NGOs must understand the communities they help, says writer

Fatima Bhutto, niece of the murdered Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, tells the IoF's annual convention that large aid agencies should develop deeper ties with local people

Fatima Bhutto (Photograph: Helen Jones Photography)
Fatima Bhutto (Photograph: Helen Jones Photography)

Large aid charities need to spend more time understanding the context and the communities in the places where they work, the writer Fatima Bhutto has said.

The award-winning novelist, who is the niece of the murdered Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the daughter of Murtaza Bhutto, a former Pakistani MP, who was also murdered, gave the plenary speech at the Institute of Fundraising’s annual convention in central London yesterday.

Bhutto said large development charities’ traditional ways of working were being challenged by the success of local, individually led fundraising campaigns that harnessed digital technology.

Big organisations and projects were in danger of leaving people out, she said, and failing to reach communities. They needed to understand the importance of being part of the communities they wanted to help, Bhutto added.

She said they needed to develop "deep ties to a group of people, their needs and wants, and the proximity that would allow you to know that in many cases the communities you’re trying to help might have different foundational values to your own.

"And a lot of the organisation that I see now isn’t coming from the parameters of NGOs and official groups, but from individuals from small pockets."

She said there were examples in Asia where large NGOs visited somewhere, wrote a report, then left.

Bhutto added: "The thing NGOs can do is to move into smaller and smaller spaces, live among the people and work with them directly, rather than have wide-ranging targets focusing on the money raised."

In order to lead effectively, positively and efficiently, she said, organisations had to ask themselves two questions: where is there pain? And what is the culture surrounding it?

"Culture itself is an organisational system set up in order to manage pain.

"And whereas an organisation is doing that for one group of people in one city at one time, a culture is doing it constantly across time, across geography and across borders.

"And you can’t take your organisation into a culture without understanding it."

These questions needed to be asked at all levels of the organisation, Bhutto said: this sort of leadership did not have to come from the top and could be seen in everyday places.

She added: "Leadership to me is not only asking those two questions, but constantly tracking the answers – which are dynamic, evolving and shifting – and tracking them as they morph."

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