Shaina Patel
Contributing Writer


In classes about globalization, I find myself observing the class’ eagerness to figure out “What do we do?!” It is clear that there are both positive and negative aspects to globalization; therefore this question of finding a solution presses students’ minds, especially when discussing the affect of globalization on society’s marginalized. Goodwill has students yearning to “help out” in whatever way we can, while we keep learning about social injustices in the classroom. As a student at University of California, San Diego, I am bombarded with flyers, posters, announcements, and tabling information about studying abroad, working abroad, or volunteering abroad. Since high school, I have also been one of those students yearning to help out. Over the years, my critical lens developed as I became more “involved”, connecting parts of my personal life, my work, and discussing about the contradictions I saw in different organizations or approaches to work abroad with friends. My conscience started to shift as I took Ethnic Studies classes, analyzing the way in which I saw myself in the ads from organizations like “Save the Children” (because I too had brown skin). I wanted to write about this subject of Studying Up NGOs specifically in order to communicate with fellow college students about the things which my experiences have taught me are important food for thought or crucial areas of focus.

I was introduced to Playing with Fire in an International Studies class and, being of Indian descent, the book captivated me. I immersed myself in its stories for weeks, reading it again and again. Many ideas and critiques around NGO work, which I had thought about at moments in my own words, were presented, ever so eloquently, in the collective writings of this book. Women who were actually from a rural community were able to write their stories in their own words. So, after reading the women’s critiques of the politics of knowledge production, I was torn trying to find similar resources about NGOs in Chiapas. I was only able to find a communiqué from Zapatista spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos. Despite Marcos’ association with the movement, it is important to keep in mind the implications of his position in the movement as someone who is not indigenous and was economically privileged from a city. Despite searching, I was unable to find stories from Zapatistas about their experiences with NGOs, so I decided to work off the communiqué with works from scholars who were at least critical of power relationships in NGOs. I wanted to acknowledge here that this thesis is imperfect in this way. The lack of voices from below in my Chiapas section is a mere reflection of how the politics of knowledge production functions. That being said, I also acknowledge that this research will not affect the communities I am writing about, which I why I have chosen to address university students as my audience who may be asking similar questions.


As a university student, I have seen many opportunities to go on volunteer projects abroad, offered to me on flyers which decorate the campus walls. I went once and learned my lesson. I went with a group of ten to Guatemala for Spring Break 2008 to work with diverse students. Never once did our partner organization talk with us about mental illnesses, other abilities, stigmas, histories, narratives…nothing! Instead, they took us to bathe in hot springs and learn salsa dancing. Salsa isn’t even from Guatemala. They made our beds each morning after we woke up while some of us wondered why we were even there. Were we there to be pampered or to learn? The best thing that came from my trip were the late-night conversations with friends in my group talking about why the organization had people come in and make our beds every morning and why the agenda gave us time to dance but not for critical dialogue? I learned from those late night conversations where we questioned the sustainability of our partner organization and why they charged us so much money to volunteer. Sometimes learning comes from spaces one least expects. In fact, almost the best learning always does.

Every time I think about the trip I went on in Guatemala, I cringe. A part of my mind really wants to forget it and erase it from my mind, from my history. Then erase those pictures I have of it on Facebook.  Even if it wasn’t our will, the partner organization had set us up to come into the community trying to “help poor people”. There was no depth. We had to form depth on our own and then we never came back to that town. That’s damaging. It was damaging to us and to the community we “served”. There is a Mayan greeting, In’ Lakech, which means that you are my other self or you are a reflection of me. Therefore, these types of organizations are damaging to everyone.  This is a privileged perspective on globalization. For me, it’s been a privilege to feel guilty about my experience working that non-governmental organization (NGO) in Guatemala.

Discussions of NGO work are typically dominated by voices “from the top”, from privileged positions in NGOs, the World Bank or the United Nations. This paper attempts to challenge the dominant dialogue around effectiveness of NGOs by exploring voices “from the bottom”. Granted, I am very privileged in my position as a student being able to write about these issues, but in doing so I challenge the dominant discourse by using voices from below to analyze up. This is what Anthropology Professor at University of California, Berkley, Laura Nader terms “Studying Up”. In her 1969 publication, Up the Anthropologist–Perspectives Gained From Studying Up, Nadar calls “anthropologists to think more about the ‘study of the colonizers rather than the colonized, the culture of power rather than the culture of the powerless, the culture of affluence rather than the culture of poverty.’”[i] I will employ Nader’s theory of “Studying Up” in this paper for my analysis of the effectiveness of NGOs.

This paper will examine the effectiveness of NGOs by taking a close look at the relationship between NGOs and the communities they work in. While normally the effectiveness of NGO work is analyzed from a top down approach, measuring how many programs were executed and success rates, this type of capitalistic and quantitative analysis fails to answer some vital questions: Are these programs really what the community needs? If they don’t serve the communities needs first then whom are they serving?

