“Innovative and grassroots driven organisations with the desire and capacity to pursue participatory and people centred forms of development and to fill gaps left by the failure of states across the developing world in meeting the needs of their poorest citizens” (Banks and Hulme 2012, p.2)
Over the last 40 years the influence and impact of NGOs on world development has grown and transformed from high popularity and success in the 1970’s and 1980’s to over shadowing and criticism in the 1990’s and onwards. This is a brief look into the controversial impact that NGOs nowadays have on the lives of some of the poorest people on the planet and aims to answer the question, do we still need them?
A common complaint of NGOs is the way in which they have depoliticised poverty. Since the 1990’s good governance agenda, the gap in which NGOs were founded has become smaller and the role of NGOs in civil society has been put into question. Where once they were seen as the innovators and “sweethearts of the development sector”, it has now been realised that they only make up one piece of civil society and world development (Banks and Hulme 2012, p.2-9). Originally set up to promote democratic change in society, NGOs have lost “their ability to respond to and take political initiatives” (Joseph 2001, p. 146) rendering them useless in terms of the creation of public spaces where interests come together for the ‘common good’ which, according to Joseph, can only happen in a political arena (Joseph 2001, p. 145-150). Although it is true that NGOs often ignore politics in order to reach their objectives that is what makes them stand out from other official aid organisations and the government. Although all of the above may in fact be true, we mustn’t under estimate the power of NGOs. The current refugee crisis is one of the many examples of their importance in the world. Whilst governments argue over appropriate ‘procedure’ and whose responsibility it is to look after these people, NGOs are on the ground doing all they can with their limited power to welcome the refugees, feed them and look after them after the atrocities they have gone through.
Furthermore, many have criticised NGOs for having lost their core values and as a result they have become less efficient in their efforts to help end poverty. Hailey blames the relationship between aid donors and NGOs for the loss of identity suggesting that donor’s objectives sway NGO decisions. This dependency on donor aid and lack of solid core values has caused a steady loss of aid money to other development organisations. Hailey suggests that NGOs need to redefine their core values in order to make themselves obviously separate from governments and other organisations to allow more funding and to serve the needs of their receiver communities (Hailey 2001, p.163). As well as lack of funding, the presence of donor aid often dictates the areas and programmes of NGOs meaning that they are no longer choosing to help the people who need them the most but instead are basing their target communities on where the donors are funding.
However, NGOs would say they are the most committed to the poorest populations and are the only actors which encourage, almost exclusively, ‘bottom up’ development (Grzybowski 2001, p. 209-217). Grzybowski argues that NGOs are “more committed and militant than efficient” and that without NGOs our concern and knowledge of the refugee and environmental crisis, and their detrimental impacts on all of us, would not be known. Although small in their sector in comparison to the government and other official agencies, they play a vital role in the chain of action. Non-governmental organisations are the creators of a cause which they then promote to the excluded majority to put pressure on these bigger organisations. They do this in three ‘steps’; first they bring to light the issues needing to be addressed, then they create awareness of a widespread problem and finally they mobilise the majority under one banner empowering people to fight for their own rights (Grzybowski 2001, p. 213). Unlike states and official organisations, non-governmental organisations support those fighting against inequality and exclusions which are created by the government. I guess in this context you could say that NGOs are the foundations for change and that without them self-awareness and reliance, which in turn creates ‘bottom up’ sustainability, would diminish.
Overall it feels immoral and somewhat ignorant to say that we no longer need NGOs. It is fair to say that their impact has become secondary to that of the state in terms of efficiency however they are still as valuable an asset as ever to those most in need, like the refugees in Europe. In spite of this, in order to be taken seriously in the development sector and to have a bigger impact, it is imperative that they re-evaluate their core values and become more independent of aid donors and aid donors’ agendas.
– Anderson, I. (2001) Northern NGO advocacy: perceptions, reality and the challenge, Eade, D. and Ernst Ligteringen eds. (2001) Debating Development: NGOs and the Future, Development in Practice Reader, Oxford: Oxfam.
– Banks, Nicola with David Hulme (2012) The role of NGOs and civil society in development and poverty reduction, Manchester: Brooks World Poverty Institute
– Grzybowski, C. (2001) We NGOs: a controversial way of being and acting, Eade, D. and Ernst Ligteringen eds. (2001) Debating Development: NGOs and the Future, Development in Practice Reader, Oxford: Oxfam.
– Hailey, J. (2001) Indicators of identity: NGOs and the strategic imperative of assessing core values, Eade, D. and Ernst Ligteringen eds. (2001) Debating Development: NGOs and the Future, Development in Practice Reader, Oxford: Oxfam.
– Joseph, A. (2001), NGOs: fragmented dreams, Eade, D. and Ernst Ligteringen eds. (2001) Debating Development: NGOs and the Future, Development in Practice Reader, Oxford: Oxfam.