Demanding Values. Participation, empowerment, and NGOs in Bangladesh
Abstract: The concepts participation and empowerment are frequently used in development projects in the third world. The meaning given to the concepts today signal a normative orientation, marking an alternative, people-centred approach to development. When used in development projects, the concepts demand detailed descriptions. They also demand project implementers, often local NGOs (non-government organisations), to possess certain values – commitment, solidarity, altruism. These requirements are important in order to make sure the normative meaning of the concepts is not lost on its way from policy to the grassroots. NGOs are chosen as partners in development due to their ideological orientation. Commitment and sincerity are values that NGOs repeatedly claim as their trademarks. However, concern is being raised about changing characteristics of NGOs. Furthermore, the increasing availability of funds provided by the international donor community appears to have encouraged the emergence of NGOs with dubious intents. Discussions about the characteristics of NGOs, and about the use of participation and empowerment strategies are distinguished by a practical orientation, often promoting the strategies and NGOs as partners in development. Analyses are mainly aimed at identifying solutions that will ascertain more accurate development policies. Furthermore, the analyses are often based on experience confined to the development discourse. This means that a wider sociological perspective is neglected; the analyses prioritise accurate and detailed descriptions of the particular rather than identifying and trying to understand general social phenomena. Theoretical perspectives that emanate from empirical backgrounds that are different from the development arena, but that share a focus on similar social dilemmas, are seldom used to enhance our understanding of NGOs, or of the problematics involved with participation and empowerment strategies. The thesis discusses the meaning ascribed to participation and empowerment, based on a review of literature and on field work in two development projects in Bangladesh. Particular focus is put on how local NGO staff relate to the values that participation and empowerment strategies demand that they possess. The NGO staff in the study exhibit ambivalent behaviour and attitudes compared to what is expected from them and to the attitudes they themselves claim to hold. In exploring the ambivalence of staff motivation and performance, it is suggested that a sociological, or academic, rather than a practically oriented approach is used. Instead of focusing on staff behaviour as such, focus is put on the general dilemma of the concept of altruism, the core value related to development NGOs. Using organisation theories, the problematic relationship between organisational control and staff is examined, with particular focus on the dilemma of controlling staff motivation in normatively oriented organisations aiming to achieve social change. The study aims at debating and illustrating the difference between a practical and an academic analytical approach. The analysis presented has profound consequences for what expectations we may attach to development projects based on NGO implementation. It also has consequences for our expectations of participatory and empowerment strategies, which rely on implementing organisations that are characterised by altruistic motives.
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