Non-governmental Organizations on Development Issues
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- This page: https://www.globalissues.org/article/25/non-governmental-organizations-on-development-issues.
- To print all information (e.g. expanded side notes, shows alternative links), use the print version:
On this page:
- What are NGOs?
- Neoliberal Economic and Political Agenda Has Seen a Greater Role of NGOs
- Criticisms of NGOs Come From Many Areas
What are NGOs?
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become quite prominent in the field of international development in recent decades. But the term NGO encompasses a vast category of groups and organizations.
The World Bank, for example, defines NGOs as
private organizations that pursue activities to relieve suffering, promote the interests of the poor, protect the environment, provide basic social services, or undertake community development. A World Bank Key Document, Working With NGOs, adds,
In wider usage, the term NGO can be applied to any non-profit organization which is independent from government. NGOs are typically value-based organizations which depend, in whole or in part, on charitable donations and voluntary service. Although the NGO sector has become increasingly professionalized over the last two decades, principles of altruism and voluntarism remain key defining characteristics.
Different sources refer to these groups with different names, using NGOs, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), Private Voluntary Organizations (PVOs), charities, non-profits charities/charitable organizations, third sector organizations and so on.
These terms encompass a wide variety of groups, ranging from corporate-funded think tanks, to community groups, grassroot activist groups, development and research organizations, advocacy groups, operational, emergency/humanitarian relief focused, and so on. While there may be distinctions in specific situations, this section deals with a high level look at these issues, and so these terms may be used interchangeably, and sometimes using NGOs as the umbrella term.
Since the 1970s, it has been noted how there are more non-governmental organizations than ever before trying to fill in the gaps that governments either will not, or cannot.
The above-mentioned World Bank document points out that
Since the mid-1970s, the NGO sector in both developed and developing countries has experienced exponential growth…. It is now estimated that over 15 percent of total overseas development aid is channeled through NGOs. That is, roughly $8 billion dollars. Recognizing that statistics are notoriously incomplete, the World Bank adds that there are an estimated 6,000 to 30,000 national NGOs in developing countries alone, while the number of community-based organizations in the developing world number in the hundreds of thousands.
Such organizations must operate as a non-profit group. While in that respect, NGOs are meant to be politically independent, in reality it is a difficult task, because they must receive funding from their government, from other institutions, businesses and/or from private sources. All or some of these can have direct or indirect political weight on decisions and actions that NGOs make.
Professor of anthropology, Richard Robbins, in his book, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (Allyn and Bacon, 2002, Second Edition), suggests a few reasons why NGOs have become increasingly important in the past decade or so. Amongst them (from pp. 128 to 129):
- The end of the Cold War made it easier for NGOs to operate
- Communications advances, especially the Internet, have helped create new global communities and bonds between like-minded people across state boundaries
- Increased resources, growing professionalism and more employment opportunities in NGOs
- The media’s ability to inform more people about global problems leads to increased awareness where the public may demand that their governments take action of some kind.
- Perhaps most important, Robbins suggests, is that some believe NGOs have developed as part of a larger, neoliberal economic and political agenda. Shifts in economic and political ideology have lent to increasing support of NGOs from governments and official aid agencies in response.
Neoliberal Economic and Political Agenda Has Seen a Greater Role of NGOs
Neoliberalism is a dominant ideology being pushed around the world today spearheaded by the United States and various other nations, and known as the Washington Consensus.
One of the many aspects of this ideology is to minimize the role of the state in things like health and education; NGOs and other organizations receive funding as an alternative to the state.
There is a good deal of evidence, Robbins says,
that NGOs are growing because of increased amounts of public funding. (p. 129)
However, the neoliberal ideology and its policies have also come under much criticism in recent years around the world, including mass protests in many countries, because of their social impacts, sometimes devastating.
As a result, a number of alternative, grassroots type of NGOs have grown in both developed and developing countries campaigning and researching issues related to globalization, social justice, the environment and so forth. These are independent of government aid. However,
NGOs not dependent on state aid are the exception rather than the rule as Robbins also adds (p. 129).
NGOs as a Weak Third Sector Compared to Governments and Corporations
Some have observed that in a way then, the complex group termed NGOs are seen as the weaker part of a triumvirate, or
third sector to counter the other two actors, the state and the market.
