Monthly Archives: October 2012

The role of NGOs


Although originally coined in 1945 with the adoption of the UN charter, the expression ‘non-governmental organisation’ (NGO), it may be argued, has never been clearly and objectively defined. Generally, an NGO may be construed as being a legally constituted organisation that is not officially linked to governmental or political organisations (although this element will be contested bellow) or be for profit and revolves around social aims. Additionally, Martens identifies a further division in interpretation between juridical studies in which ‘the emphasis is placed on the legal status of NGOs in the national context and their implications for international law (and) Sociological works (that) are based on studies of societal actors’ (Martens, 2002). The success of an NGO, according to ‘The Global Journal’, can be rated according to innovation, effectiveness, impact, efficiency and value for money, transparency and accountability, sustainability, strategic and financial management and a peer review. This list implies that NGOs, despite being unelected and therefore officially unaccountable bodies, are nonetheless scrutinized.

Defenders of NGOs would claim their origins to be in the altruistic and philanthropic intentions of a post-colonial, developed world, awoken to the horrors of their imperialistic actions. However, an inspection of the early motivations and actions of NGOs, for some, would suggest otherwise; Manji et al suggest that NGO’s ‘role in ‘development’ represents a continuity of the work of their precursors, the missionaries and voluntary organizations that cooperated in Europe’s colonization and control of Africa’ (Manji et al, 2002). The example is given of the Kenyan Women’s association, MYWO and the Christian Council of Kenya that were both involved in government funded schemes ‘designed to subvert black resistance during the ‘Mau Mau’ uprising’. Furthermore, the emergence of neoliberalism in the 1970’s saw ‘the purpose of ‘development’ (as being) to guarantee ‘growth’ so that ultimately other freedoms can be enjoyed at some indeterminate time in the future’. These views of the history and fundamental purpose of NGOs contradicts the widespread vision of the benevolent, humanitarian NGO.

Despite this, NGO’s still retain widespread support and can be seen as valuable in development. Banks et al note that NGOs are ‘widely praised for their strengths as innovative and grassroots-driven organisations with the desire and capacity to pursue participatory and people centred forms of development and to fill the gaps left by the failure of states’ and ‘a means through which the gulf between citizens’ needs and existing services can be bridged’ (Banks 2012). Many perceive that governments and other state agents are so tinted by corruption and capitalistic intentions that NGOs, however flawed themselves, will nevertheless be preferable. The idea of ‘grassroots-driven’ is also significant; it insinuates the ideal of a less bureaucratic, more ‘bottom up’ system that, consequentially, can be efficient advocates for the ‘have-nots’ and for minority groups. This image, perhaps, is what draws continuing support from the public and donors and aids them in retaining their humanitarian and altruistic character. An example of this would be the INGO charter; ‘an initiative of International NGOs to demonstrate their commitment to accountability and transparency’ (INGO 2006). This implies that, although unelected, NGOs are nevertheless liable to criticism and are held responsible for their actions.

However, there are also many arguments against the continuing prevalence of NGOs in the development ‘industry’ that led Van Rooy to claim that it was time to ‘pack up shop’ (Van Rooy 2010). ‘The term “NGO”’ according to O’Connor, ‘is regularly used deliberately to create an illusion of innocent philanthropic activity’ (O’Connor 2012). These ideas, as David Sogge puts it, are ‘shibboleths, catch phrases that distinguish believers from doubters’ (Sogge, cited in Manji et al 2002). A significant flaw, for many, is the relations of NGOs to their donors that ‘meant that NGOs were compromising their grassroots orientation, innovativeness, accountability and legitimacy’ (Edwards and Hulme 1996). Firstly, the limited geographical scope of NGO sources, with 37 of The Global Journal’s top 100 best ranking NGOs coming from the US, indicates the narrow scope of economic ideologies within the field (The Global Journal 2012). An extension of this is the idea that ‘the aid system today is structured so that as long as NGOs can keep donors satisfied, they can grow, thrive and expand even when providing inadequate services’ (Mohan 2002; Power et al 2002). A final critique is aimed at the concept of ‘NGO’ itself; that the level of funding now received from governments compromises their ‘non-governmental’ function: ‘Britain’s Department for International development allocates around 8% of its aid budget to NGOs. The US government transfers nearly 40% of its aid programme through NGOs’ (Manji et al 2002).

To conclude, there is clearly a great, and swelling, critique of NGOs concerning their financial policies and accountability but support, particularly from the public, remains stronger, perhaps, than the developmental efforts of governments; their theoretical independence draws in funding from those who prefer the voluntary, rather than taxed, contribution to aid and those who view the work of DFID and the government itself to be corrupt and inefficient.


O’Connor, Jenny (2012) ‘NGO’: The Guise of Innocence, New Left Project.

INGO charter (2006)

Martens, Kerstin (2002) ‘Mission Impossible? Defining Nongovernmental organisations’, Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Non profit organizations, Vol. 13, No. 3

Manji, Firoze and O’Coill, Carl (2002) ‘The missionary position: NGOs and development in Africa’, International Affairs, 78 (3): 567-583.

The Global Journal (2012) ‘Top 100 NGOs ranking’

Banks, Nicola with David Hulme (2012) The role of NGOs and civil society in development and poverty reduction, Manchester: Brooks World Poverty Institute

Provost, Claire (2012) ‘Talk point: your questions on the future of UK aid’, guardian

Lindenberg, M. and
Bryant, C. (2001) Going Global: Transforming Relief and Development NGOs, Bloomfield: Kumarian Press

Fabig, Heike and Boele, Richard (2009) ‘The Changing Nature of NGO activity in a globalizing world pushing the corporate responsibility agenda’.

