Non Governmental Organisations, commonly referred to as NGOs, are part of a movement in the world of development which has gown significantly over the last century. However, it is important to define and clearly outline what is meant by the term NGO. Amongst academics in the world of development studies there is some ambiguity regarding the definition of an NGO but according to Jennings NGOs tend to focus on three things: 1) independence from the state 2) Not-for-profit (independence from the market) 3) social welfare objectives in its work. These three components are part of a theme where NGOs are seen as an alternative to government intervention. This desired exclusion from the government is how such a sector was formed because of philanthropic work and the growth and evolution of international development policy. Such a shift in international development policy meant that these new organisations were seen as “alternatives to dominant models, practices, and ideas about development” according to Bebbington, Hickey and Mitlin (2008). Furthermore, this shift in international development policy has meant that NGOs are an important actor in development because they are often the voice of the people not working in government, thus they, NGOs, have high levels of public trust and have become influential donors to developmental causes across the world. However, when answering the question of the essay one must consider what Bebbington, Hickey, and Mitlin (2008) said: “NGOs can only be understood in terms of their relationship to more constitutive actors in society”. Therefore, in this essay, I will compare the strengths and weaknesses, with regard to development, of NGOs as well other actors such as: the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Department For International Development (DIFD), and USAID. Overall, throughout this essay, I will present evidence which will ultimately allow a conclusion to be made regarding the success of NGOs in development compared to other actors.
Before declaring if NGOs are better at development than other actors it is important to understand the strengths of NGOs. Often the philanthropic work is perceived to be ‘successful’ or ‘good’ because they are close to the community in which they work. According to Bebbington, Hickey, and Mitlin (2008), “they build relationships, particularly with people’s movements… to provide a platform for challenging existing development approaches”. Often NGOs will seek to spend time and study a certain environment so that the people in said place can have their specific needs met.
Since different social groups and societies have different needs and requirements it is important, in the eyes of NGOs, to spend time finding out what the people themselves feel they need most. The academic Vasudha Chhotrary recalls, in her article “Political entrepreneurs or developmental agents: An NGO’s tale of resistance and acquiescence in Madhya Pradesh, India” (see Bebbington, Hickey and Mitlin (2008)), how Samaj Pragati Sahayog (SPS) “repeatedly asked villagers to tell them of their problems”. Thus through interacting with the local people, NGOs not only build a relationship with the community but you are making it easier to reach the poorer people in a society.
Moreover, since NGOs have no vested interests they can be perceived as independent and supporting of the needs of the people in a certain environment. As previously mentioned, the NGO movement has grown almost astronomically over the last century and according to Edwards (2000) “The 176 International NGOs of 1909 had blossomed into 28,900 by 1993”, but why has this movement in particular grown so much? According to Edwards “NGO enthusiasts see this as evidence of a fundamental ‘power shift’, an ‘associational revolution'”. Due to this ‘power shift’ or the change in international development policy NGOs have become more in demand because the general public are beginning to favour non-sate actors. This increase in the demand for non-state actors is partly because “Involving NGOs is cost-effective public relations” since many International Agencies believe that “partnerships with NGOs contribute to more efficient project implementation and a lower rate of failure” (Edwards 2000). Not only are NGOs seemingly very efficient in terms of their project implementation but their lower rate of failure, compared to other actors in development, means they are perhaps less of a financial risk for large International Agencies. Additionally, NGOs are popular actors in development because unlike other actors they provide “additional channels for popular participation” and they “ensure that those on the margins also have a voice” (Edwards). Hence, from the perspective of a person keen to conduct philanthropic work NGOs offer the ability to participate and help those who are less fortunate and from the perspective of International NGOs, choosing to work with an NGO makes the agency itself look better since they are allowing others to help but also making sure that the voice is heard of those who are struggling so that the important people, the ones who actually need the help, are being seen to properly. Hence, the mindset towards developmental work has changed, in the western world, where now non-sate actors have a crucial role to play in international and global
governance, and NGOs are appearing to be the ideal actor for any person or organisation looking for an alternative to the common state actions seen in much of the earlier 20th century developmental world.
