We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

NGOs - do they help?

Girl outside school in Kenya

Not today: a girl walks past a school in Kibera, a Nairobi slum without running water or electricity, where 800 aid organizations operate. © Noor Khamis / Reuters

Witness the growth spurt in non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and you would be forgiven for thinking the world becomes a more caring place every day.

These legions of not-for-profit groupings that fan out across the world, intent on ‘capacity building’, ‘reducing poverty’ and ensuring that the ‘voices of the most marginalized’ are heard, surely reflect an acceptance that too many have suffered for too long, and the tide can turn with the right kind of wind behind it.

History, however, teaches us that the exact opposite may be true.

Whereas organized charities go back over 100 years, the term non-governmental organization is more recent, dating to the formation of the United Nations in 1945, when a select club of international non-state agencies were awarded observer status to some of its meetings. The common factor uniting this group, apart from the fact that they were neither government agencies nor businesses in the traditional sense, is that they would have an avowed mission to work for a social good – whether it was as torchbearers for human rights, the environment or just old-fashioned ‘development’ (a new-fangled idea back then).

Fast forward a few decades and we witness an explosion of NGOs. The spur was the rise of neoliberal ideology, eventually enshrined in the Reagan-Thatcher years. Predatory capitalism and the so-called free market were the answer; government needed to be hands-off with regard to all notions of public provision (healthcare, education, the lot).

Increasingly, governments began looking to NGOs to provide cheap services, a role that continues to grow with austerity policies. However, rarely does government funding to NGOs match the scale of the cuts. Aid to ‘developing’ nations also began increasingly to be funnelled via NGOs rather than through government organs – between 1975 and 1985 the amount of aid taking this NGO route shot up by 1,400 per cent.1

With the fragmentation of the Left under the neoliberal attack, much of the energy that could have gone into fighting the power went into forming the NGO – they became repositories of a residual idealism still reeling from the onslaught. Arundhati Roy describes the transformation achieved: ‘Armed with their billions, these NGOs have waded into the world, turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists, funding artists, intellectuals and filmmakers, gently luring them away from radical confrontation.’2

Today, 30 new ones are formed every day in Britain; and there are 1.5 million in the US alone.3 Fully 90 per cent of currently existing NGOs have been launched since 1975.4 Roy calls them ‘an indicator species’, saying: ‘It’s almost as though the greater the devastation caused by neoliberalism, the greater the outbreak of NGOs.’5

Partnership or challenge?

Along with governments and corporations, the two torrents of power in the global landscape, NGOs are seen as a third force. Indeed, the big international ones – the BINGOs – with budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars are pretty powerful. But are they a countervailing force, striving tirelessly for social justice and the underdog? Poverty alleviation may be the rhetoric, critics argue, but in practice little that is lasting has been achieved on this front by NGO activism.

There is the compromising nature of their funding to consider – today contributions from governmental and intergovernmental aid agencies and from corporate donors often form the largest chunks of their income. Although some BINGOs will still deny it, this influences their outlook, making them increasingly accommodated to the wishes of their donors. Their language becomes all about forming partnerships with these interests, rather than challenging them. Work within the system, and business will transform the lives of the poor – it’s the Bono school of development, but with taxes.

In a recent article Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, the secretary-general of Civicus, a global network of civil society organizations and activists, wrote: ‘We have become a part of the problem rather than the solution. Our corporatization has steered us towards activism-lite, a version of our work rendered palatable to big business and capitalist states. Not only does this approach threaten no-one in power, but it stifles grassroots activism with its weighty monoculturalism.’6

‘It’s almost as though the greater the devastation caused by neoliberalism, the greater the outbreak of NGOs’

In a short educational film called ‘Does aid work?’ made by Oxfam (‘produced with the financial assistance of the European Union’) the argument is that increased aid by rich countries will help people lift themselves out of poverty and make it a thing of the past.7 How exactly? By providing health interventions (anti-retroviral drugs for 1.4 million people in the last few years) and education (40 million children being educated). These are excellent things, no doubt about it. But Oxfam fails to mention how a poor, educated person on anti-retrovirals manages to magic themselves out of poverty in a system that is only interested in extracting their labour at the cheapest possible price.

