Does the “act local” movement signify the end of the global NGO?
I recently returned from Leh, Ladakh, a remote area at the tip of India, hidden in the valleys of the Himalyas and slammed between Pakistan and China. Leh is removed from everything: to get there, one must take an 18-hour overland trip through some of the highest mountains in existence, and visitors easily get lost in the town’s alleyways and Buddhist temples, forgetting the rest of the world. Yet even here globalisation has begun to make its mark: thousands of foreign tourists visit each year and Coca-Cola bottles and Lays bags litter streets once ruled uncontested by Tibetan momos and chai. While many Ladakhi locals welcome this influx, others are concerned about globalisation’s potentially degrading effects on traditional culture and environment, leading many to question whether the positives truly do outweigh the negatives as so readily assumed.
In many ways, such concerns are old news: anthropologists, journalists and historians have all studied the effect of globalisation on small, remote communities, often concluding with declarations of the value of traditional knowledge and warning of the dangers of homogeneity. In speaking to Ladakhi locals and reading such anti-globalisation texts, I have come to wonder whether this reverence of all things local signifies a move away from international NGOs working within such communities.
I observe and postulate: the increasing respect for the importance of indigenous knowledge and lifestyles, coupled with a global environmentalist movement which calls for both the preservation of pristine environments and the necessity to decrease mass international travel in order to stem the tide of global warming, results in the call for places like Leh to be left largely untouched. Additionally in recent years there has been increasing self-criticism by NGO workers themselves and the political left who generally support them which engages with notions of NGOs as neo-imperialist, imposing Western ideas of development without considering the specifics of each community. Over the past several decades, North American and European non-profits have been seen as a way to repair the damages of centuries of colonization and deliberate under-development, a way to address pressing issues of child and maternal health, HIV and access to clean water.
While the feats of such organisations should not be understated, there is a growing sentiment both within the “developed” and “developing” worlds that the work of NGOs is in many ways perpetuates the globalisation process, adding to the degradation of both indigenous communities’ traditions and the environments that they live in. Others argue that the influx of NGOs within developing countries does little to strengthen local governments, instead creating a system of dependence on foreign assistance and allowing for corruption and little accountability.
Health indicators remain poor in Leh, making room for the work of foreign organisations, but concern over the area’s increasing permeability to the outside world makes locals weary of welcoming foreigners with open arms. While the global downfall of the foreign NGO does not seem imminent, I do pose to you that we should question the assumption that non-profits, by their very definition, are necessarily good for the populations that they work within, and how the “act local” movement may impact the future of foreign assistance.