|NGO Guidelines for Good Policy and Practice (Commonwealth Foundation)|
|Part I: NGOs: what they are and what they do|
|8. The framework of relationships within which NGOs operate|
As has been noted, NGO/government relationships are complex. They are also dynamic, changing as the nature and purposes of NGOs have evolved, and as the overall context of the work of both has been transformed.
It would be wrong to say that the result of such changes has been the end of the consensual and contractual NGO/government relationships which developed when welfare pluralism was at its height. Far from it: in many countries, and in many aspects of the meeting of human needs, such relationships remain. New approaches by both NGOs and governments to their tasks have added new forms of relationship between NGOs and governments rather than replaced the old ones. The result is that the relationships now include: those involved in contracted service delivery and resource mobilisation; and those involved in bringing about broader social and economic change.
The issues which arise are now discussed.
Insofar as the relationships between NGOs and governments in the arena of contracted service delivery and resource mobilisation are concerned, two major issues arise.
First, the work of NGOs for governments in this arena generally takes place within the context of working relationships which are often referred to as a 'partnership'.
In some countries NGOs devote a considerable part of their efforts and derive a considerable part of their finance from these contracts. Where this occurs they are held by some to have forfeited their right to regard and present themselves as true NGOs by virtue of losing their second characteristic, that of independence, and thus to have become Quango- or Gongo-like.
Second, some hold the view that contracted work for government can undermine the sustainability of NGOs:
"The current arrangements for the (provision of) public funds to the non-government sector...(for service-delivery)...is via a multiplicity of (government) programs, most of which carry with them substantial responsibilities...Implicit within these funding arrangements is the expectation that...the (community-managed) non- government sector - which draws its capacity from the available voluntary resources of the community - has the time and the expertise to undertake the necessary administrative, management and legal requirements of accounting for the operation of (government) funded services...Very little support (is) available to NGO sector management committees to undertake these obligations.
The stresses of this are posing a threat to the viability of...(NGOs).
What these issues amount to is that there is a need, in contracted service delivery arrangements, for both NGOs and governments to ask themselves and each other: what short and long term effects on the status and viability of the organisation is this contract having? To address this they need to communicate, not just on the specifics of contracts, but on the general issues which they raise.
Turning to NGO/government relationships in the arena of broader change and development activities, the major issues which arise are:
NGOs have often pioneered and promoted innovative programmes and policies subsequently supported or adopted by governments. Both history and current practice abound with examples. Gender and environmental issues have in recent years, for example, largely been moved from the back burner to the forefront of the political stage as a result of the work of NGOs.
These are illustrations of how there can be other forms of productive partnership between NGOs and governments, even though it may not appear to be so at first sight or when the relationship appears to be more that involved in the battleground than the debating chamber.
NGOs which have pioneered new forms of provision or service feel that in taking them over, governments tend to remove the innovative components and swallow them into existing public institutions. Their sense of achievement is thus sometimes tempered by one of failure.
Reciprocally, governments feel that it is unreasonable and may be undesirable for public policy to be shaped by the whims and experiments of NGOs.
Some NGOs feel that there are too few lines and means of communication available which enable them to share the results of their research and innovation with government or to make representations about policy changes. Reciprocally, some government officials feel that NGOs are often too secretive about their work and do not wish to share their findings, views and ideas. Some also feel that NGOs are too ready to share these in the public arena before attempting to communicate and discuss them with government.
Thus again the issues tend to come back to the need to communicate. In many countries the ways and means for this to happen appear limited.
The two sets of issues discussed above, arising from different aspects of NGO work and consequent NGO/government relationships are complemented by more general ones. A number of these arise from concerns about NGO governance and operations which were discussed in Chapter 6 and from concerns about regulation discussed in Chapter 7. They include:
Accountability: In theory both governments and NGOs are accountable to the public. But the more this is not evident in practice, the more each tends to be suspicious of the other. In extreme, for example, the relationship between a private NGO operating in a poorly regulated environment and the government of a society which is less than fully democratic will most likely be poor. Both governments and NGOs need therefore to ensure that their lines and processes of accountability are clear.
And both need to have good information and communication arrangements between each other and with the public.
The blurring of boundaries: As has been noted, the boundaries between the concerns and interests of governments and those of major sections of interest and activity in civil society have blurred. As a result, issues concerning the roles, rights and responsibilities of the various parties have arisen and will continue to arise, as this is still a fluid and changing situation. Again, only dialogue between the parties will improve understanding between them.