Global aid visions and local realitiesWe must understand that INGOs treat the symptoms but not the disease.
As Harry Truman was preparing for his 1949 inaugural address as the first elected president after the Second World War, his speechwriters faced a challenge in finding an inspiring theme. However, someone in his team suggested “development”, and thus brought international development into the spotlight to combat global poverty. Although initially a public relations tactic, the idea gained widespread support and set the stage for a significant global initiative in the years to come.
In international development, we have long been told global poverty and inequality are technical issues, solvable through the right institutions, policies, hard work, and a little external help. Jason Hickel in his book The Divide talks about how we have all fallen for this reassuring story at some point, contributing to an industry worth billions, backed by countless non-governmental organisations, charities, and foundations all striving to eradicate poverty through aid and goodwill.
Goals of INGOs
International non-governmental organisations (INGOs) operate internationally, independent of government control. They have their roots in the aftermath of World War II when humanitarian groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross, Catholic Relief Services (initially founded as War Relief Services) and Save the Children were established to provide aid and assistance to those affected by the war. These early INGOs focused on providing emergency relief and support to war victims.
Over time, the roles and goals of INGOs have expanded beyond emergency relief to include development projects, advocacy for human rights, and addressing various global challenges such as poverty, health, education and environmental sustainability. However, the primary objectives of INGOs include humanitarian assistance, development, advocacy and capacity building to improve poor people’s lives in all aspects.
INGOs in Nepal
INGOs have a long operating history in Nepal, dating back to the early 1950s when organisations like the United Nations and Save the Children first established their presence. INGOs in Nepal have yielded numerous positive outcomes over the years. They have provided timely and effective disaster relief and recovery assistance during earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters. Their support saved lives and helped communities rebuild especially after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.
Moreover, they have worked to improve healthcare infrastructure, increase access to education and enhance the quality of services in remote and underserved areas. Initiatives like vaccination campaigns, school construction and teacher training have had a tangible impact.
Through various livelihood and income-generation projects, INGOs have helped vulnerable communities increase their economic resilience and reduce poverty. One of the most notable achievements is women’s empowerment. INGOs have championed women’s rights and empowerment in Nepal. They have supported initiatives that promote gender equality, combat gender-based violence, and enhance women's participation in decision-making processes.
On the other hand, scholars argue that, despite the billions of dollars in aid in Nepal since 1950, community forestry is the only successful intervention in Nepal carried out with international support. To understand why INGOs have or have not been able to achieve their intended objective in poor countries, we must think across the global, national and local levels.
Looking at the global scale, the narrative that developed countries helping poor countries through aid and financial support looks false. Instead, it’s the other way around, as argued by Jason Hickel in a 2017 article “Aid in reverse: how poor countries develop rich countries.” He argues that developing countries received $1.3 trillion in total including aid, investment and income from abroad in 2012 alone and this trend continues. The same year, $3.3 trillion flowed from the global south to the global north.
The root cause of this unjust exchange goes back to the 1980s when the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) carried out structural adjustment programmes in the global south. To promote a free market and spend unused money in the banks in New York and London, the global north started lending and investing in the global south. Since then, the poor countries have paid $4.2 trillion in interest to the rich. Furthermore, foreign investors have returned a huge profit to their home countries, which come at a social and environmental cost to the domestic countries.
The same story rings true for Nepal. The country received $2 billion worth of foreign aid in fiscal year 2019-20, and nearly 70 percent ($1.4 billion) came as loan. This problem will continue unless there is a systemic change in global lenders like the World Bank and IMF and international trade policies that serve the interests of poor countries. Looking at the global and national levels, countries like Nepal are helping the rich ones.
There is a different story at the local and community levels. Financial aid provided through multilateral and bilateral institutions, mostly channelled through INGOs, provided much needed relief to the poor people at grassroots levels. Having worked with INGOs at the local level, I have witnessed firsthand how they have helped improve livelihoods through income generation and access to resources. INGOs reach the communities where local government cannot because of resource constraints. There might be legitimate questions on the efficacy and sustainability of short-term nature of such interventions, but not on their operation at the local scale as they provide much needed support to local people.
Yet, INGOs operating at the local level must be mindful of the power dynamics within communities. During my time, I also witnessed project activities intended for the poor being captured by local elites, thus exacerbating vulnerability and inequality. Certain rules and guidelines established by INGOs unintentionally excluded impoverished households, contradicting the project's intended goals. Political hurdles, like nepotism in beneficiary selection, continued to sideline deserving recipients. Addressing these challenges is crucial for the future effectiveness of INGOs at the local level.
We must understand that INGOs treat the symptoms but not the disease itself. Treating symptoms provides much-needed relief when you don’t have an internal mechanism to treat the disease. We also need to be mindful of the criticism of INGOs on social media that often takes a personal tone, labelling those involved with INGOs as ‘dollare’, working in the interests of Western countries. However, rather than attacking individuals, the focus should be on addressing the root problem by restoring the ‘dharma’ of development. To fully utilise international assistance, we must first restore the ‘dharma’ of state, market and civil society, focusing on their respective roles in regulating, innovating, and advising cautiously.