It is suggested that NGOs are a natural outcome of a free democratic and capitalistic society. The idea is that as market forces require more and more relaxations of rules and regulations for their benefit, society will naturally demand social justice to balance out negative aspects of market forces such as exploitation and environmental degradation.
This leads to a romantic notion of what Adam Smith, regarded as a father of capitalism, described as a
hidden hand in his 1776 book, Wealth of Nations, where through the pursuit of self-interest, hidden forces would automatically help balance things out.
Yet, NGOs are typically weaker because they are not as financially independent as the other two actors, and are often dependent upon them. Or, when independent, they typically do not have the resources and political power that the other two wield (for example, both states and corporations can own large influential media organizations), and are not as well and long established as the other two.
One of many effects then is that many NGOs are subject to political and market forces, as Jude Howell and Jenny Pearce observe, quoted at length:
NGOs as Dependent on Governments and Corporations and NGO Neutrality
Howell and Pearce also note that civil society cannot really be grown from
outside; it comes from within society; it reacts to specific historical, social and cultural contexts.
In the past, many development NGOs gained a bad reputation with developing countries because they were seen as arrogant and going into poor countries and telling people how to do things, or doing things for them. They have also been described by some as the modern missionaries, referring to the imperial and colonial times, where things like converting people to Christianity was considered the moral thing to do by European and American missionaries.
And even in recent years, some NGOs, aid organizations and development institutions from the
North have been described sometimes as being tools or part of the objectives of the foreign policy aims of the northern nation from which they come.
Howell and Pearce also note that donor agencies can appear neutral but that may not be the case:
It is not that donor programs are entirely negative, Howell and Pearce add, but that they are certainly not neutral (p. 84). By making various assumptions they conclude that donor agencies risk becoming
creations of the outside, embodiments of external norms and goals, and materially dependent on outside rather than local sources.
David Rieff, writing in The Nation expands those ideas suggesting that strengthening the civil society sector goes in line with the neoliberal idea of reducing the role of the state:
Criticisms of NGOs Come From Many Areas
There has also been criticism on how NGOs have used their funding and other monies received or raised. Criticisms range from pointing out that only small percentages go to people in need, that a lot goes to recover costs, and some have even been used to pay very high salaries of the people at the top of these organizations.
In some cases, this is fair criticism. In other cases, these arguments have been used by those who wish to paint a dark picture of NGOs in general because NGO research may ultimately criticize their practices. It has to be expected that NGOs need to pay for expenses, for permanent staff and for various other costs incurred.
Due to the pressures of obtaining and maintaining funding, much effort is spent on marketing, and the already constrained budgets require many NGOs to ensure optimal efficiency, similar to private corporations. Sometimes then, the actual activity can be affected due to the need to raise funding.
It is easy to think of NGOs as one group. However, the interests and perspectives are so diverse, that summarizing and generalizing criticisms that can be valid to all NGOs and similar organizations is obviously unfair. Indeed, there are many NGOs now that don’t really work in tune with government and corporate interests as suggested above, but seriously challenge and criticize. As David Lewis and Tina Wallace write in an introduction to their book on development NGOs:
Inadvertently Doing More Harm Than Good?
Another type of criticism for some NGOs is that despite good intentions, they may be doing more harm than good, without realizing it.
For example, many food aid groups where, in non-emergency situations, food is delivered from rich countries for either free, or virtually free, end up under-cutting local producers and hence have a negative effect on local farmers and the economy (as shown in this web site’s poverty sub-section on hunger and food dumping.)
As another example, many organizations working on population-related issues risk doing more harm in other societies due to either misconceptions about over-population, or misunderstandings about family and community structures in those societies. (See this web site’s section on population for more details.)
Aid has often been seen as an altruistic action often coming from religious roots and therefore seen as a moral thing to support. However, sometimes, what gets lost is the type of aid that is administered. While many wealthy countries are cutting back on their already low aid contributions, the discussion/criticisms and debates should also focus on the types of aid.
A lot of official aid, and that raised and distributed by NGOs, in the past has been based intentionally, or unknowingly, on foreign policy objectives, or the interests of the lenders, less of the recipients. Aid has often led to excessive dependency or reliance on aid rather than helping nations move away from this.
It is not that the poor are unable to do things themselves, but with the aftermaths of colonialism, corruption, conflicts and so on, rebuilding and developing often requires outside assistance. The form of assistance that would be preferred is one that allows the recipient to help them help themselves, along the lines of the famous age-old quote:
Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.
