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This provocative question was put up on Quora a few days ago. Got me thinking. Here is the result of my reflections.

Having worked with NGOs for nearly two decades, I do get a feeling that there is a distinct element of paternalism in the way in which we work (I am deliberately using “we” rather than the more neutral “NGOs” simply because I am part of the system). Let me explain why I think so.

What are the core principles that we desire / profess to follow at all times in our work?

  1. Accountability to all stakeholders which means inclusion in decision making, transparency and space to question us.
  2. Do No Harm : adapted from the world of medicine.

What happens in reality in humanitarian situations is that it sometimes becomes difficult to be fully accountable and inclusive. Things are chaotic. The affected need immediate help and that means that the humanitarian workers rarely have the time for touching base with everyone, understanding their perspectives and then delivering.  Two other issues come into play –

  1. the immediate needs are very similar in emergencies – shelter, food, water & sanitation and protection.
  2. it is not necessary that the affected always know what is required – for instance,  the current humanitarian crisis in Eastern Congo has been brought about by political forces outside the Congo. The solution, if any, exists outside the local community space. This need not always come up in the community interaction. There is no point in romanticizing that the affected have all the solutions and we only need to interact with them to find out.

That results in humanitarian workers (agencies) going by experience and putting boots on the ground with minimal to no community interaction.  They try and cover it up later by instituting accountability measures when the immediate crisis has passed. It is this lack of engagement of the affected in determining actions that comes across as paternalistic. 

So far a very defensive approach from me, you will agree. There is of course another element, not so nice, which also needs to be mentioned. It should not happen but in reality it does.

There is very clear paternalistic behaviour. I suspect (hope?) that grassroots based NGOs, closer to true civil society, will be less paternalistic. However, in the larger NGOs,  it is almost impossible to escape the feeling of “I know better”.  This is because of a classic case of them and us.

Them are the poor, the powerless, those unable to take care of themselves. They are often illiterate, ignorant about their own rights and sometimes mired in counter-productive cultural practices.
Us – well first we are not them. We are knowledgeable, professional and passionate people who want to change the world. We know what to do. What could they tell us that we do not already know? It is only lack of resources that prevents us from eradicating poverty.

This is purely paternalistic, nay, patronizing. It is a terrible way to engage in development or humanitarian aid. The paternalistic behaviour is made worse by the fact that even if they know what is to be done, they can rarely insist on their point of view. The huge power imbalance  between NGO workers and the poor which makes the latter less assertive. This is also one reason why many efforts do not result in significant outcomes. Have a quick look at this fascinating Ted Talk by Ernesto Sirolli on his experience of what happens when aid workers do not listen.

It is no secret that Governments are known to be paternal. In India the poor refer to ‘mai-baap sarkar‘ (mother-father government) making it abundantly clear what they expect.  Other countries are no better. You can see paternalistic  attitudes expressed in this small interaction between Sir Humphrey Appleby and Agnes Moorehouse in the brilliant BBC serial Yes Prime Minister. Episode : Power to the People. Appleby gives her Prof Marriott’s paper that talks about democratic reform

 Agnes (horrified) : but this strikes at the heart of democratic social reforms.

Appleby : By which you mean people do not want your policies.

Agnes : Of course they would want our policies if they could understand all the implications. But ordinary voters are simple people, they don’t see their needs, they are not trained to analyse problems. How can they know what is good for them? They need proper leadership to guide them where they ought to go.

Appleby: Do you not think people might vote for such a leadership?

Agnes (looking doubtful): People do not always understand what is good for them. 

I wish I could say this, paternalistic behaviour, does not happen. However, it would not be a great idea to bury ones head in the sand and be overly romantic about what we do and don’t. This does happen and the earlier we accept it, the better it would be for everyone concerned.