The term “NGO”’ according to O’Connor (2012), ‘is regularly used deliberately to create an illusion of innocent philanthropic activity’. These ideas, as David Sogge puts it, are ‘shibboleths, catch phrases that distinguish believers from doubters’ (Sogge, cited in Manji et al 2002). I will assess the success of NGOs according to ‘The Global Journal’s’ qualities of innovation and effectiveness, efficiency and value for money and transparency and accountability. I will discuss whether, despite being scrutinized, NGOs are failing to meet these criteria.
The criteria of innovation and effectiveness lead us to question whether NGOs have successfully distanced themselves from the neo-colonial label and whether they meet the public’s expectations. Manji et al. suggest that NGOs’ ‘role in ‘development’ represents a continuity of the work of their precursors’: the colonisers (2002; 568). 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’. This fundamental sense of western entitlement raises the question of whether NGOs are truly successful for ‘benefactors’, or whether they simply continue western ideals. However, it is widely agreed that NGOs are a successful ‘means through which the gulf between citizens’ needs and existing services can be bridged’ (Banks 2012; 3).
Efficiency and value for money are qualities that are commonly seen to be lacking. A significant flaw is the relations of NGOs to their donors that ‘meant that NGOs were compromising their grassroots orientation, innovativeness, accountability and legitimacy’ (Banks, 1996; 11). 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). This leads us to ask whether ‘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’ (Banks, 1996; 16). Similarly the definition of ‘NGO’ itself can be questioned: the level of funding now received from governments compromises their ‘non-governmental’ function. ‘The US government transfers nearly 40% of its aid programme through NGOs’ (Manji et al., 2002; 582). These issues bring a dangerous cloud of ambiguity over the role of NGOs that can jeopardise the extent of their efficiency and value for money.
However, leading on from this, the elements of transparency and accountability, even after allegations of involvement in corruption, have arguably remained strong. The idea of being ‘grassroots-driven’ is a significant goal for NGOs. It insinuates the ideal of a less bureaucratic, more ‘bottom up’ system that, consequentially, can be an efficient advocate for the ‘have-nots’. This image, perhaps, is what draws continuing support from the public and donors whilst aiding them to retain their accountability. 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. Also, 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.
Grassroots efforts in Dakar
To conclude, there is clearly a great, and swelling, critique of NGOs concerning their financial policies and accountability. However, 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. Therefore, despite their flaws, NGOs appear more willing to reform their policies according to critique than government bodies and this, for me, is the attraction of NGOs and the element of their character that should be highlighted as positive.
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Provost, Claire (2012) ‘Talk point: your questions on the future of UK aid’, guardian