15 Jun 2019
Beyond NGOs: Decolonizing Peacebuilding and Human Rights
This paper argues that the Eurocentric approaches to civil society and their limitations to forms of institutions intelligible to donors, deepen the divide between nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the grassroots social-political organizing, and perpetuate a transnational apparatus of neoliberal governmentality. The authors suggest that civil society actors should consider alternative forms of organizing, and they see inclusive social-political movements as the better alternative, against the institutionalization and professionalization of activism. As spheres of activity, the paper takes peacebuilding and women’s rights organizations, and as a geographical context it considers Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey.
The concept of civil society has a central role in the modern understanding of democratic states and democratization processes. Although definitions of civil society may somewhat vary across disciplines and ideologies, as do beliefs about its scope and purposes, civil society is often characterized by two main features, namely being “outside the institutional structures of government” and “not primarily commercial” (Salamon, Sokolowski and List 2003). Within the modern market economy based state structures, civil society is positioned as “the population of groups formed for collective purposes primarily outside of the State and marketplace” (Van Rooy 1998, 30). This relational definition has led some researchers to question whether the concept of civil society is applicable to forms of organization beyond Western contexts (Lewis 2000, 17).
Outside of critical academic and practitioner circles, however, the existence or the gradual development of a civil society as a separate ‘sector’ and entity, is automatically assumed. Civil societies in non-Western contexts have been primary targets and instruments in the global political project of building democracy and peace around the world (Lewis 2000, 17). There is an assumption that civil society as a meta-form of social and political organization is geographically and culturally universal; what is more problematic, however, is the Eurocentric tendency to limit civil society to a narrowly defined institutional arena (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999, 22). The primary unit of civil society that has a subjectivity within the political arena of international organizations is the NGO, and it becomes intelligible for international actors through replicating the bureaucratic and normative order of the international structures.
In other words, within the nomenclature of international organizations and donors, or the international development discourse in general, civil society is simply the cluster of various NGOs, and in fact the term civil society is often used interchangeably with NGOs. Support for the emergence and strengthening of NGOs forms a central part of the liberal democratic agenda (Archer 1994). In this paper, we argue that Eurocentric approaches to civil society and its limitation to forms of institutions intelligible to donors, deepen the divide between NGOs and the grassroots social-political organizing, and perpetuate a transnational apparatus of neoliberal governmentality. We suggest that civil society actors should consider alternative forms of organizing, and we see inclusive social-political movements as the better alternative, against the institutionalization and professionalization of activism. As spheres of activity, we take peacebuilding and women’s rights organizations, and as a geographical context we take Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey.
Are NGOs Grassroots? A Critique of Institutionalization
Largely as a result of the efforts to decolonize Eurocentric interventions into various democratization and peacebuilding processes in the Global South in favor of the local or the so-called “local turn”, international organizations and donor governments have become increasingly aware of the importance of transformations that take place “from bottom up” or “locally”. For the past two decades, the international development/democracy/human rights discourses have been dominated by buzzwords such as “local capacity”, “sustainability”, “empowerment”, etc. The heightened focus on sustainability, be it peacebuilding or women’s rights or poverty eradication, has reiterated that processes and transformations must be both appropriate for the particular cultural-political context and be initiated by the local agents themselves or, in other words, be local and grassroots. Many supranational structures and major donors have incorporated the idea of grassroots into their rhetoric and strategies.
Within this scope, NGOs are seen as crucial in building the institutions of democracy and peace from bottom up. Most donors claim to be supporting local organizations in a particular cause, and market their support to grassroots activists as good practice. For example, the European Union (EU) claims to be “active in dialogue processes involving civil society organizations at grassroots levels, in particular through the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP)” and the United Nations (UN) increasingly uses the discourse of grassroots in its work, particularly with regards to women’s rights (United Nations Development Programme 2012). The instrumentalization of NGOs as the ‘bottom’ thus makes NGOs synonymous with the desired ‘grassroots’. This conflation of the local and the grassroots with NGOs, we argue, promotes the proliferation of technocratic elites, thus usurping the space for grassroots organizing.
