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close this bookNGO Guidelines for Good Policy and Practice (Commonwealth Foundation)
close this folderPart I: NGOs: what they are and what they do
close this folder1. The rationale and purpose of this report
View the document(introduction...)
View the document1.1 The origins and scope of this report
View the document1.2 An overview of the report
View the document1.3 The purpose of this report
View the document1.4 The importance of NGOs
View the document1.5 The global dimension
View the document1.6 The local dimension
View the document1.7 NGOs, government and civil society

(introduction...)

All texts © Commonwealth Foundation
The origins and scope of this report
An overview of the report
The purpose of this report
The importance of NGOs
The global dimension
The local dimension
NGOs, government and civil society
Illustration 1: The actions and place of NGOs in civil society (I)

1.1 The origins and scope of this report

The importance of the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the general trends and issues affecting them, and the ways in which their work and impact could be strengthened were recognised and discussed at the First Commonwealth NGO Forum convened by the Commonwealth Foundation and held in Zimbabwe in August 1991. In particular, the Forum proposed:

"...the preparation of a Commonwealth NGO Charter...(which) would contain, inter alia, recommendations concerning practices and policies which best utilise the strengths and abilities of NGOs; (and) ways to foster good, productive and mutually understanding relationships between governments and their NGOs..."


At their Meeting in Harare later in 1991, Commonwealth Heads of Government welcomed the proposal and asked the Commonwealth Foundation to develop a programme of assistance. This report, which has been informed by a process of research, consultation and drafting carried out between 1992 and 1995, represents the Foundation's response.

The research and consultation process is fully described at Annex 1.

Lists of those consulted, contributing views and information, or responding to drafts are set out at Annex 2. The research had two aims: to develop guidelines for good policy and practice for NGOs, governments and funders on matters specific to each of them as well as matters concerning their inter-relationships; to define NGOs, and to prepare an accurate and up-to-date account of their current role and functioning, and of the context in which they operate.

This report presents the results.

1.2 An overview of the report

Part I of this report is structured in three main sections.

The first section consists of two chapters which provide an introduction and overview of the current role and functioning of NGOs, providing a context for this report:

Chapter 1

The rationale and purpose of this report outlines the terms of reference and scope of the research. It notes how the growth of NGOs over the past two decades has given them an increasingly important role and led to them forming a distinctive sector within civil society.

The Chapter then provides an overview of the global and local trends affecting NGO work, how they have responded to emerging issues and problems, and the complementary roles that NGOs, governments and international agencies can play.

Chapter 2

The historical context. This Chapter provides a historical background.

It describes how the current spectrum of NGO activities has emerged from the 19th Century, and been shaped in the past 30 years by the search for alternatives and by emerging new needs and concerns.

The second section consists of three chapters which define and describe NGOs, and create a typology of them.

Chapter 3.

NGOs defined. Against the background of the two previous descriptive chapters, this chapter defines NGOs.

Chapter 4

NGO activities described. This Chapter describes five types of activity commonly practised by NGOs. These fall across a spectrum from those directed at the "care and welfare" of the disadvantaged to "change and development" activities which are directed at concerns and issues which affect the disadvantaged or are detrimental to the well-being of people or society as a whole. The direct and indirect ways in which NGOs take action are described.

Chapter 5.

A typology of NGOs. This Chapter creates both descriptive and organisational components of a typology of NGOs based on: their activities; the ways in which they are controlled, managed and legally incorporated; their location between government and civil society; the levels at which they operate; and their links with other organisations.

These components of the typology, together with the earlier definition, provide a means by which NGOs can be distinguished from other organisations in civil society.

The third section consists of four chapters which discuss key features of the context in which NGOs operate, and the issues which arise from them:

Chapter 6.

The governance and operation of NGOs. This chapter describes how NGOs are operated and managed. It discusses related issues, which include accountability, management, human resource development/ training, evaluation and monitoring, information, networking and alliance-building.

Chapter 7

The legal and institutional frameworks within which NGOs operate.

This chapter begins by examining the political aspects of NGO work and then discusses key features of the external environment in which NGOs work and the laws and associated regulatory processes within which they operate. Limitations apparent in both are noted and the scope for improvements set out.

