European NGOs still dance to the tune of their interlocutors – but this might be changing

When we think of the European Union (EU), we tend to see a unified body that speaks with one voice. While this perception also holds true for European NGOs, a recent study has shown that in the last decade, a multitude of different, mostly reformist theoretical framings have been informing how these NGOs view and talk about development. This article explores what this reformism means for such NGOs, showing that a more radical development agenda that moves away from an economic growth model and Europe’s colonial legacy might be emerging, even if discussions are still mostly taking place internally.

Created to support ‘development’ and ‘social justice’ in the Global South, (International) Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) working on development-related issues have specific understandings of and discourses on global issues that inform their advocacy and lobbying activities at multiple decision-making levels. Such discourses, which are rooted in specific development theories, may ultimately come to inform policies. This motivates a critical analysis of the discourses used and the theories they’re based on.

As part of my ongoing PhD research, I am analysing CONCORD’s overall development narrative in a bid to understand which theory or theories of development it uses. CONCORD is the European NGO Confederation for Relief and Development representing some 2,600 NGOs at the EU level. I compare its narrative with those of pan-African organisations active in Europe. This comparison can be useful in revealing commonalities and differences related to how issues are problematised (ex: Are global inequalities an accident of fate? Are they historical?), what solutions are proposed (ex: more growth, more international trade, resource redistribution), or how the role of different actors is perceived (ex: the EU, NGOs themselves) particularly with regards to ‘development’ in Africa.

My overall aim is to understand what theories of development inform discussions at EU level among civil society organisations such as those I studied, so as to see how critical the messages reaching the EU through these organisations are. To do this, I’ve interviewed staff of some member NGOs, observed internal meetings, and analysed a set of official documents that display the organisations’ positions.

At EU level, it has been argued that NGOs have to be ‘critical, but not too critical[i] if they want to maintain their relations with EU institutions making policies or providing them with funding. To understand how European development NGOs manage to navigate the state-civil society relationship, I distinguished development theories as either conventional (maintaining the neoliberal status quo), reformist (proposing changes to some elements of the economic, political and social system), or radical (criticising the whole system and tentatively proposing a paradigm change). If Smismans’ statement held true for the development sector as well, then European development NGOs would rather align their narrative to the second category. The case of CONCORD advocacy towards EU institutions seems to confirm this general assumption.

My research describes changes in the dominant development narrative over time, especially the one used by CONCORD in the last decade. What I witnessed is how a clump of rather reformist theories and approaches are applied, as well as concepts and frameworks relating to these (e.g. a human development, human rights or sustainable development frameworks). But several frameworks can be applied at the same time to inform narratives, which is what’s happening within CONCORD. The sporadic presence of very conventional references (such as those referring to pro-poor growth around 2010)[ii] and quite radical ones (those mentioning post-growth since 2019)[iii] add relevant nuances to this overall picture.

So why is there a move toward reformist approaches and theories? This move, which is first of all theoretical, also serves a strategic purpose: it consists of positioning the confederation within international developmental governance, accepting its overall grammar (donor countries, institutions and agencies, implementing actors, recipient countries and communities, assessment practices and language), while operating to give that grammar more social and environmental-friendly meanings, thus keeping the focus on the ultimate targets of development (local populations and their needs). This implies advocacy strategies and solution proposals bridging local populations’ needs (as perceived by the confederation) with institutions’ policies and attitudes (as assessed by the confederation). It also implies constantly striking a balance between what is considered necessary and what is considered attainable (i.e. acceptable by donors and targeted policy-makers).

The search for internal consensus, coupled with the imperative of representativeness of such a vast group of NGOs, also contributes to its overall reformist positioning. Representativeness is a fundamental credibility asset vis-à-vis political institutions, but it can have the trade-off of leading to a consensus a minima, mainly based on those issues that the sector historically deems fundamental. Lobbying for an increase in EU and members states’ Official Development Assistance (ODA) is a case in point: development aid[iv] is considered a key priority by a majority of members; the work on ‘financing and funding for development’ is, consequently, a longstanding pillar of the confederation.

But it’s becoming clear that internal discussions within the confederation are changing in light of the evolving external environment and new challenges. This is visible, for instance, in a recent focus on an economy beyond growth[v], but also in more internal discussions about colonialism[vi], neo-colonialism and EU-Africa relations[vii]. Although these do not signal a definite shift in how development is understood and practiced, they show that a move toward a more radical development narrative strongly focused on redressing past injustices may be looming


References

[i] S. Smismans, “European civil society and citizenship: Complementary or exclusionary concepts?”, Policy and Society, vol. and So  vol. and Soci

[ii] CONCORD, “EU responsibilities for a just and sustainable world CONCORD Narrative on Development” (https://concordeurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/CONCORD-Narrative-on-Development.pdf)

[iii] Cox, T. “Economic growth will not cure inequalities”, 25 June 2019, (https://concordeurope.org/2019/06/25/directors-blog-economic-growth-will-not-cure-inequalities/)

[iv] CONCORD, “EU ODA up, but far from levels promised and needed amid international crises – CONCORD press release: OECD DAC 2020 preliminary statistics”, 13 April 2021 (https://concordeurope.org/2021/04/13/eu-oda-up-but-far-from-levels-promised-and-needed-amid-international-crises/)

[v] CONCORD, Talking Development Ep. 1 “Beyond Growth: An Economic Model that works for Everyone”, 09 May 2019 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NmHHEfx4G6k&t=8s)

[vi] Poissonnier, L. tweet on CONCORD General Assembly 2020, 17 November 2020 (https://twitter.com/Lonne_CONCORD/status/1328711315016339459)

[vii] CONCORD, Talking Development Ep. 8 “How civil society can keep up with the speed of change”, January 2021, mins 7:00 to 12:30, accessed 10 January 2021 (https://soundcloud.com/concord-europe-ngo/how-civil-society-can-keep-up-with-the-speed-of-change)

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About the author:

Valentina Brogna is a PhD researcher at the Research Centre in Political Science (CReSPo), Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles (Belgium), funded through a FRESH Grant (F.R.S. – FNRS). Her research compares development narratives by International Development NGOs and Pan-African Diaspora Organisations in Europe, mostly advocating at EU level. Such narratives refer to different development theories, in a spectrum from Sustainable Development to African Renaissance. Prior to her PhD, she gained professional experience in feminist and development civil society organisations at EU and Italian level.

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