Reliance on Philanthropy May Reveal More Fundamental Issues
We hear more and more about philanthropic organizations set up by mega-successful business elites, where millions of dollars are donated to seemingly worthy causes. However, the fact that such donations are needed also serves as an indication that development policies and globalization policies in their current form are not sustainable! The following quote summarizes this notion quite well:
And, as Noreena Hertz points out in the UK’s Observer paper, when there is economic down turn, corporate help and charity diminishes and so we shouldn’t become more and more reliant on it alone.
Dr. Stella Goings of UNICEF also points out that,
Laying a foundation for a strong economy and not reliance on charity is a start to poverty reduction.
David Rieff, mentioned above, also adds that the belief that civil society will be able to cope where nations have failed is
a counsel of despair as civil society does not have the ability the state would have:
NGOs Showing Positive Signs of Change?
On the positive side though, there is also an increasing number of organizations from developing countries as well as both new and more established ones in the industrialized countries, doing important work, helping to raise important issues or tackle various problems.
In recent years as well, development and environmental NGOs for example, are learning that they can be more effective, and their work can have more positive effects, if they work with the actual communities and help them to empower themselves. Working at the grassroots level helps to provide assistance directly at the source. Often corrupt governments can intercept much assistance so this approach is sometimes favored.
However, there is still much that needs improving. For example, a study commissioned by the Finnish foreign ministry and co-ordinated by researchers at Helsinki University to study issues of bilateral development suggested that there is an inequality in the relations between organizations of the North and the South. The study points to
inequalities despite the shift from the imperious paternalism in development aid practices during the 1990s as described by Inter Press Service (IPS). One of the researchers for the report highlight an aspect of this difference:
Criticisms From Government and Corporate Interests
Criticism of NGOs also come from another quarter: corporate-related interests. Because there are a number of development and social-justice oriented NGOs that criticize excesses of concentrated and corporate capitalism, and because some of these criticisms are slowly spreading, corporate funded research and think tanks are hitting back. As hinted further above, this is almost to be expected. Some criticism is no doubt valid, as also discussed on the World Social Summit on Development (WSSD) page on this site.
On that page, back in September 2002, note was made how right wing think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute made some valid criticisms about NGOs, but that their criticisms were also tainted by their own ideological biases too.
Criticism has typically come in the form of questioning the
undemocratic nature of NGOs, because the people didn’t choose them, yet they claim to be fighting for various issues for the people.
At the same time, however, the same criticism could be made of many mega-corporations and their enormous influence and power (far more than NGOs). Even some governments, including democratic ones, can be faulted for becoming less democratic in a variety of ways, from concentrating power, to bending to corporate and corporate funded influences, etc. Quoting what was mentioned on that WSSD page, for example:
While there are no doubt problems with many NGOs, many, from the third world especially are highlighting issues that their leaders and other leaders and elites around the world are unwilling or unable to address for a number of reasons.
- Many NGOs are beginning to work with people in local and grassroots situations more effectively, often when governments don’t.
- From a business interest perspective, many NGOs are indeed critical of transnational corporate interests. In that context then, NGOs are seen by them asundemocratic, when they are just as legitimate a part of civil society as businesses are.
- Furthermore, the business interests being spoken for are not exactly democratic themselves.
- The power wielded by just a handful of corporations is enormous, more than many nations, compared to NGOs and other segments of society.
- Business lobbies and related groups do not have even the theoretical accountability to the public at large but to their industries and companies. Their resources and influence are immense.
Furthermore, the rising number of NGOs could be regarded as relating to failures of state and markets to provide all the requirements of society.
The above-mentioned American Enterprise Institution (AEI) has also been the same institution at which U.S. President George Bush has made numerous speeches on various domestic issues to foreign policies, such as the war on Iraq. That institute is considered right wing and friendly to many perspectives of
neo-conservatives that make up major parts of the Bush Administration.
But, as Jim Lobe, of IPS reported on July 12, 2003, two right wing think tanks are turning on NGOs.
AEI and another right-wing group, the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, announced Wednesday they are launching a new website (www.NGOWatch.org) to expose the funding, operations and agendas of international NGOs, and particularly their alleged efforts to constrain U.S. freedom of action in international affairs and influence the behaviour of corporations abroad.
The NGOWatch web site was launched at a conference looking at the undemocratic nature of NGOs. Their web site, should nonetheless be of interest, despite the ideologically based criticisms of just a certain type of NGOs.
