|Civil Society, NGDOs and Social Development: Changing the Rules of the Game (UNRISD, 2000, 86 p.)|
|I. Unpacking Civil Society and NGDOs|
It is commonly assumed that NGDOs are a category solidly located within civil society. This conventional wisdom requires examination, beginning with a brief review of factors responsible for NGDO heterogeneity within and between countries and continents.
The complex nature of NGDOs
Since the early 1980s, one of the most visible actors in poverty reduction, outside of governments, has been NGDOs. Their origins are as varied as their organizational goals and behaviours. This paper will not detail their variety, as a range of publications already do so.13 These show that NGDOs can best be understood with reference to the timing and socio-political context of their evolution. By way of illustration, and in very broad strokes, the situation on different continents may be described as follows.
13 Readings providing an overview of NGDOs are: dark, 1991; Fisher, 1998; Fowler, 1997; Korten, 1990; Ndegwa, 1996; Smillie, 1995; Theunis, 1992. Country- or continent-specific studies are: Burnell, 1991; Carroll, 1992; Maskay, 1998; Meyer, 1999; Smith, 1990.
NGDOs in Latin America have early origins in alliance with unions, peasant associations, popular movements and their responses to military dictatorship. They were often "protected" by links to the Catholic Church and informed by radical theology. At the same time, military rmes created their own NGDOs to show that they had a "human face". This intentionally complicated the NGDO landscape. In this era, much NGDO finance came from private sources in the North.14 Later NGDO evolution has capitalized on the space created by the inauguration of civilian regimes and democratic governance. Their growth was, until recently, further spurred by aid flows designed to "consolidate democracy" and by including NGDOs in development initiatives, such as "social funds" intended to mitigate the social costs of structural adjustment programmes.
14 It was not uncommon for bilateral aid to use NGDOs as a conduit for their funds. In this way, their finance would not be seen as support to military or left-wing rmes.
The African context differed markedly. Here, de-colonization was a significant factor in NGDO establishment and subsequent profile. A number of what are now referred to as CBOs engaged in the anti-colonial struggle, later forming complex relations with newly independent governments and political structures. They emerged as one visible product of the "winds of change" that made the ethics and politics of colonialism unacceptable. Subsequently, where the political ideology of new rulers permitted - for example, it did in Kenya but not in Tanzania - other African NGDOs quickly emerged as part of a shared socio-economic agenda known as "nation building". De-colonization also provided foreign role models for local NGDOs as their Northern counterparts (many from the colonizing country) entered to assist in the process of building newly independent states. In countries that chose a centrally planned approach to development - bolstered by one-party political systems - it was not until the 1980s that indigenous NGDOs began to outnumber those from abroad. In other words, a post-colonial history and the political framework strongly conditioned the profile of the NGDO community and the role(s) it played. Large aid flows and "adjustment" policies, such as retrenchment of civil servants, have accelerated growth within the African NGDO community. However, they have also cast doubt on NGDO values and the real reason for their existence - creation of self-employment or an ethic of social change? In other words, expansion may not have been accompanied by public trust.
Asia offers a more diverse perspective. In India, tradition, indigenous philanthropy and Gandhian teachings created a strong home-grown understanding of voluntary action and NGDOs. In parallel, some countries - for example, the Philippines and Thailand - experienced popular action against civilian dictatorship and military rule that spawned politically oriented NGDO leaders. Countries without party politics or following communist ideologies - People's Republic of China, Laos, Viet Nam - remain inhospitable ground for the growth of autonomous civic organizations.15 When such regimes change or open up, as in Nepal, local NGDO growth can be rapid and opportunistic. In contrast, the struggle for Bangladesh's independence created a context enabling a widespread and substantial growth of indigenous NGDOs with the help of foreign aid. From the outset, some NGDO leaders had an agenda to operate on a scale commensurate with the scale of the problems faced by a new nation. Bangladesh is now home to the largest indigenous NGDOs in the South.
15 Communist regimes typically produce NGDOs that are nominally autonomous bur are in fact closely allied with the state. For example, for China see Young, 1999.
New states emerging from the former Soviet Union exhibit their own history of NGDO evolution. In some, NGDOs have recalled previous expressions of civic organizing. In Hungary, they are welcomed and supported by new governments and society (Kuti, 1998). In others, civic action is circumscribed and politically suspect, as in Turkmenistan, Khazakstan and Kyrgistan. In yet others, NGDOs are still an unknown quantity- inviting suspicion of duplicitous agendas, or false fronts for the Mafia.
