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Does the “act local” movement signify the end of the global NGO?

July 27, 2009

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.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. nmboudin permalink*
    July 31, 2009 10:23 pm

    Really thought provoking piece. There is so much of the world that I want to see before it becomes homogenized. I also think though, that there is nowhere in the world that is an island, vacuum or whatever metaphor. At present, the world is inextricably linked, and those unique little places will be affected.

    NGOs can do a lot of good. My brother was involved in a CIDA project that tried to get people around the idea of protecting themselves from HIV-AIDS by organizing them through sport, with an emphasis on local games.

    Part of the program was to get locals running it. The benchmark of success was for the Canadians to make themselves unnecessary. Culture is like a palimpsest, with the old showing through and mixing with the memes of the new.

  2. marakardasnelson permalink*
    July 28, 2009 10:47 pm


    What a beautiful piece, thank you for sharing it! I think that this is one of the most important debates that Canadians must have, even though, as you say, it can be difficult. I find it supremely necessary for us to question how our attempts at “benefiting” other cultures and peoples can actually perpetuate the harm we are trying to reconcile.

  3. July 28, 2009 3:56 pm

    Another thoughtful piece that asks the really tough questions of NGOs.

    Here is a piece I wrote when we first started Canada’s World. It was part of a presentation I delivered to the Millenium Scholars Think Again conference. Your piece made me dig it out.

    “….I’ve have had a relationship with international development for my entire adult life – as a student and as a practitioner. Yet , I don’t like the international development “industry” – and to me, it is an industry. I don’t like what it does to people who genuinely care about other people and want to be part of finding solutions to global problems.

    One of the by-products of international development is that we become like leaches on the poor – competing for development dollars based on our appeals of being the most needed, the most effective deliverers of results and the most skilled purveyors of social change. I have watched the same organizations and even the same individuals move from crisis to crisis (Cambodia to Afghanistan to Iraq) – with their stock approach to media development, housing or girls’ empowerment – each following the trough as if they positioned themselves as the saviours, worthy of donor dollars. One of the problems with development is that we start owning our “partners’” misery and trading in it as if it was our own currency.

    I realize that sounds cynical, but it is very, very difficult to side step the commoditization of human suffering – and for me, I have met very few people who have been able to do just that. Generally it is those that see themselves working in solidarity with their partners, who genuinely practice power sharing, who see the cup as half full and who practice humility by taking their leads from the people whose lives they are affecting.

    When I started my own organization, I thought I could work in this way – but my god was it difficult. Donors are still driven by a missionary zeal. While the language of seeking justice and equity might receive some lip service, the paradigm is still very much a ‘noblesse oblige’ approach…

    It was a hard piece to write and harder to share. NGOs are often at the receiving end of attacks and I did not want to add fuel to the fire. But, as I saw my own work heading down the development industry road, I had to step away. Canada’s World was part of that stepping away and taking stock.

  4. reneethewriter permalink
    July 27, 2009 8:24 am

    Fascinating. Your travels: mind-boggling in their “far/flung/ness.” Thank you for raising these issues. Particularly, the final summation:

    “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.

    I think this is a question Canadians must grapple with and the discussion goes to our very identity and to all aspects of our foreign policy. What is the nature of “doing good in the world today”? Is all “foreign aid” inevitably, inextricably linked to imperialism? Does that matter if lives are saved, roads are built, the sick healed?

    Tolstoy comments on this. And ah, well, I guess the gospels, (The Good News!) to which Tolstoy referred. So, not a new quandary.

  5. Barun Jha permalink
    July 27, 2009 1:44 am

    It is not influx of foreigners that is worrying these locals but the negative impacts ….like alteration of their feeding and living habits…… due to inductance of visitors.
    Yes global NGOs has a role to play in developing world but you need to embrace what is local.
    When I see culture of far away land sidelining my own culture, I see it as a threat not as assistance.

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