2012 26 Nov

What is the future for Canadian development NGOs?

Last week Octopus hosted the kind of event where you say to yourself, yeah, this is what it’s all about.

We hosted a “dialogue and debate” about Canadian development NGOs at our location at Under One Roof, inspired by the hard-hitting book, Paved With Good Intentions: Canadian development NGOs from idealism to imperialism, by Nikolas Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay.

Over 80 passionate and informed people came out to participate in one of the most engaged and wide ranging discussions we’ve hosted to date.

Inter Pares Executive Director Rita Morbia ably played the role of game show host and moderated the two-person panel of author Nikolas and special guest Nipa Banerjee, a development expert with a 30-year career at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and current professor at the University of Ottawa.

Nikolas forcefully argued that non-governmental organizations have been fully integrated by the federal government into their geopolitical agenda. Aid and development assistance is not now, if it ever was, independent of Canadian foreign policy goals, set now in large measure by the needs of multinational corporations and not local governments or communities. He argued for the need for organizations that are actually independent, with the freedom to criticize and work with radical grassroots and social movements. He worried that NGOs have a future but one which we increasingly are going to be fighting against in our struggle for global justice. It’s a dark future, he admits, but he cites the example of the role that Canadian NGOs have played to legitimize the 2004 coup in Haiti and thwarting the democratic will of most Haitians.

Nipa based her comments on her long and varied career experience, and, while she didn’t share Nikolas’ concern of a dark future, she did note that NGOs have a valuable role to play if they can free themselves from policy constraints under government funding and take participatory approaches that promote inclusive policies and agendas. For Nipa, it’s all about capacity-building of local governments and communities. Development programs run by NGOs can’t be allowed to establish structures that compete with local governments, she said. The focus must always be to build local capacity and not to create projects that benefit the funder over the local community. She urged NGOs to play a role stimulating and fostering participatory processes and supporting vibrant local organizations, and not just chasing funding, whether from CIDA, foundations or other sources. NGOs can influence the game, but must accept that they are not the only game in town.

A lively discussion followed, and The Octopus was pleased.

Check out our new video interview with Nikolas http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOUo9Oxqc4g&feature=plcp

What do you think?: