Records and reputations : everyday politics of a Philippine Development NGO

D. Hilhorst

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


    <p>This study looks into the working of policies, practices and accountability of NGOs. It is based on fieldwork with one development NGO in the Cordillera of the Philippines: the Cordillera Women NGO, or CWNGO (a pseudonym). Through this study I wanted to find out why certain groups of actors form organizations that they call an NGO, and how they ascribe meanings to the organization in practice. Meaning making is central to everyday practice, since it underlies the numerous small and big, pro-active and responsive decisions and actions that together make up the organization. In addition, the study focuses on matters of everyday politics. On the one hand, this entails the way ideology was important in shaping the organization. On the other, this involves the question how NGOs acquire legitimation as a development organization <em>vis-à-vis</em> relevant other parties, including clients, donors and constituency. This means that I look into processes by which NGO actors convince stakeholders that a situation requires development, that NGO intervention is indispensable and appropriate, and that the NGO has no self-interest in the envisaged programme.</p><p>The approach I developed for this rests on three pillars. Firstly, I use an actor orientation. Such an orientation starts with the premise that social actors have agency. They reflect upon their experiences and what happens around them and use their knowledge and capabilities to interpret and respond to development. An actor orientation recognizes the large range of constraints that impinge on social actors, but emphasizes that such constraints operate through people. To find out how NGOs work in a particular environment I followed their actors in their different domains of work, studying how NGO practices come about and acquire meaning, through formal manifestations and actions as well as more informal everyday operations.</p><p>Secondly, the study focuses on how people (not just anthropologists) grapple with the relation between processes and things. In their everyday practices people have a practical awareness of the process nature of organizations and other phenomena. Yet, they simultaneously adhere to thing notions about the same. One focus of the study was how actors accommodate these different notions, how they use them strategically, and how they respond to other people's thing notions. One such a thing is the label of NGO. By most definitions, development NGOs are intermediary organizations that bring about development for poor and marginalized people. Instead I defined the name of NGO as a label claiming the organization does good for the development of others. The question then becomes why actors take on this identity and how they find recognition as the do-good organizations implied in the label. Another class of things of particular interest is representations. Through their accounts and practices NGO actors convey images about what their organization is, does and wants. Unlike the multiple realities and nitty-gritty of everyday practices, representations provide a single understanding and closure. As John Law stated, instead of asking ourselves whether a representation corresponds to reality, we should be concerned with the workability and legitimacy of a representation. Through this study, then, I wanted to see how actors compose different representations, and the contests involved in their efforts to enrol others in accepting them.</p><p>Given my interest in issues of meanings and legitimation, discourse is important. Discourses are more or less coherent sets of references for understanding and acting upon the world around us. As was pointed out by Foucault, discourses intertwine knowledge and power. However, how discourse works, how it exactly intertwines knowledge and power is a matter for debate. This study spoke of the 'duality of discourse', following Giddens' notion of the 'duality of structure'. There are always multiple discourses and actors find room for manoeuvre to renegotiate them. The other side of the duality of discourse stipulates that discourses can indeed become powerful, although never hegemonic. The more dominant a discourse, the more it operates as a set of rules about what can and cannot be said and done and about what.</p><p>These three pillars of my approach are elaborated in chapter 1. Chapter 2 reviews how social movement discourses are constructed and what this means for the relation between leaders and followers, as well as for power struggles in the movement. This is elaborated with a case of social resistance against hydro-electric schemes in the Chico River of the Cordillera. Chapter 3 addresses the question of how, in a situation of multiple realities, a particular discourse becomes dominant. It shows the struggles of a political movement aiming to restore its grip on development NGOs, and how women's organizations endeavoured to accommodate gender issues in a dominant political discourse. The chapter ends with a discussion of the multi-dimensional working of a powerful discourse, -as coercing, convincing and seducing-, which makes understandable why social actors submit themselves to an ideological regime that confines their room for manoeuvre.</p><p>Chapter 4 enters the life world of village women. These women identify different meanings of development and cleverly play these out in dealing with the ensemble of development projects in their community. However, their appropriation of development interventions leads to unintended changes, in particular the erosion of the position of elder women. Chapter 5 elaborates the room for manoeuvre of NGOs. On the basis of a number of cases, it is concluded that villagers are much more decisive in the outcome of organizing processes than the NGOs. Chapter 6 provides a theoretical analysis of the concept of accountability and leads to the conclusion that transparency is a myth. A case study following a conflict in a weaving project for women shows that, instead of revealing what really happens in the localities, accounts are permeated by what happens in the accountability process.</p><p>Chapter 7 explores how NGO actors in their everyday practices give meaning to the organization. This question turns out to be much more complex than 'management-directing-the-organization', or 'management-versus-the-rest' perspec-tives, can account for. The chapter shows how, through the symbolic use of particular locales, social networks and cultural institutions, a certain coherence nonetheless emerges. Chapter 8 gives a social analysis of successful NGO leadership. It is organized around the life history of one NGO leader, who was followed in her dealings with international arenas and funding agencies. NGO leaders appear as brokers of meaning. They enrol stakeholders to acknowledge their position, and accept their representation of situations, organizations and themselves. Chapter 9 deals with funding agencies. An extended case study is presented of the relation between CWNGO and a UN related program, which ended because the donor claimed the NGO was not efficient and was not accountable to its target group. Underlying this outcome were complex factors including organizational competition, political differences and different interpretations of 'partnership'.</p><p>Chapter 10 is the conclusion. It outlines some implications of the study for issues of NGO everyday politics. Politics of legitimation are closely linked to accountability, which is considered a problematic issue. My analysis corroborates this. There does not seem to be a single solution or methodology to realize accountability. We shall always need to critically improvise, combine methods and make the best of them.</p><p>Those that demand accountability, in particular donors, should acknowledge different modes of accountability instead of solely relying on formal accountability procedures. Perhaps this may bring them to invest more in trust and less in disciplining through detailed accountability demands. In particular they should invest in becoming trustworthy partners of development NGOs thereby forging the moral commitment of NGOs to live up to their promises. It was also concluded that the everyday politics of legitimation that tend to corrupt accountability also contain pressures to move towards more meaningful accountability. NGOs are vulnerable to losing their good name. The easiest way to protect one's good name is by living up to one's proclaimed standards. If they don't succeed, they risk losing their appeal for funding agencies, their legitimacy as advocates, their credibility in the eyes of the media, and eventually their status as an organization that is seen to do good for the benefit of others.</p><p>It has been suggested that there is a tendency among development NGOs in the South to converge towards variations of Western dominated neo-liberal and liberal-democratic development agendas. On the basis of this study I find this notion an exaggeration. The future of development NGOs is likely to be much more diversified than observers of convergence expect. With or without the label of NGO, organising processes will continue to shape differential development outcomes. I expect that commitment to values which advance public and collective interests and that radically side with the poor will continue to be an important element of the ideological visions of many NGOs.</p>
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • van Dusseldorp, D.B.W.M., Promotor
    • Long, N.E., Promotor
    Award date17 Nov 2000
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789058083166
    Publication statusPublished - 2000


    • non-governmental organizations
    • accountability
    • efficiency
    • politics
    • rural development
    • philippines
    • cum laude

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