If one generalization can be made, it is probably that the existence and size of an NGDO community in countries of the South or East cannot be equated with public confidence from citizens or governments. Unlike in the West, NGDO growth has not been "organic" in the sense of emerging from indigenous forces and support; foreign relations and interests must be factored in. Externally induced processes can "contaminate" citizens' perspectives of what NGDOs are and what interests they serve.
The point of the foregoing is to highlight factors that affect NGDOs as agents of social development. First, historical speciticity conditions the degree of social and political trust enjoyed by NGDOs. Second, as this varies widely, so, too, does the degree of local financial support for NGDOs. Third, NGDOs commitment and contribution to reaching universal social development goals are far from homogenous. Fourth, NGDOs activities and approaches to development are manifold.16
16 As varied as their origins are the roles that NGDOs play and the way in which they go about what they do. Again, broadly speaking, some act as watchdogs on the effects of government and businesses on social processes. Some seek to rebuild "traditional" social structures oppressed by previous regimes or promote values other than "modern" individual wealth and consumerism. Many promote the self-development of CBOs and their empowerment towards local governments and other social actors. Others, probably the majority by monetary measure, provide social services. Others take on an international focus agitating against an international order they disagree with. Yet others focus on altering public policies in support of particular groups in the population or fix their attention on particular issues, such as child labour, human rights or the environment. These tasks and roles are not mutually exclusive. Multiple objectives can be found within many NGDOs. One commonality may be profession of a concern for the poor and marginalized. However, this broad umbrella hides many differences.
Because of these factors, it is difficult for governments and the aid system to understand NGDOs and to identify which ones to engage with, much less to have the institutional capacity to work with different NGDOs in different ways. In other words, another rule of the aid game should be to recognize, respect and positively respond to NGDO diversity. This is necessary to ensure that interaction with the aid system does not homogenize and standardize NGDOs outlook, identity and work. Otherwise, there is a grave danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Unfortunately, this is no abstract danger.
NGDOs within and above civil society
Civil society existed before and extends far beyond NGDOs. However, in expanding the social development agenda to include civil society, NGDOs are readily seen as the "tip of a civic iceberg" and the point of entry. This assumption is only partially correct.17 Some observers argue that many NGDOs have joined the market place as aid contractors and/or government-subsidized public service providers (Smillie et al., 1996; Uphoff, 1995), thus compromising their autonomy and civic roots. A prima facie case for such conclusions is the nearly total (about 95 per cent) financial dependence of Southern and Eastern NGDOs on international aid, directly, or on development loans to their governments, indirectly. This reality implies NGDOs being suspended above their economies and societies.18 Another signal of weak-rootedness in civil society is poor accountability (Edwards and Hulme, 1995). As will be seen in section III, NGDO accountability - especially for the positions they take in international forums and in dialogues with aid agencies - is becoming a source of friction with governments as well as between NGDOs in the North, South and East.
17 For example, for Colombia see: Richie-Vance, 1991.
18 It is also the case that a number of Southern governments - many in Africa - can only function anywhere close to a viable nation state because of international aid. Dependency is not just a problem for NGDOs (SIDA, 1996).
External financial dependency and questionable local accountability are two points differentiating (and detaching) NGDOs from the main body of civil society - entities typically composed of (mass) membership bodies, be they formal or informal. A further separation can be found in the life styles and reward systems of many NGDOs of the South and East, which do not reflect local economic conditions or financial capabilities (Kuratov and Solyanik, 1995). This obviously creates an issue of credibility and future viability.
A conclusion from the above analysis is that NGDOs cannot simply be taken as reasonable proxy for civil society organizations (CSOs) or civic organizing in countries of the South and East (van Rooy, 1998). This suggests that including civil society in achieving social development goals requires dedicated outreach beyond and not necessarily through NGDOs. This fact has many implications for how the aid system operates.
The foregoing is not to imply that the role and work of NGDOs in social development is not potentially very important or useful - far from it. Many NGDOs have built up substantial and merited reputations. They have accumulated a wealth of experience and insight that can accelerate the realization of social development goals. The point is that working with NGDOs is not equal to a stated objective of working with civil society. With this perspective in mind, we turn to what NGDOs actually achieve.