NGOs and Their Role in the Global South

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 9, Issue 1, December 2006

Monsiapile Kajimbwa1

Why do NGOs exist today? Two reasons: the retreat of centralized government and the keen interest of donors. In the era of governance reform, one of the NGO’s key mandates is to advance social, political, and economic development. To succeed at this, NGOs must reassess their operations. NGOs in the South ought to shift from implementing their own programs to building the community’s capacity to achieve sustainable livelihoods. And NGOs in the North ought to concentrate on helping Southern ones achieve their goals.

1.0 What Are NGOs?

Turner and Hulme (1997, p. 200) define NGOs as “associations formed from within civil society bringing together individuals who share some common purpose.” Hulme (2001, p. 130) characterizes them (as well as civil society) as “peopled organizations [that] are both not part of the state structures, are not primarily motivated by commercial considerations or profit maximization, are largely self-governing, and rely on voluntary contributions (of finance, labour or materials) to a significant degree.” So, as Fowler (2000, p. 112) observes, “for our purpose, business is not included.” In support of this analysis, Edwards and Hulme (1995, p. 20) expound that “most organizations referred to as NGOs thus belong, analytically, to the private sector, albeit to the service (i.e., not-for-profit) sub-sector thereof.”

From a larger perspective, the prominent elements of a society are the state, the market (private sector), and the civil society – the “third sector.” The state maintains public order and, to one degree or another, serves its citizens’ needs. Companies in the marketplace pursue profits. And NGOs? They, like the state, seek to serve community needs, such as health, education, water, and sanitation. They may do so at least partly with government funding. For example, Clark (1991, p. 5, citing W. Fernandes) states that “Indian NGOs are now of much significance to the country’s development efforts…. The government’s latest five-year plan has a one and a half billion rupee provision for funding NGOs.” At the same time, though, NGOs stand apart from the state, engage in policy advocacy, and sometimes criticize government institutions and officials. As Fowler observes (1997, pp. 12-13), NGOs may provide a link between micro-level actions (providing individuals or communities with construction materials, farming equipment, or legal advice, for example) and macro-level actions (policy advocacy, lobbying, and monitoring how the state uses its powers).

Micro and macro can be viewed from a different perspective, as Turner and Hulme (1997, p. 201) do: “a primary distinction can be made between organizations that are based in one country (or several countries) and [those that] seek to assist in the development of other countries. These are international NGOs (INGOs). Intermediate NGOs which operate across developing country or a region of a country [in the South can be termed] Southern NGOs. Closest to the practice of development are grassroots organizations (GROs) that operate within a limited area such as in a group of villages or part of a city.”

2.0 Why Do NGOs Exist?

The existence of NGOs stems from both internal and external factors. Internally, the gradual retreat of the government in public service delivery has left a vacuum that NGOs try to fill. The retreat is due to governments’ inability to provide high-quality public services to citizens. From after World War II to the late 1970s, the role of governments was primarily to run the public sector, oversee the economy, and treat its citizens as consumers. In development, especially in Africa, the dominant approach during this period was top-down, state-controlled, and supply-driven (see also Chambers 2005, pp. 1-29; Lewis 2005, pp. 11-13). As a result, citizens could not realize their potential to organize and make optimal use of their human, financial, and natural resources.

The period was characterized by malfeasance. As Tendler (1997, p. 1) observes, “public officials and their workers pursue[d] their own private interests rather than those of public good.” Many countries in Africa developed noticeably weak public institutions with inefficient operations, incapable of combating poverty. Hulme (2001, p. 132) notes that “during the 1970s the failure of this approach rapidly to deliver economic growth and poverty reduction was increasingly acknowledged and by the early 1980s a paradigm shift was evident.” Budget cuts during this period left the state increasingly “unable to cope with its basic functions of provision of infrastructure and social service” (Hoeven and Kraal 1994, p. 24).

The wave of globalization has challenged the effectiveness of the state and its bureaucratic systems, especially centralized political, administrative, economic, and fiscal systems. As the Commonwealth Secretariat (1996, p. iv) argues, “the capacity of the public sector to establish the right regulatory frameworks for development, to enforce them, to develop national productive capacity, to attract capital, and to act as producer, are all in question.”

Into this gap stepped NGOs, with new approaches to enhance efficiency and effectiveness in providing public services and infrastructure. At the same time, NGOs have filled a crucial role in enabling people to organize themselves and share responsibility for governance. “NGOs exist as alternatives” to a governmental, centrally led economy, in the view of Mitlin, Hickey, and Bebbington (2005, p. 1). With new models of public management and many governments seemingly open to reform (see also Minogue 2001, pp. 1-43; Obsorne and McLaughlin 2002, pp. 7-33; Flynn 2002, pp. 57-91), the view of NGOs as alternatives is justified.

