The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 11, Issue 1, November 2008

A quarterly publication of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law

The Development of NGO Support Organizations: The Early Years of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid

Dr. Patrick Kilby1

Introduction

The relationship between development NGOs and Government has been an important issue in both the civil society and public policy discourse for the past three decades. The general view is that development NGOs are dependent on Government for support and approval in a number of key areas including regulation, funding, and as a source of public legitimacy; and so they engage with Government in a generally cooperative manner (Lissner 1977; Edwards and Hulme 1997; Baig 1999; Zaidi 1999). There is also a view that NGOs, as values-based organizations, are often perceived as having problems with accountability to their supporters, to government, and to the people with whom they work. They are also seen as being amateurish (or not businesslike); too restricted in their focus; beset by scarcity of funds; fragmented; and paternalistic in their outlook (Lissner 1977; Brown and Kalegaonkar 2002). These views of NGOs are not necessarily in conflict with each other, but it is the latter view of NGOs not being accountable and amateurish that is seen to hinder developing strong relationships with government and other stakeholders. These weaknesses, Brown and Kalegaonkar argue, lead to a demand for the development of specialist support organizations that share NGO values but whose primary task is to “…provide services that strengthen the capacities of [NGOs] to accomplish their mission” (Brown and Kalegaonkar 2002, p. 239).

This article uses the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA)2 as case study of a support organization, and in particular its early years from the mid-1960s, and argues that the dependency model of NGO relations with government is fairly weak in the Australian context, with the driver for the development of a support organization being more from Government than from the NGOs wishing to strengthen relationships with government. Generally in Australia, the relationship between NGOs and government has been more complex, and a model of varying degrees of mutual dependency is a better descriptor of relations over much of ACFOA’s life, in particular the early years. This history, however, was also characterized by ongoing tensions both with Government and also within the broader NGO community, around both policy and approaches to development practice.

ACFOA was founded in 1966 as an NGO support organization at the instigation of Sir John Crawford, a senior academic at the Australian National University and formerly the holder of senior positions in the Australian Government, though he had no real links to the NGOs at the time. Crawford saw it as important for the then-growing voluntary aid sector in Australia to be able to speak with a common voice. At the time NGOs were seen as growing very quickly but in a haphazard, fragmented, and fairly insular manner (Crawford 1964).

Crawford facilitated a number of meetings in 1964 and 1965 among the voluntary aid agencies, resulting in ACFOA being formally established in 1966 with 25 members. Over the next forty years ACFOA has grown to become an integral part of the development landscape in Australia, having represented its members through periods of intense community interest in foreign aid through the 1970s into the 1980s, periods of “aid fatigue” in the 1990s, and then a renewed interest in aid in the 2000s. ACFOA has also provided a focus for its member agencies through this time on advocacy, disaster coordination, and in later years on accountability and standards-setting across the NGO community in Australia.

The ACFOA story is also about the relationship between the voluntary development agencies and the Australian Government. At one level the story supports the thesis of Brown and Kalegaonkar (2002) on the role of support organizations being involved in representing the interests and capacity building of their member NGOs; but it also challenges views of NGOs as being dependent on Government for funding and as a source of legitimacy as characterized by Edwards and Hulme (1997). For example, while ACFOA received government financial support to cover some of its core costs from the outset, it was another decade before the Australian Government was funding ACFOA’s members’ programs. It was also in this early period that ACFOA became not only an important advocate for the official aid program, but also at times a harsh critic of the direction Government was pushing the aid program—in a sense, biting the hand that fed it. A common theme throughout the forty-year history of ACFOA has been a strong level of mutual dependence with Government set in a context of a continuing level of ongoing tension, both between ACFOA and the Government and within ACFOA and its membership. This article focuses on the first ten years of the ACFOA’s life, a period critical in shaping ACFOA and its role, and one that brought out the growing tension between representing the members’ interests and the rising role of development education in influencing government policy and public opinion on aid.

ACFOA’s first five years were characterized by a search for purpose, while in the second five years it became a very vocal leader and advocate for social justice in development policy. It was in this latter period that divisions emerged both within its membership and in its relationship with Government. These tensions and their resolution provide a valuable account of how civil society processes and the tensions arising from them are important in both public policy terms and in NGO practice itself. It also highlights the dual role that support organizations can have as both leaders of and facilitators for their constituency.

