NGOs will fail if they succumb to extreme ideology

In recent years, many of the world’s leading NGOs have undergone a rapid transformation towards more diverse and inclusive organisations and workplaces. Many organisations such as Action Aid, Amnesty International, WWF or Greenpeace were founded in the 1960s and 70s by predominantly British and North American men. For a long time, these organisations had a fairly homogeneous workforce and leadership from the Western middle class.

Today, these large NGOs are much more diverse in terms of ethnicity and gender, and many of them are now headed by women or people from the Global South. To shift power from the Global North to the South, Action Aid was a pioneer in moving its headquarters from London to Johannesburg.

A more ethnically and racially diverse workforce brings experience and perspectives that are valuable to organisations trying to find solutions to global problems.

At the same time, however — and this may seem paradoxical — NGOs are losing ideological diversity. They increasingly entrench themselves in a narrow ideological space defined by a worldview that sees the world primarily through the lens of power and privilege and the struggle against Western colonialism, patriarchy and racism.

These ideas and struggles are far from new, but they used to be espoused mostly by smaller groups of radical activists, whereas now they increasingly inform the strategies of many of the world’s major NGOs, regardless of the causes they traditionally pursue.

For example, we can see that organisations like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace frequently now express their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Friends of the Earth and Action Aid even actively promote the slogan of #defundthepolice and the ideas behind it.

The organisation Seas at Risk sees a strong link between ecological destruction and the oppression of women: “Patriarchy & overexploitation of the Earth’s resources are two faces of the same coin. A logic that sees women & nature as something to be controlled and exploited.” And argues that “in order to halt the climate crisis, we must also take down the patriarchy.” The European Environmental Bureau recently published a long report on this question arguing that “masculine norms are deeply institutionalised in climate institutions; hence, policy makers adapt their actions to the masculinised institutional environment. This report pushes for truly transformative gender mainstreaming in environmental policy while dismantling systems of oppression.”

Interpreting everything in terms of power and power structures

All these are legitimate positions to be held. They should be discussed, and the underlying assumptions examined. They are probably based on some truth. But at the same time, they are the result of what moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes as monomania, the obsession with viewing the world exclusively through one lens, in this case the lens that interprets everything in terms of power and power structures. If you constantly look for systems of oppression and pay attention to nothing else, what you will find are: systems of oppression.

There is certainly some strategic logic behind the idea of embedding the single issues that NGOs traditionally fight for in a broader framework that helps forge a movement of movements to gain political power. The political theorist Chantal Mouffe has been arguing for a transversal movement between the different progressive struggles for some time.

However, the main reason for this development is the broader cultural moment in which we find ourselves in Western societies. It is a moment in which religions have been in very rapid decline in recent years and in which many young people in particular are looking for something that offers meaning and purpose and fills the void that religions have left behind. Intersectionality has become something like a religion for many of them: It offers a clear and exciting framework to fight for, a giant matrix of oppression where the victims, instead of fighting their battles separately, come together to fight their common enemy, “the group that sits at the top of the pyramid of oppression: the straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied Christian or Jewish or possibly atheist male.” (Haidt)

Many young people who studied intersectionality at university are now working in NGOs (among other institutions such as the media in particular) where they strive to put these ideas into practice. Judging by the pace at which these organisations are changing, the young activists are very successful in doing so: as the above examples show, NGOs are increasingly adopting the intersectional framework to their external communications, including advocacy and campaigning.

Research has shown that groups often adopt the more extreme positions already taken by a minority of its members. This is what I think is happening at many NGOs.

These (mostly) younger staff members advocate for the mainstreaming of intersectionality throughout the organisation, which over time leads to a new (extreme) groupthink in the organisation. Staff members who don’t agree with the new dogmas start to believe that they hold minority positions (which is often an erroneous belief). They often stay silent for the mostly unconscious fear of being isolated (the so-called spiral of silence). As humans we are endowed with an evolutionary instinct to find social harmony with our group — we harmonise our beliefs with the people around us.

All this means that internal conversations in many NGOs have become much narrower ideologically than they were only a few years ago. Those who don’t adapt to and accept the new dogmas often leave or in some cases are asked to leave the organisation if they are considered dangerous according to the tenets of intersectional ideology.

There are two main problems with this development:

Groupthink impairs the capacity to solve problems

First, the loss of ideological diversity among staff impairs the organisation’s ability to analyse problems and find workable solutions and strategies. The new groupthink and tabooism engendered by a dogmatic worldview stifle the creativity so desperately needed to solve the most pressing, deep-rooted social and environmental problems.

The issues NGOs are dealing with are all complex and cannot be solved easily. Possible unintended consequences in other parts of the system, including impacts that are often geographically and temporally distant, need to be considered. This requires an open enquiry that takes into account different perspectives on the problem. However, an atmosphere in which dissent is not welcome and ideological groupthink prevails is the perfect breeding ground for radical utopian solutions that ultimately lead not to improvements but rather to dystopias.