To avoid pitfalls, this paper will promote bottom up thinking where the community and the community’s interests come first and the NGOs role is to serve the needs of a given community. In studying up, this paper will analyze the power relationships involved in NGO work. I will do so by first reviewing development discourse that informs relationships between NGOs and communities. Second, I will use Playing with Fire as a case study about NGOs in Uttar Pradesh, India to show how NGOs can actually perpetuate the injustices they strive to work against, such as classism, the damaging effects of the politics of knowledge production and why self-reflection is critical in NGO work. With those critiques of NGOs in hand, I will finally look at the relationship between NGOs and the Zapatista community in Chiapas, Mexico as an improved model for NGO work where the community is in control and the goals of NGOs and the community are in line. I argue that effective NGO work lays in an open, dialogue-based, and non-imposing relationship between the NGO and the community, where the community’s critiques of NGO work are understood as truths and the goals of the two entities intertwine.


Development Discourse, Promises & Critiques of NGOs:

This man’s words of poetry and social justice have captured people’s attention around the world, yet no one really knows who he is. He never says where he is from or gives his real name, but there are many rumors, myths even legends attempting to tell his story. The most prominent legend about his past starts here.

Marcos was an intellectual in the city; some say he was a philosophy professor. Regardless of his career, the state targeted him for his dangerous mind that spun Marxist ideas and questioned possibilities. The dangers of the city repelled him as he fled away into the jungles of Chiapas, full of self-righteousness and determination to save the poor Indigenous Mayans. He believed his dangerous thoughts and revolutionary intentions could gather indigenous peoples into an armed, proletariat rebellion against the bourgeoisie. Upon his stormy arrival, the Mayans just looked at him with only blank stares for this foreigner here to “save” them. They told Marcos “that they were not workers, from their perspective; land was not property but rather “the heart of their communities.”[ii] It was clear then, that it was Marcos, who had much to learn even after his years of romanticizing rebellion.

So from there, Marcos didn’t turn back, but instead he immersed himself in the community soaking in and absorbing everything about Mayan culture in Chiapas. His process of learning coincided with the formation and inception of what we now call the Zapatista Movement.

Whether a true story, half-truth or folklore, the story exemplifies a type of savior discourse; it can damage communities. In this legend, Marcos stayed to learn about the community instead of imposing himself upon them. Though, this is not always the case with NGOs and, in some cases, communities have started this outside imposition. That resistance is what this paper is about to explore. But in order to understand these ideas more deeply, they must be contextualized into larger bodies of thought and discourse about “The West and the Rest”, The White Man’s Burden and the expansion of NGOs in neocolonialism.

When discussing different parts of the world and different cultures, words such as “the west”, “modern”, “developed” and “western” are thrown around quite quickly. World-renowned cultural theorist and sociologist, Stuart Hall, introduces the complexities and larger historical intricacies of referring to certain parts of the world as “the west”. Hall argues that the west does not refer merely to geographic location, but it is even used to refer to culture.

This shows how our idea of “the west” has much larger meanings based on which emerged from a Euro-centric model of thought during colonial times. Hall denotes that “the west” is actually a historical construction, independent of geography[iii]. He extends that a Western society denotes certain characteristics, which we assume to be western, including being civilized, developed, rational, capitalist, secular and modern. Thus, in today’s world, any society that exemplifies these predetermined characteristics can be labeled “western”. Societies labeled as “western” have an advantage in comparison with “non-western” countries, as the western attributes are largely positive ones.

Hall explains that this discourse functions as a model for comparison as well, allowing people to analyze different societies and in which ways they differ or resemble one another. “Non-western societies can accordingly be said to be ‘close to’ or ‘far away from’ or ‘catching up with’ the West. It helps to explain difference[iv]. This point it extremely important in the context of development and NGO work, as it serves to justify intervention in non-western communities as “rational”, even necessary.

It is important to point out that discourse around the “West vs. the Rest” and the “White Man’s Burden” served to justify colonization during colonial times. The White Man’s Burden is the idea the non-West, constructed in opposition to the West as irrational, uncivilized, pre-modern and barbaric, and needing to be saved by the West. During colonization, this discourse had embedded notions of patriarchy and self-righteousness, as the west believed it was their duty to “save” the non-west from itself.

While western countries “helping out” non-western countries or intervening through NGO work may appear, or even be presented as, a simple act of “reaching out”, this interaction is deeply embedded in colonial discourses and historical power relationships. These histories make NGO work inherently political, and failures to see it as such are extremely problematic and harmful. Stanford Professor of Anthropology, James Furgeson, focuses on an NGO in Lesotho to argue that NGOs often neutralize inherently political acts. When projects run by NGOs fail, as many do, they cause an expansion of state power and the realities of poverty are quickly turned into “technical problems” that development agencies need to fix[v]. The politics behind poverty and poverty-related conditions are completely erased and problems that used to be addressed by government agencies are not being handed to development agencies to take care of.

Ferguson’s case study of the Thaba-Tseka project in Lesotho, he argues, acts as an “anti-politics” machine, trying to help the community while ignoring the political realities of their work. His work reminds NGOs and their workers to keep the inherently political nature of NGO work in mind.

