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


2 responses »

  1. So what’s your stand on NGOs, do we need them? Are they a necessary evil? Or are they genuinely good foundations that we need for bottom-up change? I know I like to think that not all governments are corrupt and inefficient!

  2. Another well researched and written piece – I felt you stopped short of sharing your conclusions with us in a bit more detail, and this might be something you could work on. This piece is stronger than the last one, the argument is more explicit and you work through your points well, although another area where you might do some work is on the structure as I felt some of what you said later on might have worked better earlier on; why not list out your points and then figure out what order they should go in and see if this corresponds with what you did, as a way of cross-checking the logic of your argument. Again, some work on referencing would help: also when you refer to someone in the text, you don’t need to use their name again in a bracket/date unless you’re quoting. So, for example, “Dixon (2012) argues that pigs can fly” or “In a piece in the journal Nature, Dixon argued “pigs can fly, it’s scientifically proven” (2012:2)’. And it is NGOs NEVER NGO’s….

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