NGOs, Part II: So, What EXACTLY Can I Do???

In Part I, I talked about the increases in sovereignty and the difficulties in regulating NGOs. These organizations have been at the center of controversy for a number of different reasons, whether it be the shoddy dispersion and/or use of funds or the apparent governmental presence in a “non-governmental” entity, and sometimes we’re left to question exactly what NGOs do. They are becoming economic enterprises and strategic business investments and many NGOs have individuals on their Board of Directors that are simultaneously heads of large corporations and companies which, by my estimation, essentially forms a “monopoly on necessities.” Simply put, it’s getting harder to trust NGOs. In Part II of this topic, I’d like to share a few thoughts I’ve had on the “capitalization of humanitarianism” and more, importantly, our role as planners in dealing with society’s ills.

I’ve had a number of conversations with classmates that have touched on capitalism and the negatives effects it has on the majority of the world’s population and one thing I’ve learned about capitalism is this: it continues to redefine and regenerate itself. One of the ways that capitalism regenerates itself is by continuing to step over boundaries and incorporating different enterprises and functions that previously were not a part of it. It’s like a virus that continues to spread, seemingly unchecked and unchallenged. Whether it’s through accumulation through dispossession or accumulation through profit, many stand to lose and only an elite few stand to gain.

Now, there seems to be a general consensus that something should be done about it, that we should “fight the system.” In fact, just yesterday, I was speaking with Annie and Edwin at length on this issue of capitalism, a generally somber and austere conversation. It was for me, at least. The source of this displeasure came from the fact that the issues that plague this world are so vast and expansive that it’s impossible to take them all on. What boggles my mind, what I have a hard time understanding is how some people can willingly and deliberate capitalize on the misfortunes of others and make money from it! It’s easy for us to point to finger at capitalism and place all blame and responsibility on it however, the same problems that we face here in America are the same problems that people are facing in China, a communist nation! These same issues are being faced worldwide by all people who live under a variety of political and economical regimes. So, we can’t simply blame a form of government or the free market for the current state of affairs.

The question invariably boils down to: How? How do you “fight the system?” Many feel that we can turn to NGOs and grassroots movements and try to affect change from these platforms and, generally, I would agree. However, these entities are no longer immune and eventually many of them succumb to the wiles of capitalism and privatization. We see it all the time.

And so, I would like to pose this question: What if the point is NOT to “fight the system?” As a urban planner or a transnational planner, what if your job is NOT to “fight the system?” Call me a fatalist if you wish, but you can’t solve the world’s problems, friends. The sheer scope of it all is incomprehensible. I made the point that if these issues could’ve been solved, they would’ve been already. True, we may have more of an understanding of society’s ills and we may have more tools at our disposal. However, nothing is new under the sun and I believe that people have been trying to answer the same questions we ask today for generations and generations. Modernist planning at the turn of the 20th century tried and, as far as most are concerned, have failed. Even the Greek poleis of yore were segregated by class, gender and social status. We’re not dealing with anything new, friends.

So what can you do? What can I do? Maybe the point isn’t to try to overhaul the system but to try to make at least one person’s life a little better. Meet the people where they are and use what you have learned to improve someone’s quality of life. Never approach them from a position of power, mind you! As Edwin pointed out, this shouldn’t be about saving the hopeless because only you can! The last thing we need is another iteration of “saviourism.” Learn from them. Don’t assume your metrics of living are applicable to someone else. It’s not. It’s my personal belief and my personal philosophy that my job, as a planner, is to help people and I’ll do so however I can. Many people need water. Many people need proper sanitation services. Many people need electricity. Many need access to jobs and adequate social services. It is not my intent to discount NGOs as a whole. No. Understand, though, that there are limits to what NGOs can do and how far they can go. Once that cap has been reached, then what? I wish to empower each and every single one of us. Changing the world is considerably more difficult than changing someone’s life. Maybe we should start with that.


One thought on “NGOs, Part II: So, What EXACTLY Can I Do???

  1. Pingback: When there is a disaster, what should you do? | Transnational Planning

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