NGOs as Technocracies
Alvarez, Jad, and Smith distinguish between NGO-based activism and autonomous grassroots social movements (Alvarez 1999, Smith 2007, Islah 2007). Accordingly, under the term grassroots movements, we mean groups and organizations which direct their efforts towards (a) organizing and mass mobilization and (b) activism which answers to local needs and context instead of reiterating universalist framings and/or agendas set by donors. Consolidation and orchestration of social movements into intelligible institutions, or in other words the ‘NGO-ization’ of activism is understood, by Smith as the taming of existent or potential radical social movements, so that they would not demand radical change, directing their efforts to social reform instead, and being safe for the existing order/system (Smith 2007). In this paper, we accept the definition of NGO-ization as the taming of social movements through the neoliberal civil society constituted by NGOs and projects depending on mainly external/foreign funding.
The dependence of NGOs mostly on foreign funding means that local activism becomes financially dependent on foreign donors, and NGOs increasingly structure and position themselves to cater to the bureaucratic requirements of donors. As a result, they focus on developing the technical specialization and infrastructure required to satisfy international donor requirements and start functioning as service providers. Donors subcontract tasks such as peace and women’s rights to local service providers, who along with these also provide a range of complicated bureaucratic services. However, because of the scarcity of financial resources and cycle-based funding dependency, NGOs often do not employ the specialized staff who would assist in providing these administrative, financial, and legal services to donors. As a result, NGO workers have to function as project managers, accountants, lawyers, and social workers at the same time. For many NGO workers, the time and effort spent handling reports, paperwork, financial transactions, and preparing reports for donors far exceeds the time required for working in the field, towards a particular project goal. NGO practitioners in the Global South have described themselves as being “more focused on survival and how they can meet donor demands while also meeting their own goal” (Cohen 2014).
This professionalization of activism has two repercussions. Firstly, overworked NGO staff increasingly drift away from grassroots activism to administrative-technical office tasks. Secondly, it is also problematic that organizing is carried out by a few educated people employed by NGOs. (Smith 2007, 7). The grassroots are not the subject, but rather the object of the NGOs, where NGOs package the grassroots into problems, data, solutions, and, subsequently, project proposals (Petras 1999). Most NGOs, especially larger ones in capital cities have very little access outside of the bureaucratic elites. Smaller NGOs, informal initiative groups, regional grassroots initiatives, and social movements who do not satisfy intelligible institutional features are excluded from outside support or are targeted solely for ‘capacity-building’ purposes. Increasingly dependent on foreign funding, NGOs, small and large, compete for funds, further perpetuating the importance of technical expertise over actual transformative action.
In the context of the Global South, we also consider NGO-ization to be the instrument of global neocolonial governance. Governmentality is a concept of Michel Foucault, meaning a system of rational governance and management of population (Foucault 1991). Harrington notes that the term has “two related meanings: mentalities of government and government of mentalities” (Harrington 2013, 139). Thus, governmentality implies both objects and rules of governance and appropriate subjectivities. In the case of neocolonial governmentality, the forms, instruments, actions, and jobs of ‘civil societies’ are structured by global governance. The institutionalization of activism in the form of NGOs is part of neoliberal and neocolonial development brought and managed by global governance. On the one hand, the agendas of local activism often become defined by the requirements of donors. In the case of peacebuilding and women’s rights organizations the main subjects and implementers of neocolonial agendas are international governmental organizations (IGOs), such as the UN. On the other hand, the uniformization of civil societies through the constitution of normative/Western-centric institutions perpetuates neocolonial relationships of knowledge/power. It is also not a coincidence that the recent decade has seen the proliferation of GONGOs – government organized non-governmental organizations – whereby states are incorporating the format of NGOs into their apparatuses of governmentality.
In the following sections, we discuss examples from Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey that highlight the various issues and power dynamics that arise from the current NGO-based organization of civil society.
Peacebuilding Work in Armenia
Civic initiatives in Armenia aimed at building peace with both Azerbaijan and Turkey started shortly after its independence. The institutionalized character of the field and the cycle-based funding dependency have made it difficult to plan and implement sustainable and inclusive peace movements. Except for very few individual and collective initiatives in the 1990s, civil society attempts to build peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan have been conducted by a small number of NGOs. The same is mostly applicable to Armenia and Turkey, however there have been a few examples of non-NGO based initiatives, such as the “I apologize campaign”, “Workshop on Armenian-Turkish Scholarship”, “Beyond Borders: Linking Our Stories”, and a few artistic or photography initiatives.
