New Works in the Field


Editors’ Note: Allison Schnable introduces Amateurs without Borders: The Aspirations and Limits of Global Compassion (University of California Press, 2021). This is Schnable’s recently-published book examining the rise of new actors in the international development world: volunteer-driven grassroots international nongovernmental organizations. 

In 1968, the radical priest and social critic Ivan Illich addressed a conference of North American student volunteers bound for Latin America. “To hell with good intentions,” he told them. Illich exhorted them to stay home and “give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on Mexico.” He expanded his critique of U.S. charitable aid:

Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders. Ideally, these people define their role as service. Actually, they frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons, or “seducing” the “underdeveloped” to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement.

The student group chastised by Illich in fact disbanded several years later. But American idealism in development aid has remained a powerful current, with its organizational form shifting over time. Religious missions, government agencies, and large private NGOs were for many years the most important intermediaries for American idealists. But historical changes in the last decades of the 20th century led to a boom in volunteer-driven, small-budget organizations. My research examines a body of roughly 10,000 new relief and development organizations launched by Americans in the last three decades. These organizations, which I call grassroots international NGOs, operate with volunteer labor and annual budgets of $250,000 or less. The individuals who start these groups typically have no training or professional experience with development aid, but they have forged a tie to a less-developed country through tourism, work travel, immigration, or adoption. Electronic communication and cheap travel allow these Americans to work directly with partners abroad rather than “waiting for World Vision to get there,” as one grassroots INGO leader explained. Why has this organizational boom happened now? What happens when the development INGO becomes a personal project?

Development Aid Transforms

Grassroots INGOs have exploited a particular moment of opportunity in the late 20th in which nonprofit organizations have enjoyed public legitimacy as actors for addressing social problems, and globalization has reduced the barriers to entry for new organizations. The price of airline tickets dropped significantly beginning in the 1980s, and the cost of international phone calls went from dollars per minute to pennies, even as cell phones extended service to billions in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Container shipping has radically simplified and cheapened the transfer of goods to distant continents. Increased travel and easier communication—combined with increased migration from Latin America and Asia in the latter 20th century—made it easier than ever for everyday Americans to create and maintain relationships with partners in less-developed countries.

But these relationships were being forged in the same period when relief and development INGOs, like other nonprofits, were becoming increasingly professionalized. INGOs that had been founded during the World Wars had initially captured a grassroots spirit to provide relief to war-torn Europe: Lutheran World Relief arranged direct donations of commodities from U.S. farmers, for instance, and CARE characterized its food aid as “care packages” for refugees.  But by the end of the century, INGOs’ shift towards the grants economy and a pivot from “symptoms” to “causes” in international development had given INGOs a professional flavor. Annual budgets of the largest INGOs, like World Vision and Oxfam International, eclipsed $1 billion by 2010. In 2002, Shepard Forman and Abby Stoddard put it thus: “the era of well-meaning amateurs has given way to the epistemic community of well-trained professionals.” Large INGOs now find themselves caught in a paradox. On the one hand, their “well-trained professional” staff aim to demonstrate quantifiable results and to tackle systemic problems. On the other, their professionalization puts them at odds with what George Mitchell and colleagues have called the “soul” of INGOs: their animating charitable impulse. From this perspective, INGOs’ legitimacy comes as much from the act of giving as the result.

What makes grassroots INGOs distinctive is their emphasis on “soul,” or what Peter Frumkin calls the expressive dimension of nonprofit action. An instrumental rationale for the sector values effectiveness and efficiency; an expressive rationale values the way participants experience fellowship or enact their ideals even if efficiency is sacrificed. I argue that most grassroots INGOs can be characterized as expressive personal charity.

What Grassroots INGOs Offer

Grassroots INGOs offer everyday Americans something that professionalized INGOs do not: the opportunity to offer their own blood, sweat, and tears. In my interviews with volunteers and my analysis of grassroots INGO websites, a theme that recurred is the value volunteers place on being able to do something rather than simply cut a check. One organization described their efforts as a “transatlantic barn-raising.” The leader of another grassroots INGO told me that the chance for Americans to volunteer was at the heart of her goals: “I wanted it to be an open door for people to come and serve.” The emotional rewards of the work and the value of the relationships with partners and recipients in the aid-receiving countries were emphasized over and over again. Volunteers with particular work skills talked about how much they valued being able to share their skills with host-country counterparts—I heard this from librarians, doctors, nurses, teachers, preachers, and accountants. But there is a downside to the strong value that Americans place on these relationships with local partners. This desire for good feelings often puts these local partners in difficult dual agency relationships where they have to be the “local voice” to the Americans and the “voice of the Americans” to locals.

