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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

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.