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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Non-Governmental Organizations and Globalization - Shaping Our Knowledge of the Developing World

November 16, 2011

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 Foundation

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 Problems.”

“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 afford it?”

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 problems?”

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 become governmental.”

“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 this recent Rensselaer Magazine article on research within the field.

Contact: Mary L. Martialay
Phone: (518) 276-2146