Unsolicited representation of others happens in international development, so let’s talk about it!

By Margit van Wessel / New Rhythms of Development blog series

It’s not a popular idea, but I want to express it nonetheless: many development organizations engage in representation, here conceptualized as ‘acting on behalf of others’. They articulate rights for groups, advance problem definitions important to particular groups, and advocate solutions for specific groups’ problems. However, it seems very few scholars or organizations want to acknowledge   or even think about this.  Why would that be, and is it right not to think of civil society roles in terms of representation in the first place? And is the more popular ‘solidarity’ a better option? Let’s compare and highlight some points for further reflection.  

Let’s start with representation: The limited research literature available mostly questions the legitimacy of representation by international NGOs, either describing it as being far removed from assumed constituencies, or questioning the whole idea. It also appears that many development organizations are uncomfortable with claiming to represent others. They prefer to present themselves as partners to groups they seek to support or stand ‘with’ – in solidarity, which I will turn to in a bit. Another reason that seems to make people shy away from the idea of representation is that the normal accountability relations with the represented are often limited. There is no mechanism by which constituents give organizations a representative role.

However, there are good reasons to take the idea of representation by CSOs seriously. First, because it is a reality that should not be ignored: it is simply happening, and it’s good to think whether and how we could get it right. Second, non-electoral representation may help overcome the gaps left by electoral representation or authoritarian governance in many political systems. It could also help address the need for representativeness of international governance regarding many issues that CSOs work on.

Can representation be a helpful idea?

There is also a way to make representation a more palatable idea. Current political science literature starts from the point that representation is constituted in interaction between representatives who make representative claims and their audiences that become constituencies through their active confirmation of the representative status of the claims-maker. This approach is well-geared to the multi-actor governance contexts in which development organizations work, which is the only framework that provides organizations some standard for their representation. However, it does not sit well with the reality of many development organizations’ relations with their assumed constituencies, as it sets the condition that representative claims are actually communicated to them, which also gives them an active role in shaping and confirming such representation. However, many Civil Society Organizations (CSO)’ relative independence from constituency funding enables them to take up representative roles without communicating about representative claims with assumed constituencies. Close relations with funders, donors, and governments may even discourage interaction with constituencies or shape them in ways that constrain representation, for example by forcing them to adapt to donor requirements or government ideologies. Moreover, CSOs often ground their advocacy in the representation of values, positions or perspectives as sources of legitimacy in their own right, rather than seeking legitimation by specific constituencies.

The degree and way in which representation can be a meaningful idea for understanding and developing organizations’ relations with people is thus an open question. At the same time, scholars bringing out limits in CSO-constituency relations have often prioritized large international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) over national or sub-national CSOs, while these are likely often closer to constituencies. They have also prioritized professional NGOs over other forms of CSO such as social movements or individual activists that often take up leading roles in advocacy, and are, again, more likely, to be closer to constituencies. Whether and how interaction shapes constituencies’ understandings and assessments of representation through CSOs therefore needs to be explored, with openness to the diversity of CSOs and their diverse degrees and types of engagements with constituencies.

Replacing representation with solidarity is no easy way out

To those who think of relations with constituencies and partners in terms of solidarity – this is not an easy way out.  Solidarity is a complex concept which takes multiple forms. Some understandings connote social cohesion, entailing moral obligation across group members. In the development sector, notions of solidarity are commonly used as referring to ‘standing with’ oppressed, marginalized and vulnerable groupings. Sometimes it is invoked as to say ‘we stand with you fighting for the same objectives’. Otherwise, solidarity is generally not conceptualized, seemingly functioning rather as a buzzword used to invoke a relation in an appealing way.

However, this doesn’t make a problem go away: solidarity in the context of development typically connotes relations across formidable differences, in particular power differentials, with the more powerful describing their solidarity in terms of support to the less powerful. Solidarity can be rooted in and sustain inequality, by reproducing the power of the privileged as standing above those they supposedly ‘ stand with’. Recent literature on solidarity therefore points to the need for deep reflection among the privileged on the nature of the relation. The same publications offer a promising angle for further developing solidarity as a way of thinking about civil society relations in development.  They propose a form of solidarity that makes Southern actors’ agency, understandings, and agendas starting points for collaboration Outsiders like International NGOs can take supportive and complementary roles from that stance.

Margit van Wessel works in the Strategic Communication Chair Group at Wageningen University & Research, the Netherlands. Civil society advocacy and civil society collaborations in the context of development and the environment are her main research interests, with a special focus on questions of voice, representation, inclusion, and power. Forthcoming book: Reimagining civil society collaborations in development. Starting from the South

Image: groupuscule under a creative commons licence on Flickr

3 Replies to “Unsolicited representation of others happens in international development, so let’s talk about it!”

  1. Thank you for your reply, Margit!

    Indeed, lots to think about. For now, just one observation. You write “Just the question, what can unions do that NGOs working on labour relations can’t?” I think that the answer is that in their case, representation is not unsolicited; it is wat what they do by their very nature, since the members are (or should be) tge ones that determine whatever these unions do in the public sphere.

    But you are very right to point out that this is not always how it goes…

  2. Thank you for this very relevant posting, Margit! There is one consideration I would like to submit. You write: “They (the international NGOs – JS) have also prioritized professional NGOs over other forms of CSO such as social movements or individual activists that often take up leading roles in advocacy, and are, again, more likely, to be closer to constituencies.”

    I feel that, in addition to social movements and individual activists, I think you could have mentioned membership organisations like trade unions and farmers’ organisations: they too are development stakeholders, but frequently not taken into account. And that is a shame: in the first place, they are the true representatives of constituencies who can actually hold them to account, and secondly, they more often than not are part of continental or global federations that can claim much more legitimacy in representing population groups than the international NGOs. Take, for instance, farmers: I prefer to listen to the Asian Farmers’ Association (AFA) or the Pan African Farmers Organisation (PAFO) rather than to Oxfam International, in order to know what farmers think.

    Wouldn’t you agree?

    1. Thanks Jur for your thoughtful comments. I would absolutely include such groups as you mention. Whether they can be seen as representing still comes down to how they actually relate to the groups they claim to speak for. I also learnt through my own research that relations by organizations that do seek to represent can be quite diverse, again making for very different forms of representation. In any case, representation by member-based organizations is very important to research, also comparing representative roles of different types of organizations. Just the question, what can unions do that NGOs working on labour relations can’t? The question what NGOs can do that unions can’t is also very interesting. Can there be complementarity? Or are these competing ways of civil society action, that may also get in each others’ way? (well, we already know that that sometimes happens….). Anyway, lots of things to think about here!

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