On November 17th and 18th, the Interest Group on NGOs and Nonprofits of the American Anthropological Association held its second biennial conference, entitled “NGO-graphies.” Over 100 people from a dozen countries braved the snowy weather—and the flight delays that came with it—to collaborate in session discussions about NGOs and nonprofits, including their methods, impacts and networks within global topographies. The conference was held on the four-story student center of Metropolitan State University, a partially converted brewery in downtown Denver, CO. Rooms were replete with bronze-colored equipment set against the picturesque backdrop of the Rockies.
Many anthropologists study NGOs in some fashion. With NGOs coming to supplant the traditional roles of governments, it is becoming increasingly difficult to design a research project that does not eventually bump up against an NGO, whether intentionally or not. The NGOs and Nonprofits Interest Group currently has one of the largest memberships of the AAA Interest Groups, with over 1,000 members. It is clear that anthropology’s relationship with NGOs and nonprofits is far from dwindling. NGOs continue to gain traction in local, domestic and transnational processes, and anthropologists will continue to maneuver to research the ways in which these processes are constructed, comprehended and intertwined. Indeed, non-governmental organizations are taking on complex and nontraditional roles, and anthropologists are looking at the NGO phenomenon from creative new angles in order to accurately and holistically define it. The NGO-graphies conference asked participants to reorient their methods of theorizing NGOs in order to understand them as entailing temporal or geographical processes. Rather than asking what NGOs are and what they are not, some posited to probe where NGOs are spatially and temporally “as verbs,” through defining their activities and inaction, and through their subjects and their objects.
A topic that resurfaced throughout the two-day conference concerned the politicizing effects of NGO interventions. Recipients of international aid, for example, are defined and bounded by the implementing NGOs, becoming the subjects—and objects—of those aid operations. The process of becoming the subject/object of an intervention can lead to the creation of new, often politicized communities and identities that may not have existed previously and that often extend beyond the lifespan of the organization. Disadvantaged or underrepresented groups, such as children, may gain social legitimacy through this process; meanwhile, social norms of community assistance can be disrupted through the implementation of a new system of aid. An underlying theme that persisted throughout the conference was that of change and disruption. We want our theorizing to be disrupted, to take on new forms as researchers seek to explore NGO structures and activities in new lights. The conference title itself, “NGO-graphies,” was chosen as a prompt for participants to take seriously the theorization of NGOs and nonprofits through various geographic and ethnographic lenses.
Despite the great abundance of anthropological research dedicated—whether centrally or tangentially—to the study of nonprofits, remarkably little of our data gets shared with the organizations themselves. Questions about the methodology and ethics of researching nonprofits surfaced at the AAA meetings in past years, revealing concerns on publishing potentially negative work about NGOs and nonprofits who open their doors to academic researchers. NGOs—especially large, multinational organizations—are more equipped than many of anthropology’s traditional subjects to read and comment on the work we produce about them. Participants at the NGO-graphies conference recounted stories of past bridges burned with NGOs that were both the subjects and sites of anthropological research. How, participants asked, can we temper the organizations’ expectations of our writing so that our published—or pre-published—work to which they are privy does not surprise them and lead to a freeze-out of academics in the future?
While there is no easy answer to this dilemma, we can attribute much of the disconnect between professional academics and the professional nonprofit sector to a broader lack of communication between both areas. There is much that academics could learn about the progress, pitfalls and ongoing tensions felt by professionals in the nonprofit sector who are not a part of the specific organization(s) that we study. And, as we saw at the NGO-graphies conference, there is information that anthropologists collect and interpret that is fundamental to the functionality of many NGOs. Two sessions were led by professional NGO workers who brought forth specific challenges their organizations have been facing, with the hope that the anthropologists in attendance could offer new ways for practitioners to internally analyze their own projects and foment deeper commitment from the local groups with whom they work. This type of communication is part of an important collaborative relationship that could be ongoing and integral to anthropological work on NGOs, rather a relationship that only some researchers, as individuals, have come to sustain with particular nonprofits.
The NGO-graphies conference sought to create a sustainable bridge between these bodies by inviting Denver-based international nonprofits to lead their own sessions and, perhaps more importantly, to participate as colleagues in the rest of the two-day conference. Collegiality and collaboration are key for our discipline to build a cohesive understanding of the NGO phenomena that have become so significant in our work. Each new perspective, each new angle of theorization and each challenge to the status quo of anthropological knowledge on nonprofit networks will enhance this understanding. The Interest Group on NGOs and Nonprofits of the AAA is committed to being a platform for expanding debates in this arena. We encourage your participation in these conversations too: visit our website (ngo.americananthro.org) and plan to join our next conference, to be held coinciding with the AAA meetings in Washington, DC in late 2017.
Rebecca Mantel convenes AAA’s Interest Group on NGOs and Nonprofits. She successfully defended her dissertation in November, 2015 at Rice U. She recently joined the Millennials Project, a Miami-based NGO focused on gender-based violence prevention.