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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 1 .

NGOs and Civil Society: Democracy by Proxy?
Ann C. Hudock

Oxford: Polity Press, 1999
140pp. Index. Biblio. Pb.: £11.99; ISBN 0-7456-1649-6

Much has been written about civil society, democracy and the role of NGOs in resolving ethnic conflicts, but few books have explored the links between them. This short volume is a first attempt to redress the balance.

Hudock argues that in order to be effective in their aims, NGOs need to be more comprehensive, coherent and coordinated in their activities. They need to concentrate on building genuine foundations for democracy and civil society and not just on creating a democratic façade. In order to achieve this, she argues, the focus of NGOs must shift towards encouraging local ownership of policies and working with civil society at grassroots level.

However, according to the author, this failing cannot be put down solely to a lack of will or efficiency. Instead, she argues, promoters of democracy and civil society have too often assumed a role that in most cases has been marked more by a proliferation of interests than a genuine desire to resolve conflict and build a durable peace. As a result, many areas of ethnic tension in desperate need of outside help are littered with ill-conceived projects often conducted by agencies that are unaware of local circumstances and take little - if any - account of local input.

This circumstance, Hudock claims, is down to the relation between what she terms 'southern' and 'northern' NGOs i.e. those NGOs located in less-developed countries beholden to those organisations in developed countries and which control the purse strings. The relation is one of power and bureaucracy and it is here that Hudock aims to make an original contribution to NGO literature. By drawing on organisational theory and theories of power relations, Hudock aims to develop a conceptual framework for understanding the operational strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and constraints of much NGO activity and to highlight the political nature of their activities. In so doing, she aims to draw out strategies to make NGOs more independent of their benefactors and thus allow them to contribute more effectively to the development of civil society.

The project is admirable and Hudock manages it in clear and accessible language that avoids the didactic tones often found in such analyses. However, despite this, the author's achievements are in fact quite limited. Throughout the book, the analysis is confined to an examination of one subset of NGO activity - that of NGOs working in the field of international development - and the author's choice of illustrations is often limited to an examination of the activities of one NGO, the Association for Rural Development (ARD), for which Hudock worked as projects assistant. As a result, many interesting areas in the book are insufficiently explored and, at times, appear superficial. This is a shame since, as the structure and acknowledgements of the book belie, the work obviously stems from a more substantial doctoral thesis.

Graham Holliday

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