Isolation in one’s own ideological bubble

Secondly, communicating an intersectional worldview might create stronger bonds with the most progressive audiences but will alienate the organisation from a large section of society that does not share this ideology. It could even exacerbate the current spiral of polarisation and tribalism in our societies and make it even more difficult to achieve the broad societal consensus that we urgently need to address our most pressing problems, such as climate change.

The strategy of building power through intersectional movements is based on faulty assumptions about the values held by most people in our societies. The majorities of Western societies perceive the ideas based on intersectional (or woke) ideology to be an urban elite project that is detached from their reality and morality. Since 2018, the organisation More In Common has published a series of reports on the values and political views held by several Western societies. The results show that only 8% of Americans, 13% of British citizens and 16% of Germans hold the values and political views that are fully in line with progressive activists (and woke ideology).

Thus, NGOs isolate themselves in their own ideological bubble and lose any connection to people who would otherwise sympathise with and possibly support the organisation’s traditional cause(s).

The consequence of shutting down debate internally and of alienating staff and supporters who don’t agree with the radical intersectional worldview is that these organisations will lose relevance in the medium-long term. They will pursue strategies and solutions that will not have the necessary impact in addressing the causes for which these NGOs were founded. In the long-run they will lose their funding base.

To illustrate how NGO policies can be improved by taking into account perspectives and insights that are rarely part of internal discussions these days, let us look at two slogans that have been strongly supported by many NGOs recently:

Smash the patriarchy to save the planet?

Why are so many NGOs campaigning against the patriarchy and why is it apparently an important step in addressing the ecological crises?

From an intersectional perspective, patriarchy is a system consisting of social structures and values that have oppressed women for millennia. As a result, women suffer from male violence and have been excluded from much of economic and social life. Accordingly, Western men are also responsible for colonialism as well as most of the environmental destruction of the past centuries, during which men made most public and economic decisions. According to recent research, men are also more materialistic and less pro-environmental than women.

If this were (in essence) the whole story, it might seem really logical and wise to believe that fighting or smashing patriarchy is a necessary condition to save the planet and finally liberate women.

However, here are some ideas that are most likely never discussed or taken seriously in those organisations that have identified patriarchy as an important problem to campaign against:

The writer Mary Harrington does not believe that “there exists an eternal conspiracy against women, called patriarchy.” She argues that what we think of today as feminism is a story of economic transitions, of how men and women re-negotiated life in common, in response first to the transition into the industrial era, then into twentieth-century market society. She says: “If everyone today seems to be arguing about men and women again, it’s because we’re in the throes of another economic transition.”

The philosopher Svenja Flaßpöhler questions that Western societies are still patriarchal, given the efforts made in recent decades to reduce discrimination against women in most areas of political and economic life. Diversity policies now often give an advantage to women in many career situations. And since the 1960s, Western education systems have been transformed to create more gender equality by adapting to girls’ learning styles. But because these approaches are often ill-suited for the needs of boys, they are now dramatically falling behind girls in Western education systems. Consequently, many young men struggle to succeed in academia, find a well-paid job and become an attractive partner for marriage.

A feminist might argue that these developments are a just compensation for millennia of injustice done to women. But then the question is if ultimately women do really benefit from millions of men failing in academia and professional life. For the many women today who cannot find a partner they want to marry because of the increasingly lower socio-economic status of men, it means that they face potentially lifelong loneliness.

This is just a small glimpse of what a discussion on patriarchy might look like in an open-minded atmosphere where different perspectives are heard and considered. It could lead to a shift in focus from “smashing the patriarchy” to asking the question of how men and women can have equal opportunities to lead happy and fulfilled lives, and how we can support each other in achieving this goal.

Similarly, it’s difficult to imagine a realistic strategy for how smashing the patriarchy could save the planet. This idea might dissolve on its own when one considers the full complexity of the problem. These are radical utopian ideas that inspire many activists, but ultimately have little practical value and offer no solutions to the ecological crises we face. Assuming that the above-mentioned research is correct that men are more materialistic and less pro-environmental than women, this is probably due to both cultural and genetic evolution. In any case, it will be necessary to develop a good understanding of our evolutionary past as well as a high level of consciousness of the complexity we’re dealing with. We need to create a future where both sexes can thrive within ecological limits.

Defund the police to support black communities in America?

Similarly, we can ask whether the slogan “defund the police”, which has been supported by many international NGOs since the death of George Floyd in early May 2020, can contribute in any way to improving the lives of black people.

The outrage around the world was unprecedented when George Floyd was killed by a police officer. Anger over police brutality and systemic racism in the police led the Black Lives Matters movement to call for cutting police budgets, spending less on law enforcement and incarceration, and instead investing those funds in community services such as counsellors, teachers and mental health services for black communities. The activists believe that investing in police reform would not work and that investing the money in “human-centred services” would make communities safer and more prosperous.