There has never been a big variety of actors or groups working on Armenia-Turkey and Armenia-Azerbaijan peacebuilding processes, and more recently there has been a tendency to consolidate actors into large clusters. It is not rare to see multiple layers of ‘subcontracting peace’, whereby a government or intergovernmental donor contracts European organizational clusters, who in turn subcontract a large local institution to manage the distribution of funding to local groups or organizations. The EU has played a leading role in consolidating funding into large inter-institutional clusters. In fact, EU’s involvement in both the Armenia-Turkey and Armenia-Azerbaijan civil society efforts in the recent years has been mostly through consortiums. In the case of Armenia-Turkey, since 2014 a consortium of eight established local NGOs to implement the Support to Armenia-Turkey Normalization Process program funded by the EU. Similarly, European involvement into the Armenia-Azerbaijan civil society dialogue happens mostly through large consortiums, namely the Consortium Initiative between 2003-2010 and its successor the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK) from 2010 till present. Within the scope of the EPNK consortium, between 2012 and 2015, out of a total of almost €6 million allocated to confidence building in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the EPNK, only a total of €100,000 was distributed directly to organizations on the ground (EPNK n.d.).
Together with the lack of multiplicity of organizational voices, NGOs working in Armenia have been targeting a rather narrow group of people in their work, mostly the educated elites already involved in institutionalized civil society activities, with an already significant experience of international travel, and knowledge of foreign languages, such as English and Russian. As a result, NGOs either leave out marginalized groups, especially those directly affected by the conflict, those living outside of the capitals, border regions, minorities, or have approach them only as objects of their work. Even when some organizations explicitly aim to target those marginalized in the conflict discourses, outreach to these groups is often hindered by the rigid technical requirements and project jargons deployed by these institutions. For example, a recent funding mechanism managed by Eurasia Partnership Foundation in Armenia claimed to be targeting youth, refugees and IDPs, persons with disabilities, ethnic and religious minorities, and war veterans and was providing a travel allowance for these individuals to participate in meetings aimed at building trust across the conflict divide. The application form, however, required, among other things, an assessment of possible risks related to their meeting along with a risk mitigation strategy, either in Russian or English. In the world of institutionalized peacebuilding, everyone, including war veterans and IDPs are capable of coming up with a risk assessment and mitigation strategy in a foreign language. This is an example of the kind of highly technical bureaucratic skills required to participate in building peace, which has been rendered into a professional activity dominated by technocracy. The Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation has also often committed to recruiting the majority of its program participants from vulnerable and marginalized populations; however, this has not always been possible due to the same abovementioned technical and bureaucratic barriers. The Imagine Center has also at times rejected applications from representatives of marginalized groups, such as ethnically Armenian citizens of Turkey, since their participation would not fit into the rigid definition of what a ‘Turkish-Armenian’ dialogue constitutes.
In fact, NGOs in Armenia have become so versed in the technical language of peacebuilding and project proposals, that many have been carrying out activities while holding non-constructive, xenophobic, or racist ideological beliefs about the conflict. During the major escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in April 2016, representatives of a number of NGOs in Armenia that have been the partners and grantees of donors such as the EU and the United States for many years, publicly made racist and hateful statements inciting violence. The coordinator of the Helsinki Initiative-92 Nagorno Karabakh Committee, laureate of Peace and Human Rights International prizes has repeatedly made hateful comments and incitements to violence on his Facebook page. While those are not publicly available, he has also made similar statements to press, particularly calling upon the public to “unite with the authorities of Artsakh and Armenia to prevent the attack of the barbarians”, referring to Azerbaijan or Azerbaijanis, as well as has expressed disappointment about the allegedly small scale of Armenia’s military involvement in the April 2016 escalation, by stating that “[I]n response to Azerbaijani aggressive operations, Armenia was to give a crushing counterblow to Azerbaijan not only in the direction where the aggression occurred but in any direction where danger emerges.” (Aravot 2017, Aravot 2018).