In large part, the governance reforms require the state to devolve its powers from the central government to institutions closer to the public. An important result, according to Hulme (2001, p. 129), is “the return of the state for civic organizations – and particularly NGOs and GROs – with a focus on the role that they can play to improve the access that poorer and disadvantaged publics have to basic social and economic service.”

Externally, the existence of NGOs has also been stimulated by increased eagerness on the part of the donor community to channel aid through them. As Hulme (2001, 137, citing Edwards, M., and Hulme, D.) argues, “the rise and rise of NGOs throughout the 1980s and 1990s was fueled by international development agencies and aid donors who assumed that civic organizations should rapidly scale their direct service provision function” (see also Duhu 2005, pp. 45-55). As a result, during the last two decades, both developed and developing countries have witnessed steady increases of NGOs. In the South, for example, “the number of registered NGOs in Nepal increased from 220 in 1990 to 1,210 in 1993; in Bolivia from 100 in 1980 to 530 in 1992; and in Tunisia from 1,886 in 1988 to 5,186 in 1991” (Edwards 2004, p. 21, citing Edwards and Hulme).

NGOs have also grown more numerous in Tanzania during the last two decades. As Oda van Cranenburgh and Rolien (1995) report, “since the early 1980s and especially 1990s a considerable growth in the number of national NGOs in Tanzania has taken place [with] an increase from 137 NGOs in 1986 to 470 NGOs in the 1990s, ranging from socio-economic development type of NGOs, professional, religious, environment, women, youth, health, education, to HIV-AIDS NGOs.” The number of NGOs increased particularly during the past decade, following the approval of Tanzania’s NGO policy. TANGO now includes “620 NGOs, most of which are regional and district networks that have members in the regions of 50 plus. This makes the TANGO membership by proxy to be around 1500 NGOs” (TANGO 2005).

Figures from developed countries, the North, also show that NGOs have dramatically increased over the same period. “In western Europe and the USA the pattern is more complex. In America as whole the national non-profit organizations have increased from 10,299 in 1968 to almost 23,000 in 1997″ (ibid., p.22, citing Salamon and Anheier.). The number of NGOs in the United Kingdom is even more dramatic: ” Britain has a well developed voluntary sector, with a total of 200,000 registered charities in 1995″ (Charities Aid Foundation, as quoted in Randel and German, 1999).

In sum, I concede to Shivji (2003, 694), who argues that “an alternative world, a better world … is possible.” That is why NGOs exist. But what role and function should they adopt in the first decades of the 21st century?

2.1.0 The Role and Function of NGOs

In general terms, NGOs provide potent forces for social, political, and economic development (see also Edwards, M (2005, p.13-15). In specific terms, the literature cites a great many roles and functions of both the Southern and Northern NGOs, see for example Helmich (1999, pp. 1-6), Lewis (2001, pp. 62-82), Edwards and Hulme (pp. 31-40), and Smillie (pp. 71-84).

In what follows I discuss two specific roles and functions. First is the facilitative role and function of Southern NGOs in their countries or region. Second is the role and function of Northern NGOs to strengthen capacity of Southern NGOs. This approach provides a comparative analysis based on the different capacities in resources and skills of the two types of NGO.

2.1.1 Facilitating Community Programs

During the first decades of the 21st century, Southern NGOs will have to refocus their role and function. Although Lewis (2001, p. 69) argues that the NGO is an implementer and “can be engaged in providing services to its clients through its own programmes,” I argue, on the contrary, that the NGO should not implement its own programs, but rather should help communities achieve their own sustainable programs economic, political and social areas. As Fowler (1997, p. 13) underlines, “facilitation is a critical aspect of participation process” that Southern NGOs need to learn and practice. The term facilitate here refers to the process of creating space for people to act. Under this definition, how can an NGO have its own programs, unless those programs specifically seek to build local skills and capacities? As suggested by Lewis, NGOs customarily adopt a top-down and supply-driven approach to social, political, and economic development. Where NGOs directly implement their own programs, they are likely to minimize any sense of ownership on the part of the community. The top-down approach in turn locks up people’s potential to act.

In that respect, community at the grassroots level may not see any need to mobilize resources and contribute toward implementing someone else’s programs. They will instead simply depend on the NGOs, “the experts,” to implement programs. Such NGO programs as health, water, income generating, civic education, and advocacy often unfold with minimal dialogue between the community and the NGO.

If, by contrast, community development programs facilitated by NGOs are seen as negotiated undertakings, which match local livelihood strategies and development opportunities, NGOs in the South may, as Lewis suggests, be reluctant to assume ownership of any program. By assuming ownership, Smillie (1999, p. 34) argues, NGOs “are likely to make fundamental trade offs every day between the needs of their beneficiaries and the opportunities created by the emotive culture of charity.” In this view, the programs, even if contracted by government or a donor agency, belong not to the NGO but to the community.