The Formation of ACFOA

The origins of ACFOA probably lie in the enthusiasm for foreign aid and development that developed in the 1960s with the first Development Decade, and with it the call for stronger public involvement in the aid program.3 This call for voluntary action came from a perceived moral obligation to act on the levels of poverty and injustice around the world (Lockwood 1963). In particular, forums like the Strasbourg seminar held by the Council of Europe in July 1963 sought increased cooperation among NGOs, given the fast-growing public interest in aid (ACFOA 1964). The strong interest and growth in the work of NGOs emerged from the end of the Second World War and into the 1950s. While international NGOs had been working with the poor in varying degrees for more than 200 years,4 the end of the Second World War marked a strong growth in support and interest in NGOs, initially in the areas of conflict and reconstruction and then in the devastating famines such as occurred in India in the early 1950s and in China later that decade (Lissner 1977).5

NGOs were also receiving official recognition, especially in their work in conflict and post‑conflict situations. For example, the Quakers received the Nobel Peace Prize for their refugee work in 1947. In the 1960s, this interest by NGOs took on an official guise through the formation of the Freedom from Hunger Campaign (FFHC), which started in 1961 as a global movement of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) to raise funds and awareness of the issues of global injustice (FAO 1961; Lissner 1977). The same trends also were occurring through this period with FFHC in Australia in its first year of fundraising (1963) raising over one million pounds6 (AFFHC 1963; Anderson 1964) and becoming the major fundraising arm for international development, with funds being distributed to the other existing aid agencies.

At the same time, there was a perceived proliferation of NGOs involved in aid (Casey 1964). Even though their numbers were small by today’s standards, around thirty, they were new on the scene and were beginning to engage with Government on matters of aid policy. John Crawford, who had been involved in some of the global issues around development, picked up on the call for closer cooperation among NGOs in the European context (ACFOA 1964) and the themes of the first development decade, calling for closer cooperation and greater commitment to development and aid both public and private (Lissner 1977). His first step was to convene a two-day seminar hosted by the University and funded by a private foundation in April 1964 to discuss NGO cooperation (Crawford 1964). Twenty-six agency representatives attended as well as officials from the Department of External Affairs. While agencies presented on what they were doing and what they would see cooperation among themselves offering, generally they were wary of the whole project. However, Crawford “charmed them into cooperation” (Webb 2006). The upshot was another, more focused meeting in July of that year, funded by the Department of External Affairs, attended by nineteen NGOs. There, the NGOs supported a resolution to set up a body (ACFOA 1964). ACFOA itself held it first official meeting April 5 and 6, 1965, with a group of seven founding members, and a further fourteen members being admitted at the time.

The formula agreed to was one of collaboration among agencies rather than integration, and doing so within a relatively simple structure (ACFOA 1965a). The focus was to be on advocacy on relief and development, and refugees and migration, with research, development education, and government relations undertaken under each theme (ACFOA 1964). The role of Government in this whole process was important, including officers of the Department of External Relations preparing the key discussion papers for Crawford (ACFOA 1964; ACFOA 1965a). One of the first acts of the ACFOA Executive was to seek fifty percent of ACFOA’s running costs from the Department of External Affairs (ACFOA 1965b), and while this was not immediately agreed to, the Department did cover the cost of the first Council meeting in August 1965 (ACFOA 1965c) and subsequently covered around half ACFOA’s running costs. From this account of the sequence of events it is clear that Government was instrumental in ACFOA’s formation, and the links and authority that Crawford could exert both with government and the agencies were substantial, both in getting the NGOs on board and later in keeping the Government at bay (Cullen 2007). What is less clear is whether Government led the process or was led within it.

This genesis of a peak organization of aid NGOs in Australia is a little different from what happened in other places. Lissner argues that umbrella organizations emerged after World War II “… when extensive cooperation between government and voluntary agencies necessitated closer coordination among voluntary bodies themselves” (Lissner 1977). Lissner goes on to cite the case of American Council of Voluntary Agencies for Foreign Service (1943) and Swiss Aid (1947) as early examples. In Australia the formation of the umbrella body preceded (by almost a decade) substantial cooperation programs between Government and the NGOs.

