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

On the diversity and role of NGOs

We come across them during fund-raising campaigns. We sometimes follow their activities on TV. Perhaps we read their literature. But what do we really know about 'non-governmental organisations'-a term which encompasses a great variety of groups and structures. Other than a few NGOs, whose work is so well known that it needs no further promotion, the answer to this question is probably 'very little', Many of them like to cultivate an air of mystery. But their role is not something that is cast in tablets of stone. Indeed, today, many are in the process of redefining their own identity.

Defining the expression 'nongovernmental organisation' is a risky exercise. It may include voluntary organisations, 'solidarity' agencies, international NGOs, so-called 'quasi-NGOs' and a variety of other arrangements. There is, in fact, no overall consensus as to what an NGO is. They are set up under national legislation and the legal conditions and procedures therefore vary from country to country. It is interesting to note, in this context, that the name NGO has recently been abandoned in France in favour of ASI (International Solidarity Association).

One can, of course, try to pinpoint certain common basic criteria. There is the idea that an NGO should be a private, non-profit-making body. One might mention the 'linking' of North and South as an essential feature, while recognising that NGOs are also interested in tackling poverty in their own countries. A key element may be the motivation of those involved-a desire to act as part of a society but without state control. This last 'criterion' conveniently ignores the fact that many NGO projects are direct offshoots of action taken by governments.

It is an interesting phenomenon that the general public has faith in NGOs and supports them, even if their compassion in the face of world poverty is only rarely aroused. By contrast, the attitude to governments is less indulgent-indeed, there is often harsh criticism of the actions of state institutions. This is the non-governmental/governmental dichotomy which is expressed in people's minds as a preference for efficiency over bureaucracy, altruism over self-interest, and concern for human welfare over entrenched political and economic interests. The media constantly reinforce the dichotomy. But in practice, NGOs cannot be neatly categorised like this. The one thing they are not, is a homogeneous whole. The key point about NGOs is their diversity, and it is from this diversity that they draw their strength.

All shades

Since the beginning of the 1980s, we have witnessed a veritable explosion of NGOs. According to the OECD, there were approximately 1600 in western countries in 1980, 2500 in 1990 and, today, we are well past the figure of 3000. There are naturally differences from country to country, particularly in terms of size. Oxfam UK, for example, which is a massive NGO, does not have an equivalent in any other European country. There are also big differences in numbers. France and Germany have a great many NGOs while other countries have fewer. In some countries, they have a long tradition of working in the field while in others, the sector has only emerged recently. The UK has some organisations that date back to the last century and most of the big ones came into being before the Second World War. In Spain, on the other hand, the first NGO was established only in 1942, with the real growth taking place during the 1980s. National traditions also reveal themselves if one looks at the origins of NGOs. In Catholic countries, 'cooperation' activity developed almost exclusively along religious lines. Elsewhere, the phenomenon was linked more to anti-establishment traditions. In Scandinavian countries, a further element was the voluntary spirit and a desire to build society based on consensus with the State. This corporatist approach is also found, to some extent, in the Netherlands.

Another distinction may be made between so-called denominational NGOs and so-called secular ones. The former, to varying degrees, are nun along religious lines, either deriving directly from one of the churches or having been closely linked to a religious denomination in the past. The relationship does not necessarily influence the NGO's actions although some make the delivery of a Christian missionary message part of their work. The phrase evangelical NGO is therefore in common use. Others, go even further, seeing the 'message' as the central purpose. This might be said of NGOs who work closely with organisations such as Opus Dei or some of those that have been established by smaller sects. As regards 'secular' NGOs, a key distinction is whether or not they belong to a wider structure or not Many emanate from structures such as trades unions, political parties, international organisations or other social organisations. Here too, the link may be more or less intimate and may be reflected in their actions. Many make no effort to conceal their origins (though some do, particularly if they were set up by organisations like the CIA!). Again, this relationship is often linked to national traditions; hence, for example, all German political parties have their accredited NGO.

Belonging to a structure may represent a source of additional finance for the NGO. This is the case particularly with many denominational NGOs, often working in networks, which benefit from a portion of the tax received by the Church to which they are affiliated. On the other hand, 'political' NGOs are sometimes forbidden to raise their own funds and depend totally on the government in Germany). This distribution of own resources/public funds varies widely according to the NGO's reputation and also varies from country to country. Dependence on public funds runs at somewhere between 15% and 20% in France and Germany. In the United Kingdom it is 40%. In the case of Italy, Sweden and Norway, it may be as high as 80%. It should be noted that Sweden and Norway do not offer tax allowances for private donations, which partly explains their low level.

By virtue of this financing, some NGOs (often those with very strong foundations) focus their efforts on a great variety of subjects, whilst others favour more specific actions. 'Specialised NGOs' are becoming increasingly numerous and, over the years, new areas of activity have supplemented traditional ones such as education, hunger and health. There is the environment, obviously, but also human rights, debt reduction or disarmament. Over the last 10 years or so, two major subjects have cropped up, namely youth and women. In these areas, NGOs have clearly played an important role in influencing official policy. Often, moreover, NGOs are quick to defend causes, taking up a dear and sometimes radical political position. Unfortunately, this is usually a reaction to official policies rather than a preventive measure. Their role is no longer restricted to setting up micro-projects as they did 30 years ago or to providing humanitarian aid as portrayed by the media, always eager to highlight catastrophes. Today, NGOs are increasingly seeking to influence international political and economic relationships.