Grassroots INGOs are also personal in that personal networks play a critical role in founding and funding the organizations. These organizations most often emerge from some sort of personal tie between an American and a community in a less-developed country; the project itself is developed later. Having established the organization, founders turn to their friends, family, and colleagues for volunteer labor and cash.  In an analysis of the websites of 150 grassroots INGOs, I found that roughly a quarter of the organizations had received a donation from a business, and only 8% mentioned a foundation grant. Only one organization had received any government funding. Individual donations were the heart of the budget. For three of the five grassroots INGOs with whom I carried out fieldwork, 100% of the budget came from the leaders’ personal networks. This approach has the consequence of insulating grassroots INGOs from the professionalizing influences of the aid world. They are not pushed to produce en vogue projects, to quantify their results, or to scale up. They are removed from the epistemic community that would push them towards the ways that professionalized INGOs give aid.

And, freed from those pressures, grassroots INGOs mainly eschew efforts for systemic change and embrace smaller projects with more visible outputs. Grassroots INGOs sometimes use language of transformation or sustainability, but in practice their work mainly aims to meet basic needs or provide individual opportunities for mobility. In the web sample of 150 organizations I found that 60% of organizations were directly providing goods and services: most common were digging wells, operating medical clinics or donating medical supplies, running orphanages, or building school classrooms. Another 30% targeted the skills and dispositions of aid recipients. These groups provided scholarships, small business training, or projects to build capacity of local professionals like librarians, doctors, and so forth. Only 10% targeted a collectivity or aimed to change social relations, through advocacy, preserving cultural heritage, or democracy building.  So whether they are “giving fish” or “teach how to fish,” most grassroots INGOs treat development as a person-at-a-time change, with the explicit or implicit theory that changed people will change the world.  This is fundamentally, I argue, a charitable approach.

To Hell With Good Intentions?

Is there a place for expressive personal charity in development aid? We can easily guess at Illich’s answer. He rejected U.S. benevolence out of a more fundamental critique of U.S. politics, culture, and economy. For Illich, American idealism was no more than ideology to advance a “way of life . . [that is] not alive enough to be shared.” Whether or not we share Illich’s assessment of the United States, his critique is rooted in a question that aid groups must answer: whether charity by its nature impedes justice.

As HistPhil’s Ben Soskis has shown, “mere charity” was increasingly rejected in the 19th and 20th century in favor of philanthropic approaches that could address the root causes of social problems. But Soskis argues that the new millennium saw a partial reintegration of charitable and philanthropic ideals, perhaps articulated most clearly by another Latin American priest known for his critique of capitalism: Pope Francis.  Extending the thought of his predecessor Benedict, Francis argues that humble engagement with the needy through acts of charity motivates justice by creating the sense of interdependence that humans need to transform systems. He rejects “charity à la carte,” or “an accumulation of small personal gestures to individuals in need,” but argues for simultaneous efforts “to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter.” This suggests a path for development aid where even charitable approaches could support rather than undermine more fundamental change.

Under what terms could grassroots international NGOs offer a “just” charity? This is a question on which I welcome the debate of HistPhil readers, but I take inspiration from some of Illich’s secondary criticisms of the U.S. volunteers. “If you insist on working with the poor,” Illich said, “then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell.”  Just charity is a relation in which the giver is able and willing to hear “no.” This means avoiding paternalism by allowing the receiver to articulate what she really needs, and the giver recognizing that what she has on offer may not be so useful. To do this in the context of North-to-South development aid demands language skills and cultural competency from the giver as well as systems for participation of, and accountability to, aid receivers.  Grassroots INGOs must also recognize that INGO aid is always a “second-best solution,” as political theorist Jennifer Rubinstein has put it. It is difficult for the leaders of grassroots INGOs—with their strong expressive impulses and scant knowledge of context—to recognize, still less yield to, better long-term solutions to the problems of poverty.

The emergence of grassroots INGOs shows that the charitable impulse in development aid is very much alive. Their challenge is to provide just charity, rather than mere charity.

-Allison Schnable

Allison Schnable is an assistant professor in the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. Her work has been published in such venues as World Development, Social Problems, and Third World Quarterly. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Princeton University and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal.

Leave a Reply

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

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s