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NonGovernments: NGOs and the Political Development of the Third World

Book cover for Non-Governments: NGOs and the Political Development of the Third WorldThis definitive work on nongovernmental organizations provides a complete overview of the composition and the types of NGOs that have emerged in recent years. Julie Fisher describes in detail the influence these organizations have had on political systems throughout the world and the hope their existence  holds for the realization of sustainable development.

Description courtesy of Goodreads.

Review for Nongovernments

“It is more than just happenstance that Third Sector organizations in the United States tend to refer to themselves as nonprofit organizations, whereas their counterparts in the developing countries of the so-called Third World very often choose the term nongovernmental organization (NGO). In defining themselves by negation, they have chosen the term that distances them from the dominant organizational entities that they are surrounded by, while simultaneously drawing a distinction with the very organizations that they tend to be most similar to. Just as it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between a for-profit and not-for-profit hospital in the United States, it can be equally puzzling to spot the difference between governmental and nongovernmental dispensaries in, say, Pakistan. Hence, the need to highlight and advertise the “non” in nonprofit or nongovernmental.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that NGO practitioners and scholars have pondered as hard and as long on the G that is so centrally and strategically placed in their chosen terminology, as those who study nonprofit organizations have deliberated on the P-word. It also stands to reason that the growing legion of scholars interested in relations between government and nonprofits in Western industrialized countries will do well to reflect on the insights that the experience in the Third World has to offer. Julie Fisher’s new book, Nongovernments: NGOs and the Political Development of the Third World, provides a wonderful resource that not only distills these insights, but does it in a way that makes the discussion meaningful for scholars of the Third Sector in developing as well as industrialized countries. More than that, the book resurrects the concept of political development that has been gathering dust in the dungeons of college libraries for more than two decades, but which may be critical in putting context to the much discussed but still nebulous notions of
civil society.

Besides providing an array of useful typologies and examples of the nature of and conditions for various forms of NGO-government relations and the strategic choices that lead to these, there are three overarching themes that make Nongovernments a valuable and welcome addition to the literature.

First, unlike so many in its cohort, this book is neither apologetic nor evasive about the political role of NGOs; in fact, it celebrates it. Second, it has the courage to paint with a broad brush, realizing that it leaves itself open to criticism for missing out on the details but cognizant of the need to depict the big picture. Finally, it has the greatest virtue of all, good timing—it raises the right issue at the right time.

The most refreshing aspect of this book is its bold treatment of the political role of NGOs. Unlike so many others who either sidestep the issue altogether or arrogantly view the political realm as if it were something beneath NGOs—which, after all, are motivated by moral and altruistic values that are not just superior to the merely political but outright suprapolitical—Fisher conceptualizes NGOs as intensely political entities that just happen to operate outside of the electoral process but very much within the political domain.

Hence, her focus on political development that she defines as “an interactive, public decision-making and learning process, within and between government and civil society, based on power creation and dispersion” (p. 21). Thus, she zooms in on something that too much of the literature tends to ignore. Digging that well, building that maternity clinic, or initiating that microcredit scheme is not simply a means of economic and social development, it is an expression of political development (see Najam, 1999). What these NGOs are
involved in is very much about “power creation and dispersion.”

Nongovernments has been able to pick up on this theme because it dares to look at the whole forest instead of just a few trees. The literature on NGOs in the Third World, although vast, is impoverished because it has tended to shun theory building for case analysis. The result is that we know much more about the intricacies of the parts than about the contours of the whole (Najam, 1996).

There are, of course, good reasons for this. The universe of what NGOs do, how they do it, where they do it, and why they do it is so vast that, to borrow from Esman and Uphoff (1984), “almost anything that one can say about [NGOs] is true—or false—in at least some instance, somewhere” (p. 58). The most striking aspect of Julie Fisher’s first book, The Road from Rio (1993), was its breathtaking expanse of examples and experiences from all around the world.

Nongovernments continues that tradition. And, it does so without reducing the exercise into either a laundry list or census. It provides an expansive perspective on the big picture without losing the sensibility that comes from an appreciation of its detail. Coming at a time when others are just beginning to provide us with an appreciation of the size and scope of the tapestry that is the global third sector (see Civicus, 1997; Salamon & Anheier, 1997), Nongovernments goes a step further to also provide us with a more nuanced feel
for its texture.

Timing, of course, is the third big virtue of this book. Nongovernments builds on and brings together a number of important debates that scholars of the sector are grappling with all over the world. Key among these are discussions about the definition and function of civil society, the role it plays in promoting democracy, and the relationship between government and nongovernmental or nonprofit entities. For the most part, scholars have tended to treat these issues separately and parochially. Fisher enriches these debates by making a valiant attempt to address them jointly. Most important, she weaves together the various strands of these debates taking place simultaneously, but separately, within the NGO literature and the nonprofit literature. It is sad that, despite their obvious overlap, these two streams of discourse rarely talk to each other (Lewis, 1999; Najam, 1996). If for nothing else, Nongovernments should be welcomed for trying to break the parochial trend in both camps.

Having said all of the above, it should also be noted that Julie Fisher is very much a believer in what has been called the NGO magic (Clark, 1991). Hers is a world in which the state is condemned to “muddle through… [the] consequences of its own ignorance, corruption, and lack of accountability” (p. 2), but NGOs are seen to possess “a remarkably widespread commitment to the idea that political empowerment from below can untie the negative connections among ignorance, malnutrition, inequality, and powerlessness that now sustain poverty” (p. 11). Although both statements are probably correct, they depict a tendency in this book—as in much of the NGO literature (see Clark, 1991; Edwards & Hulme, 1996; Salem, 1998)—to focus inordinately on the positive examples and aspects of NGOs without paying sufficient attention to the negative. Consequently, the central problematique is cast as if it is primarily (if not only) governments that pose a challenge to democracy and NGOs are predominantly (if not entirely) democratic in structure and substance and, therefore, are the custodians of democratic norms. Or that the goal is somehow to maximize the autonomy of NGOs and the accountability of governments. The several conceptual and empirical challenges that could be plausibly made to such a worldview are never sufficiently delved into.

It would also have been interesting to see a more nuanced exploration of exactly what we mean by democracy in various social and political contexts (see Saba, 1998). Though engaging definitional discussions on what we mean by civil society or political development or even NGOs enliven the book, it assumes that everyone knows what democracy is and everyone’s definition is the same. Both assumptions are arguable at best. Even more arguable is the use of the cardboard definition implied in the Freedom House democracy rating system. Although it might be the most convenient device available, its use in the last chapter becomes somewhat of a distraction from the otherwise refined and subtle discussion on democracy and civil society.

However, neither of these criticisms should distract from the value of the contribution of this book. This is an important book but not because it provides some definitive answers to questions related to civil society and political development (there are no definitive answers to these questions). It is important because it contextualizes the key questions in this arena. As scholars of the sector in developing as well as industrialized countries continue to grapple with these myriad questions, they will find themselves returning to NonGovernments and will discover in this relatively short volume a treasure of ideas that are bound to enrich our evolving understanding of what is civil society, how it relates to democracy, and NGO-government relations.