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Do NGOs practice what they preach?

There is a clear disjunction between the world NGOs seek to create, and the world their governance structures reproduce

Diversity and inclusion are important to almost all non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Beyond this recognition, to what extent do NGOs adequately reflect these values?

To find out, I chose to look at the Executive Boards of the 2013 Top 100 NGOs, a list of what the Global Journal considers to be the most impactful, innovative and sustainable NGOs. I looked at Executive Boards because they are the supreme governing body of an NGO. Their decisions determine the organisation’s direction and policies, and eventually its impact on the people it serves. Board membership is therefore vitally important. (For details, see methodology )

What emerged?


There is an almost exact mirror image between where NGOs are headquartered and where the people they serve live. Close to three quarters (72 percent) of the NGOs are headquartered in the Western World: however, more than three quarters of their activity (79 percent) takes place in the Majority World, over one third in Africa (32 percent) alone.


Taken as a body, most of the surveyed NGOs work for populations that are predominantly non-European and relatively poorly educated; most also promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. Yet their own leaderships are primarily composed of Western educated male graduates of European origin.


In different ways, the NGOs surveyed promote ideals of justice and social progress. Yet over half have Board members who are affiliated with companies that invest in, or provide legal, marketing, or other services to the arms, tobacco and finance industries.


The figures reveal a clear disjunction between the world these NGOs seek to create, and the world their governance structures reproduce.

By appointing Boards that are predominantly of European origin (66 percent overall; 77 percent for Western NGOs), they perpetuate values that assume ‘whiteness’ is superior to ‘blackness’ and attitudes tainted by a Western-saviour myth. The very low number of Board members from Africa (5 percent) is particularly troubling, because more than one-third of projects take place in that region. Of the 40 organisations that conduct more than one-third of their work in Africa, 22 (55 percent) have no African Board members.

The representation of women may appear to be less alarming, but the ratio of women is still relatively low. Furthermore, 65 percent of female Board members are of European origin—a figure that rises to 75 percent among Western NGOs. This reveals the importance of intersectionality; in this instance, if they wish to be inclusive and diverse, NGOs need to consider gender and ethnicity.

Given the ethnic composition of these Boards, it is not surprising that most of their members graduated from Western universities. Many of those of non-Western origin have also attended Western institutions. Although the value of higher education and the excellence of many Western universities are undeniable, the NGOs surveyed are almost completely reliant on Western knowledge paradigms, though they work in many areas of the world where other systems of thought are strongly present. Through this choice, they inevitably exclude points of view that are relevant or vital to the work they do or the people they serve.

In sum, the leaderships of these NGOs have a social profile that is at least at odds, and probably incompatible, with their ideals and mission. Some social bias was understandable in the historical context in which international NGO activism formed in the last century; that time is past. If NGOs are to realise their ideals of justice and social reform in today’s highly mobile, diverse, information rich world, they need to draw on skills and experience from across the globe. To do their jobs, Boards need to be adequately diverse, representative, and well-informed: at present, those surveyed are manifestly deficient in all three respects.

The professional affiliations of NGO Board members reveal an equally disturbing gap between ideals and practice, although it must be acknowledged that the present analysis is limited in scope and a deeper survey would be desirable. I elected to identify Board members who have links to the tobacco, arms or finance industry.

More than half the organisations listed have Board members who are affiliated with companies that invest in, or provide legal, marketing, or other services to the arms and tobacco industries. In reality, it is likely that a larger number do so since only 3 tobacco companies and 10 companies that produce arms or provide military services were considered.

Many would question whether association with the arms and tobacco industries is compatible with the promotion of ideals of justice and social progress. Even if no position of principle is taken, however, NGOs certainly need to explain how association with these industries is consistent with their objectives.

With respect to the finance industry, the figures are similar. At first sight, the presence of finance experts on Boards may seem defensible. Boards have a duty of financial oversight, and many of the NGOs surveyed manage budgets of millions of dollars. They nevertheless have a duty to explain their choices, and most do not do so.

The reputation of the banking sector was highly compromised by the greedy and irresponsible conduct of numerous banks and investment houses in the period before and after the 2008 crash. It cannot credibly be said that the sector has shown evidence of working to protect the interests of less privileged groups in society, who are the primary constituents of most of the listed NGOs. Nor is this a ‘left wing’ perception. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times has commented that an out-of-control financial sector is eating out the modern market economy from inside, just as the larva of the spider wasp eats out the host in which it has been laid’. NGOs should ask themselves whether the appointment of numerous senior executives and partners in large investment banks and hedge funds helps them to achieve their mission.

