The politics and micro-politics of professionalization : an ethnographic study of a professional NGO and its interface with the state

McCusker, Monique (2008-03)

Thesis (MPhil (Sociology and Social Anthropology))--Stellenbosch University, 2008.


The NGO sector is continuing to diversify, experiencing increasing competition from the for-profit market and pressure from the state looking for support through service delivery. There are growing internal and external calls for the development of appropriate evaluation methods within NGOs, intended to provide a much needed transparency, and to monitor and evaluate the sector’s accountability, legitimacy, and credibility – the very politics of its image and identity. As a result many NGOs are adapting their strategic behaviour to increase their efficacy to meet these new challenges. Professionalization or corporatization is said to be transforming NGOs into new regimes of efficiency, leading to their absorption of increasingly commercial practices. How professional NGOs go about their business has become as important as what they do. Using an ethnographic approach and participant observation, this study reveals the many constraints and opportunities one such NGO faced as it employed strategies to professionalize, and the various forms of organising it exhibited in its political, economic and social context. I explore the social interface between the organisation and its environment, and again between the staff members and the organisation itself. The study explores the connectedness between the broader context and the local experience, which in turn informs the NGO’s shifting strategies. An ‘embedded’ understanding provides insight into the evolution of social processes behind the production of everyday life within the professional NGO, exploring how it arrives at a certain coherence in the face of multiple realities at the local level. Development literature is used as a point of departure before applying anthropological theory as a lens through which to interpret the research questions. I place the NGO in a historical context and depict the political nature of the state-NGO relationship within a contract culture and competitive market. Discourses around surviving the embedded contradictions within accountability and legitimacy are explored. I reveal the pains of institutional and cultural evolution within the organisation under the push to professionalize as staff search for meaning and agency in everyday practice. And finally, I describe how the professional NGO negotiates an identity through both the external and internal politics of representation. There is no simple trajectory for professional NGOs. I find instead a competitive fight for survival and increasing dependence on political and economic savvy. The professional NGO has to constantly re-define and re-affirm its mission, while staff members weather the effects of this ongoing change and are forced to continually reconcile the very meaning of their work and identity to make sense of this experience. As an organisational study this contributes to an understanding of one professional NGO’s survival strategies in context, its organisational culture as an activity, and individual sense-making and identity formulation in the local setting. This study hopes to reveal what is gained and lost through employing the strategy to professionalize, and add to a growing body of research narrating the evolution within the NGO sector, informing questions currently being asked by state, business, and civil society groups.

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