Competition, Outsourcing, Mergers: NGOs Adapt To Economic Realities

In today's economy, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are forced them to build internationalization strategies and corporate culture.

Local NGOs, like this one in Kenya, often have
Local NGOs, like this one in Kenya, often have
Daniel Bastien

AIX-EN-PROVENCE – It's a beautiful spring day in southern France. Students from the International Humanitarian Law & Action master's program at University Paul Cézanne are divided into small groups of 15: It's time to role-play.

Each group has received an envelope containing a scenario, and group three has to organize the return from Ghana of Ivorian refugees who fled civil war after the disputed 2010 presidential election.

A few minutes later, the students have adopted their new persona and are vigorously debating the fictional situation in English. Inch by inch, negotiating takes place between a representative for the Krisan and Buduburam refugee camps, International Organization for Migration and World Food Program, as well as Ghana security forces, Ivorian authorities and even the United States' Ambassador in Accra.

This kind of intense situation will soon be a professional reality for some of these students, as humanitarian and development NGOs are highly sought-after by future job-seekers. Non-profit organizations are very media-savvy, and thanks to sidewalk fundraising and mailing campaigns, everybody knows their names and what they do. Médecins du Monde, Doctors without Borders, Handicap International, Action against Hunger, Care, Greenpeace and the WWF are on top of these future professionals' dream-job list.

The first "humanitarian" diploma was created in Aix en Provence during the Bosnian crisis in 1993, explains Marie-José Domestici-Met, director of the renowned International Humanitarian Studies Institute at University Paul Cézanne, which is itself part of an international network of schools offering such diplomas.

France is among the world's leading countries for training humanitarian professionals, notes a professor. Graduates from prestigious business and administrative schools are increasingly abandoning lucrative careers to work for non-profits, either because they are disillusioned by the business and finance world or just because they want to do something meaningful. The result is that the NGO's can afford to be more choosy when it comes to recruitment.

"We have 800 applications for 80 spots," explains Domestici-Met. It isn't unusual for NGOs to get thousands of applicants for job offers, sometimes even for temporary contracts. But these young enthusiasts are entering a very particular, heterogeneous and globalized environment, one that increasingly resembles the private sector.

Economic heavyweights

The world of non-profits creates hundreds of thousands of jobs in the world, and for the bigger NGOs, carry huge annual budgets: 70 million euros for Médecins du Monde, 100 million for Action against Hunger, 230 million for Doctors without Borders and over 1 billion euros for its entire network. Oxfam has an 800 million euro budget, and World Vision, the American NGO, has a $2 billion budget, which matches NATO's.

These are real economic heavyweights - for what used to be considered a third sector. "They have unmatched influence in poor countries," notes François Grünewald, general director of the URD group, a think tank specialized in humanitarian reconstruction. Financing comes either from international public sources, governmental organizations or private donations. Doctors Without Borders France refuses any governmental financing, as do Amnesty International and Greenpeace. It is the price of their independence.

Competition for both public and private financing is increasingly harsh, pushing organizations to adopt attitudes typical of big multinational companies. "To survive, many NGOs are forced to merge, and the smaller ones often end up disappearing or being taken over. We also see more activity diversification and aggressive marketing methods - because reputation is important if you want donations," explains Bénédicte Hermelin, the director of GRET, a development NGO.

Adds François Grünewald: "It's exactly like the private sector, with large actors vying for markets and growth, and smaller ones specializing in niches."

This phenomenon is encouraged by institutional backers (such as the U.N., the World Bank or the European Union) who would rather give money to fewer large, strong organizations or consortium leaders than to several small, fragile structures. In the Western world, 20% of organizations get over 80% of financing.

"The biggest NGOs create subsidiaries in other countries, like Doctors without Borders, Oxfam or Greenpeace; others choose to federate, like Caritas, which created partnerships with actors like Secours Catholique in France," says one NGO veteran.

The smaller - and more numerous - organizations create networks within national or regional platforms, like Coordination Sud in France (140 non-profits) or Concord and VOICE at the European level. "NGOs have realized that to be influential they had to be present and efficient in a maximum number of countries simultaneously," explains Olivier Consolo, director for Concord in Brussels.

Outsourcing to local NGOs

There are even instances of subcontracting: institutions subcontract to NGOs, and Western NGOs subcontract to local ones. It's a delicate topic. "The idea that we are just service providers hurts!" admits an NGO manager.

In these circles, people prefer the term "partnership." Similarly to large funds like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, "the European Union doesn't have a presence on the field, so it prefers to finance operators. Twenty years ago, 20% of the World Bank's actions were handled by NGOs, today that proportion reaches 60 to 70%. This is because the World Bank puts more trust in NGOs than in States, and also because it has a decreasing number of agents in the field," says François Rubio.

"Large institutions have clearly understood that non-profits have a highly motivated, efficient and inexpensive workforce. Given the salaries of these big institutions' employees, using an NGO employee paid around 2,000 euros or a local NGO employee who is paid 200 euros is like outsourcing," says Grünewald.

Competition and institutional requirements have another consequence: professionalization and accounting transparency. The ultimate aim is a real "results-oriented" culture. "In our offices, we now have people with graduate degrees from prestigious schools, and in the field we have engineers, agronomists, geographers. Volunteer work and compassion aren't enough any more," says the GRET director.

"We have adopted the "value for money" stance," adds a European NGO employee.

Financial transparency has also become an important issue. NGOs don't really have a choice: in many countries, institutional controls have become mandatory. "In terms of control and audit, there is no wiggle room," says Sophie Zaccaria-Duvillier, manager for Médecins du Monde's analytical department.

Even if many NGOs now look like accounting firms, they insist they are not. NGOs are non-profit organizations that need to balance their budget so their patrons don't back out. "We are run like a company because that's what is more efficient, but our end goal has not changed. He have to juggle both ends: the humanitarian and the economic," says François Danel, general director for Action against Hunger.

And in the end, NGOs go "where companies won't," notes Kathrin Schick, director for VOICE in Brussels: "Don't forget that a non-profit's initial goal is to be an actor of social change."

Read the original article.

Photo - sustainable sanitation

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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