Chapter 8

The framework of relationships within which NGOs operate. This chapter discusses other key features of the external environment within which NGOs operate. In particular there is an examination and discussion of the relationships between NGOs and governments, and between NGOs and funders. Ways of improving both are also examined and discussed.

Chapter 9

The international dimension. This chapter examines in particular the various forms of linkage that exist between NGOs in developed and developing countries, including those related to funding, operations and partnerships.

Chapter 10

Conclusion and introduction to the guidelines. This Chapter draws out conclusions from Chapters 1-9 and introduces the guidelines.

Part II sets out the guidelines for good policy and practice as follows:

Chapter 11

Guidelines for good policy and practice on the part of governments.

Chapter 12

Guidelines for good policy and practice on the part of NGOs.

Chapter 13

Guidelines for good policy and practice on the part of funders.

Chapter 14

Guidelines for good policy and practice on the part of "North" and international agencies.

Chapter 15

Implementing the guidelines: A plan of action.

Part III is a bibliography of the extensive range of sources which were examined in preparing this report.

Annexes 1 and 2 describe the process of research, consultation, and drafting used in preparing this report and lists those who submitted information, were consulted or submitted responses to the first draft.

1.3 The purpose of this report

NGOs have grown enormously in numbers over the past 20 years and more. At the same time the scope of their work has widened, to the extent that they are now concerned or involved with almost every aspect of human need and endeavour. Some of them have global impact and significance while others affect individuals, particular communities or groups at the local level.

It is generally recognised that this quantitative and qualitative explosion of NGOs and their work has been beneficial to the present and future well-being of the world and its peoples. But despite the expansion of NGOs as an important sector of civil society, relatively little has been done to define them and the scope of their work. Additionally it has been recognised that the practices of NGOs vary widely. This has sometimes led to confusion about their role and function as well as suspicion on the part of some governments, who have sometimes seen them as a threat. Models of good policy and practice have emerged however, which provide useful indicators and standards. In addition, several decades of experience in developing relations between governments, NGOs and funders have helped to identify productive ways of working together.

It is important to stress, however, that the guidelines contained in this report should be seen not as a prescription developed from such accumulated experience. Instead, they are a set of principles and goals to which those involved in or with NGOs can aspire, and which can represent a common foundation on which individual organisations and countries can build their own unique policies and practices.

1.4 The importance of NGOs

NGOs play important roles in society. Motivated by a desire for a caring and developed society they establish and operate programmes of education, health, social welfare and economic improvement, especially among disadvantaged sectors.

In doing this, they directly and indirectly encourage and extend democratic practices. NGOs have also long been involved in pioneering new approaches to meeting needs and solving problems in society. In recent years, they have also been at the centre of renewed searches for sustainable processes of social, environmental and economic development and action on issues such as peace, democracy, human rights, gender equity and poverty.

The size of the NGO sector varies widely across countries. In Britain there are estimated to be over 500,000 NGOs. The turnover of the 175,000 of these that are registered charities is estimated at £17 billion per year. In Canada, the Canadian Environmental Network of NGOs has 2,000 groups in membership. Zimbabwe has an estimated 800 NGOs, which have spent Z$300-400 million on projects since independence. One of these NGOs has an annual budget of over £600,000 and works with 80,000 rural families.

In Sri Lanka one rural development NGO alone has 9,000 paid fieldworkers and 41,000 local fieldworkers, working in 10,000 villages. In Bangladesh there are at least 12,000 local groups receiving local and central government financial support, and a rural development NGO has helped 85,000 villages take advantage of an immunisation programme. Another, which makes credit available to poor people, has 900 branches and works in 23,000 villages.

In India one estimate refers to 100,000 NGOs, while another claims 25,000 registered grass-roots organisations in one state - Tamil Nadu - alone.

Kenya has 23,000 women'sorganisations. Uganda has over 1000 local NGOs and over 20 foreign based ones, which together received £17 million in 1990. In Australia more than half of all the country's welfare services are supplied by not-for-profit charitable organisations. They are estimated to number more than 11,000, turning over a total of A$4.4 billion per year, and mobilising an estimated 93 million volunteer hours.