More than content, intention or results, funders place primacy on subcontracting peacebuilding and human rights agendas to institutions with intelligible bureaucratic and institutional features, familiar jargons. In an annual report, Eurasia Partnership Foundation Armenia prides itself on being a “local foundation with international quality standards” and the fact that it “belongs to the family of international development” (Eurasia Partnership Foundation Armenia 2015). This is exemplary of the way large NGOs in conflict affected areas “foster a new type of cultural and economic colonialism under the guise of a new internationalism” (Veltmeyer and Petras 2001, 132). For many international actors and governments, who are interested in and involved in mediation and peacebuilding efforts in conflict areas, building peace abroad often serves as a source of building ‘social capital’, as a way of building an image of a neutral or peaceful actor, or part of economic or foreign policy interests. Therefore, what matters is not the real capacity of a certain recipient organization to reach out to the grassroots and transform the conflict, but rather the institutional capacity of managing financial flows and providing a certain level of donor visibility, or in other words – a secure investment environment. Directing funds into large bureaucratic institutions hinders inclusive grassroots peacebuilding efforts, instead encouraging the institutionalization of the civil society in a neo-liberal paradigm.
Decolonizing the Feminist Movement in Georgia
Women’s rights activism began in post-Soviet Georgia in the middle of the 1990s. These were the first steps towards creating a feminist movement in the new reality. However, this emergent activism was immediately dominated and structured by a system of NGOs. Japaridze and Melashvili claim that in post-Soviet Georgia, this NGO-ization was not preceded by a different form of the women’s/feminist movement (Melashvili 2014, Japaridze 2012). More precisely, because of the specific Soviet experience in Georgia, there was a big gap between the women’s independent activism in the 1910s and the activism of the 1990s. So, it can be argued that the NGO boom as a variety of the women’s movement emerged from ‘nowhere’.
The feminist activism in the 1990s and 2000s did not aim to mobilize women. The feminist NGOs and activists of the time worked to introduce international norms about equality between sexes to Georgia and to institutionalize women’s rights on the state level. As a result of their efforts, the Georgian parliament approved the law On Elimination of Domestic Violence, Protection and Support of Victims of Domestic Violence in 2006 and the law On Gender Equality in 2010. However, the patriarchal culture of Georgia was very violent towards women. One of the main actors who deployed sexist and heterosexist discourse was the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Patriarch of Georgia, Ilia II. In the years 2008-2016, he spoke a lot about the “proper family” and a woman’s role in it: the only appropriate role for a woman was deemed to be motherhood; she was called to sacrifice herself for the family, be obedient to her husband, and “wash his feet” (Beraia and Tabidze 2016). Abortion was declared to be a deadly sin. Neither jobs nor sexual education were available for most Georgian women and the sexist discourse from an authoritative figure, such as the patriarch, contributed to the deterioration of women’s status in the society and made them even more susceptible to exploitation and violence.
The NGO-ized feminist activism was not able to withstand such challenges. In 2011, the Independent Group of Feminists (IGF) was born in Tbilisi as a reaction to both sexist and oppressive institutions and culture and to the ‘silent’ and elitist activism of the NGOs. The IGF engaged in the praxis of radical and/or lesbian feminism. They made visible the topics of reproductive and sexual rights. “My body – my business” became one of the main slogans associated with the IGF. Several members of the IGF – for example, Tamta Melashvili and Ida Bakhturidze – have noted that they criticized and opposed the previous generation of feminists in the NGOs because they did not care for mobilization and creating a grassroots feminist movement in Georgia (Melashvili 2014, Union Sapari 2017). The activism for institutionalization was not able to inspire women to fight for their rights. The IGF was the first feminist group which held demonstrations and marches in the streets of Tbilisi and openly opposed the Georgian Orthodox Church for its sexist and misogynist discourse. The group also made efforts towards intersectional feminism by supporting workers’ strikes and joining the marches on the International Workers’ Day in the years 2012-2013. Nowadays, many feminist activists claim that the IGF was the group that did a great deal for the popularization and legitimization of feminism in Georgian society.
In 2013-2014, Georgia was hit by a wave of femicide. The special report of the Public Defender of Georgia presents the statistics concerning femicide: 21 cases of femicide occurred in 2013, and 34 cases were registered in 2014 (Public Defender of Georgia 2015). The report states that 2014 was the worst year by the number of femicides in Georgia (Public Defender of Georgia 2015). The study also revealed that 50 percent of killings was caused by domestic violence, and 94 percent of the perpetrators were men.