Anthropologist and University of California, San Diego Professor, Nancy Postero, explains that the number and size of NGOs has been growing worldwide and they are becoming “more and more involved in implementing state-or international agency-designed projects, rather than the grassroots or ‘bottom up’ projects”[vi] Thus, not only are NGOs expanding, neutralizing very political problems, but they are also expanding and implementing projects created from the top and instead of created by the communities themselves.

When studying power, these changes in NGO work are inherently embedded in power structures and are therefore political. Furgeson explains the problems that occur when outside “experts” come into non-Western communities to help. These “experts” have studied these communities from their removed positions through books or research and often times they come into these communities with pre-made projects to implement. Furgeson reveals that often times the reality of the community is quite different from what is presented in books. Furgeson shows how, in Lesotho, outside experts tried to create a reality that was in line with their preconceived notions of a Lesotho, even though that was not the full reality on the ground. This is an example of development discourse at play, where an outsider comes to help a community, unaware of the ways in which class, nationality, west vs. non-west, and education power structures, are affecting their work.

University of Texas Professor and anthropologist, Shannon Speed writes about the increase of NGOs since the onset of the Zapatista movement in 1994. She correlates this increase to the start a new neoliberal world order. Neoliberalism changed the relationship between the state and civil society as the rise of neoliberal policies ended state commitments of resource redistribution that could bring about social justice.

In Mexico, this rise of neoliberal policies started in the late 1980’s, giving “rise to a need for the disenfranchised to pursue new forms of social solidarity to seek redress for inequalities.”[vii] As the state seized to take care of the disenfranchised, NGOs began to increase in number. NGOs were seen as “more effective and cost effective service providers than governments”[viii]. They were thought to be less corrupt, less bureaucratic, more flexible and able to work more closely with the people. Thus, their expansion was justified.

Contrary to the original intent, the previous quote from Nancy Postero is a reminder that NGOs have increasingly started to implement top-down projects, instead of projects designed by the communities themselves. They are no longer working as closely with the people.  In addition, “scholars have argued that NGOs’ claims to legitimacy as agents of ‘civil society’…ignores the complex political, economic, and class interests enacted through NGOs”[ix]. It is important to think of the structures of power that inform and affect these relationships.

The tendency for NGOs to function as “anti-politics machines” and depoliticize the problems is of increasing concern as they work to fix immediate problems and crises, but are unable to efficiently create long-term policy changes. Due to the structure of the neoliberal state and how it gave rise to NGOs, “these sites for action and social struggle can easily reproduce the logic of neoliberal sovereign rule in a fashion that effectively outdoes the normative power of the state by involving the social body in the circulation and maintenance of the status quo”[x]. The transfer of power from the state to NGOs in addressing social problems should be kept in mind when thinking about how social injustices can be addressed effectively. Also, discourses around the “West and the Rest” and the “White Man’s Burden” will help to understand the complexities behind the relationships between NGOs and communities in this paper.


Playing with Fire:

Synopsis & Collective Process

“When we look at pictures of rural women like ourselves in all the glossy and colorful magazines from around the globe, we wonder whether the governments and media of the world have no other images to display besides those of our poverty, our ramshackle homes, and our naked, emaciated, and tearful children.”[xi]

“When we prepared to write this book, we again felt a sense of adventure creeping into our bones. Would this world be able to see us formerly uneducated women as writers? Would it give us the same respect and wisdom that it accords to all upper-caste and elite scholars and thinkers?”[xii]

These quotes reflect a certain politics of knowledge production that suppressed confidence and gave rise to nervous doubts of whether their publications, their stories, even their lives would be taken seriously. They wondered if this book would be taken seriously enough to be called truth or to be even considered a valid source of information. With doubts in mind but fierce determination in hand, the Sangtin Writers worked to publish Playing with Fire in 2003. Originally published in Hindi, solely for their friends and close allies, it was later published in English in an effort to gain international support to combat the controversy it sprung.

The Sangtin Writers are a diverse group of seven women from the rural Sitapur District of Uttar Pradesh in North India. The group is diverse in caste, class, religion and location. All seven women, at some point in their lives, worked for Nari Samata Yojana (NSY), an NGO that works for women’s empowerment in Sitapur. Richa Singh, who also worked for NSY, and Richa Nagar, a University of Minnesota professor, supported the Sangtin Writers through their 34-month collective process. The publication of this book was merely a byproduct of the women’s personal sangtin yatra, or journey of “solidarity, reciprocity, [and] enduring friendship among women”[xiii]. For 34 months, the seven Sangtin Writers wrote in journals, meeting once a month to share their stories of childhood, marriage and NGO work. Playing with Fire is a compilation of these women’s stories, in “reflective activism and collective analysis of [their] lives and work”[xiv]

The Sitapur District has been a center of NGO involvement because of its close proximity to the state’s capital. The region is notorious as a center of buying/selling of women and violence towards women. While there have been socialist and peasant movements in other parts of Uttar Pradesh, Sitapur was unaffected by these movements and untouched by the women’s movements of the 1970’s and 1980’s. NSY started in 1996 as a World Bank-funded program that was implemented on the state-level via the Indian government. The program works through district-level offices so that the village-level activists can define their own needs and implement suitable projects. Though, Playing with Fire makes it apparent that, despite the model, village-level activists like themselves had little say in NSY’s work.