An example which demonstrates how NGOs have a good understanding of the poor and their desire to strengthen civil society is illustrated by Mark Robinson (see Edwards and Hulme (1992)) where they discuss work done by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). The ODI conducted 16 projects, 4 in each of: Bangladesh, India, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, and all were located in rural areas and centered on credit, income generation, skills training and technical assistance. Also, each of these projects contained broader social objectives with the goal of seeking to increase participation, improve self-reliance or enhance social mobility. As a result of the projects 12 out of the 16 projects broadly achieved their objectives and had a seemingly positive impact in alleviating poverty. The work done by the ODI not only illuminates the ability of NGOs to reach those in the poorest sector in a society, even those is rural areas, but also the high success rate of projects conducted by NGOs. Overall, the strengths of Non-Governmental Organisations is that they have a high success rate in terms of alleviating poverty in places where people are struggling due to their vast knowledge on how to co-operate and work with less fortunate people. Additionally, NGOs are seen as an alternative to government based actors in development and thus they are able to use a wide variety of approaches which differ from the governmental norm, among these approaches is the use of participation from the people who make up the general public. Thus, there are a variety of reasons as to why NGOs have had a meteoric rise over the last century and why the continue to be so appealing to people from all perspectives within the world of development.
However, it is important to establish the fact that NGOs are by no means perfect actors in the world of development and they do have their critics. According to Mark Robinson (see Edwards and Hulme (1992)) “It is recognised that NGO activities are generally small scale and that they reach a relatively limited number of people”. With reference to the previously mentioned work of the ODI despite 12 out of the 16 projects helping to alleviate poverty 25% of the total projects did not meet their objectives. When working on such a small scale it can be argued that NGOs should be aiming to meet their objectives on all fronts because the demand is not so high when compared to the scales at which other actors in development operate. Additionally, whilst NGOs were successful in
aiding people in rural and extremely poor areas the work done by the ODI was proven to be of only marginal benefit to women in the societies in which the aid work was conducted. Indicating that they might not be as close to the poor as they claim to be. Additionally, in only a minority of projects did the benefits significantly outweigh the costs of the intervention, this then suggests that the ODI was not making a significant enough impact in the areas in which it was working but more that their methods were not cost efficient enough. Furthermore, the ODI projects suffered from a problem of what Edwards (2000) calls “short-termism” whereby relatively few of the projects demonstrated the actual potential to survive post the departure of the NGO, meaning that there will not be a long-lasting effect of the work done by the ODI. NGOs are seemingly plagued by this concept of “short-termism” where they need to improve and make sure they are “properly grounded, tested and critiqued” (Edwards 2000) otherwise the work done will only be useful in the short term and it will mean that an impoverished area will have to be revisited in a few years after their initial work was conduced. Edwards proposes that NGOs should change from “conversations strategies” to “engagement” which aims to support a process of dialogue where NGOs can attempt to think more in the long-term. It is important that when aid work is conduced the idea of self-sufficiency is implemented, meaning that the people who are in need of aid can learn how to ‘survive’ and develop their society on their own without the help of foreign intervention constantly.
As well as operating on a seemingly small scale and possessing the idea of short-termism NGOs are also commonly critiqued due to their “transparency”. This is because often NGOs claim to represent and be the voice for the poor but according to Edwards (2000) they are “rarely specific about which poor people they are representing and how”, thus illustrating the issue of ambiguity with regard to the term “poor” almost using the term as a blanket statement of sorts to give the illusion that they are giving aid to those in need of help. But Edwards states that most NGOs “accept that their policy positions are their own”, whilst NGOs might appear to listen to the needs of the people they claim to help they actually have their own motives and the point is made that these hidden ideals could be a disguise for “northern interests” in the attempt for “a more subtle form of colonialism”. This claim by Edwards is an extreme generalisation of the mindset possessed by NGOs but the foundation of his argument is interesting as it proposes the idea that perhaps NGOs are not purely altruistic and they do possess their own motives. Similarly, this idea is further illustrated through the work of Bebbington, Hickey, and Mitlin (2008) who discuss how one of the most difficult challenges for NGOs maintaining a “sense of autonomy and commitment to social
justice while operating within the new security agenda”. An example of this challenge is Oxfam’s education campaign which has been criticised because of its “focus on western models of schooling, so often criticised by sociologists for reproducing inequality” (Edwards 2000).
