In November 2010, PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review featured a symposium on non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This virtual edition provides a companion to that issue, bringing together nine journal articles that feature ethnographic perspectives on NGOs. The articles, published between 1998 and 2009, track the growing role of international and private organizations in changes all over the globe — from Nepal to Zimbabwe to Mexico. In addition, many authors provide follow-up postscripts to explain developments since the original publication of their articles, and author Mark Schuller reflects on connections between his two articles in the collection in a conversation with Digital Editorial Fellow Eduardo Ramírez Catarí.
Featured Articles and Postscripts
Mediating Dilemmas: Local NGOs and Rural Development in Neoliberal Mexico
Analiese M. Richard in Volume 32 Issue 2. November 2009
This article examines how members of a Mexican NGO community centered in the provincial city of Tulancingo, Hidalgo, rework cultural idioms of mediation to position themselves as legitimate intermediaries linking rural cooperatives, state officials, international donors, and global activist networks. Their strategies for confronting their own entrapment in processes of structural reform illuminate the constraints faced by Southern activists in negotiating possibilities for social change. [Read Richard Postscript]
Becoming Maya? The Politics and Pragmatics of “Being Indigenous” in Postgenocide Guatemala
Karine Vanthuyne in Volume 32 Issue 2. November 2009
This paper contrasts the way “Mayan” identity is conceptualized by NGOs and intellectuals in Guatemala with the everyday practices and material conditions influencing perceptions of identity in the rural town of Guaisná. The “truth” of past genocide and the experience of ongoing harsh socioeconomic inequality take on different meanings.
Gluing Globalization: NGOs as Intermediaries in Haiti
Mark Schuller Volume 32 Issue 1. May 2009
Drawing from two ethnographic case studies, both from Haiti, this article argues that NGOs, as intermediaries, “glue” globalization in four ways: by serving a “gap filler” role, potentially undermining the governance capacity of states in the Global South, providing high-paying jobs to an educated middle class (thereby reproducing inequalities), and constituting buffers between elites and impoverished masses, which can present institutional barriers against local participation.
Seeing Like a “Failed” NGO: Globalization’s Impacts on State and Civil Society in Haiti
Mark Schuller in Volume 30 Issue 1. May 2007
This article explains that binary logics within and assumptions behind the state–society relationship are problematic, because they render transnational economic or geopolitical forces invisible, when the latter play an important role in this relationship. The apparent “failure” within local NGOs in Haiti presents a unique opportunity to comprehend forces that structure NGO closures, turning development discourse on its head.
The Verge of Good and Evil: Christian NGOs and Economic Development in Zimbabwe
Erica Bornstein in Volume 24 Issue 1. May 2001
Part of a larger ethnographic project on NGOs and rural development sites in Zimbabwe, this study examines moral tensions from two perspectives: 1) from those participating in programs of Christian development (the beneficiaries), and 2) from the perspective of employees of Christian NGOs facilitating development. The discourse of development encouraged by religious NGOs articulates striving for economic success in a frame that makes successes of individuals morally acceptable.
Politics of the Poor? NGOs and Grassroots Political Mobilization in Bangladesh
Lamia Karim in Volume 24 Issue 1. May 2001
This article analyzes how and why the NGO-led politics of the poor have come to occupy “vacuums” in the political sphere in contemporary Bangladesh, and of how it concretely plays itself out in the lives of the poor, particularly the poor women, it seeks to empower. The NGOs’ reshaping of the political (and social) order are analyzed through the relationship between the state and the NGO called Proshika and how NGOs relate to their poor “beneficiaries.” [Read Karim Postscript]
Between Jesse Helms and Ram Bahadur: Participation and Empowerment in Women’s Literacy Programming in Nepal
Lauren G. Leve in Volume 24 Issue 1. May 2001
The past fifteen years have seen transitions in the priorities and organizational structure of the development industry in Nepal carried out under the rubrics of “participation” and “empowerment.” This paper analyzes the participatory development ideal represented by the turn from international organizations to NGOs through the lens of women’s literacy programming.
Benefit Sharing for All? Bioprospecting NGOs, Intellectual Property Rights, New Governmentalities
Kristin Peterson in Volume 24 Issue 1. May 2001
This paper addresses an array of transnational artifacts and forces that have coalesced into a type of NGO of particular contemporary saliency and dynamism: the bioprospecting NGO. Structural asymmetries of legal regimes, and the resultant strategies for benefit sharing, have enabled these NGOs and their private affiliates to gain policy-making influence on development practices.
Health ‘Anti-Reform’ In El Salvador: Community Health NGOs And The State In The Neoliberal Era
Sandy Smith-Nonini in Volume 21 Issue 1. May 1998
This study examines NGOs that have supported community-based health work and their problematic relations with the Salvadoran government as it undertook neoliberal reforms in the postwar period. Although El Salvador’s peace process is unique, this story holds lessons for other settings where traditions of democracy and state support of social services are poorly established. [Read Smith-Nonini Postscript]