Rethinking and transforming the role of NGOs (part 2 of 8)

This is the second post in an eight-part series about how we can transform the roles of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Groundswell to make food sovereignty a reality. Read the first post.

Rethinking and Transforming the Role of NGOs

Representatives of various communities near Pignon, Haiti filling soil bags for tree seedlings. This nursery will produce 5,000 trees every year.

Representatives of various communities near Pignon, Haiti filling soil bags for tree seedlings. This nursery will produce 5,000 trees every year.

Many NGOs are doing valuable work, but having worked with NGOs for decades, we are aware of their limitations and problems. The case of Haiti is often illustrative of the problems with development assistance and the roles played by NGOs.


On January 12, 2010, a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti devastated Port-au-Prince and surrounding cities. One major reason the devastation was so great in these cities was that Haiti’s underlying rural foundation had been greatly weakened. Rural farming communities had been systematically drained of resources for centuries by bad economics and politics, both domestic and international. The most prominent resource that remains in Haiti is the Haitian people themselves, (the majority of which is still rural and farming based)their tenacity and capacity for organized action. Years of rural migration to cities with inadequate infrastructure, housing or jobs contributed to over 250,000 people being killed in the earthquake. In the days following the earthquake, 600,000 displaced people fled back to the countryside – at least temporarily. Peasant communities and organizations responded by receiving, housing and feeding these people, depleting their own limited food and seed stocks. Partenariat pour le Développement Local (PDL) helped channel a small portion of the emergency assistance following the earthquake to these rural organizations. They used the resources efficiently for both short-term relief and investment in the long-term solution of revitalizing devastated rural areas, as a foundation for Haiti’s future. “We are strengthening local peasant organizations so that they can be actors in leading their own development,” says Cantave Jean-Baptiste. “Over the last 20-30 years, we have seen that strong peasant organizations adopting agroecological farming, improving local seeds, soil management and so on, are key in Haiti and have been making long term improvements in rural communities.”

Despite the proficiency of peasant organizations, the clear need for decentralization in Haiti, and the demonstrated effectiveness of agroecological approaches; peasant organizations have largely been left out of shaping or implementing plans for Haiti’s recovery. Drawn up by international experts and a Haitian government with limited capacity or credibility with its own people, recovery plans only pay lip service to priorities like promoting agriculture and domestic food production, supporting family farming, involving peasant organizations and decentralizing the country. In practice, the implementation of these plans defaults to typical top-down interventions heavily biased towards the importation of what for poor farmers are expensive technologies. Commenting on the plans, Jean-Baptiste says, “I see seeds, fertilizers and tractors, but I don’t see farmers. Where are the farmers?” The plans are generally implemented by putting contracts out to bid to development companies and NGOs.

This example from Haiti illustrates the most frequent role NGOs play: implementing contracts for plans rural people have neither designed, nor agreed to. The world of official development assistance usually either misses the opportunity to work with rural people and farmers’ organizations, or works in opposition to their interests. Most aid money is strongly influenced by the paradigm of industrial agriculture which seeks to extend its model and inputs to small-scale farming. NGOs too frequently end up being the implementers of this agenda, and fit into service delivery and relief categories. Few strengthen the capacity of local people and organizations to transform their economies sustainably, and few support agroecological farming.

So what should NGOs do and not do?

In Haiti, “NGOs can play a technical role in supporting agroecological production, but they should also strengthen the capacity of local organizations to carry out their own development,” says Jean-Baptiste. “NGOs commonly respond to their headquarters and not to communities, and therefore have limited interest in coordinating with each other to learn what works.”

“In Ecuador, NGOs are a mixed bag,” says Steve Sherwood. “NGOs have become donor driven and project driven. This has limited their ability to be responsive to local needs and be creative. Project-based giving has hurt NGO effectiveness. For EkoRural, we try to keep our role as small as possible. We don’t try to find solutions for local communities, but find what is working, ask good questions, support local creative ideas, and facilitate exchange to help these to grow. Having limited financial resources forces us to be responsible and rely on local people’s leadership.”

“In Ghana and in most of Africa, most NGOs have a technical focus rather than linking to social movements. NGOs are supposed to be waging the war on food insecurity, but most are isolated entities,” says Bern Guri. “There are reasons:  they are struggling to survive and responding to donor demands, rather than working in coalition. In CIKOD we suffer from these challenges as well. We have our vision. I may think that one important way to encourage food sovereignty is through improved practices in communities, but some funders only support advocacy. This can create frustration.”


NGOs that want to strengthen community-driven change to create a healthy agricultural and food system and economy need to find ways to meet these challenges though:

  • Being responsive to the interests of rural communities and organizations, rather than to funders, while developing greater downward accountability to those communities;
  • Critically analyzing what kind of farming works for small-scale farmers in the developing world;
  • Connecting effective community-level action to wider policy reforms;
  • Developing alternative sources of funding when the donor community demonstrates limited willingness to invest in agro-ecological and farmer-led approaches with a track record of success;

Seeing their role primarily as strengthening local capacity for sustained change and working themselves out of a job, rather than delivering services.

— Part 3 will be posted on April 26.

This segment and the rest of the article was a collaborative effort by Steve Brescia (Groundswell’s International Director), Fatou Batta (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Peter Gubbels (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Cantave Jean-Baptiste (Executive Director of Partnership for Local Development), Steve Sherwood (Specialist in Rural Innovation at EkoRural), and Bern Guri (Director of the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development).

Later this year the full text of the article will appear in a book titled “Food Movements Unite!”, which is a collection of essays by food movement leaders from around the world that all seek to answer the perennial political question: What is to be done? It will provide a sector by sector road map for bringing the tremendous transformative potential of the world’s food movements together into a powerful transnational force capable of ending the injustices that cause hunger. “Food Movements Unite!” is being edited by Eric Holt-Giménez, Executive Director of The Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First, and Annie Shattuck, a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley.

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