Development, NGOs, and Civil Society
Deborah Eade (editor) - 2000, 2004, 2006
rise of neoliberalism and the so-called Washington Consensus
have generated a powerful international agenda of what
constitutes good governance, democratisation, and the proper
role of the state and civil society in advancing
development. As public spending has declined, the NGO sector
has massively benefited from taking on a service-delivery
role. At the same time, as civil society organisations,,
NGOs are a convenient channel through which official
agencies can promote political pluralism. But can NGOs play
these roles simultaneously? Can they both facilitate
governments’ withdrawal from providing basic services for
all and also claim to represent the poor and the
disenfranchised? Are NGOs legitimate political actors in
their own right? Jenny Pearce introduces papers that
describe some of the tensions inherent in the roles being
played by NGOs, and asks whether they truly stand for
anything fundamentally different from the agencies on whose
largesse they increasingly depend.
Development, in the sense of a body of thinking and practice about why
poverty exists and persists, and about how to eradicate it, has a relatively
recent history. The development era is said to have been launched by
President Truman in 1949, and indeed most of the best-known specialised
UN agencies were established at around that time.1 Development NGOs
came into being even more recently, though many of today’s familiar
names — Save the Children Fund, CARE, Oxfam — began their lives as
welfare or emergency relief agencies, and either ‘converted’ to
development in the 1960s and 1970s, or at the very least discovered it.
Thousands more were spawned as the development industry really took
off. As it became better understood that the causes of poverty and
vulnerability were structural, and not ‘natural’, so it became part of NGO
lore that development was the best form of disaster prevention, and that a
‘developmental’ rather than a ‘derring-do’ response was more appropriate
Development, NGOs, and civil society: the debate and its
In reviewing the contributions to this Reader, I was struck by three things.
First, by the wealth of empirically informed conceptual analysis that they
offer, succinctly addressing many of the key issues that emerged in the
1990s on the theme of development, NGOs, and civil society. Second, by
the mix of scholar-activist-practitioner authors, for whom the issues
discussed really matter, because if they were clarified the world might
become a better place. But third, and despite the quality and relevance of
the papers selected for this volume, by the difficulty of generating wider
debate about their content.
This is certainly not the fault of the contributions: on the contrary, they
cover the range of issues admirably. The problem is that they are appearing
in a world in which the collapse of intellectual and political reference
points has prompted an eclectic outpouring of ideas and views, without
organised and coherent debate...
Scaling up NGO impact on development: learning from
Michael Edwards and David Hulme
There are 4,000 non-government organisations (NGOs) engaged in
development work in OECD countries alone, and a further ten to twenty
thousand in the South. But despite the increasing size and sophistication
of the NGO sector, the impact of its activity is often transitory and localised.
NGOs often find it difficult to interact effectively with social, economic,
and political forces at the national and international levels, with the result
that grassroots development efforts can be easily undermined. Faced by
this, NGOs are asking themselves searching questions about their future
role and effectiveness, and are experimenting with a range of strategies to
increase, or ‘scale up’, the impact of their development work.
Help yourself by helping The Poor
You still don’t have your own EN-GE-OH? You haven’t got a non-profit
foundation, complete with legal status? Not even a private consulting
firm? Then, my friend, you’re really out of it. Any professional who hasn’t
got one of these late twentieth century accessories is lost — clearly
someone with no imagination, no sense of opportunity, no strategic
vision, out of time and out of place. You might as well forget about your
career, and go and sell lottery tickets or become a street busker...
NGOs: ladles in the global soup kitchen?
This paper is a reflection on four questions as they relate to Northern or
international NGOs (in this paper, ‘NGOs’ refers to Northern NGOs unless
1 If NGOs are to have a role in a globalised world, will it be primarily as
the delivery service for global welfare — ladles in the soup kitchen —
or will they find alternative identities?
2 Are NGOs equipped to represent or deliver alternative development
3 If funding ‘success’ often covers weaknesses in NGOs, what are the
changes that need to be made in order to deepen and broaden impact?
4 How can NGOs establish their independence and autonomy from
governments? Are there ways for them to be both representative (or
locally rooted) and global? How can NGOs best combine an ambitious
vision with a genuine humility?
