AnthroBites: Anthropology of NGOs

Photo by Janita Van Dyk.

AnthroBites is a series from the AnthroPod team, designed to make anthropology more digestible. Each episode tackles a key concept, text, or theme, and breaks it down into manageable, bite-sized chunks.

Our guest for this episode is Mark Schuller, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Nonprofit and NGO Studies at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti. In this episode, Schuller explains the history of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and discusses their relationship to anthropology with contributing editor Siobhán McGuirk.

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AnthroPod features interviews with anthropologists about their work, experiences in the field, and current events. This episode was produced by Siobhán McGuirk. Special thanks to Jara Carrington and Beth Derderian for serving as Executive Producers. To pitch your own episode ideas or to offer feedback, email us at [email protected]

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Music: All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear.


Siobhán McGuirk [00:06]: Welcome to AnthroBites, the podcast series designed to make anthropology more digestible. In each short episode we tackle a key concept text or theme in anthropology, breaking it down into bite-sized chunks and discussing its applications in theory and in practice. I'm your host, Dr. Siobhán McGuirk. Our guest for this episode is Dr. Mark Schuller, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Nonprofit and NGO Studies at Northern Illinois University and Affiliate Professor of the Faculté d'Ethnologie, l'Université d'État d'Haïti. Our topic for discussion is nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, and their place in anthropology. Thank you for being with us today, Mark.

Mark Schuller [00:51]: Thank you.

SM [00:52]: So today we're going to talk about the concept of NGOs, or nongovernmental organizations. Could you tell us what that term means?

MS [00:01:00]: Yes, so a nongovernmental organization was officially created in the UN Charter, 1945, Article 71, to give status to observers and advisers for some of the UN units. But in the broader view, nongovernment organizations have been around for quite a while. Steve Charnovitz talked about them in two centuries, so the first nonprofit NGO was the antislavery movement. They can be thought of as do-gooders or activists, the people that give aid or people that give some sort of advocacy or organize efforts for social change.

So within those categories you can get more specific: development versus humanitarian aid; long term versus short term; nongovernmental organizations, nonprofits, Third Sector. Different keywords specify different specific emphases, but NGO as a structure got really popular after the imposition of neoliberal economic policies in the mid-80s, early 90s, certainly with the fall of the Berlin Wall, when there was "no alternative" to global capitalism. The World Bank, the IMF, the United Nations thought that it was better to give aid to nongovernment organizations—to NGOs—as opposed to having bilateral aid to countries. So almost overnight, the population of NGOs skyrocketed.

SM [02:20]: Right, so would I be right in saying that NGOs fill a gap where the government or governments are not providing resources or services, and that—if I understand correctlythat was encouraged by the neoliberal moment?

MS [02:37]: Absolutely. NGOs play gap filler roles. So British economist John Maynard Keynes had this idea of bottom-up development: that you raise the floor and spend your way to encourage economic growth, and you have government protection. So in the United States, that's known as the New Deal, 1933, since the Franklin Roosevelt administration. The social welfare state has been codified in many national constitutions, that the state owes citizens’ rights to education, to health care, to housing, to services. And so, during the neoliberal turn, the state governments were hollowed out, so states were no longer able to fulfill these contractual obligations—these rights—to citizens, and NGOs just stepped in.

In many cases, like in Haiti, NGOs also encouraged a brain drain of the public sector because government workers were being paid a fraction of the cost of these short-term contracts that they could get at international NGOs. That happened in many places in the global South, not just Haiti. So were are gaps that were filled, but there were gaps that were also created by the public-sector brain drain.

SM [03:52]: Right, and when you say neoliberalization, could you tell us a little bit more about what that looks like or what that means?

MS [03:58]: Well, neoliberal is a new form of liberalism, a new form of capitalism basically. Remember John Maynard Keynes said we should have "raised the floor" of social democracy, you know, a social welfare state. University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman thought that these were distortions. Neoliberalism is based on the belief that the market economy is the best engine for growth and the most fair way of distributing wealth.

So: government should get out of the business of protecting workers or providing minimum wage, of providing services, and the private sector is the best engine for providing services—these things should be marketized. So barriers to free trade were thrown down, with the World Trade Organization, USAID, in our contracting with other countries. We condition our aid with certain things to liberalize the economy and sell off government services, sell off government companies. So, Margaret Thatcher's famous statement that "there is no alternative," that the market is the only way to go.

SM [05:00]: Right. So we saw in the 1980s Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and others pushing this neoliberal agenda, and under the World Bank and IMF policies this becoming really dominant through the 80s and 90s and, as you say, this kind of proliferation of NGOs. So how have anthropologists engaged with NGOs during that time, but maybe even before—as you say, there's a long history?

MS [05:26]: Anthropology has often played roles of gap fillers and as an intermediary. So I think of NGOs as intermediaries. The term I use is that we glue the world system together, that once you destroy states NGOs come to represent the points of contact between Northern and Southern countries, Northern and Southern economies, societies, etc. Anthropologists had also been playing the role of intermediaries: the famous British anthropology examples in Africa of colonial administrators. NGOs are often thought of as a neocolonialism, that we're just replacing the formal structure with these informal private structures, and so anthropologists have always played the role of administrators and advisors to these NGOs.