So much for the utopian vision of the activists. But is this a demand shared by black Americans and especially by those living in high-crime cities? It seems not. Although the majority of black Americans feel that their local police often do not treat them fairly and with courtesy and respect, most of them oppose budget cuts to the police. According to a recent poll in Minneapolis — the city where George Floyd was killed and his murderer was convicted a few months ago — three quarters of black people in the city oppose the idea of defunding the police. National polls show a similar picture.

Since the George Floyd protests the homicide rate has soared across the United States. In 2020 the increase was 30%.While there are likely a number of reasons for this trend, the “defund the police” movement appears to have played an important role. In the wake of the George Floyd protests, more than 20 major American cities — including San Francisco, Portland, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Philadelphia and Baltimore — cut their police budgets by a total of $870 million, according to the Guardian. Many cities transferred much of these budget cuts to investments in community services, mental health programmes and “community-based safety strategies”. Following the protests against George Floyd, the police in major US cities also held back on arrests. According to Jerry Ratcliffe, a professor of criminal justice, the police abruptly adopted a hands-off approach after the protests because they received signals explicitly through management decisions or implicitly through social media and the community.

Given that approximately 55% of all homicide victims in the United States are black, 90% of whom are murdered by other black people, these trends are particularly troubling for black Americans.

The “defund the police” movement has most likely done more harm than good for the people it was supposed to help. Believing that black communities will be safer if police budgets are cut significantly and instead invested in mental health and community services has always been a utopian idea with little chance of success. This is not to say that building closer relationships and trust between local police and communities is not a good idea. However, this has little to do with “defunding the police” as Black Lives Matter meant it and as most people, including city governments, understood it. Instead, one conclusion from the murder of George Floyd could have been to significantly increase funding for the police to invest in training, pay police officers better and recruit more qualified personnel. Many American cities have now realised this. Budgets for policing are being increased again.

“Defund the police” is a divisive slogan that, instead of improving the lives of black Americans, has backfired and likely contributed to more black Americans being murdered over the past 18 months. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Action Aid and many other NGOs were blinded by intersectional ideology when they endorsed the slogan.

NGOs must foster viewpoint diversity

NGOs are successfully becoming more inclusive workplaces by promoting greater gender and ethnic diversity among their staff. At the same time, however, they have become more ideologically homogeneous. The current trend towards ideological radicalisation could even harm the very people that many of these organisations claim to support or protect. This must urgently change if NGOs are to continue to make an important contribution to addressing the world’s increasingly complex problems.

All perspectives on reality are a reduction of reality. Each of them contains blind spots that are unavoidable. The best way to improve the thinking in organisations, then, is to increase the diversity of thought among staff and in meetings, and especially to avoid systematic biases that occur when most group members share the same ideology.

We humans are all biased and often blind to our own errors. The journalist Jonathan Rauch says: “What matters is not that the individuals of a community be unbiased but that they have different biases, so that I see your mistakes and you see mine.”

NGOs must ensure that there is no culture of fear and that different views are not demonised in the organisation. Ideas must not be judged by their ideological loyalty, but by their quality and capacity to solve the multidimensional problems we’re facing.

To create new, out-of-the-box ideas, NGOs must welcome disagreeable people who do not conform to the group’s thinking. Creative individuals who score low on the personality trait of agreeableness can easily be silenced or ignored when the focus is on group consensus building. However, creative new ideas often don’t emerge from group processes. Disagreement needs to be actively encouraged and disagreeable people need to feel valued.

The Protopia Lab: a new undogmatic pluralistic dialogue

To support people in NGOs and other organisations who believe we need a new conversation to address our most pressing issues, we have launched a new project called Protopia Lab.

Through this project, we are developing innovative tools and working with people from across civil society to step outside our ideological frames and engage in undogmatic pluralistic dialogue. We seek deeper wisdom and truth from a plurality of disciplines and ideologies.

Our aim is not the perfect world, but protopia, which is a process that takes into account multiple perspectives, acknowledges that there are always multiple trade-offs to consider and avoids throwing the baby out with the bathwater when making changes to the system. Nobody has all the answers for how a better system will ultimately work and look like. We propose a process of trial and error, an evolutionary search process towards protopia.

The Protopia Lab is based on the core belief and wisdom expressed by the philosopher John Stuart Mill that “conflicting doctrines, instead of one being true and the other false, share the truth between them.”

We focus on the core question that guides the Protopia Lab: How can we become wise agents of change to help make lasting change in our complex world so that life on Earth can flourish?

If you believe it’s time to start a new conversation at your organisation, please drop me a note.



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Micha Narberhaus

Micha Narberhaus is a researcher, writer and founder of The Protopia Lab. Twitter: @michanarberhaus