Forces combined for good

August 10, 2001

With more academic support, NGOs will continue to be potent agents for social change, says Brenda Gourley.

The Salzburg Seminar bills itself as "one of the world's foremost international centres committed to global understanding through broadening the perspectives of tomorrow's leaders". Each year, about 1,000 professionals from more than 100 countries gather to discuss political, social and cultural issues of universal concern. In July, I was fortunate enough to participate in a session on "linking theory and practice in nonprofit leadership and management". About 70 people from 30 countries were involved. Roughly half of these were academics, and half were professionals from non-governmental organisations. Some were a bit of both, and some had left one sector for the other. We shared the aim of making the work of the NGO sector easier by incorporating what academics have to offer and of making academia more relevant to a vital component of our societies.

People who work in NGOs and those who work in academia are likely to hold values that set them apart, but those academics who are involved in NGO work are particularly special. Bring such people together, ask them to find ways to contribute to each other's work and you have a recipe for success and a unique learning experience. The NGO sector has always been important, and it is now also very large. The Economist recently said: "Non-governmental organisations will become more numerous, prominent and powerful in 2001 than ever before. Now, 30,000 international ones exist; 50 years ago there was just a handful. Domestic ones are counted in the millions."

NGOs' tasks range from social relief work to overturning governments. Globally, the bigger ones such as Oxfam, Care, Médecins Sans Frontières, Greenpeace and Amnesty are more influential than some small governments.

It is strange and even embarrassing to note that higher education has (with some exceptions) only recently discovered this sector as a critical social force that deserves study, generates knowledge and facilitates education. NGOs, on the other hand, lack the capacity and the resources to do the research and development needed to improve practice. Systems are needed to ensure that practice is informed by formal research and vice versa. The seminar was put together recognising this need.

Salzburg's organisers see the seminar as having a "deep commitment to promoting individual responsibility, global understanding and enlightened leadership". The format is designed to promote this, and this is where the mix of participants becomes such a crucial and inspirational factor. In the same room, there are people whose countries are formally at war; people who know nothing about each other's cultures; people who hold all sorts of assumptions about what academia stands for - and even some who feel betrayed by academia; people who live amid appalling poverty; people who live in obscene wealth. But what emerges is that we all hold dear basic common values. The same spirit moves us all, and it is the triumph of the human spirit that sustains us in our darker moments.

To be asked to pray together and to be led in prayer in the language of the Passamaquoddy (an American Indian tribe) was another unique experience. To find common ground in their ancient prayer - which calls on the Creator "to give us love so we can love each other for everI to help us honour and respect our children and our elders and never think anyone is less than anyone else" - was a sobering and bonding experience as we pondered the ills that many NGOs sought to change and our collective responsibility to humankind.

My own university offered an unusual tale to seminar participants. In the dark days of apartheid, we housed the headquarters of 84 NGOs, all refugees of the apartheid regime in some way. Their presence and work had a deep influence on the university - on its teaching, its research and our conception of what it meant for the university to serve the community in which it is sustained. There is no doubt that the university was richer for the experience.

The boundaries of the university world are more porous than ever, and we know that there must be some ethical and intellectual failure if none of the pressing problems of our communities impinges upon us and influences the work we do. We also know that it is part of our responsibility to produce citizens of the world.

The education process must engage our students in real problems and help them to understand their role as future leaders. It seems to me that one of the most valuable partnerships that can develop between NGOs and higher education institutions is a partnership that facilitates experiential learning, some sort of service learning, where students can engage in problems and learn how they can make a difference. As academics engage with NGOs and seek to learn how best to service their needs and how best to design learning partnerships, so too will the work of NGOs be enriched and their capacity enhanced. In the process, both partners will come to understand the values and concerns of the other, and the community and the students will be richer for the effort.

The sector as a whole is attracting serious academic attention, and centres for the study of NGOs are being established. They should be fostered and supported by higher education authorities, for they mark the beginning of a growing realisation that this is important work. In the meantime, we should salute the Salzburg Seminar for its efforts to put important and relevant topics on its agenda and for its commitment to bringing together concerned people to catalyse action.

Brenda Gourley is vice-chairman of the University of Natal and vice-chancellor-designate of the Open University.

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