The United Nations Development Programme estimates that the total numbers of people "touched" by NGOs in developing countries across the world is probably 250 million (20 per cent of the 1.3 billion people living in absolute poverty in developing countries), and that this "will rise considerably in the years ahead".b

1.5 The global dimension

This explosion of NGOs has been happening in the context of a world which has, over the past few decades, been characterised by rapid, complex and often unpredictable political, institutional, environmental, demographic, social and economic changes, which show no sign of ending. The changes include periodic world-wide recessions, increasing national debt levels, the appearance of new diseases and the reappearance of old ones, general environmental degradation and natural disasters, climatic changes, the disappearance of the "Iron Curtain", and a succession of armed conflicts.

The past decade in particular has seen dramatic changes at a global level which have had a fundamental impact on societies everywhere.

Perhaps the most important of these changes has been that towards regionalised and globalised economies. Policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund often have more impact on economies than those of national governments. As they commit themselves to regional economic blocs or regional or world trade agreements, governments experience similar effects. At the same time the growth of transnational corporations has also increased the effects of external influences on national policies.

All these trends to globalised economics have meant that, in general, governments have found that their abilities to influence what happens at national levels have, over the course of time, been eroded - sometimes slowly and at other times with dramatic suddenness.

Much the same has happened in other fields: many environmental changes are global in nature, and even those which are local can have impacts which are felt far away by people across the other side of the globe. The telecommunications and information revolutions are global, too. News and its associated images are beamed instantly across the world, through satellite dishes and optic fibres. Cultural influences come via the same routes and cannot always be controlled. And where new technology creates opportunities and advantage for those with access to it, it can at the same time further disadvantage those who lack such access. The "information superhighway" is a current illustration: no access, no superhighway, no advantage.

In general, three observations can be made about all the above and other ways in which the "global village" is coming about: the more globalisation occurs, the more national governments lose control over national affairs, whether or not they want it or like it; globalisation is also challenging the concept of cultural sovereignty. Cultural values are undergoing rapid change as a global lifestyle threatens to undermine local and national traditions and cultures. In addition, global trends towards individualism are occurring and replacing the collectivism which has been the cultural norm in many societies; globalisation is tending to increase the gulf between rich and poor, advantaged and disadvantaged.

1.6 The local dimension

In part the NGO explosion can be seen as a response to globalisation: as Mahatma Gandhi observed, "Think Global, Act Local". In the face of big, global influences, including those represented by the international instruments of capital which have tended to increase deprivation among poor and marginalised peoples, local and people's NGOs have been formed. Such initiatives can also be seen as satisfying people's urge not just for local initiatives which are under their control, but also for small-scale, manageable and understandable action: satisfying E.F. Schumacher s credo, "Small is Beautiful".

NGOs are also an expression of people's belief that through their own initiative they can better fulfil their potential by working together, and in so doing reduce the opportunity gap which exists between the advantaged and disadvantaged in society. This means involving and empowering people, rather than either leaving them to fend for themselves or consigning them to the role of the helpless client of institutions. Between the global trends towards powerful institutions and individualism, NGOs thus represent a third force, for collectivism.

In addition, the NGO explosion can be seen as one of the manifestations of new thinking about the role of government - that it should be more that of policy maker and less that of provider. Thus governments have turned to NGOs to do more of the providing.

Privatisation, decentralisation, and localisation are parallel manifestations of the same general trend. Sometimes as a result of these trends, but sometimes simply of their own volition, people and communities have, through forming local NGOs, taken their own initiatives. Just as governments frequently feel disempowered by globalisation, people too feel disempowered and want to respond.

It is from networking and alliance-building among many of these new small and/or local NGO initiatives that NGOs in recent years have frequently been able to make their collective impact much greater than the sum total of their individual efforts. They have in particular come to influence and instigate new policies as well as act as doers and providers. In doing this NGOs have faced three challenges.

First, of scaling up their programmes so that they impact on broader sections of the population: while small may be beautiful, it is still small. Some NGOs have grown from being small, local projects to large-scale programmes over the last 20 years. Indeed, some have gone beyond this and become "movements". Second, NGOs have been faced with the challenge of working together co-operatively in circumstances where competition or rivalry is being encouraged among them (for example when available resources are limited, as they often are).

