Avoided transformations? Do NGOs really operate as ‘no-change’ agents in the Anthropocene?

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Title of host publicationTransformations 2015: People and Planet in the Anthropocene
DatePublished - 2015
PublisherStockholm Resilience Centre
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

In this paper I draw on recent fieldwork in Vanuatu, Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands to analyse how NGOs circumscribe their role as change agents, in terms of how they respond to or neglect the structural barriers that underpin poverty and limit adaptive capacity. I will argue that while attention is given to social and ecological aspects of vulnerability and resilience, a limited conceptualisation of adaptation means there is a failure to translate a focus on agency into a focus on transformative potential. As such, NGOs are open to critique in terms of their ambition (i.e., transformation as beyond the imaginings of NGOs) and short project time scales (i.e. transformation as beyond the horizon of “project world” – Eade, 2010). However, other pertinent questions arise. First, to what extent is it desirable or necessary for NGOs to engage in actions designed to provoke political and social change? Results from the case studies suggest that, while transformation of wider systems may be required to shift patterns of persistent vulnerability, interventions at the local scale can have a profound impact on people’s lives when structure is accounted for, laying the ground for future instances of progressive social change. Second, are there alternative strategies that NGOs could be following? In answering this, the case studies will be explored for their potential to engage in social mobilisation (Dodman and Mitlin 2011), rights-based (Ensor et al. 2015) and resourcefulness (MacKinnon and Derickson 2013) strategies to enable transformation of marginalised and poor people in exposed natural environments.

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