Playing with Fire intimately explores the lives of these seven women. Exploration of the intricacies of their lives makes intersectionality obvious as the only way to understand their unique experiences with caste, class, gender, religion and socio-spatial location. It is impossible to understand these women’s’ gendered experiences, without simultaneously taking their caste, religion, and other categories into account. While the women’s stories are, in some ways, the most important part of this book, because of the subject, this paper will focus more closely on the women’s experiences with NSY.


Politics of Knowledge Production

The Sangtin Writers came together in March 2002 to discuss two main issues: the politics of knowledge production and the NGOization of women’s empowerment. The collective process which manifested in the publication of Playing with Fire began simply as a space for the women to journal about their lives, meet and discuss their experiences.

The book’s introduction sheds light on what they call “the politics of knowledge production”:

 “Often, we feel that while working collectively in the field, we are able to identify and resolve complex issues with sensitivity. But in places where we are dominated by an elite English-speaking crowd, we hesitate to talk about our own accomplishments. Individuals who are far less informed than we are about the issues and communities we work among…sometimes we are forced to accept their interpretations of our work that we disagree with”.

There is a clear power relationship in this experience detailed above. While these women obviously know their community the best, outsiders, researchers, and workers with “higher credentials” can easily dominate them in conversation. This is because these women do not have credentials and are therefore considered unintelligent, from a normative perspective on intelligence. The writers critique traditional research methods in their community, finding them corrupted by power politics.

This quote also points out how academics are granted the power to describe, prescribe and interpret communities in their own words. Those written words then go higher up into circles of academics, maybe even large decision-making bodies like the World Bank, without the consent, input or approval of village-level workers. Academics can diagnose a community’s problems from their own perspectives, and when they do, those diagnoses automatically become a truth.

The factor of perspective is irrelevant, though certain perspectives are missing and others are quickly deemed truth. Even when their diagnosis different from the village-level field workers, many times the power dynamic forced the village-level workers to accept outsider perspectives as truth as well. This is how the politics of knowledge production functioned within the lives of these women. The writers critique the politics of knowledge production as such:

“In seeking recognition for the intellectual worth of our journey, we argue for a need for greater accountability in knowledge production…knowledge must emerge out of sustained, critical dialogues with those who are the subjects of that knowledge. Through these dialogues, the subjects of knowledge become the primary evaluators, critics, and intellectual partners of those who are seen as the experts. Thurs, discourses such as ‘empowerment’, ‘pedagogy’, and ‘feminist praxis’ are enhanced and enriched as they are collaboratively theorized”(xvi)

Playing with Fire, and the collective process from which it emerged, was published as a counter to traditional knowledge production. One of the writers’ major goals was “to intervene in the politics of knowledge production”[xv]. The first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book by pointing out the contradictions in social work. The writers wonder,

“Why those who live and do the most challenging work with Dalit and the poorest communities are rarely the ones who are invited to participate in conversations about that work or to prepare reports, articles and books on it…why are some people considered worthy of presenting their viewpoints and some are invited simply for exhibition?”[xvi].

When researchers wanted examine NSY, rarely were village-level workers granted the privilege of being a part of those conversations. Especially because these women did not know English, they were excluded from these conversations from the start. The research being conducted did not advance their skills; instead the village-level workers were only being used to conduct analysis of their communities for the purposes of outsiders. They were asked to submit reports, but never asked for their stories, ideas or suggestions.

On several occasions, they report having seen NGOs research and publish people’s personal stories around sexual abuse or harassment, with the women’s real names in text, without the women’s consent. On many occasions, they saw higher-level NGO workers using villager women as tools for their own fame in publication or media. In doing this, the NGO workers literally dehumanize these women into mere objects for their own benefit. And so, they ask for rich Indian workers from the city “to conduct a study in intellectual isolation from [the Sangtin Writers], would that work carry any other significant meaning for [the writers] besides exploitation?”[xvii] It is the village-women’s inability to participate in these research discussions or discussions at the United Nations level about issues facing their very communities that allows for researchers and NGOs to continue dehumanizing these women into their research subjects.

After historically being excluded from academic discussions of feminism, traditions, casteism and violence, the Sangtin Writers collective was formed to combat this exclusion and to advance dialogue around development, women’s empowerment and NGO politics. The collective process was designed so that the writers were not only inserted into traditional systems of knowledge production through the publication of this book, but it was also designed so that members of the collective were also deeply impacted themselves. “Thus, nine collaborators publicly intervened in the politics of knowledge production with an explicit aim of reclaiming the meanings of empowerment and grassroots politics”[xviii].


Challenges of NGOization

 In the last chapter of Playing with Fire, the writers point out some critiques, criticisms and contradictions from their experiences working for NSY. To start, the women noticed that the more they tried to have their work validated in the NGO realm, the further apart they felt from their own village communities. The way in which other women working in NSY would doll-up before going on site to work with lower-caste members of the community made the writers wonder if they were really concentrated on community empowerment.

