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The growth and significance of NGOs
Non-governmental organizations or NGOs, as they are commonly referred to, have been instrumental in promoting economic and social development in both developed and developing countries. The term NGO stems from the late 1980s when these organizations began to become part of the development and research agenda in fields such as democracy building, human rights, conflict resolution, cultural preservation, policy analysis, environmental activism, research, and emergency response. NGOs have become important players in development at local, national and international levels. However, this is contrasted by the argument of few that NGOs have proven to be hindrances to development David Lewis & Kanji, 2009.
By considering ways in which NGOs have become associated with development and influence as well as other alternative sets of ideas and approaches to development, a case for the proliferation as a result of NGOs can be delivered.
Definition of NGOs
In order to present an appropriate case, it is important to first describe the term NGO. There is some conceptual confusion that exists regarding the term NGO. This is as a result of different definitions of the term that exist. One such definition presents NGOs as voluntary non-profit organizations that are either exogenous or indigenous in nature and are run privately to provide services such as relief, rehabilitation and development using funds raised through voluntary donor agencies and private sources. Some scholars have defined NGOs in terms of their social function. Edwards and Hulme (1996)
has also described NGOs differently as voluntary organization that are based in the community serving the community at the local, national or international level. There are many other varied definitions of NGOs but the central concepts in these definitions are the autonomous, voluntary and non-profit distributing nature of these organizations. Vakil (1997)
defines NGOs as organizations that address the complex needs of the society by motivating the general public to act as responsible citizens through promotion of diversity and pluralism thus creating a somewhat decentralized state.
Social, political and economic proliferation as a result of NGOs
Since their inception, NGOs have played three important roles. They have been implementers, catalysts and partners in development. As implementers, NGOs have been involved in mobilizing resources to deliver goods and services to the community that it supports. This is the service delivery role that NGOs have used to provide a wide range of services in healthcare, agriculture, microfinance, human rights, and emergency response. This has been the loudest role that NGOs have played and they have increasingly been contracted by donor organizations and governments to promote reforms and development goals.
NGOs have also been catalysts of change and development. In this role, NGOs have strived to facilitate, inspire and contribute towards better thinking and improved action to promote development and change. This is also directed in the same sectors described earlier and can be directed to local, national or international change. They do this together with businesses, donor organizations and governments. The catalyst role has been seen to be loudest in areas relating to gender empowerment, research dissemination, and law and policy reforms.
The last role that NGOs have played is that of being partners. NGOs have worked together with the private and public sectors on common goals. These may have included capacity-building work, multi-agency projects such as stimulating community development. It is in this role that NGOs are referred to as part of the public-private partnership since they in themselves are private organizations and they need to work with the government in order to achieve the set objectives.
In as much as these three roles of NGOs seem distinct, they are actually cross-cutting and most NGOs engage in all three roles. This is supported by a model developed by David Lewis & Kanji, 2009(Korten (1990)
that shows that NGOs shift their roles over time, place and context. In these three roles, NGOs have been instrumental in many changes around the world. In Germany, NGOs helped the development of the new subsidiarity while in the UK, they played a key role in the New Labor's Compact. In the U.S., faith- and community-based organizations played a huge role in welfare reforms during the Bill Clinton and George Bush eras. In France, NGOs have been instrumental in development of the 'insertion' unemployment policies. In Africa, NGOs have been key drivers of reforms in health care, community education, gender empowerment and policy reforms )
In many places where NGOs have become successful, they have done so by addressing the urgent priorities of the community and addressing their immediate needs. After playing this role, they often shift their focus towards development objectives or initiatives as they understand the community better. This may also be pushed by development agendas as presented by governments and donor agencies.
NGOs are often provided with alternative and flexible funding options which they use to play these roles. This has also offered them a higher chance of improving community-level development and grassroots initiates as priorities emerge or are rearranged. They have also been known to operate at lower costs as a result of setting up offices in low rent areas and fostering local participation thus reducing the number of salaried persons. As stated by Cernea (1988)
, NGOs recognize that the people in the community are central to their development agenda and thus they are able to provide donors with comparative advantages over the public sector in general. This is seen to be the most important driving force of growth of NGOs. In the 1980s, Western donors were frustrated by governments and their bureaucracies that created inefficiencies that led to misappropriation of donor funds. NGOs thus came up and offered an alternative channel for donors to reach the community.
NGOs have also been known to innovate and foster community innovation. They have been instrumental in brainstorming alternative approaches and ideas with the community and thus bringing a tailored set of progressive development agendas that actively include the members of the community through empowerment and activism. As argued by D. Lewis (2005)
, NGOs have put their imagination to work and delivered one-of-a-kind ideas that have fostered growth and development. Compared to the public sector, which is largely driven by politics, NGOs have been fearless in trying out their ideas.
NGOs have also formed an important role in balancing the public-private relationship. Through their catalyst, implementer and partner roles, NGOs have balanced the relationship between the government, businesses and the general public. They have often spoken for the public especially in policy advocacy and community organization. They help to counterweight the interest of the minority rich with those of the majority disadvantaged public to create a balanced ecosystem where they all co-exist Korten, 1990()
Critiques of NGOs
NGOs have also faced fierce criticism. This has come majorly from the argument that NGOs undermine the central nature of the state or the government, especially in developing countries. NGOs have been critical in developing countries and it is thought that about 350 million U.S. dollars is raised and spent by NGOs working in developing countries. The proponents of this argument state that at the community level, there is a shift of focus from the state or governmental institutions to NGOs. Tvedt (1998)
argued that in certain developing countries, NGOs have become more powerful than the government institutions themselves. The author presents that argument that neoliberal changes in policy are driven by NGOs by either taking responsibility of deficiencies in the policy as a result of weak or poor governments that are unable to provide services to the community or by participating and promoting de facto privatization by contracting out public services. The author gives examples of countries like India, Thailand, Indonesia and several countries in South America where NGOs run the most health service centers presenting a de facto form of privatization of health care.
This has created fuel for other critiques who have presented the argument that there is an accountability issue as a result of NGOs dividing service provision by providing key or essential services that are the role of the government. There are often unclear lines of where the community should go in trying to exercise their right to accountability.
Critiques of NGOs have also presented the argument that NGOs impose their own development agendas and thus become self-interest actors. They do this at the expense of the community people that they are in theory meant to be supporting. Mitlin, Hickey, and Bebbington (2007)
argue that NGOs have driven radical and often changes in the community which is not driven by community priorities. They have also hindered growth and development by depoliticizing the community and encouraging political opposition.
This argument is also seen in developing countries where NGOs have also been criticized for promoting and sustaining neocolonial tendencies. This has especially been seen in…