Looking Beyond the Promises, Pitfalls, and Exaggerated Expectations on NGOs’ Roles in Development

 This blog is written by my very good friend Dwight Jason Ronan. Follow him at Vestigium

Widespread criticisms in the 1980s regarding conventional top-down approaches in delivering social services paved the way to the rapid growth and expansion of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Putting emphasis on the expanded role of the civil society — with NGOs as its main actors — was largely seen as a response to the inefficiency of governments and markets in driving development. As part of the shift towards the so-called new policy agenda, significant amount of multilateral and bilateral aid poured in to developing countries, with non-state actors serving as a magic bullet in alleviating poverty and promoting social welfare (Edwards & Hulme, 1996).

NGOs were seen as a potent force due to its strong linkages with communities and its people-centered approaches to development, initially seen as more efficient and cost-effective in providing basic social services. Aside from filling in these gaps, NGOs also played a vital role in promoting strengthened community participation, empowerment, and democratization at the grassroots level (Willis, 2011).

However, many now question the effectiveness and legitimacy of NGOs as providers of development alternatives. Banks, Hulme, and Edwards (2015) tried to take a closer look on the impact of the NGOization of development and described how NGOs have seemingly lost their touch in recent years. Broadly, Banks et al. argued that inflated views on the role of NGOs in eliciting social change still remain. After an extensive review of recent literature, the authors identified key NGO weaknesses including (a) its heavy reliance on foreign donors; (b) the professionalization of the development industry; and (c) the failure to promote community ownership of development initiatives at the local level.

Donor Dilemma

Most development initiatives — especially in Third World countries — are fueled by foreign donors. Due to very stiff competition for funding, Banks et al. (2015) emphasized that NGOs are oftentimes forced to tailor policies and programs that would fit the donor requirements and not necessarily those that fit local needs.As such, NGOs tend to focus on projects with quantifiable and tangible outcomes where donors can easily measure the “success” of these initiatives. Common quantitative measurements include number of children vaccinated, number of housewives who took part in livelihood workshops, number of food aid recipients, number of latrines built, etc. Most NGO projects are seen to be mere band-aid solutions rather than targeting the underlying causes of poverty and other social inequalities. The authors explained that this narrow focus on “short-term results and value for money” can offset long-term — albeit “soft” — development goals, such as promoting equality and empowerment. There is also the risk of benefit fraud, where the impact of “successful” achievements are overemphasized, while failures are under reported or oversimplified.

The pouring in of foreign funding to developing countries, as well as the increased influence of globalization, led to an increase in high-paying jobs offered to the educated middle class, which Robert Chambers notably called the uppers. Several empirical studies have described how these development tourists can influence local communities’ decision-making process and manipulate — or more aptly facipulate — initiatives based on preconceived biases or notions. To Chambers, true development will only be achieved once uppers start “handing over the stick” to the lowers. Cronyism between development organizations and local elites can also put the community into a disadvantage since it can effectively ignore the voices of community members who are more marginalized (i.e., poor, less educated, staying far from village centers, etc.) or may share opposing views.

The emergence of the so-called super rich, an elite few who hold a majority of global wealth, also propelled the rise of new philanthropy, where there recently has been an observed increase in their influence in the global socio-political and development agenda. These individuals, mostly heads of multinational profit-earning companies, invest in NGO projects and other charity-related initiatives. Many of these individuals have sustained their wealth by lobbying for government policies or programs aimed at protecting their interests. To some extent, this can also influence NGOs’ policy and program direction, making a case for some to argue that NGOs continue to be “agents of imperialism” and “maintain the dominance of free market capitalism” (Petras, 1999; Banks et al., 2015).

Helping people help themselves

Banks et al. (2015) suggested that NGOs, operating on the good governance dogma, need to “return to their roots” and, at the same time, adopt innovative approaches in addressing inequality and poverty. NGOs, at the very least, can act as intermediaries in “building bridges” between communities and decision makers and in setting up the conditions within which communities can empower themselves. At its most basic, community empowerment is both the process and outcome of enabling communities to make informed decisions. A key determinant of empowerment is that has to inherently come from within the community.

Recent evidences have also emphasized the positive impact of NGOs in promoting collective action and participatory governance. However, as emphasized by Suleiman (2012), one must be careful in equating community empowerment with NGOs’ assumed role in fostering democracy.

Repressive government regulations and the increasing bureaucracy in NGOs also remain to be a challenge, highlighting the prevailing mistrust among governments, civil society, and local communities. Banks et al. (2015) underscored the need for a better understanding on the inter-linkages between these key sectors. Stronger partnerships should be established and each sector should be given enough public space and autonomy.

As a follow-up to the authors’ earlier work in 1996, the article provided an up-to-date review of current discourses on NGOs’ efficacy and efficiency. In a nutshell, it revealed that the challenges faced by NGOs two decades ago continue to exist — although in a more complex manner. This complexity is much more apparent especially in summarizing the wealth of knowledge and experience in NGOs’ work in the last few years and in differentiating the role of NGOs with other civil society actors.

A minor weakness of the article is it works on the assumption that all NGOs operate in the same manner. It failed to recognize the diverse approaches and contexts wherein NGOs work. From a practical standpoint, the article might also be seen to be a little too prescriptive, portraying the perceived divide between development academics and practitioners.

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