Letter Seven

NGOs and the competitive market: What are the ethics of competitive intervention?

I am considering a few different factors as I write the final research report from the gender study in Myanmar, but by far the most perplexing one is thinking about the audience of the report. The audience will likely be a combination of Mercy Corps, the World Bank, and government branches that are implementing the community-driven development project. It may also include individuals or organizations who are doing similar research on women’s role in development more broadly.

There were two aims of my research: the first was for my own ethical questions to see how gender dynamics play out in a country in the middle of sweeping democratic change. The second aim was fulfilling my formal internship for Mercy Corps by collecting data about women on committees in order to influence policy change in the future. Today I am commenting on the latter—the product of which will be a formal report circulated to various audiences.

The research itself was impartial—we hoped to get a clear and truthful story about the experience of women and men in gender-inclusive CDD. But the report is more than a presentation of numbers and statistics on committee turnover rates and education levels of committee members. It is a statement about what the program can do to help women in the future, given the gaps and achievements of the project so far.

But as I learned during several meetings with government, World Bank, and other NGO staff in Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw (Myanmar’s capital), the messages of the research need to be tailored to the audience. For example, the government staff do not want to hear that women are not being “empowered” (which is, in my eyes, a nebulous term at best) by the project. They have put tons of resources into CDD, and they want to see positive results. For other audiences, it seemed like strict adherence to the project guidelines was paramount.

I won’t go into individual details, but I will say that I had no idea just how many moving parts go whizzing around in the world of NGOs, governments, and development work in general. There are hundreds of millions of dollars changing hands. There are multiple actors, stakeholders, and third parties. Governments hold organizations like the World Bank accountable (it is, after all, primarily a bank that lends money to countries). The whole system–which I only briefly glimpsed in only one country–seems to me like a beehive with fifty different queen bees. The workers implement projects for their designated ‘queen’ (whoever they work for), but all the queens also talk among each other. Some are more powerful than others (richer, perhaps), so overall the hierarchies twist and turn and overlap to make the whole picture a noisy, confounding society with not one leader or mission but rather multiple competing interests.

(I now notice that my metaphor is refreshingly matriarchal–I did not actually intend for females to be the decision-makers in my proverbial beehive, but perhaps it is all the better that way…).

If I take a step back to connect the dots, I can say that each queen bee is either a governmental or non-governmental organization. All of them are interested in development. However, they compete with one another. NGOs describe other NGOs as competitors (even if they are not-for-profit). If they all have the same broad goal–what I define loosely as reducing poverty and human suffering–than why must they be rivals?

Adam Smith’s idea that perfect competition produces better outcomes may well apply here. When firms compete, everyone is better off. We get good ideas, increased efficiency, and competitive prices. We get innovation. (We also get inequality.) NGOs, too, compete. Does competition among NGOs (the queen bees, in my example) make everyone better off? Does it enhance development outcomes?

For these questions I have no answers. But the ideas they raise prod me– isn’t it perverse to even talk about “competing” over who gets to contribute to development? Why should we compete for the ability to save or improve lives? This competition isn’t for money or capital–it’s for helping people. Consider this– three different NGOs in a country provide menstrual products to poor rural women. They have the same goals: to increase women and girls’ access to menstrual products so they don’t face disadvantages like being unable to work or go to school periodically. Instead of banding together to provide the same products to everyone, the NGOs differentiate their products and compete with one another.

Why do they compete instead of working together? Maybe each NGO thinks it provides the best product– that, in effect, it is doing development the “right” way. But again, their goal isn’t (or shouldn’t be) to make profits; their goal is to help people. In the end, maybe the competition will create better outcomes. But I can’t help but think that as all these actors spend time competing with one another, there are millions of women who could be developing their small businesses, and girls who could be going to school instead of being married off, and men who could be benefitting from micro-finance or mobile money. Does competition really improve outcomes for development? Or does it waste time and money that could be better spent if everyone worked together?

Ema Klugman is a T’20 Undergraduate and a 2017 Kenan Summer Research Fellow

All posts by