Third, they have faced the tasks of both scaling up and co-operating in the face of such obvious constraints as resource, skill and organisational infrastructure deficiencies, and less obvious ones such as a general lack of understanding of their role in civil society.

The NGO explosion is both caused and affected by changes that have occurred in the theory and practice of what is broadly termed "development" - improving the conditions and prospects of peoples and nations, and especially of the disadvantaged among them.

What has become evident to many, in and outside governments, is that traditional strategies of social and economic development based on large-scale, institutionalised methods and provisions have not achieved the desired results. In particular, they have not "trickled-down" to bring consistent and sustained improvements to the standards of living and quality of life of the poor and disadvantaged sectors of society. In addition, there has come the recognition that in a changing world, qualities of creativity, flexibility and speed of response are of paramount importance. Large scale institutionalised efforts tend to lack such qualities. So too, in consequence, do the people and communities reliant on them. It has also become evident that if the processes of meeting human needs and resolving societal problems are to be sustainable, they must mobilise, involve and empower people and communities rather than treat them as if they possessed no strengths and capacities of their own.

All these global and local changes thus represent different forms of impetus which have contributed to the NGO explosion, and placed the spotlight on them. Many of them work among the poor and marginalised. They can be creative and flexible and can operate with speed. They can mobilise, involve and contribute to the development of human resources. And they can be effective in bringing about needed change.

In consequence, a number of positive developments have become evident:

NGOs are increasingly being recognised by governments as potent forces for social and economic development; important partners in nation-building and national development; valuable forces in promoting the qualitative and quantitative development of democracy; and, not least, important contributors to GDP; 2 governments are recognising the need for themselves and NGOs to work together, and the need for such co-operation to extend to other key players, including funders, disadvantaged people themselves, other sectors of civil society, and the wider public; at the wider international level, regional and international organisations, and multilateral and bilateral agencies concerned with aid and development are becoming more and more responsive to the views of NGOs and are placing more and more emphasis on recognising, involving, supporting and working with them; many NGOs have themselves been re-examining and evaluating their work, redefining their roles, whom they serve and are accountable to, and endeavouring to function more effectively and efficiently.

While these trends are found across the world, problems invariably arise. This report identifies them and sets out ways to deal with them.

1.7 NGOs, government and civil society

In civil society, organisations of all kinds can be found.

All formed voluntarily by citizens, they fall into three broad categories:

1. organisations formed out of concern to assist the needy or disadvantaged including those formed for self-help purposes among disadvantaged people

2. organisations which are formed on the basis of a common interest in and/or to take action on a particular subject or issue

3. organisations through which people engage in a common pursuit.

For the purposes of this report NGOs are, generally speaking, those organisations in civil society which are either formed to assist the needy or disadvantaged (the first category above); or, within the second category, formed to pursue a common interest in and/or to take action on a particular subject or issue which causes disadvantage or is detrimental to the well-being of people or society as a whole.

Chapter 3 sets out a full definition.


Illustration 1: The actions and place of NGOs in civil society (I)

The illustration on the right endeavours to show how NGOs are part of the total fabric of organisations in civil society, but distinguishable from other groups by their focus on the disadvantaged, disadvantage, or wider concerns and issues which affect people's well-being. It also introduces two further features of NGOs.

First, because they share the concern that governments have with disadvantage, and with broader matters affecting people's well-being, NGOs relate closely to them. Indeed, NGOs often relate very closely to governments, because: some NGOs have contractual relationships to deliver services on behalf of government departments; some NGOs mobilise resources in support of government policies and programmes, in such diverse fields as literacy, unemployment, adult education, and community development for example; some NGOs undertake research or establish innovative programmes and want to inform governments of their results, and advocate appropriate governmental responses; NGOs may feel the need to bring to governments' attention the ways in which public or private sector policies or actions affect NGO operations, the disadvantaged or society as a whole.

In many ways therefore NGOs operate at the interface between government and its institutions on the one hand, and civil society more broadly on the other.

Second, NGOs take action indirectly as well as directly to deal with the needs, problems and issues with which they are concerned.

They may, for example, seek to raise the awareness of the public generally about particular matters, or advocate changes in public policies.