Chris Blattman thinks that NGOs are atrocious in the way they bury criticism. This was his opinion given in response to a paper showing NGOs were twice as likely to want to work with outside, independent academics who appear to have an a priori view that is supportive of the sector in which they work (microfinance in the study) than they would if the a priori view was critical.
I work for an NGO and largely agree with the Blattman. Indeed this blog has covered NGO unconstructive responses to criticism before (here and here). I also like the study design which reminds me of those experiments where identical CVs were sent out but with different names on top to test latent racist attitudes. But I think there are some important points to make in response.
- As pointed out in a comment on Blattman’s post, in the study the negative treatment email’s opening sentence of paragraph 2 is pretty uncompromising: “Academic research suggests that microfinance is ineffective.” This blunt approach, which mirrors exactly the positive treatment email, unfortunately does not conform to social norms in how we express disagreement, which is usually hedged in a way to give due acknowledgement of the correspondent’s position. In short the negative email approach does not make them sound like great partners.
- People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. We all struggle to deal with countervailing views. Science is littered with examples of where prominent academics of the time have suppressed publication of a paper that ran counter to their view of the world, only for it later to turn out the author was correct and the bigwigs wrong.
- NGOs live, work and fundraise in the real world, not some idealised planet populated by homo rationalis. The robust battle of ideas that lies at the heart of academic life may be the anomaly, not NGO responses to criticism. Inaccurate or inappropriate criticism can do a lot of damage to an otherwise successful programme. NGOs may conclude it is better to do their learning behind closed doors, and then change direction if appropriate, than to admit their failures. Like it or not, I suspect many of the most successful NGOs are probably those which more carefully burnish their reputations by controlling the release of bad news about their work.
However, in my view, none of the above constitute sufficient justification for the lack of openness amongst many NGOs in the conservation and development sectors. The time has come for admitting failure and other exercises in honest self-assessment and humility. Though the road may be tough, eventually we will all be stronger for it.