Civil society, or perhaps mercenaries. What are NGOs?

A Grimm fairy tale

While reading the Haiti Earthquake Flash Appeal 2010, I was surprised, after all these years of talk about local ownership, to find only a few local civil society organisations mentioned in the whole document. What is wrong here? Have the poor become less empowered over the years?

In the seventies and eighties, the rural areas of Central America were stirring. There were farmers’ unions creating savings and credit unions and mutual health insurance was starting up. The organisations of the poor professionalized, and linked up on national level. With economical self reliance came more political cloud.  This was hailed as the coming of a social democratic movement, comparable to how the poor were uplifted in Europe long time ago.

In the nineties however, these membership based service organisations were in decline. The treasurer ran off with the money, or some insolvent members took the whole system down. Meanwhile, (is correlation causation?) the Credit-NGOs took off on a large scale. NGOs, led by a professional board, and hiring experts for the field work, created credit systems all over the place with donor money, not limited by the savings they could gather. As the risk in taking credit is rather limited (it is another guy his money anyway) and the risk in depositing savings in a community managed structure is high, the creditworhty poor moved to the better option, leaving the cooperatives with heaps of bad credit and angry savers.
The same happened with farmers unions. Being part of a union for legal support spreads the risk amongst the members, but using a legal support NGO is without any risk for the individual poor. The outcome is simple: bye bye empowerment. The rural client-patron relationship between landlord and sharecropper moves towards a triangle, where the landlord and the legal NGO become the patron of the sharecropper. Is he better off now? yes, without any doubt. Did the poor become more self reliant and  powerful to negotiate his rights with the landlord and the other powers surrounding him? Doubtful.
While self organizing poor can be a threat for the powers that be, NGOs seldom are, although the NGOs might speak out forcefully.
A black and white picture, and the reality has a lot of shades of gray. However, if there is even some truth in it, NGOs can be counterproductive if self reliance is the goal of aid, as they make the self-organisation of the powerless more difficult. This leads to less accountable governance, a prerequisite for a more equitable society.

Legitimacy comes in different stripes

For the sake of this article, I would narrow down the definition of NGO to the typical organisation that receives donor aid: an organisation governed by a board that is self contained and not directly responding to the beneficiaries of the services the NGO offers.
Most civil society organisation are accountable to the (paying) membership. The chamber of commerce, the church, the union, even Greenpeace lives and dies with its active membership. It are also the members who receive the benefits provided by the organisation, such as an entry to heaven, business related information and lobbying or defense of the employee. NGOs are contractually accountable only to the donor providing the funding. I would like to define civil society, for this article, as such a membership based organisation. Although the press and the academia definitively are civil society, they are not captured by this definition.
In essence, if the organisation would die without donor funding (funding by a foreign power), it is not civil society, but it is still classified as an NGO.
A third important group active in development  is the private sector as such, and we might wondeer whether the typical NGO is not rather part of the private sector.
From the governance structure you know who will call the tune: “if you ask them to paint your bathroom, they will” claimed somebody about a competing NGO in South Africa. NGOs will be more popular with donors as they can focus on delivering on their project documents: no internal democracy, no unruly membership, no delays discussing project arrangements with the membership, just flawless execution, at a transparent price.
NGOs have no democratic legitimacy as they represent only themselves, however, their legitimacy can be very strong on other aspects. They can have strong financial systems and deliver the required results. Some NGOs, like e.g. Transparency International1 and many other local and international NGOs have a very strong moral legitimacy.
Community Based Organisations can be Civil Society or NGOs, depending on the governance structure. However, when local groups are serviced by national organisations, it is only when this larger organisation can qualify as civil society (with the local CBOs as members) there will be a counter-power holding  the national government accountable. If the servicing organisation is just a NGO, there is no democratic legitimacy, and no counter-power. Supporting efficient NGOs can cause the civil society to wither and will consequently strengthen the powers that be.

The problem is that taking a shortcut, bypassing international NGOs and supporting immediately the local NGOs, will not solve the legitimacy question.

The goal of development aid: self reliance

If the goal of development aid is to support the self reliance and self development of the poor, it is important to use NGOs for their skills, expertise and moral legitimacy for strengthening the civil society, and not just for the services they deliver. Even if this civil society is less than perfect in delivering themselves. Supporting NGOs in roles that compete with the role civil society normally plays should be shunned. NGOs are important, but only to a degree. Strengthening the NGO-sector is not a valid development goal, while strengthening a democratic civil society is.
Of course, the central problem is, that accountability to the beneficiaries is mostly an aftertought, and beneficiaries might not like the donor priorities.


1 Amnesty International and the Red Cross movement are rather civil society organisations, as they are very much membership based.

See also on the goal of development and civil society: Global Dashboard: Aid: what is it good for?

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