Why grassroots activists should resist being ‘professionalised’ into an NGO

Sunil Babu Pant/Pahichan – Activists from the global south hear, far too often, from our donors that we should “learn how to become professional” and “make NGO management efficient”. Let’s decode what that means.

Professional means “a person engaged or qualified in a profession”. Donors would like you to be a “professional” activist and want to see you approaching human rights work as a profession.

Efficient management means “performing or functioning in the best possible manner with the least waste of time and effort”. For conventional NGOs this means achieving targets, writing reports and submitting them on time. To really understand the danger of becoming efficient, compare it with effectiveness. Being effective is about doing the right things, while being efficient is about doing things right, no matter how far you have moved away from human rights “activism” to be part of an efficient management team.

As soon as a well-meaning group of activists start the process of becoming a professional NGO, the problems begin. No matter what is said at the outset about the NGOs being free to act the way they have envisioned, the truth is that NGOs are deeply indebted by donors, and well-funded NGOs are even worse. This is the start of submission to a system that repeatedly disempowers and controls.

Look at the process: once a human rights movement in the global south decides to become a NGO – because that’s the only way donors (especially big multilateral or bilateral ones) will fund you, and provide the most basic financial resources, you have to sign a memorandum of agreement.

The NGO leaders and management team will have to be inducted into the “good governance” model dictated by the donor through a series of training programmes, meetings and workshops. They will have to develop operating procedures, organisational policies and even strategies to match the donor’s expectations. We are expected to be “professional” if we wish to continue to get funding.

Then an NGO has to adopt a human resource policy, finance policy, as well as guidelines on how to use computers/internet and how to engage with the press. The activists, who have no choice but to survive on the small salary that the NGO pays, have to submit to the processes of the organisation.

This will affect everything from when the activist-turned-professional-staff are supposed to arrive or leave, to how they are supposed to conduct themselves at work. And the movement-turned-NGO often has to share its press releases to donors for their endorsement before it can be released.

Data must be validated by the donors. The injustices, abuses and deprivation taking place may be a well-known fact to the local communities but without research carried out using a methodology acceptable to the donor, the local knowledge retains no value and is considered “anecdotal”. You end up spending so much time and energy to validate your “anecdotal” knowledge that crucial advocacy has to wait until the validation is completed. Usually the recommendation is a follow-up study.

And so genuine activists get frustrated and seek escape. They seek ways to block out the disempowerment process. They refuse to participate while the senior manager is doing a staff performance appraisal and are indifferent to organisational rituals like one-to-ones, meeting the press or quarterly reviews with the donors. The movement-turned-NGO rebels by not sending reports to the donor within the stipulated time and saying “the computer crashed”, even if that means the donor giving you a red mark and threatening discontinuation of funding.

The leader can create the space for all activists without compromising funding. But they should also be ready to say no to funding if the movement’s agenda is compromised or hijacked. A good leader enables the human rights movement to be free from the “professionalism and efficiency-driven” activist-taming culture. A good leader also knows when they should leave, not because they do not have the skills or capacity anymore, but because they have empowered staff to replace them.

My advice to human rights movements is to remain grassroots and loosely organised movement for as long as you can. Don’t become a “professional” NGO for the sake of it. Becoming “professional and efficient” is becoming corporate. You will deliver much better if you stay a raw, innocent and effective activist. If not, you might as well shift to the corporate world.

This blogpost was first published on Medium.

Sunil Babu Pant is the founder of the Blue Diamond Society, a Nepalese LGBTIQ organisation.