On the other hand its latest report, ‘Even it Up: time to end extreme inequality’, is more to the point, informing us that the world’s richest 85 people have grabbed wealth equivalent to the poorest half of the world’s population.8 It makes an urgent case for progressive taxation, action on tax evasion and for governments to invest in public services. It details some of the violence inequality does, cautiously praises some countries (Brazil, China – but oddly not the more revolutionary Venezuela) for achieving higher wages for workers, and is a model of reasonableness. It makes a series of excellent recommendations – including telling governments to govern in the public interest – but stops short of calling full out for a redistribution of this obscene wealth. Instead it suggests a cap on the income of the richest 10 per cent equivalent to that of the poorest 40 per cent. A fine advocacy document no doubt, but the coalface is elsewhere.

And we have heard such noises before. Indeed, many a campaign to hold transnationals to account has petered out into ‘working with business’ and corporate social responsibility projects. We are at such a pass that some BINGOS actively seek corporate ‘partners’ with the promise to make the latter look good by association (see ‘The company they keep’).

Funding dependency and a hierarchical, corporate culture – many heads of BINGOs come from the business world – are a large part of the problem. According to Sriskandarajah: ‘Our conception of what is possible has narrowed dramatically. Since demonstrating bang for your buck has become all-important, we divide our work into neat projects, taking on only those endeavours that can produce easily quantifiable outcomes. Reliant on funding to service our own sizeable organizations, we avoid approaches or issues that might threaten our brand or upset our donors. We trade in incremental change.’6

Doing it for the donors

NGOs, not just the giants, face huge, entrenched, complex problems; due to donor pressure they are increasingly forced to respond with a discrete project with x number of deliverable outcomes. They reach out to us, too, in this way – ‘your $50 will buy mosquito nets for a family of four’. Social change doesn’t work like that, yet, increasingly, NGOs striving for it are forced to.

On assignment to cover the human cost of the military dictatorship in Burma in 2008, I came into contact with a number of NGOs run by Burmese people operating just across the border in Thailand. I was a bit taken aback by the number of reports thrust into my hands; obviously the funding of reports was popular among donors.

One particular feminist grouping impressed me with the breadth of their concerns. The usual report writing, educational and income-generation activities, were just the tip. Below the radar they were in dialogue with Burmese opposition political groupings, building up everyday feminist values, promoting co-operative social organization within the refugee camps, acting as big sisters to children orphaned by the military, doing their best to shelter other refugees who were in hiding as ‘illegals’ in Thailand. The group was reaching out, undercover, to communities back in Burma and above all keeping alive the flame of active resistance to the military regime, when it would have been all too easy to give up hope.

These women seemed able constantly to adapt to new challenges and were respected by the people they worked with. Little of this was fundable. So they also did the conferences and presentations in hotels and labyrinthine project applications that foreign funders required. I couldn’t help thinking that their real achievements were despite what was expected of them.

Most media scrutiny of NGO accountability is of how they use funds, their accountability to donors. But what of their accountability towards the recipients of their interventions?

A common complaint is that the linkages of aid which NGOs deliver set a predetermined agenda on the kind of services they offer. Historian Diana Jeater writes of her experience: ‘When I first started working in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, I was impressed by how all the NGO workers I met emphasized the need to listen to rural women. I was quickly disillusioned when I realised that “listening” meant “finding out how to present what we want to deliver in ways that make them acceptable to rural women”.’9

More serious are the charges that they NGOize popular resistance movements, acting as unelected spokespersons, deflecting energy away from confrontation with self-help projects and the like, and dividing communities struggling against dispossession. ‘They take sections of people into their fold,’ said one Indian activist, ‘and restrict their concern for these people, while others do not exist. They breed small hopes, solve small issues and take small actions while the movement process is attempting to address the larger issues of displacement facing all our people, NGO beneficiary or not.’10

Indeed, many of the most radical popular movements today refuse any funding from NGOs, only forming alliances when the NGO could help spread their message.

Do they help?

So, to turn to the question posed at the beginning: do they help?

Brand aware: Turkana women in Kenya carrying the Merlin medical charity’s bags handed out at a health post. Merlin joined Save the Children in 2013.

Frederic Courbet / Panos

We could start with Bangladesh, which has the world’s largest national NGOs, effectively operating as a parallel government – they put more money into development activities than the government does. Most of their beneficiaries remain firmly below the poverty line. There is criticism, too, of the market model of development they have followed. This has been over-reliant on microcredit, which produces ‘rational profit-seeking individuals’ rather than community efforts – to say nothing of the debt traps many have found themselves in.