The IGF reacted by organizing rallies in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. However, the mass protest of women against femicide happened after an activist Baia Pataraia decided to gather more women than usual. Accordingly, in November 2014 a new feminist group, known as the Women’s Movement was created in reaction to the rates of femicide. Women reacted across the country, and rallies were organized in 25 urban areas. The Women’s Movement has continued to work on women’s issues and to support or advocate initiatives about preventing violence against women and sexual harassment as well as gender quotas in political parties.
Both the Independent Group of Feminists and the Women’s Movement are still active. Despite their reactive positions (especially, in the case of the IGF), they were not able to fully eradicate problems associated with NGO-ized activism. The IGF made feminism visible and ‘loud’ but still was not able to directly reach and mobilize women, especially those living outside of Tbilisi. The early intersectional direction of the group was also lost. As for the Women’s Movement, at first it could boast of larger participation of women both from Tbilisi and the regions. However, this tendency has declined, and the group has become mostly online-based with the participation of women who have a higher economic or political standing and live in Tbilisi. In addition, the group often worked about women’s issues solely, without taking into consideration its interrelatedness with sexuality, class, ethnicity, and religion. The Women’s Movement’s major initiatives about violence against women and gender quotas lacked a structural analysis and mostly followed the formulas set by the international organizations and/or donors.
These were the reasons of dissatisfaction among some of the queer and socialist feminists, who directed their criticism towards the Women’s Movement. Feminist groups such as the Women’s Gaze, Georgian Young Greens, and various independent activists underlined the importance of women’s work and intersectionality. They tried to speak for communities of women who were marginalized from the feminist movement. Queer feminists and trans-feminists voiced the criticism of the feminist movement because it excluded transgender women and sex-workers, was not able to represent them properly, and did not advocate for transgender rights despite the many violations and oppression suffered by transgender women. On March 8, 2018, the Women’s Movement organized a rally and petition for transgender rights, which can be understood as an answer to the criticism and activism of the queer feminists.
Various groups of feminist activists have been acting in various contexts, struggling for mobilization and creating local agendas. Their development has not always been linear or easy, but it can be said that the struggle for decolonization continues. The feminist movement in Georgia still faces various challenges and destructive effects of NGO-ization. This can be seen on the levels of its agenda, mobilization, and general influence of feminist politics.
The laws on the eradication of domestic violence and violence against women are oriented towards punishing abusers. In this system, structural inequalities as causes of violence are neglected. Moreover, as Ana Arganashvili noted at the feminist conference, these policies alone are not able to empower women. Even if the abuser is punished according to the law, women often remain vulnerable and defenseless, as they do not have access to jobs, education, and housing (Union Sapari 2017). At least some of the feminist activists acknowledge that the problem of violence against women cannot be properly solved, if feminists and the state will not care about eradicating poverty in general and poverty of women in particular. As Margvelashvili notes, women in Georgia are in a state of dispossession, disempowerment, and lack of equality in economy (Margvelashvili 2017).
The situation is worsened by the oppressive culture and social norms. We can perceive the interconnection of economic and cultural oppression in that marriage remains a powerful cultural norm as well as one of the main ‘economic’ prospects for women in Georgia. Women marry earlier: according to the data of 2015, 83 percent of those married at the age of 16-19 and 56.8 percent of those married at the age of 20-24 were women (Geostat 2015). Moreover, the data of 2016 shows that 42 percent of women were economically inactive, while the same indicator is 22 percent for men (Geostat 2017). Early marriages mean that women are getting involved in unwaged housework, do not get education and jobs, and, as a result, become economically inactive.
Women who are economically dependent on their husbands are susceptible to violence. Even if the abuser is punished or the victims of domestic violence get divorced, these women often do not have any property, education, or skills to survive. According to the official statistics, 53 percent of women are employed; however, it is important to underline that 30 percent of these women are selfemployed (Geostat 2017). Most of this latter category are employed in informal economy and are engaged in small scale farming and informal trade (Keburia 2017). Besides, there is also sex work which presumably is nօt counted in the official statistics of self-employment. Women involved in informal street trade and sex work may be the victims of domestic violence, but in addition they become exposed to violence from police and/or clients. For example, one of the transgender activists tells that transgender sex-workers work in conditions of everyday violence – they are abused by the police, by clients and even by passersby (Union Sapari 2017). Overall, these statistics show that economic aspects need to be included in gender equality policies and gender aspects in economic policies.
