Non-Governmental Organizations and Globalization Shaping Our Knowledge of the Developing World
Rensselaer Professor Michael Mascarenhas
Explores Nonprofit Water Development in Project on
Globalization Supported by Andrew W. Mellon
In the developing world, philanthropic non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) increasingly provide community services,
like potable water and improved sanitation, traditionally
associated with government. While the services are badly needed
in the developing world, the system — whereby NGOs raise money
in wealthy countries to provide access, management, and
distribution of potable water and sanitation to the poor — is
increasingly called into question, says
Michael Mascarenhas, assistant professor of science and
technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Mascarenhas points to several potential conflicts: unlike
government, which must be responsive to the people they serve,
NGOs are responsive to wealthy donors; distant donors rely on
NGOs for information about poor beneficiaries, but the
information NGOs provide affects the donations they receive;
and NGOs exist to solve problems, but if they succeed, they
will no longer be needed.
“While NGOs may be better than other development
institutions at saying that they work for their own extinction,
or working until their particular community is self-sufficient,
in reality very few of them have voluntarily chosen to declare
victory and dismantle their organization,” Mascarenhas said.
“And up until now, there hasn’t been much questioning of the
work that they do: How they go about doing humanitarian work,
how they choose certain areas, the methods that they use to
justify interventions or certain policies — we don’t know that.
Mascarenhas is exploring international water aid
organizations—particularly in relation to their work creating
knowledge and distributing information about people, places,
and projects in the developing world — as part of a new
interdisciplinary research studies initiative through Indiana
University. The project, “Framing the Global,” brings
together 15 scholars to study the links between global issues
and local communities. It is supported by a $755,000 grant from
the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
For the project, Mascarenhas will research how knowledge is
created by and for water development agencies. His project is
titled "Developing Research, Researching Development:
Understanding Knowledge Production About the World's Water
“So much of what we learn about people in Sudan, Calcutta,
Rwanda, is not through governments, it’s through nonprofits and
other international development agencies,” Mascarenhas said.
“It’s become very important for nonprofits to create knowledge
that is Internet suitable — visually enticing, empirically
rich, and different from competitors.”
His research will contribute to the “Framing the Global”
project, which uses specific topics to develop new approaches,
theories, and methods of studying globalization.
“What exactly is globalization? We’re not really clear,”
Mascarenhas said. “Is a lack of water and sanitation services a
global problem, or is it a local problem? Is it a
governmental problem or should it be ‘solved’ by market
mechanisms? Is access to clean drinking water and improved
sanitation a right or a commodity available to those who can
Mascarenhas said issues of theory and method, as well as
politics and ethics, play into such questions and will be
addressed in the project.
“The global studies research project aims to fill the need
for this kind of global research and understanding by bringing
together scholars from a variety of disciplines and regional
specializations to think through and create a new framework for
conducting global research that links the global and
transnational with the local, and is applicable to a variety of
lived, political, discursive, cultural, public, private, and
academic contexts,” Mascarenhas said.
The grant will support research, a conference, and
individual books and other scholarly publications documenting
each research topic. Other topics addressed in the “Framing the
Global” project include global or transnational governance, the
globalization of intellectual property rights, genetically
modified corn, and the World Trade Organization.
Nonprofit water development, like the other topics addressed
in “Framing the Global,” offers an example of the complexity of
globalization as a field of inquiry, Mascarenhas said.
For example, Mascarenhas said, NGOs are under pressure to
create self-sufficient development, which means charging a
price for their product, thus commodifying a resource that was
once free, albeit scarce. This pushes farmers to grow cash
crops (rather than food) to earn money to buy water. Farmers
who were once at the mercy of nature are now at the mercy of
the global market.
“On the one hand, I don’t want to be critical — I think this
work has to be done, people need water,” Mascarenhas said. “But
we’re not addressing other social and environmental problems.
For example, to what extent will providing water solve social
inequity? Is the problem poverty or is the problem water
scarcity? And if we are focusing on a particular symptom of
poverty — water scarcity — to what extent are NGOs and other
development agencies failing to address ‘real’ social
Mascarenhas is also interested in the shift from
government-led to NGO-led research and planning. Agencies, such
as WaterAid and Water for People, constantly revise and
re-frame programs, or introduce more sophisticated measuring
and monitoring techniques, to shore up their legitimacy in a
quickly changing political environment, Mascarenhas said.
“NGOs have tended to cultivate a technocratic approach to
solving the global water problem. They often talk about ‘water
augmentation,’ or ‘water rationalization,’” Mascarenhas said.
“The use of this discourse, I feel, often depoliticizes the
problem of water distribution or the unevenness of water
supply. And the resulting projects often fail to account for
local conditions, preferences, and culture.”
Ultimately, Mascarenhas said, the growing importance of NGOs
in the developing world merits greater scrutiny.
“Over the last 40 years, we’ve seen a devolution in the
nation state in terms of services, both in the developing world
and the developed world,” Mascarenhas said. “In the developing
world, what’s filled that gap has been civil society
institutions, particularly nonprofits. In that sense, they’ve
“Developing Research, Researching Development” builds on
Mascarenhas’ earlier research into non-governmental
organizations that provide technical services in the developing
world, particularly water and sanitation organizations. His
most recent book, Where The Water Divides, will be
published by Lexington Books next summer.
For more information on the work of Mascarenhas, and other
scholars of science and technology studies at Rensselaer, read
Rensselaer Magazine article on research within the
Contact: Mary L. Martialay
Phone: (518) 276-2146