On occasion, one of the writers admits that when she dressed in her normal attire other women within the NGO critiqued her for not presenting herself “properly”. The writers witnessed many contradictions of classism in NSY. As the women further dialogued, developing their critical lenses, they began to question the wage differences within NSY. They point out how higher up officials had air conditioned offices in NSY, and while traveling by train, the village-level workers were given non-AC rooms while higher officials were given AC rooms. “The decision makers who evaluated and measured our work always remained more important than the people with whom we were directly working to bring about social change-literally, the people who were making this work happen”[xix].

The classism was naturalized, but as the Sangtin Writers started to notice the contradictions they started to speak up. NSY had taught these women to speak out boldly in the community, yet when they brought up issues of classism within NSY they were silenced. They could talk about equality in the community, but not within their own NGO. They continue, “the very people who excitedly talk about fairness and equality fail to bring themselves to the level of ordinary rural workers”[xx]. For them, the hierarchy between officials and village-level workers in NSY’s resembles the hierarchy between an employer and their servant. When getting feedback from other NSY workers, some of the women were told that they should focus less on the quality of their work and more on the clout they can produce around their work because the clout is needed to attract donors’ attention. This environment in NSY made the village-level workers feel invalidated and at times dehumanized, as the women were further separated them from their respective villages and even discouraged them from focusing on the quality of their work.


Controversy & NSY’s Response

In the introduction the writers iterate that their goal of this publication is “not to launch criticisms against specific organizations or individuals, but to grapple with complex and contradictory processes and hierarchies associated with donor-funded NGO work and visions of women’s empowerment”[xxi].

Regardless of the writer’s intentions, the original 2003 Hindi release of Playing with Fire provoked an angry response from the headquarters of NSY. About three weeks after the book was published, the director of NSY attacked the nine authors for not giving NSY credit. She said that the women had gained the experiences they had written about only through their work in NSY and that by publishing their critiques of NSY, they had betrayed the organization. The director asked for apologies from the collective, but all nine writers refused. The authors were up against extreme opposition for the publication and even had to make public speeches in meetings and write letters to deal with the angry response.  This controversy sparked the need to publicize Playing with Fire in English as the writers thought gaining international support for their work would help negotiate the situation.

“[The writers] asked why the autobiographers had always been encouraged to interrogate patriarchy by revealing in organizational meetings their personal stories and intimate experiences but then the same stories amounted to stripping oneself naked when they chose to break the silences on the politics of NGO work”[xxii].

NSY’s response shows a lack of the self-reflection, which the writers had indulged in themselves. The NGO was able to speak out against inequality in the community, but the women were unable to speak out against inequality within the NGO itself. The response tried to silence the workers, even accusing them of betrayal, when the women believed in the work so deeply that they only wanted to critique it, in order to improve its quality.

 “In our discussions, we have often articulated our deep desire to do work that gives us a livelihood while also allowing us to build a social movement. We have tremendous respect and admiration for those who maintain that it is very difficult for the aims and objectives of an NGO and those of a social movement to merge. In reality, whenever a group becomes dependent on outside grants for its survival, its dependence triggers a series of new inequalities. The issue is the same old one, however: If we don’t have the money to gather even the basic resources, how could we build or sustain a movement? After all, no funding agencies give funds to carry out a movement!”[xxiii]

The writers end the book wondering how NGO work can coincide with a social movement. This will be explored in the next section. NSY was ineffective in the relationship it shared with the community, but I argue that the organization was still important because it provided a spark for village-level workers. Though it was extremely problematic internally, NSY provided a space for the Sangtin Writers to start doing this work and begin developing their critical lens. Had they never worked for NSY, they would have never had the ability to critique the organization so intelligently. I argue that NSY could learn from the process-oriented, self-reflection, and collective model that the Sangtin Writers were immersed in.


Zapatista Alternative Relationship Model:

History of NGO Involvement in Zapatista Chiapas

Before the Zapatista Movement onset in 1994, there were about twelve NG’s in Chiapas. Local activists in the nearby town, San Cristobal, ran most of the twelve NGOs. Although anthropologist Niels Barmeyer’s text, Developing Zapatista Autonomy: Conflict and NGO Involvement in Rebel Chiapas, is at parts problematic for its top-down approach, it provides a useful and detailed history of NGO involvement in Chiapas. Before the movement started, he explains,

“some of the INGOs that had been swept into Chiapas on the wake of the 1994 rebellion entertained the idea that the decisions of what project was to be implemented where and how had to be made by outside “experts”, some of whom had never even been in rural Chiapas”[xxiv].

The community formed the Enlace Civil in 1996 to address these imbalances in power, and politics of knowledge production. The Enlace Civil coordinated with international solidarity activists. Maintaining strong connections with Zapatista commanders, it took requests from indigenous communities instead of offering them pre-made and pre-decided upon projects. The relationship between international solidarity activists, NGOs and the community began to resemble a partnership more than paternalism.