So, anthropology self-critique, mid-80s, we are questioning this value system, we are questioning our role in colonialism, and you have the ascendancy of the ideas of Michel Foucault: we're deconstructing or thinking about how power operates and how power proliferates. Two thinkers more than anyone else are responsible for the creation of this idea, of the anthropology of NGOs: James Ferguson and Arturo Escobar, critical anthropologists writing in a Foucauldian mode.

Ferguson and Escobar were responsible for that critical approach to NGOs, even though they weren't specifically talking about NGOs. They were talking about development. And so then you see the idea that anthropologists—given our traditional, bottom-up approach, our subaltern attachments or at least positionings—so there was a critical anthropological approach, also using Foucauldian ideas like governmentality, that NGOs are privatizing the state. At this time, this is the height of the promotion of NGOs as "the magic bullet," to use Edwards and Hulme's term, that they could do no wrong, that you could shoot it in any direction and it would magically hit its target. The astronomically high expectations on NGOs corrupted that system, the funding corrupted that system. There was full-throttle endorsements of NGOs from political scientists, from economists, from some sociologists. So anthropologists were the first discipline to challenge that full-throttle defense, and we were starting to ask critical questions. There was a special issue in 2010 of the Political and Legal Anthropology Review that explicitly set an agenda that we need to be no longer celebrating, and that NGOs that are do-gooders in fact do things other than do good. And so we can ask what they do, instead of just what they say they do.

SM [08:02]: So, rather than take for granted that, as a nongovernmental organization, that these groups are intrinsically doing good, anthropologists have taken a more critical approach to say: "actually, let's look more closely at what they are doing on the ground," and I suppose where the funding comes from and those kinds of questions.

MS [08:19]: Right. Absolutely. So a research agenda within an anthropological study of NGOs can talk about structures of power that are reproduced or created by NGOs: the neoliberal governmentality that is encouraged, the management structures, the exclusions, the externalities, you can call them, but you know the actual relationships that are built. So a couple of us—we were writing separately—we discovered that David Lewis was writing about brokers and translators, I was writing about intermediaries, so to really look at NGOs as NGOs, and not just working in NGOs, but on NGOs.

All of us who work in anthropology in the global South, even the global North, there are things that you could call NGOs. We either use them to study kinship, study environment, to study religion, to study political systems, or we can explicitly examine those conduits of action. We can look at “NGO-ing”: the way the NGOs are doing their work. So scholarship got a little more critical. Michael Barnett in political science started to challenge openly the "goodness" of NGOs, and so there's a space within political science for that critical interrogation. Sociology—qualitative international sociology—they're able to have that conversation.

I would say we were lapped by critical ethnic studies scholars. There was a conference that Insight! Women of Color Against Violence held in Santa Barbara in 2004, that talked about the "nonprofit-industrial complex." Their book, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded is a radical critique that defines the current radical critique, and that radical critique is how to prevent NGO-ization; social movements losing their vitality, their radical political structures, their radical vision—and in so doing becoming bureaucratized, professionalized, and distant from the population and, more importantly, [becoming] accountable to the foundations, the 1 percent, the political structures, the governments. So current social movements today, like Black Lives Matter, like the Dreamers, they are self-consciously not adopting an NGO model for their community organizing because they don't want that kind of discipline and they don't want the hierarchy and the vision that comes with it.

SM [10:35]: Right, so the funding bodies are kind of replicating government structures and saying, "these are the kind of things that we want you to do and these are the things we don't want you to do; these are the kind of things we don't agree with you saying," and that kind of thing.

MS [10:48]: Right, absolutely.

SM [10:49]: A lot of anthropologists rely on NGOs to try and access different populations. Does that raise any tensions in terms of taking a critical approach while also working with or within NGO structures?

MS [11:03]: Absolutely. Again, James Ferguson talked about development being anthropology's evil twin. Maybe because I am a twin, it really bugs me when I hear that phrase, evil twin, but if you look at our kind of way of being—to use Bourdieu’s term, habitus—we are more like the NGOs that we are critiquing. Some of us need NGOs for, like you said, access. So it puts us in a position where we have to face these moral dilemmas and we have to make choices: who is our intended audience and why are we writing what we're writing?

Do we always have to be looking at: "oh, let's look at this organization, let's look at them as an example of how not to do things"? It gets us in this bind, because our loyalties are challenged and there are many faces in conflict. Are we loyal to the beneficiary population and what does that mean? Are we loyal to the NGO staff that we have relationships with? So it presents a real question of: do we go critical or do we just sort of not see certain things, or deliberately choose to not write about them? I was told in my interview with one of the directors of the NGO called [inaudible] in my book, she told me something and she said, "You're not going to publish that." She just explicitly said: "We're not going to talk about the role of our NGO during the U.S.-sponsored coup against Aristide in 1991." She did lay it out for me, and then she said: "No, you can't publish that." And so I am ethically and morally responsible to uphold that. And I did.

