Opinion: Hot Issue - Are NGOs becoming irrelevant to a new generation of activists?

A report to be published this month by NGO umbrella body Bond contends that young activists now regard international NGOs as "irrelevant, elitist, and part of the system they are fighting".

NO - Chris Bain, director, Cafod

Far from becoming irrelevant, NGOs are becoming increasingly important to young people today. You only have to look at the tens of thousands who turned out on the streets to support Jubilee 2000 and the current Trade Justice Campaign to see that they are fully behind NGO campaigns for social justice.

Radical activists are an important part of protest and change, but represent only a fraction of the groundswell of people required to change laws and policies in a democratic country. To change policies we must have alliances with radical activists, as our messages are broadly the same and we are fighting the same cause. It is also good to be challenged by them, but they rarely offer concrete proposals of how to improve a situation. At Cafod we believe we need to engage with governments to bring about change, but that doesn't mean we want to reinforce the establishment.

The message that inspires Cafod is radical and uncompromising, and gives us a strong mandate to demand fundamental change in individual behaviour and political action. Our challenge is to make that message accessible to young people and provide them with opportunities in which they can campaign for global social justice.

YES - Graham Bennett, director, One World Action

Many NGOs in the UK are reaching organisational middle-age, and with that comes an image problem when trying to attract young people to our cause. We're part of the establishment, get much of our funding from government and we often fail to recruit a more diverse staff to reflect the younger generation. We say we want to overcome injustice and yet we often seem to play by the rules of those who perpetuate injustice.

Some NGOs are huge, with a corporate brand to rival many businesses.

I feel we do good and vital work, and the people I work with are committed and passionate about fighting poverty and oppression. But, when I've talked with young activists, they rightly point to the one billion people still living on less than a dollar a day, and ask: "what difference have you made?"

I believe that we do make a difference, but in order to justify our existence we must find the courage to learn from the energy and impatience of young people who want more direct action. We must also learn from southern NGOs like those we met at the World Social Forum in India, who seem better able to harness grass-roots activism and remain radical.

NO - Daleep Mukarji, chief executive, Christian Aid

Bond's report is a challenging article that puts old debates into a new context. But international NGOs are not all the same, nor do they all share the same level of activity, impact or approach.

All NGOs must work hard to promote their niche, which is what makes them different. For faith or issue-based and established organisations, this is a little easier because of their longevity - their reputation, reliability and loyal support base helps. Young people are also very passionate about helping others.

The challenge is how to get younger, newer and more cynical audiences to not only give but to get involved in international development. I have always personally believed that the issues are around the concept of power.

Hence, how do we empower ordinary people throughout the world, through education, organisation and mobilisation, to truly believe they can make a difference and hold governments, multinational corporations and international institutes accountable?

Here, our democratic, political, commercial and ethical power can inspire and equip people to get involved in lobbying, campaigning and public mobilisation for change.

NO - Neela Dolezalova, co-founder, Hands Up For Peace

I was one of the school students who created the 'Hands Up For Peace' campaign a year ago. Many ask why we didn't then affiliate with another organisation - we acted spontaneously like many other new anti-war groups. It was important for our Government to see a range of opposition. I believe you need a mixed economy of organisations.

Now, more than ever, NGOs must focus on governmental decision-making bodies.

In an age where truth doesn't often prevail, NGOs must continue to bring injustices to light. The potential for NGOs to harness the social justice movement is enormous - they must not be afraid to do so. However, it sometimes seems as though charity is for those who can afford to be charitable, and when we are all being tutored in terror and not compassion it will be difficult for NGOs to find support.

If charities get grants from governments, then they might not be able to speak their minds. The dilemma is that if you strive to incorporate more radical activists then you risk losing 'middle of the road' supporters with chequebooks. We prefer to support NGOs who force our Government to promote sustainable development through economic justice.

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