Critical Thinking: NGOs and the Making of the Twentieth Century

In this post, Kevin O’Sullivan, NUI Galway, talks about teaching NGO history and it’s potential for helping students develop their critical thinking. 

My PhotographMy students looked concerned. It was week 10 of my module on ‘NGOs and the Making of the Twentieth Century’ (part of the MA in History here at NUI Galway). We were discussing the role of NGOs in global governance. And the group had come to the conclusion – I could see it in their eyes – that I’d finally lost it completely. Are you suggesting, one of them asked, that NGOs, states, and international agencies were all in this together? That each of the humanitarian, environmental, and anti-poverty groups that we had studied over the semester was not only challenging officialdom – they were doing its bidding as well?

For two hours we threw those questions back and forth. Two lively hours spent talking about the role of NGOs in making and sustaining the power of the West. Two enjoyable hours spent seeking out the places where voluntary action history starts and political, social, and cultural history ends. Two hours in which the students’ concern for my sanity turned first to acceptance of my apparent eccentricity, then to critiquing it, and finally to an open embrace of the complex dynamics of non-governmental action. ‘My brain hurts’, one student tweeted afterwards, ‘Wouldn’t expect anything less … The wheels are definitely turning.’

Those two hours captured everything I love about teaching the history of NGOs. The subject’s depth. The students’ challenges. And the satisfaction that comes from their energetic embrace of a topic that has expanded rapidly over the last decade. We read, write, and teach in an era in which historical research on non-state actors is booming. Ten years ago voluntary action history was a relatively marginal pursuit. Today it has entered the mainstream. We now know the twentieth century as an age of volunteering, of expertise, and of ‘ordinary’ politics – a ‘century of NGOs’. And the more we understand, the more the subject itself continues to grow. Keeping up with the special issues, edited collections, books and articles that make up our reading lists has become a (pleasingly) trickier pursuit.

But it is the critical thinking that NGO history engenders that I love the most. On that damp November morning (disclaimer: I can’t remember what the weather was like, but it’s safe to assume that Galway in November was wet) our primary concern was to unpack the role of NGOs in how the West imagined, organised, and ‘encountered’ the global South. In the hands of the students, however, the conversation evolved into a debate about the very fabric of the West. Our discussion of nongovernmentality led us to probe more deeply into the nature of power and how it is expressed. And from there we began to unravel the threads that constitute our contemporary world.

The history of non-state action, we concluded, is not simply one of charity, philanthropy, and the benevolent acts of NGOs. It offers a window on the everyday: from the act of placing a coin in a collection box, to the motivations of the volunteer, to the operation of civil society, on a global scale. And the very process of uncovering those connections in turn teaches us to question the nature of the ‘ordinary’ and to seek out the intricate connections that shape and sustain our everyday worlds. There is comfort in complexity, in other words – especially when it comes to NGOs.

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