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close this bookCERES No. 093 - May - June 1983 (FAO Ceres, 1983, 50 p.)
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View the documentFAO in action
View the documentPopular participation in rural development
View the documentDevelopment is not a politically neutral task
View the documentThe right kind of support.
View the documentThe northern partners
View the documentWhose fell needs?
View the document''We’re not talking about revolution but about changing the rules''
View the documentRethinking agricultural development

The right kind of support.

Some cautionary advice for NGOs in the South

"Don't help me, pal," say the peasants of my country to a friend who offers them a remedy worse than the illness hat they want to cure. The aim of this article is to find some ways of determining when external aid for development contributes to the development of local groups and when it is an obstacle, or "dis-aid," such as those cases examined in a seminar on the theme held in Rio de Janeiro.

The present system frequently generates dependence: of the nongovernmental organizations on financing agencies, of the peasants on NGOs, and of the Farmers who do not benefit on the ones who do. Moreover, the present system contributes to the isolation of those groups who do receive aid, differentiating them from those who do not and thus making the formation of any broader social movement more difficult. We will try in this article to offer some guidelines by which NGOs might counteract these negative influences, increase their degrees of autonomy, and raise the levels of integration among themselves as well as in the local groups.

Who are the subjects of aid? The spontaneous reply to this question is no doubt: the poor of the Third World. Aid will permit them to improve their living conditions and make themselves into the builders of their own destiny. However, most aid projects not only fail to achieve this objective but, what is worse, deepen the situation of dependence in which the peasants and involved NGOs find themselves and isolate them from the rest of the social forces that could enable them to push for change in the country.

From a historical point of view, aid endeavours to transfer values, rules of conduct, technology, forms of social organization, etc., from outside the poor groups. It is supposed that this way they can overcome the internal obstacle of their own popular groups who oppose integration into modern society. First the churches and later the foreign aid agencies worked directly in the communities to produce change. However, the difficulties of communication were so broad and profound that they began to push for the creation of internal mechanisms capable of taking responsibility for promoting the process of modernization.

This push has produced a large enough number of NGOs. In Chile the number has risen to more than 100, and in Brazil there are many more. More than 600 have become affiliated with the Freedom from Hunger Campaign/ Action for Development. Most of them would not exist without international support, and for many the level of dependence upon financing agencies is also high. Still, their position as "interpreters" of local aspirations often permits them to elaborate projects that only they can manage, establishing an additional focus for dependence of the farmers. (2)

Jan Pronk, ex-Minister of Cooperation for the Development of Holland, has said that aid is not neutral nor is it without pressures, which are exerted by granting or restricting aid.(3) Other more recent works make a point of demystifying the altruism that supposedly exists within this process and try to uncover new, insidious forms of domination, and at the same time to point out that the process of modernization ends up impoverishing even more the urban and the rural poor. In Chile, for example, the policy of laissez faire has impoverished the peasants, expelling them to marginal land and converting them into cheap, seasonal labour for the agriculture of exportation.

The NGOs, through their regular contact with the rural reality, have begun to question the conventional models of development. Each time, they perceive this development more as a process to be initiated from within the popular groups and to seek the natural power sources of man and community. The emphasis is placed on concepts of participation, self-reliance and social justice, and in the force of a self sustained process within the local group itself. The struggle against dependence in all its forms (economic, social, cultural and political) starts with becoming conscious of the real causes of poverty, which are encountered in the same structure of domination. Development projects must promote actions, perhaps less spectacular, but more efficient because they seek their enrichment in the perceptions and aspirations of the peasants.

This option frequently places the NGOs between two tensions: the community for whom the project is intended and the financing agency before whom the project appears before it exists. Thus it is imagined and structured within the bureaucratic requirements of the agencies where it is altered according to certain thematic "modes." In their turn, functionaries of the aid agencies are caught between similar tensions, but on another level, that is, between the demands of the NGOs and those of their superiors and of the donors in the rich countries, who want more altruism and less conscientiousness.

The attempts to overcome dependence in order to change the peasants into true subjects of the projects are made by means of "translations" or "decodifications" of projects on different levels of the chain of aid. NGOs try to accommodate these attempts in order to serve their real objectives, and the peasants, for their part, take those aspects of the aid that they see as useful for their lives and reject, in various manners, those aspects that do not interest them.

Waldo Cesar succeeded in making an interesting comparison between two Brazilian projects, one with a great deal of aid (Curupi) and another with almost none (Damasio). He observed that in Gurupi, not only were the foreseen objectives not achieved, but the excess of aid created new forms of domination within the community and isolated it from the rest of the peasants in the region. In nearby Damasio, however, the project originated in a petition from the community itself and was based on the utilization of the human and material resources of the place. What resulted was a major community integration and improvement of the conditions of life. (6)

It would appear that in order effectively to transform the peasants into subjects of aid projects the bureaucratic structure of the majority of financing agencies must be altered. Though this appears somewhat difficult at first sight, it is also urgent that some ideas be immediately proposed - ideas that have arisen in the practice of some Latin American NGOs and which may contribute to diminishing the dependence and isolation generated by a certain type of aid. These ideas refer to relocation problems with the origin of projects, their resources, the evaluation and other forms of autonomy and integration at the local level.