Collaboration with the South: agents of aid or
In line with other donor countries, the United Kingdom has been
channelling a significant proportion of its development aid through nongovernment
organisations (NGOs). As part of a review of the effectiveness
of this form of aid, several studies have been commissioned by the British
Overseas Development Administration (ODA).1 The latest study focused
on exploring British development NGOs’ attitudes to increasing the
proportion of aid channelled by the ODA directly to Southern NGOs
(Bebbington and Riddell 1995). Based on a questionnaire survey, this
study provides a fascinating insight into the British NGO (BINGO)
psyche. It suggests that, despite years of exposure to and interactions with
the Third World, there remains a considerable deficit of respect and trust
for their counterparts in the South.
According to the survey, most (80 per cent) of BINGOs are opposed to
aid being channelled directly to Southern NGOs, for a number of reasons.
They allege that Southern NGOs...
Corporate governance for NGOs?
Mick Moore and Sheelagh Stewart
In terms of the volume of official funding, the development NGO sector has
been enjoying a boom since the early 1980s. Stimulated by concerns about
the excesses of ‘statism’ and attracted by notions of ‘strengthening civil
society’, bilateral and multilateral aid donors switched significant fractions
of their budgets from national governments to NGOs.1 Many countries saw
an explosive growth in the number and variety of development NGOs.
Endowed as it is with a high proportion of reflective and self-critical
thinkers, the NGO community was not content simply to bask in the
sunshine. There has been a ferment of concern, first about possible malign
effects of this growth on the ethics, values, and organisational competence
of NGOs, and, increasingly, about how to adapt to a less luxuriant future
with a decline in the rate of funding increases.
Dancing with the prince: NGOs’ survival strategies in
the Afghan conflict
Jonathan Goodhand with Peter Chamberlain
In the era of democratisation and good governance, NGOs have become the
donors’ ‘favoured child’, with access to growing resources and influence
(Edwards and Hulme 1995). They are viewed both as ‘market actors’, which
are more efficient and cost-effective than governments, and as the agents of
democratisation, an integral part of a thriving civil society (Korten 1990;
Clark 1991). Official donors show their support for the economic and
political roles of NGOs in what has been called the ‘New Policy Agenda’ by
channelling money through them (Edwards and Hulme, op. cit.). As one
USAID official put it: ‘We get a double bang for our buck that way’ (Larmer
1994). Underpinning this consensus is the presumption that political
democracy and socio-economic development are mutually reinforcing.
The state, market, and civil society — which, following Korten (1990), we
shall refer to as prince, merchant and citizen — are related in a series of
virtuous circles. A basic tenet of ‘NGO lore’ is that NGOs promote and
strengthen civil society, and thus subject the prince and merchant to greater
public accountability. There is, however, an element of triumphalism in
the discourse about the New World Order, and the belief that NGOs are ‘part
of the warp and weft of democracy’ (Larmer, op. cit.). Such words ring
hollow in a world characterised by instability, fragmentation, and
Far from ‘democratising development’, NGOs are often
the providers of palliatives to competing factions in conflict (Slim 1994).
Rather than promoting accountability, NGOs are perhaps ‘dancing to the
tune of the prince’, whether the prince is a government, an insurgency
movement, or a local war lord.
NGOs and the state: a case-study from Uganda
The hypothesis was that research findings would support a critical
analysis of the view that NGOs are increasingly compensating for
inadequate government provision in such sectors as social welfare,
education, or health, traditionally seen as the responsibility of
governments. This view appeared to neglect the involvement of NGOs in
the African health sector, particularly missions, for over a century: nongovernmental
support to such services is not a new phenomenon. The
paradigm also implies a functioning public sector with minor gaps which
can be filled by NGOs, a situation far removed from reality in most African
countries; and posits a government-like role for NGOs which NGOs may
be reluctant, and indeed unable, to accept.
NGOs, the poor, and local government
Despite significant improvements in some aspects of poor people’s
standard of living in sub-Saharan Africa, serious problems remain. Little
has changed since the beginning of the 1990s, when almost half the
population lacked access to health services, over half lacked access to safe
water, and Africans still consumed on average only 92 per cent of their
daily calorie requirements. Two-thirds of school-age children were not
enrolled at school, and one in two adults was illiterate. Foreign aid has
been channelled to sub-Saharan Africa partly to address these problems,
and a principal conduit is non-government organisations (NGOs). For
example, in 1993 the Canadian government channelled US$210 million
through Canadian NGOs, which themselves raised a further US$284
million from the Canadian public for overseas work. In the same year, the
British government channelled US$48 million of its aid budget through
British NGOs, which themselves raised an additional US$451 million.