Or we could look at the Philippines, where I had the opportunity to observe first-hand how joined up small radical NGOs were, both with each other and the communities they were reaching out to, unafraid of supporting people’s resistance. Successive governments have actively encouraged NGO participation in government departments and on all kinds of local boards. Has this co-opted them? The successes they have achieved remain localized. They have been able to make no dent in the fundamental problem that has plagued the country – the concentration of wealth and land in just a few hands and continued élite governance. The 25 richest Filipinos continue to grow richer, with assets almost equal to the annual income of the country’s 55 million poorest citizens.11

It is perhaps unrealistic to expect such large structural changes to be delivered by NGOs when governments don’t tackle them either.

When it comes to emergency humanitarian assistance, certain specialist NGOs are the first port of call. Criticism often follows later about duplication of efforts, mishandling of the situation or of not being consultative enough in reconstruction efforts. But no assistance is the worse option in this instance.

Work within the system, and business will transform the lives of the poor – it’s the Bono school of development, but with taxes

On the environmental front we have some of the most activist large NGOs, whose members are unafraid to put their bodies on the line, as well as some of the most corporate friendly and compromised (read about the latter on page 20).

NGOs have achieved much in single-issue campaigning, ranging from the abolition of slavery to the landmines ban and access to HIV medication.

When it comes to defending human rights, whether it be espousing the causes of political prisoners or mounting challenges to the persecution of sexual minorities, they have often invited the ire of governments. It is this kind of work that governments want to shut down when they seek to ban NGOs or to stop them receiving foreign funds.

Sadly, this is not a disinterested field with universal values. Western NGOs can be quicker to condemn human rights abuses in the Majority World than in their own. Human Rights Watch has come under fire for its revolving door with the US government: in 2009 its advocacy director Tom Malinowski, who had previously served as special assistant to Bill Clinton and speechwriter to Madeleine Albright, even justified CIA renditions ‘under limited circumstances’.12 It has also shown bias in its reporting of war crimes committed by Israel and Palestine.13

Even the clumsy, lumbering BINGOs achieve much in material terms, but will they really put their shoulders to the wheel behind the greatest liberation struggle of our times, the struggle of the 99 per cent for greater equality? If the largest appropriators of the planet’s wealth want to pose as grand philanthropists, should NGOs really line up to take their cash? Can they please get beyond donor benevolence – and being delivery vehicles for highly politicized and often harmful aid – to reconnect with people’s struggles for justice?

NGOs are expected to be non-political, but everything they do, operating within highly skewed systems of power, cannot but be political. They might as well get their hands truly dirty.

  1. Ji Giles Ungpakorn, ‘NGOs: enemies or allies?’, International Socialism, October 2004; nin.tl/1xAbhWD.

  2. In ‘Capitalism: A Ghost Story’, Outlook, 26 March 2012; nin.tl/1sztS0w

  3. Paul Vallely, ‘Giving to charity: Are we getting as good as we give?’, The Independent, 10 September 2014; and Wikipedia.

  4. Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, ‘NGOs losing the war against poverty and climate change, says Civicus head’, The Guardian, 11 August 2014.

  5. In ‘Help that hinders’, Le Monde diplomatique, November 2004.

  6. ‘NGOs losing the war against poverty and climate change, says Civicus head’, The Guardian, 11 August 2014.

  7. Oxfam website, film posted on 28 April 2010; nin.tl/1rz9A7r

  8. Posted 29 October 2014; nin.tl/1zNoTTT

  9. In ‘Zimbabwe: International NGOs and aid agencies – Parasites of the Poor?’, 5 August 2011, African Arguments; nin.tl/1u76L4U

  10. Dip Kapoor, ‘Social action and NGOization in contexts of development dispossession in rural India: Explorations into the un-civility of civil society’, in NGOization: Complicity, contradictions and prospects, edited by Aziz Choudhry and Dip Kapoor, Zed Books, 2013.

  11. Sonny Africa, ‘Philippine NGOs: defusing dissent, spurring change’, in NGOization, see 10 above.

  12. Open letter by Nobel Peace Laureates among others, 12 May 2014, AlterNet; nin.tl/1tDiXIr

  13. Jonathan Cook, ‘Shock and awe in Gaza’, Counterpunch, vol 21 no 7, 2014.

Subscribe   Ethical Shop