Origin of projects.

The ideal situation, as we know, is that projects spring from a local base (spontaneous projects); those that fail frequently lack the essential direct relation between base groups and the financing agency. It is desirable that the NGOs avoid the temptation to conceive projects that depend on a mere continual transfer of resources to the benefit groups. They must make an effort to conceive projects starting from the discovery of existing necessities at the local level including their solutions, rooting all action in the forms of community that exist in the locality. Formality and impatience can limit and destroy forever the creativity and spontaneity of the local groups.

The projects should define for themselves at the start how the projects processes are to be fitted into a social reality in constant flux. The project must be conceived as a complement to the regular forces for local improvement before being considered a substitute. Wherever possible it is necessary to avoid establishing inflexible conditions. In order to produce this encounter between local necessities and complementary support, a period of observation and contacts on the local level is required, so that it is appropriate to seek resources for financing projects or experimentation. This initial period is vital for the future development of the project.

The theme of resources is related as much to their worth as to their control. One must avoid thinking, "the more resources, the better". The rich projects for poor families limit the development of the capacities of the popular groups themselves. The abundance of money leads to the necessity to spend it inhibiting the creativity, solidarity and cooperation within the community. The financing, on the other hand, must plan the resources to satisfy opportunely the small, spontaneous incentives that arise from the dynamics of the project. They must consider themselves the institutional resources of the NGO for alleviating the pressures, uncertainty, insecurity and dependence that generates a permanent, and often desperate, need for funds in order to survive.

The assignment of funds in the chain of aid must be as close as possible to the local base. The financing agencies must listen principally to those in the country who know the project; to those at the center of the NGOs, to those who work in the terrain and in the local base, to the peasants. In this sense, it is interesting that some agencies have created rotating funds for small projects, directed jointly by NGOs and peasants. In his way, they insure the opportunity for distribution of resources and decentralization of aid. The external agency only enhances accounting controls and participates in the evaluation of the experience.


In order to promote autonomy and diminish dependence there exists a central principle: wherever possible, the work of peasants and mediators must not depend on the project, but, on the contrary, the development of the project must depend on the work of the peasants and mediators. The viability of the project, that is to say its continuation, must depend on forces hat work on a local level before depending on external resources.

An excessive presence of foreigners should be avoided as much for the reversals and losses of time carried by he "tourism" of aid as for the fact that the discussions and commentaries arising between them and the mediators intend to evoke uncertainty and insecurity in the local base. However, these contacts must not be avoided, because they serve as much to "educate" the agency about the problems of the project as to enable the peasants D know more about the mechanisms of id. Finally, it is desirable to decrease dependence by diversifying the sources of financing.


In order to combat the isolation generated by the dependence on sources of financing, it is necessary to push for integration at all levels. Between the peasants, trips for the interchange of experiences or reciprocal visits can be promoted. In the Farm Technology Project and GIA Organization in Chile these types of activities eve created new impulses at local and regional levels for promoting bold forms of social organization. Then, through NGOs, integration is able to push across periodic encounters and the formation of more stable regional and national organizations. The Latin American Association of Promotion Organizations (ALOP) is a serious attempt to raise the level of interchange of experiences and to improve the authority of negotiation vis-a-vis the aid agencies. These agencies must integrate themselves by way of, for example, their participation in such gatherings as the Latin American Conference on Strategies for Development organized by the Freedom from Hunger Campaign/Action for Development, held in Santiago last April.


On the evaluation depends the continuation of the project and its ability to establish itself, and in this regard it is an important instrument of dependence or of autonomy. The key element of the whole evaluation is the definition itself - what is understood to constitute success or failure. The evaluation must be permitted to define the aid in conformity with objectives periodically fixed by the groups who work at the local level and by the criteria on which they jointly decide to judge the project. They must reduce the importance hitherto given the merely quantitative aspects, because one tries to produce not only good material results but also the processes of collective autonomy. This demands incorporating the subjective points of view of the peasants themselves into the evaluation.

One practice common in Latin America is established gatherings of peasants, mediators and representatives of financing agencies for the purpose of analyzing the results of what they have done. This analysis must not remain circumscribed only at the local level but must be marked within the global context in which these projects exist. Often activities in small localities exert influence on the country and vice versa. On other occasions, they are radically important in experimentation with innovative propositions, such as those called presage-projects, and must be evaluated as such.

These guidelines can help in avoiding, to some extent, the use of the present aid system as die-aid and instead of generating dependence and isolation, to press for autonomy and integration of local groups, the NGOs and the aid agencies.