarios are applicable and there in lies the opportunity for our NGOs. There is a need for careful consideration of these three ethical issues in order to craft innovative ways of moving forward and securing a sustainable future where the engagement with governments, corporations, people, systems and institutions is genuine and focused on a holistic approach to problem solving. Otherwise, NGOS risk a steady decline in their believability which will ultimately impact on their effectiveness. A word is enough for the wise.

Emmanuel Okaro wrote in from Lagos