LGB RPCV NewsLetter - February 2007
Peace Corps and NGOs: Time for a Review?
- Thomas J. La Belle, RPCV Columbia
In an article on HIV/AIDS inSwaziland, The Killing Disease(http://www.lgbrpcv.org/articles/11_ 06_killing_disease.htm), publishedin the last (November, 2006) issueof this Newsletter, author VincentD’Agostino laments the lack of co-ordination among agencies involvedin the delivery of HIV/AIDS relatedservices, along with the denial amongthose infected, and those around them,of a lack of appropriate intervention.The introduction by the Editor notesthat Swaziland is recognized as hav-ing the highest rate of HIV infectionin the world while D’Agostino statesthat nearly half of the population is in-fected, but only about 20% are awareof their status.My reaction to the article was notsurprise at either of the major pointsmade by the author, or the sufferingand death which follows such prob-lems, especially in Africa. But I foundthe author to be especially poignant inhis comments regarding the deliveryof treatments. He states: “…there aretoo many hands, too many players,too many ﬁghters, too many NGO’s,too many messages, too many mixedmessages, too many everything.There is no cohesion, no communica-tion. There is constantly a breakdownof all these things wherever yougo…It really is a land of confusionout there.”I have also noted this lack of cohesion in the delivery of humanservices associated with governments“out sourcing” them to NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and private for proﬁt agencies in develop-ing countries. I ﬁrst came across thiseffort to disengage governments insuch programs in Latin America inthe early 1990s. This was the pe-riod when the so-called “neo-cons,”through the IMF and the World Bank,among others, like USAID, wereencouraging, if not insisting, that inorder to be looked upon favorably for loans and related funding, dependentgovernments had to privatize or inother ways “outsource” their humanservice delivery resources (e.g. healthand agricultural extension, literacyand consciousness raising, commu-nity development, technical voca-tional education) to non governmentalagencies. I recall that, along withthe confusion noted by D’Agostino,there was considerable competitionfor survival among the NGOs. Eachhad an ofﬁce, a staff, and each wasdependent for funding from some na-tional or international agency, or wasdependent on the demand from clientsto pay directly for services received.Such competition was fueling a lack of cooperation and communicationamong agencies, as each NGO, for example, needed to convince thosewho were funding their programs tocontinue support. An NGO’s survivalmeant jobs for its staff as well as thedelivery of services to a known popu-lation. To share information aboutits programs, about possible fundingsources, and about its proposals for funding with other NGOs workingwith similar missions, was lookedupon negatively as such action was perceived as sharing internal secretswhich ultimately would make theagency less competitive.On a recent trip to Jamaica this pastsummer, where I was working withUSAID on public-private partnershipsto support primary school education,I again came across the competitivenature of the NGO landscape. InJamaica, however, I noted another characteristic of such competition, thealignment of NGOs along politicaland religious lines, such that the com- petition was not just among individualagencies but among coalitions of agencies. Such alignments or groupsof agencies were tied to political andreligions groups, which effectively blocked much real participation withothers across group lines. Yet, it ap- peared that little productive activitycould go on, at least in encouraging public-private partnerships, in theabsence of linking up with such coali-tions.The Bush administration added the“faith based” initiative to the confu-sion that D’Agostino points to, byencouraging religiously afﬁliated non-government agencies to become moreactive in human service delivery.While, in principle, many would like-ly agree that governmental agenciesneed to encourage the involvement of the public through ﬁnancial assistanceand volunteerism, the test for judging progress on a project appears now to be tied to how many “partnerships”can be created, thereby effectively re-ducing the attention given to the goalsassociated with the program itself.The results have heightened the com- petition among individual agenciesto a new level as such competition istied, not just to agency survival, but tothe socialization of the general publicto particular political and religious belief systems.When I ﬁrst studied NGOs inLatin America in the 1970s, manywere small, local, community based,and took support from regional andnational agencies. Today however, NGOs are often large, multinationalinstitutions which operate more ascorporations, but whose focus is lesson making money than delivering ser-vices. Nevertheless, they are clearly