As individuals, of course, bankers too can be philanthropists. It is not a question of excluding such sources of economic expertise altogether. What is shocking is the number of them on NGO Boards, and the glaring absence of so many other kinds of expertise.


Clearly, men can individually contest the unequal status of women, individuals of European origin can imagine and oppose the exclusion and marginalisation that many people of different ethnic origins experience, and highly educated persons can choose to figure out how the world appears to those with little or no education. Nevertheless, governance systems that primarily rely on personal empathy and imagination are fundamentally unsatisfactory. The truth is that, where governing bodies have a quite different social composition from the populations they seek to serve, they will imperfectly understand those populations and will not represent them or their interests adequately, and their decision-making will suffer as a result.

Homogeneous Boards are also likely to be blind to certain social realities, as responses to this survey reveal. A number simply did not record the ethnicity of their Board members, refusing in effect to take account of the influence of power and privilege on exclusion and disadvantage—issues that in many instances are central to their mandates and values. Many also failed to perceive the implications of their links to the arms, tobacco and finance industries and arguably failed in their duty of due diligence.

In the end, how an organisation governs itself is a choice. However, organisations whose declared objective is to improve the lives of impoverished or disadvantaged groups cannot afford to ignore attitudes or behaviour, in their own conduct or in society at large, that shore up illegitimate, unjust social structures. NGOs that de facto exclude those they are meant to serve from the most powerful positions in their organisations, or appoint to their Boards individuals who serve industries that oppose or hinder their mandates, must expect to be challenged.


So what should an NGO keep in mind if it wants to appoint a Board that is sound and appropriate? Four considerations perhaps spring to mind. Taken as a whole, its membership should:

• Include a sufficient number of individuals who are recognised and trusted by the (principal) communities it serves.
• Possess enough relevant professional and operational expertise (governance, finance, technical skills, etc. associated with the NGO’s mandate).
• Include a range of voices, sufficient to ensure that the Board maintains oversight and standards of due diligence, and brings a sufficiently broad ethical perspective to its deliberations.
• Be consistent with the organisation’s mandate and values (with respect to diversity, social objectives, etc.).

Clearly, achieving a balanced Board is challenging and the more activities and audiences an organisation has, the harder it is to represent them adequately on a Board of normal size. Nevertheless, the effort is necessary—on ethical grounds, for reasons of efficiency, and to manage risk—and it is certainly less difficult for most organisations to appoint a sound Board than to achieve their mandate.

One must tread carefully, however. Boards exclusively composed of Western-educated African or Asian women will be as limited in their worldview as those dominated by heterosexual, middle-aged men of European descent. The same can be said of gender-balanced Boards whose ethnically diverse members all belong to elites in their respective societies. Meaningful diversity is not about quotas but equitable representation. To take account of different ways of communicating and experiencing life, it is necessary to balance fundamental values and a variety of specific concerns.

According to Robert Jensen, if we want to meaningfully change the world, ‘[t]he first step is to tell the truth. Not just the truth we can bear, but all of the truth. Part of that truth is our own complicity’.

NGOs should accept that, to act more authentically, they need to be transparent about, and accountable for, the choices they make. If Boards themselves are usually responsible for their composition, most participants in NGOs have a role to play in this. Staff can choose which NGOs they work for and can ask their managers and Boards to address diversity and inclusion. Members can place these issues on the agenda of their organisations, and elect Board members accordingly. Donors can take diversity and inclusion into account when they select whom they fund.

With that in mind, here is a non-exhaustive list of additional questions that NGOs might ask when they appoint members to their Boards:

• How is she connected to the problems we are trying to solve?
• Does his experience hinder him from understanding the reality of those we seek to serve?
• Does she bring a different and relevant experience to the table?
• How do some of her life experiences compare to those of others on the Board?
• Are his professional affiliations in line with our objectives?
• Do his actions match his words?
• How does she relate to ‘difference’?
• What world does this person aspire to?

Clearly, there is no one or easy way to achieve social change. Unless NGOs think, speak and act coherently, however, and question their beliefs and standpoints more strongly, they are likely, as Arundhati Roy cautions, to ‘unwittingly reinforce racist stereotypes and re-affirm the achievements, the comforts, and the compassion (the tough love) of Western civilization’, acting as ‘secular missionaries of the modern world’.

If we do not explore with open minds the richness and variety of human experience, we will be unable to imagine concretely the new world we say we want to create.

* Fairouz El Tom is creative director at Plain Sense in Geneva, and conducts independent projects on issues related to diversity and "otherness". She tweets at @onrelating.


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