Trying to ensure that volunteers and international supporters were working in solidarity with the Zapatistas, instead of pitying them, in 1994 Subcomandante Marcos issued a communiqué explaining their desire for respect not charity. International activists from around the world were sending used, broken, disposable items to the communities, including broken computers to torn clothes. Marcos critiques international activists who think “poor as we are, we’ll accept anything, charity and alms. How can we tell all those good people that no, we no longer want to continue living Mexico’s shame. In that part that has to be prettied up so it doesn’t make the rest look ugly. No, we don’t want to go on living like that.”[xxv] This communiqué was issued in hopes that, with these reforms, support would come with respect instead of pity. The community also began to place some regulations on international volunteers and NGOs to preserve their control over Chiapas. In the Peace Camps that bordered and protected Zapatista territory, volunteers were only allowed to stay for six weeks. In the past, volunteers had started to integrate into the villages, in many cases creating relationships with village members that only benefited the volunteer, not the community. These types of regulations ensured that the communities would not be taken advantage of. Rules were set up to ensure that anyone starting or running an NGO in Chiapas had experience living in the community, strong skills, and contacts with the Zapatista comandancia.

These types of restrictions ensured a mutually beneficial relationship, as volunteers could learn from living in these communities and the community would therefore be able to benefit from their work. Through these changes, NGOs have become increasingly community controlled as a result of this shift to an alternative model.


Strategic Usage of NGOs for the Movement

Zapatistas use international support and NGOs strategically, helping them achieve their community’s visions for autonomy. Zapatistas primarily demand autonomy from the Mexican government, and they have employed strategies of using international volunteers and NGOs to help them with this goal. International support raises about $12 million per year[xxvi], providing crucial support for Zapatista autonomy.

Zapatistas have created and restructured a relationship of mutual beneficence for the community and international activists, where their community remains in charge. Here the goals of the community are in line with the role of the NGO in the community. The NGOs serve to provide resources, which advance the Zapatista autonomy project. This shows how NGOs can help to empower communities, if and when the communities themselves maintain control to put their goals first and place restrictions on international actors when necessary. For communities that want autonomy, NGOs can provide out-of-state support. Financially, because of their drive towards autonomy, the Zapatistas need international support in order to survive. It is only through strategic and intentional marketing of the Zapatista image that the Zapatistas are able to maintain control over their communities.


NGO Case Studies: Accountability & Community-Centered Dialogue

Shannon Speed has written two articles which both exemplify different aspects of effective NGO work. The first article, entitled “Gendered Intersections: Collective and Individual Rights in Indigenous Women’s Experience”, explores gender-related tensions within the Zapatista movement. Sometimes indigenous culture is blamed as the oppressor of women, but Speed explains that intersectionality allows us to look “at the multiple axes of oppression indigenous women suffer [to] move us beyond blaming local culture as the culprit.”[xxvii] This quote engages the notion that indigenous women’s oppression cannot be seen strictly through a White feminist lens.

In the conclusion, Speed notes that the ideas of the women in her study “were influenced by the dialogues they were engaged in with their primary interloctutors. The women’s different interpretations of gender rights forged in dialogic interaction with outsiders are then brought into dialogue inside the community”[xxviii] Speed suggests that a more effective method of NGO work is for NGO workers to share their ideas with community members through dialogue and let the community members then work with their communities to find solutions and the appropriate steps to take.

This first article, at once, demonstrates how NGOs cannot effectively implement their own projects when the local community culture is not understood. It also promotes dialogue as a vital part of NGO work in social movements, as it is through dialogue that people in the NGO can share their notions of feminism, privilege, or oppression without imposing their ideas on community members. This allows for community members to learn from outside cultures and ideas, but ultimately intertwine their learning with their own culture to find effective solutions.

This relationship between the NGO and community is one of mutual learning where the community still maintains control. Speed’s second article provides a glimpse into the workings of The Community Human Rights Defender’s Network in Chiapas. This human rights organization worked to help indigenous peoples learn about their rights, particularly their rights as indigenous peoples. It was unique from other human rights organizations that taught indigenous peoples to recognize when their rights are being violated and then go to the nearest human rights organization to report it.

Instead of making indigenous peoples more dependent on outside help, this organization explained how “to make the decisions and proceed with the actions on their own”[xxix]. This organization aimed to provide the community with resources about human and indigenous rights so that community members could then “do things ‘their way’”[xxx]. The organization used this model to help Zapatista communities defend their autonomy. The organization did not impose their own ideas; instead their model put the community at the center. After attending training with The Community Human Rights Defender’s Network, promoter Rafael explains why community-centered NGO work is important: “We are in our communities. That’s why we are taking this course to learn how to take testimony and elaborate a denouncement”[xxxi].

Community-centered work lies at the core of this organizations effectiveness. Speed explains that this community-centered model “did more than just enable our access to the defensores and ensure their trust. It also allowed us to listen to them and learn from them in ways that fundamentally shaped our ideas”[xxxii]. This quote shows that the purpose of this community-centered model was imagined from a place of genuine interest to learn from the peoples in the community, not just the desire to be an effective NGO. This organization flips the discourse that views indigenous peoples as backward and irrational by believing that the Zapatista community has knowledge that the NGO yearned to learn from.


