Communication Currents

NGOs and Grassroots Representation

December 1, 2009
Critical and Cultural Studies, Intercultural Communication

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are values-based, civil society organizations working to address local, regional, and international problems like poverty, hunger, and environmental degradation. They range from small, volunteer-led, participatory organizations with limited financial resources to large well funded bureaucracies with a highly professionalized staff. Charity-oriented NGOs like MercyCorps and Save the Children primarily engage in direct service provision and disaster relief. Others function as providers and withholders of income for community-based stakeholders, whether in the form of salaries, stipends, grants, or loan financing. A particularly important role of NGOs includes communicating about social problems and their solutions. NGOs draw upon multiple forms of print, radio, television, and online media to create persuasive communication campaigns. In this way, NGO professionals perform important kinds of communicative labor, or work centered on communicating on the behalf of particular groups, issues, or policies.

The messages NGOs create and promote have powerful impacts. A carefully crafted advocacy campaign can garner much needed financial support for a cause and persuade lawmakers to make important policy changes. NGO campaigns also help define social problems and make particular solutions more or less likely. However, a key irony is that NGO campaigns often lack meaningful participation with the very people they claim to represent. Instead, these campaigns are generated by professionals who may not share a set of common experiences with the groups being targeted for aid. Thus, despite the best of intentions, and by virtue of their ability to speak on the behalf of others, NGOs may further marginalize groups unable to access the public sphere.

Even though their communication campaigns may not incorporate the participation of local stakeholders, NGOs are regularly cast as grassroots organizations. Within popular culture, NGOs are often described as being “closer to the grassroots” than their government counterparts, and may even be equated with the grassroots, or local-level groups who are directly impacted by the problems or conditions that they seek to change. When associated with the grassroots, NGOs and other actors gain legitimacy, and are seen as more authentic. A grassroots identity can mistakenly imply that NGOs reflect the will of the people.

The recent controversy over the legitimacy of Working Families for Wal-Mart brings to light tensions related to NGO representation and a grassroots identity. Formed in December 2005, Working Families for Wal-Mart positioned themselves as a grassroots, citizen-sponsored initiative dedicated to defending Wal-Mart from union critiques of their workplace practices. However, the group's grassroots identity, and with it, their ability to speak on the behalf of Wal-Mart workers, was severely challenged once their financial ties to Wal-Mart came to light. This example illustrates how the language of the grassroots deflects attention away from the many complexities involved with speaking and advocating on the behalf of others.

The language of the grassroots is persuasive because it implies a deep connection to a local place. Typically, the local is tied to ideas of morality and authenticity. In this way, groups associated with a local place tend to be seen as having a deeper understanding and a more legitimate claim on decision making. Especially in the context of globalization, the local is more often seen as the primary site for resistance and agency.

More recently, the local has become positively associated with the celebrated notions of micro-enterprise and social entrepreneurship. Here, the entrepreneurial spirit is seen as flourishing at the local scale. Together, these associations help reinforce a positive image of the grassroots, and mean that being associated with the grassroots increasingly functions as an important source of legitimacy. When equated with the grassroots, NGOs are much less likely to have to account for the power they wield, including their ability to communicate social problems and their solutions. For example, when linked with the grassroots, Working Families for Wal-Mart were able to position themselves as a legitimate, authentic voice of local working people. However, they quickly lost their ability to speak on the behalf of others once their grassroots status was challenged.

Through their communication campaigns, NGOs craft images of local communities and their needs. Many times, community-based groups are afforded very little ability to participate in the creation of the messages others use to represent them to a broader global audience. Increased attention to communicative labor, or the work involved with communicating on the behalf of others, draws much needed attention to the tension-filled relationship between NGO workers and the groups they represent.

About the author (s)

Sarah E. Dempsey

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Assistant Professor