From early missionaries to advocates of the Third World

Often, when NGOs are differentiated in terms of their role or their mission within the development sector, three distinct categories can be identified:

-emergency or humanitarian-aid NGOs;
-development NGOs, subdivided into financing NGOs (offering technical support or funds) and operational NGOs (working with local groups or sending out their own staff);
-development education NGOs (raising awareness in schools, running information and mobilisation campaigns, lobbying, etc.).

The distinction is not a clear-cut one, however. Although some NGOs are involved solely in one specific type of action, more and more of them are mixing their activities nowadays, above all, in respect of development and development education. In addition, the adoption of political stances is not something that has occurred overnight. There has been a great deal of serious debate about the work of NGOs. David Korten, who has studied the subject, has identified three 'generations' of approach to development in the work of NGOs.

The first contemporary NGOs came into being just after the First World War, often as direct offshoots of the Church. Initially, they concentrated their activities on responding to the needs of the victims of a war-torn Europe and only gradually did they turn their attention towards countries in the South. This humanitarian assistance did not remain the sole prerogative of missionaries and the churches for long, as groups of volunteers set up organisations in a non-denominational setting. The approach of the first 'generation' was simplistic. The basic message was; 'If these people are hungry, it is because they have no food. We will therefore give them food'. NGOs were thus responding to immediate and concrete need.

The second approach, which coincided with the wave of independence at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, was born of debate about the model which had hitherto predominated. The number of NGOs was increasing and their activities were diversifying. Henceforth, it was no longer simply a question of providing assistance in the face of the symptoms of poverty. The new objective was to enable the people affected to take on responsibility for themselves. NGOs focused their energies on developing the victims' ability to meet their needs through local actions. Schumacher's phrase, 'small is beautiful', gave rise to the development of health committees to implement preventive measures or introduce agricultural practices. Although, at the beginning of this second period, many NGOs were attempting to reproduce the western model, the desire to maintain the economic and political independence of local populations was rapidly to become more important, a desire for independence upheld by new emergent political concepts on the part of intellectuals in the South, such as liberation theologists.

Although the main models offered to the Third World spoke only in terms of delayed development and of macro-economic growth whose positive effects would influence the poor, a new ideological debate was taking place within the NGO community. The thesiss was that poverty is a result of the unfair distribution of wealth and resources, and of an unequal balance of power, both in national and international terms. This debate undoubtedly contributed to a growing recognition of the fundamental role of NGOs in the overall development process. In fact, NGOs whose main focus was support for local projects were soon to become aware of the limits of such an approach; limits based on political and economic interests. Since the beginning of the 1970s, and in the wake of leftist trends and the advent of the New World Economic Order, a third generation has appeared - that of sustainable development. The nature of poverty has become political. It is recognised that micro-projects seldom produce results except on a small scale, and corruption, embezzlement, exploitation and international relations founded solely on self-interest have the effect of sustaining local inertia. To reverse the trend, development programmes and projects must be accompanied by lobbying and development education. In parallel with this new role as Third World advocate, Northern NGOs have increasingly offered support to NGOs from the South, the latter being increasingly recognised as necessary partners in combating the causes of poverty.

A new debate

This evolution and the successes arising from it inevitably pose new challenges for NGOs. Hit by recession, and occasionally involved in ferocious financial competition, NGOs have had difficulty in refusing the public money sometimes offered them. This development serves to emphasise their ever closer relationship with state organisations. Although the attention of the state may seem beneficial, NGOs should not lose sight of their non-governmental identity, their independence and their specific character. Nor should they shirk their responsibility to their 'base' or to the people in the South whom they support. Many NGOs feel threatened by sponsors and governments who want to use them for their own ends and who therefore oblige them to comply with their standards and priorities. In this context, some authors speak of increased homogenisation of NGOs. Emergency aid, although a specific case, with its unprecedented involvement in conflicts, merely serves to confirm the trend.

Many governments have also begun to 'hunt' actively in areas that Northern NGOs regard as their own territory, seeking ways of dealing directly with Southern NGOs. Increased recognition of the latter poses a serious challenge to Northern NGOs, although few would dare to admit it. The famous NorthSouth NGO 'partnership' remains, in many cases, a dominator/dominated relationship, the former obviously being the one who has the money while the latter is the 'beneficiary', placed under supervision. To put an end to this paternalistic attitude, Northern NGOs need more than fine words. They have to work to establish a new and real partnership (this was one of the major topics of the conference which followed the NGO General Assembly in April). One requirement in this regard is clearly to support Southern colleagues- who seek money rather than 'meddling' in consolidating their capabilities.

Another serious aspect which NGOs need to reflect on and confront is the difficulties they have in working seriously together in the development sector. As Korten remarks, it appears easier, despite the frictions in the relationship, to collaborate with governments. The few identified instances of genuinely coordinated activity usually only involve NGOs with similar leanings. Yet common formulation of strategies in the medium and long term is crucial for better development.

There are other elements to be considered in the debate about NGOs. There is, for example, the move towards more professionalism which is clearly underway. Private fund-raising is also a subject which has engendered criticism. Although we cannot yet speak of a genuine identity crisis, the NGOs are unquestionably at a fuming point in their history. They must negotiate in the name of the civil society they claim to represent, if they are to maintain the reputation they have deservedly gained for themselves through past actions-as tried and tested, competent and efficient structures for combating poverty.