In this respect, the feminist debates of recognition/redistribution can also be referenced. According to Nancy Fraser, the struggles for cultural recognition for ‘different’ categories of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and other features have become mainstream in social movements and in feminism as well (Fraser 2000). In her opinion, demands about redistribution of wealth have become marginal. Questions of recognition have somehow displaced struggles for redistribution. Thus, struggles for social justice become misguided as they do not address the injustices of economic inequality. Fraser claims that struggles for recognition should be integrated with struggles for redistribution. Thus, struggling for redistributive and development policies – together with struggles for recognition – remains one of the challenges of feminism in the process of decolonization.
The low mobilization and exclusion of certain groups/communities of women are also problematic. As mentioned earlier, the feminist movement has taken steps to include transgender women and advocate for their rights. Transgender women have also become more visible and active in LGBTQ organizations. However, transgender women remain one of the most vulnerable groups in society, and the struggle for their rights must be made sustainable. Still more must be done to reach and mobilize students, women workers from the regions, women who represent ethnic and/or religious minorities, etc. It is noteworthy, that in the recent years in Georgia, there have emerged ultra-right/neo-fascist groups, which are known for their racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-immigration rhetoric and actions and often attack or threaten movements and activists fighting for human rights. This may also be considered as the failure of feminist mobilization and politics. This is definitely a sign that feminists have to pay more attention and put more efforts in mobilization.
One of the major challenges of the feminist movement is also women’s exclusion from politics and decision-making positions. For example, it is noteworthy that women do not have solid representation in the Georgian parliament: only 16 percent of the MPs are women. Feminists cannot properly influence state policies while acting from the position of civil society. This is evident as the Georgian parliament/government has recently rejected or neglected initiatives about gender quotas, sexual harassment, and transgender rights. Rejection of gender quotas also means maintaining the status quo, where women are not properly represented, and feminist policies hardly become part of the state policies. To make real feminist politics seems to be a difficult but much needed task for the feminist movement.
Decolonization Through Civil Society in the Kurdish-Populated Regions of Turkey
In the discussion about the role of NGOs in the reproduction of colonial relations, Diyarbakir presents an instructive example. Together with the issues of state repression, discrimination, and economic disregard, the oppression of cultural expressions has been one of the consequences of the homogenizing strategies of the Turkish nation-building project on Diyarbakir and the larger region (Gambetti 2008).
With the takeover of the municipalities by Kurdish political forces in 1999, a new space opened for cultural and social expression, as well as civil society in general (Gambetti 2008). The 2000s marked the beginning of a massive social and cultural transformation. The municipality used its institutional power to boost the space for organization and mobilization for informal initiative groups and regional grassroots initiatives as well as NGOs. The Women’s Problems Research and Application Center (DIKASUM), the Amida Women’s Counseling Center, the Ceren Woman Association, and the Bağlar Women’s Cooperative, the Diyarbakir Arts Center (DSM), the Diyarbakir Culture and Art Festival, the Amed Theatre Festival, and the Amed Music Festival, the Diyarbakir Institute for Political and Social Research (DISA), the Tigris Social Research Center (DITAM), and a large list of other NGOs and informal initiative groups were all formed in the 2000s. With the growing number of NGOs, civil society organizations, many international actors and governments became involved in fields such as democracy, human rights, women’s rights, and peacebuilding. Following the breakdown of the peace process, many NGOs were forcefully shut down by the government, and the remaining ones had difficulty continuing to carry out their work both because of the political pressure and also the withdrawal of foreign donors from the region.
On the one hand, the emergence of an active civil society and the proliferations of institutions was synonymous with the decolonization of the Kurdish identity and its expression. NGOs working in various fields, but particularly women’s rights, peacebuilding, arts, and culture were instrumental in opening up the space for local activism. Sonia Alvarez states that NGOs can have a “hybrid character”, meaning that some NGOs can be more like grassroots movements, since they direct their resources towards consciousness-raising and mobilization (Alvarez 1999, 189). Most of the NGOs in Diyarbakir have both come out of and managed to mobilize large grassroots constituencies.