Moreover, within NGOs, there is a problem of accountability. This problem exists because NGO accountability is weak and problematic, as according to Edwards “there is no clear bottom line for results” as well as “no single authority to which NGOs should report to on their activities”. Whereas, in government based development, for example, there is a clear hierarchy and everyone involved knows who is directly above and below them. Edwards proposes “accountability mechanisms” which go downwards, helping the poor, and upwards, to the donors who fund the NGOs, thus making people more responsible for their actions and perhaps alleviating possible errors.
As previously mentioned Non-Governmental Organisations are not the only actor in development, another actor in development is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The OECD is an intergovernmental economic organisation based on the idea of increasing economic development and they define foreign aid as resource flows provided by official agencies with the intent to promote economic development. Foreign aid may be given to a country to increase social welfare, to tackle human rights issues or in general help the people in a nation who are struggling economically for a variety of reason. In a similar manner to NGOs governments give foreign aid in order to help those in a position where they are struggling, according to Lumsdaine (1993), the man reasons for foreign aid were often the safety and welfare of people, humanitarian reasons, as well as issues of morality. One strength of governmental aid is that unlike NGOs there is a sense of accountability, when a government aid programme makes a mistake it is easy to pinpoint who is at fault and they may be critiqued and this will lead to, hopefully, improvements in the area to prevent the same mistakes happening again. Additionally, governmental aid, whilst perhaps not appealing to the new international developmental policies, is reliable because there are many people who put faith in their government as opposed to a small NGO. Through a governmental aid, programme aid may be distributed on a larger scale whereby more people can be helped.
However, governmental aid actors like the OECD, in a similar manner to NGOs, are from perfect. For example, according to Lancaster (2007) “the provision of foreign aid has developed into an international norm”, additionally foreign aid is perhaps not the altruistic act it may appear to be. Countries may give aid to one another for multiple reasons, perhaps the donating country wants something in return from the less economically developed country, later on, additionally, as a result of international relations, some countries are appealing, when it comes to giving aid, for a wide range of socio-political reasons. This idea is highlighted by Chhotary (see Bebbington, Hickey and Mitlin (2008)) that “development machinery continue to present development as a technocratic process that does not involve politics” and that politics should be left out of development and the overall goal should be the alleviation of poverty and the increase of social welfare within a population. Thus, whilst foreign may be distributed for moral reasons and for the welfare of the people it does not mean that every social group that needs aid receives it, governmental aid organisations, as a result of their working hierarchy, are given restrictions with regard to who they may give aid to.
Moreover, Elsa and Dawson (see Edwards and Hulme (1992)) highlighted in their article “Mobilisation and advocacy in the health sector in Peru” the strengths of NGOs and the weakness of the government in terms of aid in Peru. NGOs in Peru seem to have a comparative advantage in relation to the government when it comes to two things: 1) the capacity to develop innovative and more appropriate policy proposals from field experience and 2) development of a much closer relationship with the population of an area. Both points illustrate that one weakness of governmental aid is that the government does not build tightly knitted relationships to the people within a society in the same way and NGO does, thus it can be argued that governmental aid lacks the trust which can be found in smaller scale aid. Also, governments appear to lack the understanding regarding the ideal way to operate in conditions of poverty, NGOs have a greater understanding of poverty and how to work with the people in the best way in order to give them exactly what they believe they need most urgently. Overall, whilst being motivated by moral values and humanitarian rights, other actors in development are far from perfect as, like NGOs, they are also heavily critiqued due to their attempts to appear purely altruistic and their inability to build relationships with the people they are giving aid to.
In conclusion, I believe that NGOs are better at development than other actors because of the evolution of international development policy whereby they provide “additional channels for popular participation. But they are also better at development in my opinion because they seek to understand the needs of the people suffering and they attempt to build relationships with the people they are helping. Of course, NGOs are far from perfect but I believe that if they attempt to amend their issues regarding short-termism, accountability, and transparency, to name a few, then they will become the ideal actor in the ever-changing world of development.