Let’s get civil society straight: NGOs, the state, and
This chapter has been formed from two complementary articles written
in response to the remarkable growth of interest in civil society issues
during the 1990s. The first of these appeared in 1996 at a time when such
interest was surging, albeit with little theoretical depth or study. Since
then, the idea that development should be undertaken through civil
society has become an industry orthodoxy. Major studies have been
completed, or are in progress, by bodies such as the World Bank and the
UK Department for International Development (DFID). A library of books
has been published, ranging from the seminal to the deeply forgettable.
Civil Society departments, advisers, and units now proliferate even in the
most unlikely places. But has this led to greater clarity in our thinking
and practice? Perhaps inevitably, the answer is mixed.
Depoliticising development: the uses and abuses of
Sarah C. White
The Bangladeshi NGO leaders discuss the dilemma: they are unhappy with
the official agencies’ new plan. Neither social nor environmental questions
have been given the consideration they deserve. As happens more and more
often, they have been invited to attend a meeting to discuss the plan.
Flattered at first by official recognition, they are now uneasy. If they do not
go, they have no grounds to complain that the interests of the poor have been
ignored. But if they go, what guarantee do they have that their concerns will
really be heard? Too many times they have seen their discussions drain away
into the sand. The plans are left untouched; but their names remain, like a
residue, in the list of ‘experts’ whose opinions the scheme reflects.
‘We are all democrats today’, was John Dunn’s ironic opening to an essay
on political theory (Dunn 1979). With its universal acceptance, he argued,
what democracy meant in practice was increasingly elastic. Rather than
describing any particular type of political order, democracy had become
‘the name for the good intentions of states or perhaps for the good
intentions which the rulers would like us to believe that they possess’
(Dunn, op cit.: 12).
These days, the language of democracy dominates development circles.
At national level it is seen in the rhetoric of ‘civil society’ and ‘good
governance’. At the programme and project level it appears as a commitment
to ‘participation’. This is trumpeted by agencies right across the spectrum,
from the huge multilaterals to the smallest people’s organisations. Hardly a
project, it seems, is now without some ‘participatory’ element.
Birds of a feather? UNDP and ActionAid implementation of
Sustainable Human Development
The 1990s have been a challenging time for world development. The
evidence is mounting that, although there has been tremendous overall
growth since the Second World War, much of the real progress has been
highly concentrated. Growth has been characterised by precarious
standards of living for much of the world’s poorest, and escalating
inequality between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Parallel to persistent
poverty and growing marginalisation, the international development
community has been weakened by impatience with the territoriality,
bureaucratisation, and self-deceiving nature of the current system of cooperation
and foreign aid (Ferguson 1990; Hancock 1991; Sachs 1992).
Finally, international development has reached what some view as a
theoretical impasse. This is due to the growing awareness of our
incomplete knowledge of development processes. It is also due to the
disillusionment both with Keynesian ideals of state central planning and
with neo-liberal models of market-led growth. (See Moore and Schmitz
1995, though Schuurman 1993 holds that the impasse has been overcome.)
It is in this context that Sustainable Human Development (SHD) and
People-Centred Development (PCD) approaches emerged. They featured
strongly in the 1995 World Summit for Social Development (WSSD),
where 134 nation-states pledged to ‘place people at the centre of
development’ (Copenhagen Declaration 1995). They appeared, too, in
statements by the OECD that defined its mission as ‘making progress
towards the achievement of Human Development.’ (OECD 1996).
Strengthening civil society: participatory action
research in a militarised state
Research activity is severely constrained in most of post-colonial Africa.
If the pursuit of knowledge was previously dictated by imperial interests
and the uncritical application of Western paradigms, then today the
problems are more numerous and more complex. Three decades after
political independence, foreign researchers are often discouraged, while
indigenous researchers face awesome material and political constraints
that are often discussed within the African intellectual community (see
Diouf and Mamdani 1994). Despite all this, Claude Ake (1994: 23)
correctly observed that the African intellectual is ‘well placed to
demystify and expose the self-serving ideological representations of the
state and external domination’. He went on to note the daunting nature
of this task, emphasising the likelihood of those who embark on it
provoking confrontation with the increasingly intolerant forces of the
state and international capital.
Nowhere is this intransigence more apparent than in military states.
Here, not only is research activity regarded with immense hostility by all
officialdom, but civil society itself is imbued with suspicion and
mistrust. None the less, research is carried out, sometimes successfully.
The research experience in Nigeria of the independent African network
ABANTU for Development provides a useful demonstration of research
strategies that can be deployed to carry out in-depth study effectively,
even under decidedly unfavourable conditions.
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