Lobe added that the site will look at NGOs that are in some ways trying to curtail U.S. actions abroad as well as U.S. corporations. Yet, around the world, many have indeed criticized U.S. foreign policy and corporate behavior for undermining international law, violating human rights, etc, even while it is claimed that these are being supported.
In that context, it could be seen that AEI etc are themselves politically motivated with their site, for their fundamental beliefs are in essence, being challenged. Author and activist, Naomi Klein is less reserved and writes in a critique that the NGOWatch web site is more like a blacklist:
On their home page, NGOWatch.org states that
This site will, without prejudice, compile factual data about non-governmental organizations. It will include analysis of relevant issues, treaties, and international organizations where NGOs are active. Technically speaking, it is indeed likely to indeed be
without prejudice when it comes to detailing factual data. However, how they choose who to criticize and on what ideological grounds is also likely to not be
without prejudice. As an example of that, consider what Jim Lobe further pointed out:
On the issue of accountability, a UK organization, One World Trust is embarking on a project, called the Global Accountability Project, to try and compare accountability of various bodies such as transnational corporations and NGOs.
They also commented on the NGOWatch web site noting that
The criticisms made by NGO Watch are not without foundation, but the conclusions drawn from them will make our world a poorer place, with even fewer mechanisms for taking the concerns of citizens around the world to international forums in order to help decision makers build the political consensus we need to solve the major problems facing us. An important point is made in that preceding sentence.
- That is, some may argue that many NGOs are undemocratic and claim to speak for people who do not necessarily agree with them.
- Instead, citizens should challenge their governments (assuming democratic ones here for the moment), as they are elected representatives of people.
- Yet, and may be a bit cynically, others will argue that many democratic leaders are under more influences (of money and power) from large corporations compared to citizens.
- As citizens feel more and more grieved about various issues, they may form groups and non-governmental organizations as a way to indeed attempt to make their governments listen to their concerns, which also indicates that states and markets are not completely fulfilling everyone’s needs.
In addition, One World Trust adds,
From the abolition of slavery, the drafting of the UN Charter and its subsequent formation through to the campaign for the International Criminal Court and the ban on anti-personnel mines, NGOs have made a critical difference to our world. A whole host of other important campaigns and successes could be listed too, which could also indicate situations where citizens feel their elected representatives do not listen to them as much as say the influences and interests of lobby groups for multinationals and other privileged special interests etc, were they not to form such groups themselves, which still do not typically have the power and influence of wealthy corporations and elite.
In that context, it is interesting to note that when AEI and others claim that such NGOs are constraining U.S. freedom of action in international affairs and influence the behavior of corporations abroad, it is often on issues that much of the world may be in agreement of, but the position of the U.S. or a few allies may be at odds with, as many examples throughout this site highlights. But as Naomi Klein in her above-mentioned article also notes, while issues such as accountability are the reasons highlighted, the motives for criticizing certain types of NGOs are politically and ideologically triggered.
The timing of the launch also coincided with the director of the U.S. government’s development agency, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Andrew Natsios, reportedly saying that NGOs that received USAID funding for projects in Afghanistan and elsewhere were not giving sufficient credit to the U.S. government as the source of the aid. In the same article as above, Klein comments on this as well:
As mentioned nearer to the beginning of this page, NGOs can come under a variety of pressures, from states and corporate interests, and this seems to be such an example. Those NGOs which are more critical of state and concentrated corporate interests are the ones most likely to face the most criticism.
Just after the launch of the NGOWatch web site, on June 26, 2003, SunstainAbility in partnership with the Global Compact and the United Nations Environment Programme launched a report on NGOs in the 21st Century. They concluded that NGOs are likely to be an important factor in the future in both determining the roles of states and businesses as well as operating as businesses themselves:
If the current political, economic and social policies continue around the world as they are, the need for work from various non-governmental groups will still be needed. Although an increasing number of organizations would hint towards fundamental problems in the international systems and institutions, their contributions and research will no doubt be very valuable, but they must be careful not to fall into the traps that they have in the past.
- Sustainable Development Introduction
- Addressing Biodiversity Loss
- Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development
- Poverty and the Environment
- Non-governmental Organizations on Development Issues
- Foreign Aid for Development Assistance
- Water and Development
- Corporate Social Responsibility
- Energy Security
- Brain Drain of Workers from Poor to Rich Countries
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