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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 folder2. The historical context
View the document(introduction...)
View the document2.1 Care and welfare
View the document2.2 Change and development
View the document2.3 The historical evolution of NGO/government relationships
View the document2.4 Welfare pluralism
View the document2.5 The emergence of alternatives
View the document2.6 New concerns



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.

2.1 Care and welfare

To understand the role and function of NGOs today, it is necessary to examine their historical roots.

Many NGOs are involved in what can be termed "care and welfare" activities inherited from the charitable work or philanthropy which flourished in industrialised countries from the 19th Century onwards.

Such work led to organisations being formed by the middle and wealthy classes to provide relief and welfare to the poor and less privileged, either to meet their material needs or to help them meet their needs themselves. It was a way, albeit a limited one, of transferring resources from rich to poor. This kind of work has been termed "voluntary action" and has led to the establishment of NGOs called charities, charitable organisations, or welfare organisations.

The word "welfare" is used here, as by NGOs, in a positive way - i.e. promoting well-being - even though it is recognised that it has, to some, negative connotations (public hand-outs, dependency, etc.)

2.2 Change and development

The philanthropists of the 19th Century recognised the need, however, for other approaches. Some of them were involved in political action and advocacy. From the provision of services thus developed activities of a more strategic nature. As a result, their efforts brought about many changes in society, including the abolition of slavery and of child labour, and the instigation of universal adult suffrage. What they were doing therefore was to address the deeper causes of disadvantage by advocating change and raising public awareness of issues.

This is a second historical root of today's NGOs, which can be found in what can be termed the "change and development" activities of NGOs.

These activities complement their care and welfare activities both by helping people to help themselves - working with people rather doing unto them - and working to bring about wider changes in society.

While those activities characterised by working with the disadvantaged were often not pursued within the institutionalised social policies and structures established in many countries, they did find expression in many of the community development programmes set up before and after independence in others. Indeed, it can be noted that mutual aid, self-help and social care practices characterised many societies and cultures long before the ages of colonialism and industrialisation, both in the "North" and the "South".

The words "North" and "South" are not geographical expressions. They mean, respectively, here and elsewhere in this report, "developed countries" and "developing and less developed" countries which are sometimes also differentiated as "high income" and "low income" countries.

The language used nowadays to describe the change and development activities of NGOs has evolved considerably from that of "helping people to help themselves". But it would nonetheless still be recognisable to the philanthropists and change agents of a century ago.

The modern language and practice of change and development is traced and described, for example, in literature from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa in the following ways:

"While in colonial times, NGO work was concentrated in welfare, the NGOs of today go beyond welfare functions and are working for structural change in the society to remove the dehumanising elements...This group of NGOs identify systemic factors...causing the inequality and exploitation that marginalises various groups within...society and...have the goal of working for transformation of existing structures, systems and relationships in order to enhance human dignity among the socio-economically deprived groups...[They] are also increasingly involved in research, public education and advocacy..."

"Historically, 'doing some good to the sick, needy, destitute individuals' was...a major starting point for much of the philanthropic, welfarist, social service work of NGOs...The larger social context and rationale arising out of that context serve[d] as the basis for the emergence and development of [other] NGOs...(which aim at)...empowerment of the poor and oppressed...; the building and strengthening of people's organisations...; the strengthening, re-energising and rejuvenation of social movements;... and the promotion of democratic practices and processes"

"African NGOs do not, and will not, work against the interest of our people and our countries. We are committed to supplementing the development efforts of our governments through socio-political empowerment of grassroots populations. Our goal is self-reliance and improved quality of life for the most vulnerable and deprived people and communities in our countries. We believe that a participatory and democratic approach is best for achieving that goal in a sustainable way";

2.3 The historical evolution of NGO/government relationships

When NGOs were largely concerned with care and welfare activities they carried out their work in fields where government did not, or was unable, to operate. Many of the universal and specialised public services which are taken for granted today were originally pioneered by concerned individuals acting voluntarily to take action.

The necessary financial and human resources were provided by members, the public or other agencies to enable the identified job to be done.

But NGOs would often seek to get the government to take over programmes they had initiated, and to widen their scope and impact in ways that only governments can. This was one aspect of how care and welfare was linked to change and development. When governments adopted policies, provided financial support or contracted NGOs to deliver services they had initiated, NGOs regarded such responses as achievements.

2.4 Welfare pluralism

As NGOs pioneered some form of needed provision and then secured recognition of its necessity by government, or showed that they could achieve objectives that governments found it difficult or impossible to achieve, the two parties often developed close relationships based on consensus and contract. Such relationships were strengthened when NGOs went on to help government to deliver new public service programmes. Both groups saw themselves as working partners in service delivery and resource mobilisation in a pattern termed "welfare pluralism".

As the scale of provision of public services grew, governments inevitably became the dominant partner. Nonetheless they often recognised that NGOs were frequently better placed to deliver services, especially where there was a need for speed and flexibility, or additional resources. Governments realised that in these and other respects, NGOs could often do things that they could not.