On the other hand, organizations and European/Western donor-funded interventions were part of the neoliberal transformation in Diyarbakir, which took place in many fields, including the civil society, the local economy, the urban landscape, etc. Gambetti claims that Diyarbakir is not yet postcolonial, but one caught between the process of cultural decolonization and the simultaneous process of neoliberal (global) colonization (Gambetti 2008). In this context, NGOs in Diyarbakir have acted as both actors of cultural decolonization and simultaneous neoliberal colonization.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Starting from the end of the 1990s, large international organizations and governments working in the fields of development, peace and human rights, have responded to the calls to consider local sociocultural specificities, systems of knowledge and have integrated terms such as “local capacity”, “sustainability”, and “empowerment” into their goals and methodologies. However, as a result of the donors’ preference to invest in large and bureaucratic NGOs who deliver feasible and visible results along with a host of paperwork, the deployment of the “local” in the international discourse has often remained merely a rhetorical tool. Larger institutions tend to be more focused on administrative procedures and technical expertise and have less access to what is truly ‘local’ or grassroots. At the same time, these large NGOs are not necessarily as ‘privileged’ as it may sound: the cyclebased funding means that these NGOs are unable to plan and execute long-term and sustainable transformations and are always trying to raise funds for projects with short-term results that are attractive for donors. The burden of fundraising, the complicated and time-consuming donor requirements, and other types of highly technical expertise are carried out by NGO workers who are often not specialists in any of these fields, leaving very little space for transformative grassroots outreach. While acknowledging the fact that it is very challenging for any group, movement, or institution to be completely ‘autonomous’ in the face of the structural, political, and cultural realities, we as authors propose a set of recommendations that may help transform the current consolidation of activism into funding-dependent NGOs, on the one hand, and the effectiveness of international funding mechanisms, on the other hand.
We suggest that civil society actors should consider alternative forms of organizing. We see inclusive social-political movements as the better alternative, against the institutionalization and professionalization of activism. NGOs should make more effort to reach out to and mobilize marginalized groups and communities; try to build inclusive mass movements alongside with building institutions. An inclusive peace movement or women’s movement, where activism is not a technical profession or an administrative job, but an ad-hoc form of self-organization can have more power to transform social orders. Transformative agendas should also integrate the issues of cultural and economic oppression of women, ethnic minorities, refugees, and other marginalized groups in order to bring up issues of redistribution and economic justice and development.
We encourage smaller NGOs, initiative groups, and marginalized groups to think creatively about alternative and sustainable sources of funding and less dependency on foreign grants. While large funding from foreign actors can seem attractive, it comes with a large set of constraints and limitations that are worth considering.
We also encourage international donors and governments to reconsider the current funding distribution mechanisms, particularly make more effort to support both smaller NGOs and also non-NGO civil society actors, groups, and communities, who do not necessarily function as Western-style institutions.
Finally, we also believe that legislative changes should accompany social transformations. Governments should pass laws that increase women’s, ethnic minorities’, and marginalized populations’ representation and facilitate their participation in politics, for example, through laws about obligatory quotas in political parties and different groups’ participation in local policy making and political parties.
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 We use Eurocentric to refer to the underlying presumption that Western/European modes of thought, knowledge, methods, and institutions are superior, and that they are the idea to which non-European countries and cultures should strive to catch up with.
 The emergence of the ultra-right movements has complex reasons, and the feminist movement, activists, or women’s rights NGOs cannot be blamed for it, however as this piece focuses on strategies and challenges of the feminist movement, from this position, we consider this a feminist “failure”.
*The featured photo of this article is taken by Samuel Zeller.
**This article was written within the project “Building Sustainable Trans-Border Communities in the South Caucasus”, funded by ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) / Funding program zivik with resources provided by the German Federal Foreign Office.
11 Jan 2022
[…] development shouldn’t be only applicable to academia, NGOs and the donor community or institutions responsible for evaluating development effectiveness, but also to think tanks. […]
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