How can an NGO assume that it owns a program that is influenced and in part undertaken by the community? That is why Helmich (1999, p. 5) observes, “while the practical expertise of NGO in poverty reduction is large, a gap needs to be closed between the setting of NGO goals and actual NGO practice.” Optimal programs emerge when they are organized jointly, with the NGO pursuing a specific community goal, whether economic, social, or political. Bridging the gap requires participatory facilitative skills, which Southern NGOs too often lack.

Resources that Southern NGOs mobilize from within and outside their countries may be used as seed money for the community to map out programs that will enable citizens to secure sustainable livelihoods – as Fowler (2000, p. 117) puts it, “catalysing the citizen base.” Southern NGOs have to also be serious about their role and function. Most of them seem to lack clear vision and mission. In fact, Shivji (2004, p. 690) comments, “most NGOs do not have any grand vision of society, nor are they guided by large issues; rather, they concentrate on small, day-to-day matters. In NGOs, we seldom spend time defining our vision in relation to the overall social and economic context of our societies” (see also Clark 1991, pp. 12-13). Lacking vision and mission, NGOs find it difficult to articulate their facilitative role and function.

2.1.2. Strengthening the Capacity of Southern NGOs: The Role of Northern NGOs

In the upheavals of recent years, both developing and developed countries have witnessed three important shifts. First, governments have decentralized, particularly in developing countries, with a view toward empowering the public. Civic organizations and the market are granted considerable space. Governments in developing countries are slimming down and delegating responsibilities, so NGOs and other institutions gain increasing responsibility over political space. However, emerging institutions, both government and civic, are often weak in these countries.

Second, Southern NGOs that are keenly interested in providing an alternative approach to government are increasing and growing. These NGOs often lack the capacity to constitute a potent force in social, political, and economic development. Southern NGOs need improved capacities if they are to meet those challenging scenarios.

Third, CARE, Oxfam, Save the Children, Concern World Wide, and many other NGOs from the North are streaming to the South in the name of development. These NGOs either fund Southern NGOs or directly implement programs in the South. The Northern NGOs need to refocus. They ought to make a radical shift from implementing programs in the South to strengthening the capacity of Southern NGOs. To support the argument, Smillie (1999, p. 75) provides a substantive example. The Canadian Partnership Branch “has articulated several objectives. Among them is capacity building in developing countries: to strengthen the capacity of southern organizations and institutions to make a significant and sustainable development impact among the disadvantaged communities” (see also Duhu 2005, p. 44; Tapaninen 2000, p. 40).

Seemingly, this is a realistic and achievable objective for Northern NGOs during the first decades of the 21st century. Additionally, Northern NGOs have greater skills in fundraising than Southern NGOs. For example, Randel and German (1999, p. 236, citing Charities Aid Foundation) argue that “in 1996 the voluntary income of Britain’s top 500 charities reached almost ₤2 billion (about $3 billion).” Southern NGOs can hardly dream of amassing such resources.

Northern NGOs may use their resources to strengthen the capacity of Southern NGOs on many fronts, as Duhu (2005, p.44) notes: “program support, institutional support, technical support, partnerships and coalitions.” Skills in the area of strategic planning, for example, cannot be overemphasized. Sadly, Lewis (2001, p. 158) argues that “in many aid-dependent contexts it is common for partnerships involving NGOs to have passive character, often because the idea of partnership is forced in some way.”

There is cause for optimism. The very concept of partnership is relatively new, and Northern NGOs may not shy away from the needed changes. “Many Northern NGOs moved in recent years in broad terms from the approach in which they implemented projects themselves in developing countries … to one which most now seek to form partnership” (ibid., p. 157). The partnership strategy, in itself, is necessary but not sufficient.

Integrative partnership, which enables Southern NGOs to learn by doing, is the necessary approach. As James (2001, p. 61) argues, “while Northern NGOs may have been instrumental in capacity building process on the agenda, ownership for the capacity building must quickly reside in the client NGO.” It may empower the client to own the change process for sustainable development programs. Northern NGOs need to further search for ways to enhance effective and efficient partnership and thereby strengthen the capacity of Southern NGOs. Otherwise, as Edwards (2005, p. 35) cautions, the South faces the danger of having outsiders “promot[e] certain associations over others on the basis of preconceived notions of what civil society should look like.”

3. 0 Conclusion

This article has argued that NGO exist for two broad reasons. Internally, they exist because the government cannot deliver high-quality public services to its citizens, leaving a space for NGOs to step in – and, ideally, to help people organize and self-develop, and to make the best use of the community’s human, financial, and natural resources. Externally, NGOs exist because donors channel funds to them.

In the era of new public management, NGOs hold increasing responsibility for social, political, and economic development. To succeed, Southern NGOs must help the community implement its own vision. They must become responsible agents of change. And Northern NGOs must help them succeed.


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1 Monsiapile Kajimbwa is Training and Development Advisor at the Danish Association for International Cooperation’s MS-Training Centre for Development Cooperation in Arusha, Tanzania. Email: