Have NGOs Made a Difference?

Source: Michael Edwards, who recently stepped down as director of the Governance and Civil Society Program at the Ford Foundation, explores similar issues in “Have NGOs Made a Difference?”*

He finds that development NGOs have been influential in getting the mainstream to address the negative aspects of globalization, commit to participation and human rights as basic principles of development, and grapple with the implications of critical global issues like climate change and poverty in Africa.

Yet he views their performance wanting on several fronts – mainly that they have not been innovative enough to fundamentally influence the political structures that perpetuate poverty and human rights abuses, nor change the power relations that define class, gender, and race.

He worries that their increasing reliance on government funds and concern about “market imperatives” – such as fundraising and brand identity – make them crowd out the participation and voice of indigenous and Southern-based civil society, even while increasing it is a stated goal.

An interesting aspect of this analysis is the apparent contradiction that the growth in NGO scale and capacity over the last 20 years has allowed them to be credible participants in influential policy debates – yet has also created organizational pressures that complicate (or, as Edwards argues, dilute) relationships with constituents and affect the willingness of NGOs to undertake certain strategies.

This is not a theoretical issue.  As Peter Bell, former president and CEO of CARE USA and a senior research fellow at the Hauser Center pointed out during “Are NGOs Changing World Politics?”: NGOs have evolved from being proudly apolitical and recognize the need to influence policy and governance, but they are often up against well-financed, organized lobbies.  Look at the difficulty in changing the U.S. Farm Bill, which has a significant impact on world food markets and global food security.  Scale, scope, and credibility help one compete.

They may also change an organization’s appetite for risk and make it more careful about protecting its viability and reputation.  Scale can tempt NGOs to be less of an alternative — less willing to advocate radical change or push constituents to the front of the debate — and more mainstream.

What’s an NGO leader to do?  Edwards points to the potential of strengthening relationships between NGOs and social movements.  In the U.S., NGOs helped incubate the ONE Campaign.  Even here, the need to improve public education about the complexities of development and guard against the urge to oversimplify are real.  Partnering with and building the capacity of social movements in developing countries is a long-term process, and critical policy decisions are moving forward now.

Peter Bell points to value of NGOs working in collaboration.  This holds promise for increasing influence but is unlikely to increase the “alternativeness” of the proposed solutions.

Much of the nonprofit literature on “scaling up” is concerned with how to do it.  While the possibility of mission drift is always mentioned in treatises on growth, I think we’d benefit from far more analysis about the changes in perspective that an organization is likely to encounter, and the mission-related strategic opportunities and pitfalls that “going to scale” might bring — and how to maximize the former while avoiding the latter.

* from Can NGOs Make a Difference? The Challenge of Development Alternatives, edited by Anthony Bebbington, Samuel Hickey, and Diana Mitlin.

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1 Comment

Filed under Development, International NGOs, NGOs

One response to “Have NGOs Made a Difference?

  1. tata

    Am currently working in one ofthe international organizations in Ethiopia. I feel that NGOs are very much confined to what i call ‘less risky’ and ‘comfort zones’ such as delaing with participation of target population in development process. bigger issues ‘ensuring accountability, working on strengthening good governance, corruption,policy research and advocacy are left largley untouched today.

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