Engagement, Expectations, and Disappointment among British NGO Activists

Abgeschlossenes Projekt


This study focuses on the social engagement of activists in non-governmental organizations and, in particular, the expectations and ideological views connected to their involvement in NGOs operating at the transnational level.

The study approaches this topic by researching disappointment as an experience that is key to political-social engagement. This provides a perspective on the actors’ motivation to work with NGOs, while the analysis of their disappointment also offers a means of understanding how activists deal with conflicts and setbacks in their activities.

The study works with the example of the developmental aid organization War on Want, founded in the early 1950s by intellectuals and representatives of the British workers’ movement. From its very beginnings, the NGO pursued a vision of the just distribution of global wealth and overcoming poverty in the Third World. While these premises have, generally speaking, remained unchanged, War on Want has undergone various shifts in strategy and direction over the course of the past decades, each of which was met with extensive debates over what was to be organization’s “proper” orientation. Disappointment over the lacking implementation of the group’s ambitious and ideologically inflated aims played a crucial role in all of these controversies.

A comparison will be drawn between War on Want and Amnesty International. While the activists at Amnesty were also confronted with disappointing experiences, this led to a much lesser degree of changes in their organization’s approach to its activities, which continued to center on the support of political prisoners. The study will therefore determine whether engagement at Amnesty International was connected to less elevated expectations due to the different nature of its goals, with disappointment leading to fewer conflicts and less of a need for reorientation.

The study will therefore investigate what effects disappointment has on the engagement of activists in civil society in situations with ideologically marked and elevated goals as compared with frameworks with more pragmatic expectations.

This project will be conducted within the framework of the Leibniz Graduate School “Disappointment in the 20th century: Lost Utopia – Rejection – Renegotiation” established by the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History in cooperation with the Department of Recent and Contemporary History at the Faculty of History at LMU Munich.

Publications within the project

Matthias Kuhnert

Humanitäre Kommunikation.

"Quellen und Darstellungen zur Zeitgeschichte"

Berlin 2017


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