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  • Undermining Development: The Absence of Power Among Local NGOs in Africa
  • Brett R. O'Bannon
Michael, Sarah . 2004. Undermining Development: The Absence of Power Among Local NGOs in Africa. Oxford: James Currey and Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 206 pp. $ 22.95 (paper).

Sarah Michael has turned her doctoral thesis into a fine book, which addresses an important and timely question. Her analysis follows from a simple proposition: local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Africa lack power, which she defines as "the ability to set their own priorities, define their own agendas and exert their influence on the international [End Page 85] development community, even in the face of opposition from government, donors, international NGOs and other development actors" (p. 18). This matters because the absence in Africa of powerful local NGOs—like those she finds in Latin America and South Asia—undermines the development prospects of the sub-Saharan region.

The major contributions of this text are its explanation of why local NGOs in Africa lack power and a concluding chapter that draws on this explanation to advance a set of reasonable propositions for the amelioration of this condition. The argument is carefully constructed with data from interviews with a host of development actors in the capital cities of three case-study countries: Senegal, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Michael's theory stipulates that NGOs develop power through efforts to expand their "development space," to gain financial independence from donors, to establish links with the international development community, and to engage in various political—though not partisan—activities.

The spatial concept is somewhat problematic. Though Michael holds that "space is a key element of NGO power" (p. 170), nowhere does she define it or lay out its terms of reference. Indeed, the word space is employed in at least six different ways: it refers variously to geographical or physical space, a division of labor with government, an issue (or policy) area, what one might refer to as "market share" within the voluntary sector, the freedom to act in a given political system, and a popular mandate to pursue various courses of action. Consequently, the apparent multiple meanings of space throughout the text are distracting and render the book less useful than it would otherwise be.

The comparative-research design Michael employs, which boasts of good variation across the three cases on a wide array of potentially confounding explanatory factors (e.g., colonial experience, human development indicators, macroeconomic performance), enables her to draw sound inferences and advance reasonable generalizations. It likewise enables her to discount the most plausible alternative hypothesis, namely, that the weakness of African NGOs merely reflects the weakness of African civil society in general.

Before launching into the three case-study chapters, Michael outlines a theory of power drawn from the works of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Dahl, Foucault, and Lukes, and from the experiences of powerful local NGOs in Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, India, and Peru. Her model is adequate for the immediate empirical task, which is to demonstrate the grounds on which African NGOs could—but to date have failed to—develop their power. As a general theory of power, however, it does not move much beyond the works she cites, and thus it does not add much to our understanding of the classic problem of the constitution and exercise of power and authority. The application of her model is, nevertheless, wholly convincing.

The case-study chapters recount fieldwork in three countries from three regions of the continent. Though all her interviews appear to have taken place in the principal urban center of each country, which suggests a sample bias that might undermine the generalizability of her findings, [End Page 86] a cross-national analysis based on fieldwork in three countries is still an impressive feat. (This urban bias might also reflect the actual bias among local NGOs, but some of the research she cites—Patterson (1999), for example—demonstrates the importance of exploring rural civil society.) These three chapters well support her contention that, contrary to powerful NGOs in Latin America and South Asia, local NGOs in Africa suffer various shortcomings in the four constituent elements of NGO power. A truth table one could construct from these chapters, and...


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