Cover Image
close this bookThe Courier N° 152 - July - August 1995 - Dossier: NGO's - Country Reports: Belize, Malawi (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
close this folderDossier
View the documentNGOs
View the documentWhy does the European Community work with NGOs ?
View the documentOn the diversity and role of NGOs
View the documentThe experience and limitations of NGOs in West Africa
View the documentInstitutional support for NGOs in the South
View the document'The NGOs refuse to be mere onlookers' - Interview with Agostinho Jardim Gonçalves, President of the NGDO-EU Liaison Committee
View the documentBetween autonomy and identity: the financing dilemma of NGOs
View the documentChanging perspectives in the Philippines
View the documentThe dreaming dromedaries of the desert meet the bothered bureaucrats of Brussels
View the documentThe ethics of collecting money
View the documentNGOs torn between subordination and independence
View the documentNGOs - subcontractors or innovators in unstable situations
View the documentEmergencies and development

Why does the European Community work with NGOs ?

by Bernard Ryelandt

The answer to this question can be given in just a few words: because development should not be solely the work of governments, North or the South. Governments need views and methods of development and cooperation which are different from their own. This need is felt all the more as evaluations of governments' own programmes have revealed a need for new and diversified approaches to be adopted. It has become increasingly clear that a technical approach to development, without sufficient participation by and mobilisation of the people concerned, frequently leads to limited and tenuous results and NGOs are both useful and effective in this respect.

We have witnessed, moreover, both within our own countries and in the developing states, a spontaneous mobilisation of the energies of individuals, groups and networks in favour of development. A Community with a human face which claims to be close to the initiatives of its citizens cannot disregard this, all the more so as the resources available to citizens are frequently limited in relation to the fields within which such initiatives operate.

As far as the European Community is concerned, cooperation with NGOs is not solely the task of the Commission officials whose job it is to administer cooperation policies and tools. The Council has also indicated an interest in them, most recently in its resolutions of 1991 and 1992. The European Parliament has shown a particular interest, voting in favour of a number of funding initiatives in this area. By its very nature, this institution is open and sensitive to trends in public opinion and it has supported NGOs from the early days. It is thanks to the combined efforts of the Parliament and the Commission that the first funds for the co-financing of NGOs were obtained and utilised in 1976. Let us consider this in greater detail.

All grassroots associations in the developing countries, and the NGOs which support them, are of fundamental importance. It is essentially their task to create genuinely participative development which is close to the people, close to what they perceive as their fundamental needs and in line with their ideas and methods. In the absence of this, the finest-sounding official programmes will not have the 'ballast' to remain afloat.

Another important advantage of grassroots associations and NGOs of both South and North is that they strive, in particular, to help those who are poor, marginalised and neglected-people who are often beyond the reach of national development policies and of international cooperation. This is not easy even for NGOs, but it can be said in their favour that many of them at least have tried.

The aim is not to set up a tension between NGOs and states, still less to deny that the latter play a key role, but rather to diversify efforts and approaches to development, in order to enable everyone to perform their role in societies with diverse structures. Much is being said about democracy at present, but we sometimes tend to forget that real and durable democracy within a political system is not possible without basic democratic structures and without recognition of the part which everyone has to play in socioeconomic development. Grassroots associations have a key task in this respect, and it is for NGOs to support them and for us, the public authorities, to support the NGOs to the extent they require.

The main thrust of action on the part of Northern NGOs and hence of official support for the latter must, therefore, aim, either directly or via development programmes, to provide institutional support to enable our Southern partners to act autonomously.

The official cooperation of the European Community needs to make room for European NGOs as they frequently have a better knowledge than public authorities of the situation in the field and of partners at grass-roots level. They also have original approaches to development. Admittedly, Northern NGOs often started out by doing the work themselves in the South. They still do this in many instances and often for good reason (for example where they are responding to a disaster, or where there is an absence of available local partners). Increasingly, however, their principal reason for being involved is to provide support for programmes and to supply institutional backing for their partners. A new type of partnership is evolving here-one in which it is no longer acceptable to be a 'silent partner'.

Adherence to such principles is now essential in most developing countries. Action by grassroots associations has increased greatly in these countries, even in Africa where the trend is much more recent.

Finally, those responsible for cooperation policies also need NGOs because of the part they play in the North. The mobilisation of people to promote development has already been mentioned, but there is more. A true cooperation policy helps to counter simplistic ideas, prejudices and political and economic interests. After all, the Southern beneficiaries of cooperation policies do not get to vote at the next election for the Northern politicians who would be willing to assist them. Such politicians therefore need a development lobby to counterbalance the lobbies defending other powerful interests.

The NGOs must also exert constant pressure on public opinion and governments for new, more balanced approaches to international relations to be adopted, with recognition of the basic interdependence of North and South. Finally they are called upon to express the views of the people and NGOs of the South in our societies.

A central area of cooperation between the Community and NGOs has, since 1976, been the co-financing of structural development activities, in other words, development projects in developing countries, and awareness-raising within Europe.

I would like to draw attention to one original feature of this area of cooperation. Although it is obviously intended to achieve the broad general objectives of European cooperation policy, which are also those of the NGOs, the latter are never treated simply as executive agencies, there to achieve the specific objectives of the public authorities. Funding is given to support initiatives taken by NGOs themselves, as the representatives of civil society. The focus is on identifying more specific objectives, through consultation between the NGOs and the Commission or the Parliament, leading to concerted action.

But the role of the NGOs has, at the instigation of both the public authorities and the NGOs themselves, extended to encompass all the cooperation policies of the Community. A well-known example is provided by emergency aid, an area where NGOs play an important part. There are many other examples: food aid, specific action in particular sectors or countries and action taken within official programmes.

A large number of administrative bodies are obviously involved and these sometimes lack awareness of the specific nature of NGOs and the need for them to maintain their autonomy. These bodies, including the Community institutions, naturally want to see NGOs provide assistance in the pursuit of specific objectives. And overall, there is a problem in obtaining a minimum degree of coherence between the actions of the various authorities involved in development. In the light of these factors, it is inevitable that problems and misunderstandings will arise - all the more so as a number of organisations which claim to be NGOs behave more like consultancy offices conducting research into the availability of contracts.

If we do not wish to kill the goose which lays the golden eggs and hope to retain the original approach of NGOs which is essentially the reason for the importance we attach to them, problems must be faced openly. We must learn to combine the objectives and methods of the NGOs and the public authorities, while respecting the part played by each and, as part of this, the autonomy of NGOs. This cannot be achieved without genuine consultation between the parties about both general policies and specific programmes.

This will undoubtedly be difficult, but it is by no means impossible, if the two sides adhere to an appropriate code of conduct. One important element is the rule that, except in areas or cases where a contrary course of action can be justified, the public funding should take the form of co-financing, with the NGOs' own contribution constituting evidence of the mobilisation of the particular group which it represents.