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Wednesday 13 June 2012

NGOs in Development


Non-government organizations with their advantage of non-rigid, locality specific, felt need-based, beneficiary oriented and committed nature of service have established multitude of roles which can effect rural development (Bhaskar and Geethakutty 2001)[1]. 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.[2]

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, grassroots 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 have 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):

1.       The end of the Cold War made it easier for NGOs to operate

2.       Communications advances, especially the Internet, have helped create new global communities and bonds between like-minded people across state boundaries

3.       Increased resources, growing professionalism and more employment opportunities in NGOs

4.       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.

5.       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.

Role of NGOs:

As the limitations of state-sponsored, project based, top-down development became apparent, the 1980s and the 1990s saw increasing attention focused on private, professional development organizations and the voluntary sector by development agencies. This so-called third sector is now widely seen as containing potentially viable alternatives to conventional approaches to development and relief work.

At one level the changing level of support given to NGOs suggests a significant shift in development practice, for funds are increasingly being channeled to organizations on the outside of the ‘mainstream’ which often offer radical new approaches to how the work of development discourse is far from homogeneous or rigidly fixed. At the same time, however, some critics argue that rather than enabling NGOs to change the agenda, the increased funding of NGOs by Northern aid agencies has simply brought a potential threat to them under control.

It is seen that NGOs are able to allocate resources and services more efficiently and to reach people more effectively than state institutions (Paul 1991). NGOs themselves have claimed that their comparative advantage is derived from a stronger commitment and motivation, coupled with a better ability to form good- quality relationships with people, compared with government agencies. For example, Bebbington (1991) points out in the context of agriculture development work, NGOs are more willing to ask farmers what they think, to take their farming practices seriously, and consequently to orient technology adaptation and transfer towards real concerns. The origins, activities and performance of NGOs have varied dramatically between and within different country contexts, where particular state histories have permitted varying levels of ‘space’ within which NGOs can exist and work. In countries  where a politically repressive regime has prevented local levels of organization, many NGOs have existed as radical, underground organizations, as in the case of the Philippines under President Ferdinand Marcos. Where the state has sought assistance with service delivery or project implementation, frequently with donor agency support, NGOs have often merged seamlessly with mainstream government structures. In communist Albania, the notion of a civil society with its arena for organization outside the state hardly existed at all and NGOs were unknown.

NGOs themselves are a diverse set of actors, with origins in both North and South. There are important differences in scale and between local, national and international spheres of activity. Some NGOs carry out their own project-based development activities, which can range from the direct provision of services (credit, agricultural inputs, health-care and education) to group formation and consciousness-raising, both of which aim to make people aware of new possibilities for self determined change. Others do not work directly with beneficiaries but instead fund, train or otherwise support partner organizations at the grassroots. There is also an increasing number of activist NGOs who see their work in terms of lobbying, information exchange or advocacy aimed at changing the wider policy environment. NGOs are becoming important not just in terms of their ability tow work directly with people, but also in terms of their potential contribution to the strengthening of civil society – democracy, legal rights and access to information (Clark 1990).

NGOs have claimed, with some justification, that they can work more closely with poor people than similar government agencies can (Edwards and HUlme, 1992; Bebbington and Farrington, 1993; Clark, 1990). Critics, however,  have drawn attention to the prevalence of a number of NGO mythis and show, with some success, that these supposed advantages are in fact largely unsubstantiated (Tendler, 1982). Furthermore, there is a growing radical critique of NGOs which arues that, rather than promoting deep rooted change, they actually preserve the status que by setting up a system of patronage based on the flow of development assistance, which undermies and depoliticizes local grassroots organization (Hashemi, 1989; Arellano-Lopez and Petras 1994; Tvedt 1995).

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)[3].

NGOs and Anthropological approach:

Many NGOs working directly with the poor have taken what might be described as an ‘anthropological approach’ to their field activities. Rather than working from the top downwards, many of the more effective NGOs have evolved from local communities and draw their field staff from the areas where they are working. Unlike many governmental or donor projects, they spend time discussing local interests with different sections of the community in order to build up a picture of the dynamic relationships whicy exist among different groups and classes. A distinctive NGO organizational style has emerged: field staff are encouraged to spend time with local people and pass information about their needs and interests to the NGO in order to inform and shape future policy; in addition, less rigid boundaries are visible between junior and senior staff. This contrasts with the more rigid, directive roles usually taken by government in development activities, in which officials often subordinate development agendas to the more pressing demands of control and authority (Fowler 1990).

This responsiveness to local needs can go beyond mere service delivery. In agriculture, NGOs have sometimes been able to undertake client-oriented research which has been based on agendas set by local group members and to promote technologies which meet locally generated needs, especially among the low income sections of the population which are frequently passed over by formal government agricultural efforts. The use of local institutions and practices as the starting point has often proved fruitful basis for innovation.

Some NGO work also resembles the old dream of advocacy anthropology in which outsiders try to promote the rights of the communities with which they work either during local conflicts (e.g. with local elites) or in the wider state context (land rights or the legal rights of women). NGOs find that if they wish to influence the big picture, they cannot ignore what the government is doing. At the same time, government agencies increasingly see NGOs as a source of dynamism and innovation and are seeking to draw upon their services, either by forming partnerships or in less satisfactory cases by cooption.


Just as the role of anthropologists as development participants raises a number of uncomfortable questions, there are similar dilemmas to be faced by those who argue that NGOs constitute an all-purpose solution to the problems of development practice. How accountable are these NGOs in reality, and do they merely perform better than government agencies because they receive proportionately more resources for the task they undertake? Do NGOs simply reproduce patronage relations at the local level by becoming the new purveyors of state resources in the countryside? Are NGOs there fore weakening the state further and perpetuating the weakness by drawing scarce staff and other resources away from it? However, these questions have remained unanswered. Meanwhile the most interesting fact regarding NGOs is that many have radical origins and are engaging critically with the prevailing development discourse, occasionally influencing donor and government attitudes and practices along the way.

Useful Link:

Useful Book:
Gardner, K and Lewis, D. (1996). Anthropology Development and Post Modern Challenge. Pluto Press.

[1] Bhaskar, I and P.S. Geethakutty (2001) ROLE OF NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANIZATIONS IN RURAL DEVELOPMENT: A CASE STUDY, Journal of Tropical Agriculture 39: 52-54
[2] 'Working With NGOs', World Bank, 1995,http://www-wds.worldbank.org/servlet/WDS_IBank_Servlet?pcont=details&eid=000009265_3961219103437
[3] 'Development Charities talking, from the grassroots to the internet', Durham University, UK,http://www.geography.durham.ac.uk/grassroots/