There were other ways also in which ACFOA story did not follow the trend of NGO cooperation/co-option with government. Lissner argues that agencies’ search for legitimacy is the reason they engage with government. This way they gain “…government acceptance as a mark of quality that negates the idea of amateurism” (Lissner 1977, p. 106), which is in line with comments twenty-five years later by Brown and Kalegaonkar (2002). While this trend may emerge much later in ACFOA’s life, at the time of its formation there was little evidence of this search for legitimacy. It was Government, or Crawford with a strong background in Government, that saw the advantages to both the Government and NGOs and pushed the process, maybe as the Government’s way of negating what it saw as the “reality” of amateurism. What occurred instead is that ACFOA’s links with Government, which were very clear at its foundation, raised issues of ACFOA’s legitimacy or at least its relevance with its own members rather than with Government.

The new Council set out ACFOA’s role and relationship both with Government and its members, under an overall principle that

… the huge and widening gap between the poorer and wealthier nations of the world and between rich and poor people within nations which result in deprivation of basic human rights for more than half the world’s population constitutes a denial of natural justice and is a continuing threat to world peace (ACFOA 1966b, p.1)

This wording with the focus on human rights, inequality, justice and peace, in a sense set the focus for ACFOA’s development education and advocacy work for the next forty years. The policy also carefully spells out the nuances necessary for working with government “… depend[ing] largely on meeting these various motivations in a common interest” recognizing Government’s motivation as “national interest,” while for NGOs “the point of entry is a concern to help people in need” (ACFOA 1966b, p.3). The policy also notes that “Constructive criticism is an expression partnership,” signalling the ongoing tension both within ACFOA and with Government, which ACFOA has had to live with and which came to the fore in the early 1970s.

The 1970s: the Rise of Development Education

I have always considered the most useful function ACFOA can perform is that of bringing constantly before the Australian people the needs of developing countries and the possibility which exists for developed countries both at governmental level and through their individual citizens, to help meet those needs ... I hope ACFOA’s educational activities among youth groups everywhere, including universities will increase over the next few years (Crawford 1972a, p.1).

While there had been a focus on development education since the early 1960s, informing the public of issues of development and stressing “… the formation of public opinion” (AFFHC 1963, p.1), it was not until the 1970s and the Second Development Decade of 1971, which called for a more active involvement of civil society and NGOs in development forums and in the development debate, that led to a strong push for development education within that program of action.

The Education Unit of ACFOA started in January 1971 with the employment of an education officer and the engagement of a lobbyist (Sullivan 1974). One of the first activities that ACFOA was involved in was to bring to public attention the situation in then East Pakistan (to soon become Bangladesh) and the rising refugee crisis. This was part of a global campaign including the Concert for Bangladesh (also a film) and a hunger strike in Australia by an Indonesian student Paul Ponomo as a protest of the Australian Government’s inaction in the Bangladesh situation. There was widespread press coverage and major demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, and media support (ACFOA 1972a). This all led to the first public embarrassment of a Government instigated by ACFOA and the NGOs, and was to set the tone of development education being closely aligned with the activism of the time. Yet the ACFOA constituency included many agencies with strong altruistic but conservative values that generally eschewed political action.

The flagship of the Education Unit was the Development News Digest, a bimonthly development issues magazine launched in mid-1972, whose approach was to bring to the fore the key issues of social justice at the time—the most significant being the anti‑apartheid campaign, in which the Springbok tour of 1971 was critical, and the war in Vietnam. On both issues, some within the ACFOA membership believed that these campaigns went beyond their mandate and were too political (ACFOA 1972b). While this more radical approach to development education had strong backing from the Protestant and Catholic Church aid arms and other groups, it did represent a radical departure from existing approaches to aid, which were about service delivery to reach the people the state was unwilling or unable to reach. At best, by this view, ACFOA should lobby for more aid and fairer trade arrangements, all within the existing system. Given the Cold War backdrop, many of these radical movements were seen to be “fellow travellers” with Third World socialist and communist regimes. This approach of seeking change to the existing order sowed the seeds for the later divisions that were to emerge between the traditional aid agencies and the development education and solidarity support organizations that were also members of ACFOA. Another issue, which strictly speaking fell outside the mandate of ACFOA but with which it was concerned in its development education work, was the plight of Aboriginal Australia, with many member agencies involved in indigenous issues.