NGOs can, for example, attract financial resources from funding agencies which are not accessible to governments. The public in many countries will give directly and voluntarily to NGOs not just money, but time and other resources as well, through volunteer efforts.

While people do donate money and volunteer their help to government institutions and programmes (in hospitals and schools, to take just two examples), they are far more prepared to give to NGOs for a number of reasons. Many people already give to government through taxation, while others, such as private companies, feel that donations to government may be seen as being politically partisan, and therefore prefer to give to NGOs. In addition, in recent years the private sector in many countries has become actively involved in supporting the work of NGOs, by providing both financial and human resources.

Welfare pluralism reached its zenith during the period after the Second World War and up to the early 1970s. There was the general expectation, in both North and South countries, that government-financed, largely institutionalised public service provisions, delivered through welfare pluralism would be the means by which people's basic needs would be met.

2.5 The emergence of alternatives

From as early as the 1960s this expectation began to be questioned.

While there was pride in the growing range and number of institutionalised public services in many countries - which were regarded as highly visible signs of development - their inherent weaknesses began to be recognised. They created dependency and often eroded dignity; in them professionals, planners and experts flourished and exercised great power, becoming as one critic, Ivan Illich, observed, "exclusive experts of the public good".

While the services consumed public resources ever more greedily, their efficacy, equity and ability to solve old or new problems or meet emerging needs, came to be questioned. Was this really development, was the question being asked. Alternatives began to be developed, especially by pioneering and innovative NGOs.

Much of this will be familiar to people in both northern and southern NGOs who began to pioneer new approaches, rooted more in change and development than in care and welfare activities. These laid renewed emphasis on working with people, rather than institutionally doing unto them, on human resource development rather than just human resource mobilisation, on creating new means for human fulfilment, and on changing policies and systems accordingly.

The new approaches also questioned the trend towards market-force economics and their emphasis on competition and individualism.

Because all this challenged the prevailing institutional ethic, the relationship between NGOs and governments changed. While the consensual and contractual relationships of "welfare pluralism" continued, the new approaches inevitably meant differences of policy and practice between some NGOs and governments.

These alternatives, based on human involvement, participation, development, empowerment and social change, were not untried and unfamiliar notions. As noted previously, in some countries they could be traced back to the 19th Century philanthropists. They had also been a natural part of social, economic and cultural systems in many countries long before industrialisation and/or colonisation, and had later been embodied in many pre- and post- independence government programmes of rural and community development. Thus the new approaches were a rediscovery rather than a discovery.

Neither were they the exclusive preserve of NGOs: governments also tried to de-institutionalise their methods. Many young people, who had initially worked within governments to play their part in national development, left to join or form new NGOs through which, they hoped, they could find ways to express their ideals.

The growing disillusionment with institutionalised welfare pluralism which started in the late 1960s was given impetus by two developments. First, the series of world-wide economic crises which began in 1973 with the first oil shock forced governments to realise that their dreams of providing universal, institutional public care and welfare were at an end. The adjustment to this realisation continues.

Second, the trends towards globalisation witnessed over the 1980s and 1990s have also limited the powers and abilities of governments to meet social needs, as has been discussed.

2.6 New concerns

Many governments have welcomed and worked with NGOs involved in change and development activities, not least because they recognise that they are both manifestations of democracy and work to extend democratic practices, especially among the disadvantaged and marginalised. At the same time the changes of the 1970s, 80s and 90s have fuelled a debate among many NGOs about their role and function. New global issues and trends have catapulted NGOs onto centre stage, often according them a major role in dealing with new social, economic, political and environmental concerns. This has been particularly challenging for those NGOs which have been active in awareness-raising, social organisation, conscientisation and advocating change to the status quo. The roles played by or accorded to NGOs in the Rio Earth Summit, the Cairo Population Summit, the Copenhagen Social Summit and the Beijing Conference on Women all attest to the importance accorded to them on these major issues of current concern, as does the fact that they will be playing full and active roles in the new United Nations Aids Agency being established in 1996.

NGOs have been particularly active in promoting debates about women and development, and more recently, gender and development. The latter recognises that women and men have different social experiences, and that development planning and decision-making processes in all fields must take account of these differences.

Broadly speaking therefore, a "new breed" of NGOs has emerged over the past few decades, spawned by growing concerns about the environment, the effects of globalised economics and trade, population, civil and human rights, poverty, the needs of people with disabilities, unemployment, gender issues, the rights of indigenous peoples, the HIV/Aids pandemic... the list is endless.

Thus, the role played by NGOs in working with and supporting governments and intergovernmental international authorities has come to be complemented by the role of questioning and challenging them.

The spectrum of emerging relationships between governments and NGOs is broad. In some places, and on some issues, there is open hostility. In other places, and on other issues, recognition of NGO achievements is tempered by resistance to allow them to participate in affairs which are seen as the preserve of governments or intergovernmental authorities. But on many issues and subjects there is at worst accommodation and at best active understanding and partnership. Most governments recognise that as long as NGOs operate within the law, their activities are legitimate, including those which may at times be discomforting.