Does that mean that we can't also be critical? There's a video that I made, that I coproduced and codirected, about the "good" NGO in my dissertation study, and this "good" NGO turned out to be also a little bit bad in terms of how they were treating these women who are the recipients—the beneficiary population. And, you know, making the film actually created quite a ripple within the organization to the point where they had to publicly distance themselves from it because it took a very critical stance on neoliberal globalization etc., and they didn’t want to be associated with it. Even though the idea for the film originated from the NGO itself and the women that wanted their stories told. So it's like: “Who am I responsible to? Who am I accountable to?”

You know, as a Northern academic—I was still a graduate student [at the time], outside that system—I could decide to let it all go, or I could have decided to just have my access dictate my actions and then just kowtow to the leadership and say, "no, we're not going to do this film." But what about the women who still want their voices heard? So it really forces you to decide what side are you on. And I am sure that's not unique to me, right?

SM [14:00]: Absolutely. I think that's very common. There's always that question of: if an organization is providing services—it has a client base, or a member base, or however you want to term it—there's often tension between those two places. We talked about this a little bit, but how else has the concept, or maybe the object, of NGOs influenced your own work, your own approach to anthropological research?

MS [14:24]: I was a nonprofit worker before I was at graduate school. I got laid off, and that's why I went to grad school. I had experience within community organizing in the Twin Cities, social-justice organizations, a tenant's union, so I would say that NGO-ing and activist-ing actually influence my anthropology. It inspired what I would call the anthropological imagination.

Working on and in NGOs has shifted what I think anthropology can do. Like, are we only there to pounce on well-intentioned people making mistakes? There are people that are aiming for the most radical critique, and how often you're cited in a journal and blah blah blah, you know, [who can come up with] the pithiest zinger quotes. Now, with Twitter, this has gone even more to the extreme. Working in an NGO is has really sharpened my understanding of what power is and how it operates. It has inflected my understanding of concepts like coloniality, postcoloniality. Are NGOs the contemporary inheritors of the world system, the intermediaries like the British East India Company—the indirect role that British colonialism perfected—and/or are they where the social change originates from?

Anthropology as a discipline was created an activist project: Papa Franz [Boas] put us all together to critique contemporary racism, white supremacy, xenophobia and antisemitism. That's why we have archaeology and physical anthropology with cultural and linguistic anthropology. And right now, right, right now—I was going to swear—anthropology is needed, or anthropological imagination is needed. This is about humanity, this is about struggles for, you know, climate change—we're talking about our species survival. White supremacy; violence; state violence; xenophobia; policies in immigration. Anthropology, or anthropological ideas—the idea that we repoliticized the common struggle; seeing these struggles as connected, this is what anthropology can do right now. This is what we should be doing right now: rather than saying that we're relevant, just f-ing do it, you know, and actually engage these struggles. And NGOs are one vehicle for that engagement. But if they're the only vehicle for that engagement, then we need to rethink our praxis.

What is the dangerous element within the NGO-ization of social justice movements? It's the logic of the project. So the "deliverables"—like having to package it for consumption and being sold on a market. So you can look at it as far as how many latrines you construct, how many school lunches you provide, how many beds you have a homeless shelter, and how many people you got at a protest. How many tweets, how many times you got to Washington. These are outputs, they are not outcomes. And if we anthropologists are also in this logic of having to post a blog—I have 40 articles, I have however many Twitter followers—if we are using the same metrics, to use the phrase of [inaudible] or the logic of audit culture; if we're trying to engage this world as it is, using this tool of NGOs, we are going to reproduce the very inequalities that we're trying to disrupt.

If what we want, as anthropology and as anthropologists, is to be reformist and just be the more humane form of neocolonialism, then there's no problem with that. If we're trying to radicalize our thinking and look at where the world is now and support the actually existing movements that are transformative in seeking solidarity, then we need to rethink our praxis. So my critical NGO studies is really forcing me examine what anthropology is, and what we should be doing at the moment, and how do we engage this.

SM [18:22]: Right, absolutely. Really important points there, and I think you really highlight how the logic of the NGO can be taken on by people who are engaged in projects that they might see as radically different from NGOs but logics, metrics, ideas about how to measure success can seep through into different movements. Thank you so much for this illuminating and I think very vital conversation. It's been an absolute pleasure talking to you today.

MS [18:51]: As it has been for me.

SM [18:58]: That was Dr. Mark Schuller, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Nonprofit and NGO Studies at Northern Illinois University and Affiliate Professor of the Faculté d'Ethnologie, l'Université d'État d'Haïti. He was talking us through the complexities of those ubiquitous features of the modern world, NGOs. You can learn more about Dr. Schuller's work on our website

The site is packed full of useful teaching and learning resources for this and for other AnthroPod episodes, providing a great starting point for digging deeper into anthropological research. You've been listening to AnthroBites, produced by the Society for Cultural Anthropology, in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association. This episode was made by me, Siobhán McGuirk, with executive assistance from Dr. Jara Carrington. You can subscribe to AnthroPod via Stitcher or SoundCloud, and you can follow the SCA on Facebook and on Twitter.