The Divisions Emerge

Despite the success of the development education work, its official recognition and sanction, and the increasing profile given to foreign aid under the new Labor Government, questions began to emerge in late 1973 and early 1974 as to whether the work of ACFOA, especially its development education work, was moving away from the needs of the members and their concerns. The advocacy work on South Africa and Vietnam in particular concerned some members, who felt that ACFOA should take a less partisan and more neutral stance on the political issues of the day. In early 1974, the Red Cross withdrew from any association with the Development Education program (ACFOA 1974c), and the Education Unit was formally advised of disquiet among members and for the need for greater and more effective communication with members (Sullivan 1974). In an address to the Council meeting later in 2004, Brendon O’Dwyer, an Education Officer, noted a split in voluntary agencies in Europe, which he had visited:

... one that could be roughly summed up as a gap between the basically fund raising agencies and those concerned with development education and social change. I see a similar gap developing in Australia within the ACFOA member agencies.... [It is] unfortunate ... if the issue became one of radical versus conservative: both need each other (O’Dwyer 1974).

The experience in Europe of rising tensions between development educationalists and those whom Lissner refers to as agency fundraisers7 led to the “Frascati Consultation” in 1972 on the role of Development Education in development agencies, and aimed at bridging the gap (Lissner 1977). These efforts did not resolve anything in Europe or in Australia, where the existing divisions among members plus a concerted campaign against ACFOA by conservative political forces at the time through the National Civic Council put a lot of pressure on ACFOA through 1975.

In the end it became too much, and in a special meeting of the Executive, one of the Education Officers was sacked (ACFOA 1975a). This event became a cause celebre, with reports in the press (anon. 1975; Hill 1975; Marr 1975; Juddery 1975a; Juddery 1975b) and even a suggestion in Parliament of undue political influence from the Opposition spokesman for Foreign Affairs, who was believed to have met with the Executive shortly before the sacking (Kerin 1975).8 These events did not mean the end of the ACFOA Education Unit, but they did set in motion a rethinking on development education and the relations with Government, and the role a peak body with a support role to the NGO community should take (ACFOA, 1976b). However, it was not until two years later that the Unit itself was cut back, and its work became a little less challenging of mainstream development work.

Conclusion

The events within ACFOA through 1974 and 1975 highlighted the strength of ACFOA in its public policy work and its influence on government as well as the fundamental divisions within the aid community that emerged through ACFOA’s development education work. These events also point out that simple characterizations of NGOs’ dependent relations with Government and the role of support organizations, which were popular then as much as now (Lissner 1977); (Edwards and Hulme 1997; Brown and Kalegaonkar 2002), did not apply in the Australian case, and more generally are probably much more nuanced than the literature indicates.

ACFOA is one of the few peak bodies in any country that represents the vast majority of agencies involved in aid and development issues. In most other countries there is more than one such body. What is unique about ACFOA at the time, which has persisted, is that its membership represented a broad diversity of views. While the notion of overseas aid is driven primarily by altruism—the desire to see people better off—the approaches vary considerably from a service-delivery role, whereby the NGO pick up where the state or local social organizations cannot (this is seen as the role of the traditional NGO), through to the role of political influence (important during the Cold War, when official aid programs had a strong political motivation), through the role of social movements operating on the belief that fundamental injustices can be dealt with only through fundamental social changes and challenges to existing social structures, to advocacy and development education (Lissner 1977).9 These views of aid are present most of the time, and many if not most agencies have elements of all three motivations in their work. But what is interesting is that through the 1970s there was a strong social movement stream among ACFOA members for a more just world in the development sector, which radically challenged some of the prevailing service-delivery models. ACFOA was and is unique in that it enabled these diverse views to sit alongside each other. As the events of the 1975 have shown, these can boil over into division and conflict. Still, there have been only a few resignations of members over the organization’s forty-three-year life.