Real Changes? The 2003 Communiqué from Subcomandante Marcos

Zapatista communities have made great efforts to subvert normative power dynamics between communities and NGOs. Imaginations of new and revolutionary relationships between NGOs and communities constructed these particular reforms that hold keys to improved understanding of “effective” NGO work. The reforms also address problematic discourses, which, in the past, made NGOs “experts” in their field even though they were not from the particular communities being served.

In theory these new reforms have been successful in holding NGOs and international volunteers accountable to the Zapatista community, though, in practice, problems still persisted. The results were less revolutionary than Zapatistas had imagined. While, trying to create their own autonomous world, the Zapatistas were unable to escape the development discourse which plagues the rest of the world.

In August 2003, the Zapatistas issued a series of communiqués called The Thirteenth Steele, addressing these perpetual dilemmas. This document addresses three central issues with civil society support, firstly the Cinderella Syndrome, secondly the imposition of projects by NGOs and international activists, and thirdly the unequal distribution of financial resources.

Subcomandante Marcos explains that their communities have received donations of useless and broken items; they term this the Cinderella Syndrome. These donations of disregarded items exemplify the discourse of indigenous otherness and poverty. Marcos elaborates that “And it’s not that they insulted us or at least not intentionally. But, for us, pity is an affront, and charity is a slap in the face.”[xxxiii] Marcos elaborates that the Zapatista movement demands for dignity that has long been stolen from indigenous peoples. With boots of disrespect, The Cinderella Syndrome tramples all over their demands for dignity. After the communiqué was issued in 1994 about the Cinderella Syndrome, the communities had hopes that attitudes would change. Unfortunately, the message was not understood and boxes of old and broken items continued to be sent to Zapatista communities “as if those people were saying ‘poor little things, they’re very needy. I’m sure anything would do for them’.”[xxxiv]

The communiqués make it clear that the experience of old donations carries over a legacy of discourse around the indigenous other that continues to be oppressive. Marcos explains that it is not only about donations, though, “there is [also] a more sophisticated charity. It’s the one that a few NGOs and international agencies practice. It consists, broadly speaking, in their deciding what the communities need, and, without even consulting them, imposing not just specific projects, but also the times and means of their implementation.”[xxxv] Written in 2003, this communiqué makes it clear that despite efforts at reform, Zapatista communities still faced problematic relationships with NGOs.

Marcos commands that “support for the indigenous communities should not be seen as help for mental incompetents who don’t even know what they need, or for children who have to be told what they should eat, at what time and how, what they should learn, what they should say and what they should think (although I doubt that there are children who would still accept this).”[xxxvi] These quotes from The Thirteenth Steele show how their strive for dignity is a persistent demand of the Zapatista communities as they work to dispel discourse about indigenous bodies that has oppressed indigenous peoples for so long.


Imagining New Measurements

Effectiveness of these new approaches to NGO work can be measured in productivity, which is the normative capitalist model for measurement, but in this paper effectiveness will be measured by community agency since it is addressing the imbalance of power relationships between communities and NGOs. If this is the case, then this new relationship between NGOs and the community experiences with the Zapatistas is a much-improved version of NGO work. Subcomandante attests:

“The zapatista communities are in charge of the projects (not a few NGOs can testify to that), they get them up and running, they make them produce and thus improve the collectives, not the individuals…With the death of the “Aguascalientes,” the “Cinderella syndrome” of some “civil societies” and the paternalism of some national and international NGOs will also die. At least they will die for the zapatista communities who, from now on, will no longer be receiving leftovers nor allowing the imposition of projects”[xxxvii].

Marcos wrote this essay in 2003 trying to clean their communities of paternalism embedded in discourse about NGO work for indigenous peoples. One of the most powerful parts about the relationship between the Zapatista communities at the NGOs which work there, is the lining up of the community’s goal for autonomy and how the NGO plays a role in that goal. The NGO is not helping with temporary relief or imposing self-planned projects; instead it is directly participating in the community’s goal for autonomy. It is an integral part of this community’s liberation. This type of relationship is only possible if the community has agency in its relationship with the NGO.

On a micro level, both of the case studies from this Zapatista section reveal that the community was able to maintain its agency only when the NGO was dialogue-based. In the Indigenous Women’s Rights group, Zapatista community members were provided with a space to discuss feminism with international feminists from different cultures, but white feminism or American feminism was not imposed upon the Indigenous women. Instead, they were offered a space for dialogue and exchanged learning between international feminists and then built an appropriate feminism for their own context. In this model, the NGO provided the women with resources to learn about feminism from other parts of the world, but did not impose their personal model onto the women.

In the second example, the human rights organization came into the community wanting to listen and learn from the peoples who live there first. This approach made this organization extremely different from other human rights organizations that imposed their ideas about human and indigenous rights and further made the community more dependent on outside organizations for help. The Community Human Rights Defender’s Network instead intertwined itself with the community’s goal of autonomy. This allowed the organization to align itself with the goals and the perspective of the community first. When effectiveness of NGO work is evaluated by the relationship between the NGO and the communities, the two NGOs Speed writes about are much more effective than the NGOs Subcomandante Marcos critiqued in his 2003 communiqué.



