Should NGOs Comment on Local Politics?

Ben Taylor, over at the Daraja blog, addresses the issue:

Say you work for an NGO that installs rural handpumps. Unless you are putting handpumps in every village, you have to make a decision about which villages get a new pump and which don’t. That is at least partly a political decision. You will also have to make (also political) decisions about which local partners to work with. The same goes for donors working in any given sector: political decisions are being made all the time without admitting that they are political. What could be more political than the lack of access to basic services across much of Tanzania?


The work we do is all about making Tanzanian governance more responsive and accountable, it is not about influencing the particular decisions made by that governance system. We create space for debate, but we leave citizens and leaders to fill that space with their views. We create platforms for citizens to make their voice heard, but we don’t tell them what to say. We even develop tools that help local government get its message out to citizens, but it is up to local government to decide what that message is. It has become a cliche to say that we are “facilitating”, but for once I think this is actually true. The role of government is to listen to the needs and priorities of citizens and respond accordingly. We help this work more smoothly. We are the oil in the engine, we’re not driving the car.

My question then is this: Who are you accountable to? The Tanzanian citizens or your donors? And how does that affect the nature of your work?


3 thoughts on “Should NGOs Comment on Local Politics?

  1. This is an amazingly good topic… I think the NGO’s should ignore the government and go on ahead with the desired location without fear or favour. At the end of the day it is a little more than maybe even the governmental representative of that area is doing.

  2. Mh. The histories of civil society and its role in development in The West and pre-colonial Africa show that CSOs have always been radically different and far more powerful than what we practice here, now, today. Sadly since most of our/whoever’s current NGOs are externally-dependent you can raise the accountability point. Dual masters are indeed served. But at core civil society has always been an interest-driven, often political, sometimes extremely powerful segment of society. In the here and now, if organizations like Daraja are using their powers for good, I say we should be utilitarian enough to recognize the benefits.

    That accountability question is always double-edged. For instance, do you trust that your government places Tanzanians’ interests above, say, that of the donors considering the amount of money the donor community pours into our budget…? A gripe I believe you have raised indirectly before. Pianist riff done, handing the solo back to you.

    • @ Elsie. Say what you want about our government, but we can vote them out of office i.e they are accountable to the voters, at least theoretically. You cannot say the same about NGOs. What you are suggesting is that we take what these organisations are doing/intent on doing on trust. I find that problematic. If you are calling for accountability and transparency, you should also practice it yourself, especially to the people you claim you want to serve/are serving. Unfortunately, this is not always the case with NGOs.

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