The other key element of the story is the relationship with the State. In the 1960s the growing influence of NGOs was largely welcomed by Government and probably harkens to the European corporatist view of the State, which sees a social contract (either formal of informal) between civil society actors such as churches, unions, and more recently NGOs, and the formal mechanisms of state. This is different from the US tradition, which sees the voluntary sector’s engagement with the State on policy more constrained. In Australia in the 1960s the rapidly growing interest among the population in aid and aid issues provided the Government an opportunity to capture some of that enthusiasm to gaining legitimacy for its own work in development. It could be argued that the rationale for its involvement in the formation of ACFOA was part of a strategy to build a stronger postwar engagement with the Asia-Pacific region by working more closely with the nascent development community in line with global trends.

An important element of the ACFOA experience is that at the very beginning, its establishment had not only a State imprimatur but also a very active role, through the intercession of a former highly respected civil servant in the form of Sir John Crawford, plus resources in the form of research (and some funding of meetings) and official representatives having an observer role at most meetings. This sent a clear signal that the Government saw the need as most important, certainly more so than the fairly skeptical NGO members; and this probably explained the relatively slow development over the first five years. After these establishment years, ACFOA developed its voice in engagement with the State, and this was taken advantage of by the agencies involved in the burgeoning global development education movement of the early 1970s, giving them a voice in Canberra, the seat of Government.

These tentative first steps were to develop into a pattern of work and approach over the following thirty years. Development education (later to be more focused on advocacy), engagement with government on aid policy and issues, and a leadership role on major emergency were to be hallmarks of ACFOA’s approach. In the following years ACFOA faced the issues of East Timor and human rights more generally as well as the human-induced catastrophes and genocide such as those experienced in Cambodia and Ethiopia, plus the challenge of developing a more mainstream role in official aid programs.

More broadly this account is relevant to the global discussions on NGOs and NGO support organizations, as it poses the question as to whether the ACFOA case is the exception that proves the rule of NGO dependency on Government as per Lissner, Edwards, and the others cited here, or whether these dependency processes may be more nuanced. The ACFOA account I have presented depicts a complex relationship that developed over time and one that is also found in other cases: for example India, where the relationship of NGOs to Government was likewise characterized by periods of compliance, rebellion, and suspicion, perhaps in sharper relief than the Australian experience (Sen, 1999). The other important question is whether that period of the 1960 and 1970s represented a time in which, compared to now, ideological divisions were more defined, the diversity of views and public debate were more robust, and most important, Government allowed a more vigorous role.

Notes

1 Dr. Patrick Kilby coordinates and lectures in the Masters in Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development Program at the Australian National University, Canberra.

2 In 2002 ACFOA changed its name to the Australian Council for International Development (ACFOA) but for the purposes of this article the original name will be used.

3 The first Development Decade 1960-1970 as launched by the UN General Assembly in 1961 and was characterized by a strong focus on aid for agricultural development and the green revolution, as well as by a fundamental questioning of the nature of development whereby André Gunner Frank and the radical social movements of the time had a strong influence on development discourse at the time (Legum 1970; Schmidt and Pheo 2003).

4 Lissner (1977) tracks the history from missionary organizations since the seventeenth century, then agencies like the Red Cross of the mid‑nineteenth century and Save the Children of the early twentieth century, and the like, so that before the Second World War there were 655 international NGOs. This figure doubled in the post-war years to more than 1300 when ACFOA started (p.59).

5 Lissner (1977) is used extensively in this article because his study covers similar issues from the perspective of mainly European but also to a lesser extent US NGOs over a similar period, 1968-1975 p.15.

6 This amounts to $40m in 2000 constant dollars but if the size of the economy is also taken into account would be well over $100m in current terms.

7 Even though Lissner categorizes the tension as being between development educationalists and fundraisers, it is probably fairer to say it was between development educationalists and agency management, which has to consider not only the needs of fundraisers but also the agency’s values base and its image and relationships with other stakeholders, including Government.

8 This suggestion of direct political influence is unlikely, given that the meeting that the ACFOA Executive had with Andrew Peacock, the Opposition spokesperson , actually followed the sacking (Batt, 1975)

9 Lissner has identified six roles or options for agencies in relation to government: subservient role; a partnership role; a compensatory role; a corrective role; a disobedient role; and a subversive role (Lissner 1977). The first three are about undertaking program with government support, and the latter three are about advocacy of varying forms of intensity.

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