Van Rooy, Alison (2010) ‘Good news! You might be out of a job. Reflections on the past and future 50 years for northern NGOs,’ Development in Practice, 10(3): 300-318

How has the history of development affected the present?


‘Development’, it can be argued, has only been recognised as a separate discipline relatively recently, with the reflections of academics on the past greatly influencing the contemporary processes of aid. I will be focusing on the profound effect of Colonialism for the reason proposed by Lange; ‘the colonial state was the primary extension of foreign domination’ (Lange, 2004). Lange articulates both negative aspects of the lasting impact of Colonialism with his own view being that ‘British colonialism left positive political legacies’ only in some circumstances. The opposing views of history illustrate the origins of intervention justified through the aim of the development of good governance and the strengthening of institutional structures; a concept central to development programmes today.

            A pattern of critique of Aid throughout the last century is its short-term, and therefore limited, nature. The Colonial Development Act of 1929 (a significant milestone in solidifying development as a discipline) meant that ‘colonial assistance was only given in cases of national emergency, and was purely of a temporary nature’ (Abbott 1971). However, aid programmes worldwide had not ‘learnt their lesson’ by the 1950s; the Columbo Plan was a humanitarian programme aimed at deterring Communism that, according to Van Rooy, was simply a ‘short term quick-fix’ (Van Rooy 2010). She contrasts this unsustainable form of development to the fall of the Berlin wall when, after reflecting on the success of past efforts, ‘new programmes in judicial reform…‘civil society building’, ‘democratic transition’ all flooded into Europe’ (Van Rooy 2010). These cases are significant in exemplifying how our experimentation in foreign policy in the past has in some cases taught governments and development agencies which methods of assistance are most flawed. Whether, as a result, our more recent programmes have been more successful, however, is still debateable.  Furthermore, a common criticism of the present government is their spending on non-emergency aid in a time of economic crisis in the UK, suggesting that the general public has not similarly ‘learnt from the past’.

            British Colonial history has also, arguably, influenced our lasting attitudes towards development. Surprisingly, however, it is not always the notion of compensation for colonial brutality that is most prevalent. Instead, there appears to be a pattern that aid-giving nations still wish to get something in return. Chamberlain, the secretary of state at the time of the Colonial Development Act, first favoured ‘the investment of British money… for the benefit of their population and for the benefit of the greater population which is outside’ (Abbott 1971). Similarly, Noam Chomsky commented on brutal intervention in Africa, stating ‘we have to figure out some way of saying ‘I’m doing it for their benefit’ (McCormack et al, 2008) and Baah reflected upon the Development agencies that contributed greatly (UK: £5 million) to the construction of the Akosombo Dam in Ghana. The objective was not to help Africa to develop but was instead in the interest of the West (Baah, 2003). These instances suggest again that history, in fact, has not so profoundly influenced our present approach to development, as the altruist would hope, but instead that the view prevails that it is ‘unreasonable’ (Nkruma cited in Baah, 2003) to expect a developed country to give aid for nothing.

A further impact of colonialism that I found particularly interesting was its effect on Africa. McCormack traces the roots of the contemporary conflict and structural weaknesses in Africa; the British Army’s policy of divide and rule created a tension between groups that helped to maintain British rule: many of these divides remain today; for example the politicization of the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda would profoundly contribute to the genocide of 1994 (McCormack et al, 2008). The Berlin conference (1884-5) and subsequent creation of many small countries in Africa was based on imperialist greed and Africa is still grappling with the ‘social dissolution’ (Stinglitz, 2002 cited in Baah 2003) that resulted. An example, however, of development institutions reflecting upon the past would be the push for the use of grants instead of loans that, many scholars argue, left many African countries indebted (Moyo 2008). Additionally, the Human Rights Act of 1948 was perhaps also a reflection upon the treatment of colonies after World War Two with former colonies being given the rights to be heard, to accountability and to Rule of Law.

To conclude, even today, according to Kothari, Post-colonialists attempt to review how contemporary global inequalities between rich and poor countries have been, and continue to be, shaped by colonial power relations. Some have argued that development is a ‘‘neo-colonial’ project that reproduces global inequalities and maintains the dominance of the South, through global capitalist expansion, by the North’ (Kothari 2005). Most recently, we can see the moral memory of colonialism being resurrected in the Mau Mau case (Cobain et al, 2012) in which may ‘result in a new and uncomfortable understanding of recent British history’, perhaps finally spurring a significant change in our approach to development.



Lange, Matthew (2004) ‘British Colonial Legacies and Political Development’, World Development, Vol 32(6): 905-922

Abbott, George (1971) ‘A Re-Examination of the 1929 Colonial Development Act’, The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 24 (1): 68-81

Van Rooy, Alison (2010) ‘Good news! You might be out of a job. Reflections on the past and future 50 years for northern NGOs,’ Development in Practice, 10(3): 300-318.

McCormack, Pete and Miller, Jesse (2008) ‘Colonialism in 10 minutes: the scramble for Africa’

Baah, Anthony (2003) ‘History of African Development Initiatives’, Africa Labour Research Network Workshop Johannesburg: 1-10

Moyo, Dambisa (2008), ‘A Brief History of Aid’ in Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How there is Another Way for Africa, London: Penguin, pp10-28

Kothari, Uma (2005) ‘From colonial administration to development studies: a post-colonial critique of the history of development studies’, in A Radical History of Development Studies: Individuals, Institutions and Ideologies, ed. Uma Kothari, London: Zed Books.

Ian Cobain, Richard Norton-Taylor, and Clar Ni Chonghaile  (2012), ‘Mau Mau veterans win right to sue British government’, The Guardian