Both of these examples, from the Sitapur District in India and Chiapas, Mexico, show that self-reflection and dialogue are critical aspects of effective NGO work. NGOs, like people, will never be perfect. In order to avoid harming communities, NGOs must engage in processes of self-reflection around the power dynamics within their NGO, power dynamics within the community and power dynamics within the act of helping a community as an outsider, keeping discourse previously discussed in this essay in mind. The Sangtin Writers confess,“We can claim to be honest with our work only when we can have conversations among ourselves about the extent to which our own economic and personal interests are served by these inequalities”[xxxviii].

If NGOs regard this type of intimate self-reflection as irrelevant or non-productive, they run the dangerous risk of being Ferguson’s anti-politics machines and causing harm with the intent to serve. When effectiveness is measured through relationships, in that space between a community and an NGO, productivity cannot be presented in numbers or figures. Community agency becomes an integral part of NGO work. I propose that NGOs measure their productivity according to the community’s evaluations of their work instead of their evaluations of their own work.

When I reflect on my own experience volunteering in Guatemala during Spring Break, I do not regret the trip. Even when the work was clearly problematic, deep down I know that the late night conversations of critiquing the organization, our own roles within them and the power dynamics at play help deepen learning that informs all the work I do today. Those problematic experiences should not be erased, because they hold sparks. That volunteer trip held a spark for me to start developing my own critical thinking around development discourse and my place in the world. So I will not erase it, and instead I will keep on developing…myself.

Image by Flickr user United Nation’s Photo, used under a Creative Commons license.


Works Cited:

[i] From: Orin Starn 1994 “Rethinking the Politics of Anthropology: The Case of the Andes.”
Current Anthropology, vol. 35, no. 1, p. 13-18.

[ii] Klein, Naomi. Farewell to the End of History: Organization and Vision in Anti-Corporate Movements. The Socialist Register. London: Merlin Press, 2002. p1-14

[iii] Hall, Stuart. Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies. Hoboken: Blackwell Publishers Inc, 1996. P186.

[iv] Hall, 186.

[v] Furgeson, James. Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 1994.

[vi] Postero, Nancy. Now We are Citizens. Stanford: Stanford Unversity Press, 2007. p170.

[vii] Speed, Shannon. “Asumiendo Nuestra Propia Defensa: Resistance and the Red de Defensores Comunitarios in Chiapas”. Human Rights in the Maya Region. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. p285.

[viii] Postero, 169

[ix] Postero, 169.

[x] Speed, p286.

[xi] Sangtin Writers/Nagar. playing with fire: Feminist Thought and Activism through Seven Lives in India. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. p126.

[xii] Sangtin Writers/Nagar, 111.

[xiii] Sangtin Writers/Nagar, IX.

[xiv] Sangtin Writers/Nagar, xxii.

[xv] Sangtin Writers/Nagar, xxx.

[xvi] Sangtin Writers/Nagar, 5.

[xvii] Sangtin Writers/Nagar, 6.

[xviii] Sangtin Writers/Nagar, xliii.

[xix] Sangtin Writers/Nagar, 115.

[xx] Sangtin Writers/Nagar, 115.

[xxi] Sangtin Writers/Nagar, xxii.

[xxii] Sangtin Writers/Nagar, xlv.

[xxiii] Sangtin Writers/Nagar, 125.

[xxiv] Barmeyer, Niels. Developing Zapatista Autonomy: Conflict and NGO Involvement in Rebel Chiapas. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010. p137.

[xxv]  < http://accionzapatista.net/documents/marcosthirteenthsteele.pdf&gt;

[xxvi] Barmeyer, p139.

[xxvii] Speed, Shannon. “Gendered Intersections: Collective and Individual Rights in Indigenous Women’s Experience”. Human Rights: An Anthropological Reader. Hoboken: Blackwell Publishing, 2009. p239.

[xxviii] Speed, Shannon. Rights and Rebellion: Indigenous Struggle and Human Rights in Chiapas. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.p 291.

[xxix] Speed, Shannon. p291.

[xxx] Speed, p297.

[xxxi] Speed, p295.

[xxxii] Speed, p291.

[xxxiii] < http://accionzapatista.net/documents/marcosthirteenthsteele.pdf&gt;

[xxxiv]  < http://accionzapatista.net/documents/marcosthirteenthsteele.pdf&gt;

[xxxv] < http://accionzapatista.net/documents/marcosthirteenthsteele.pdf&gt;

[xxxvi] < http://accionzapatista.net/documents/marcosthirteenthsteele.pdf&gt;

[xxxvii] < http://accionzapatista.net/documents/marcosthirteenthsteele.pdf&gt;

[xxxviii] Sangtin Writers/Nagar,119.

Exploring NGO “effectiveness” by dissecting the community & NGO relationship  in Chiapas, Mexico and Uttar Pradesh, India

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: