Nongovernmental Organizations: Success Beyond Limitations

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are an instrumental method of creating progress in terms of development. There are many different types which focus on certain aspects such as the environment, human rights, poverty alleviation and so forth. Within NGOs, there are numerous methods which are used to take action in development and to cause others to take action. NGOs roles have expanded to include advocacy along with providing relief and welfare services and NGOs that were created for advocacy of issues not characteristically a part of development have provided services in regards to development (Allen and Thomas, p.210). NGOs offer assistance in terms of development through direct methods although this may also occur in indirect ways. There are many criticisms of NGOs and their operating systems; yet, it is those unique systems which often have the ability to accomplish things or act in ways that other systems cannot or do not: “in the shadow of power-seeking governments and profit-seeking corporations, the common person is abandoned to a fate of immiseration.” (Rooy, p.11). NGOs take an active role to fulfill the gap left by these other organizations. Non-governmental organizations have accountability issues and are presented with problems due to their lack of formal power; however, they are a necessary means of providing development assistance because of their ability to achieve different goals in a variety of ways, their effective role as a non-state actor, and their ability to utilize knowledge at the local level.

Nongovernmental organizations are plagued with questions of accountability because of their donor relationship and their beneficiary’s relationship. Most NGOs rely on donations in order to function which becomes a problem when the donor can essentially control how that money is used in light of suspending their support. Edwards and Hulme (1995: 9) state, as cited in Willis, that NGOs are accountable “downwards to their partners, beneficiaries staff and supporters; and upwards to their trustees, donors and host governments’…Dependence on external aid assistance means that many projects are more likely to react to the requirements and favourite topics of the potential donors, than local people.” (p.106). Although, NGOs are inherently tied to their donors, they are still functioning to serve the local people. There are large demands for more NGO accountability, however, they are more accountable than all other kinds of assistance because they do not have alternate agendas, other than those that may be imposed upon them by their donors, and they work at the local level. “… [Because] NGOs are embedded in local communities… they have to be accountable to the local people… local people have a greater say in what activities are carried out, and also that their participation in such activities creates an environment where empowerment in more likely.” (Willis, p.99). There are also problems with development assistance provided directly by states which has given rise to the increased use of NGOs as development channels. “Donor governments often see NGOs as more accountable and more efficient than developing states.” (Gourevitch 1996: p.A:13 as cited in Ray and Kaarbo, p.127). Although NGOs are often negatively affected by their donors in terms of accountability, they do have a degree of accountability that contributes to their ability to function beneficially to the recipients of their aid.

Since NGOs are nongovernmental, they lack the authority or power that is necessary to take certain actions and make certain decisions. During the Cartegena Protocol, the ability of NGOs to directly shape the negotiating agenda was severely limited and the proposed text they supplied was most likely given hardly any consideration and even less as the discussions closed (Betsill and Corell, p.84). In international negotiations, NGOs are present, but they are not an integral part of the process. “NGOs often participate in these processes as observers and have no formal voting authority making it difficult for NGO diplomats to influence the negotiating process.” (ibid. p.6). Although NGOs are not included directly, they still have an important influence on such negotiations and subsequently, actions taken or not taken. “…compared to governments, NGOs have a significant ability to ensure that political commitment is turned into action at the local level.” (ibid. P.108-109). NGOs use tactics of raising public awareness, particularly through the media, to put pressure on those making the decisions and to hold them accountable. NGOs most often use a shaming method to force the decision-makers to take responsible actions.

NGOs cannot officially make decisions; however, they are able to influence those who do. In the Desertification Convention, NGOs shaped the negotiating agenda through insisting on a bottom-up approach, proposing a national desertification fund, and made sure that certain text was included in the Convention (ibid. P.111). Although NGOs’ roles at such conventions or negotiations are usually quite limited, they are able to have some influence; however, it is ultimately not the NGOs that cause action.“The forms of power… [are] NGOs’ capacity to influence state policy and behaviour…to influence corporate behaviour…[and] in expanding the popular understanding and embrace of the full range of human rights standards.” (Nelson and Dorsey, p.37). This has comparatively less impact than direct action or decision-making. On a global-scale, NGOs’ roles are reduced by the formal powers which make the decisions. By formally excluding the NGOs, it causes difficulties for NGOs to take decisive action in terms of development for nations. The best that NGOs can do is provide their expertise and attempt to influence what happens at such negotiations where some follow the ideas of the NGOs and many disregard them.

NGOs have severe limitations placed on them by others; yet, they are still able to provide assistance which is necessary for developing areas and use their own means to accomplish their developmental goals. “…NGOs go beyond describing and denouncing injustices by lobbying for binding rules designed to prevent them.” (Heins, p.112). This is applicable to development because development NGOs follow a similar construct. They do not merely describe the conditions, they present programs to improve them and attempt to influence others to support and implement their programs. NGOs enlist public emotions and inject relevant information into the political process (ibid. p.142). By rallying the public to support their developmental goals, NGOs are more likely to gain funding and support; this is made even more likely when the NGO has significant information which can be used to persuade the governments to take action.  Also, in comparison to the UN, NGOs are not as restricted by the host governments. “Officially, UN organizations can only design and carry out programs at the request of the national government…NGOs generally have more leeway, but they still need the cooperation of the government…” (Dijkzeul and Beigbeder, p.222). To provide developmental programs in areas of need, NGOs can take necessary action, whereas the UN can only make suggestions which the government can then follow up on but may disregard. However, the success of the programs relies on the government’s support and so the NGOs follow a somewhat similar fate as the UN.

Nongovernmental organizations are effective in providing developmental assistance because of their unique structure. “…NGO diplomats have access to a number of resources that give them power in multilateral negotiations… some NGOs have considerable economic resources, particularly in the private sector.” (Betsill and Corell, p.22). Economic power is extremely beneficial for NGOs because it is their only resource which can contend with political control. The NGOs use their money in the form of lobbying strategies and campaigns to project their position to the public. Money is also extremely important in direct terms of development because large amounts of money are needed to fund continuing development programs. NGOs are also important in terms of their knowledge and how they can link international negotiations to the local populations. “In the eyes of the desertification negotiators, NGOs possessed key know-how essential for effective treaty implementation and were referred to as ‘partners in development.’…Throughout the negotiations NGOs conveyed local knowledge on a number of issues…” (ibid. p.107-108). NGOs are the imperative link from local to international and their knowledge affects policy implementation because it is important to the process, the effects, and the results of the development. “…given their small size and flexible nature, NGOs are generally well placed to develop and experiment with new approaches and innovative practices…” (Malena 1995 as cited in Rooy p.93). This concept has far-reaching effects for other areas in need of development assistance and organizations that are providing assistance. The NGOs can experiment and come up with programs or models that are successful in development which can be applied to other areas and other organizations can adopt them and implement them as well.

Along side of this NGOs have a better ability to properly represent the local areas in need of development. “…As a result of their motivation and comparatively small-scale operations, [NGOs] are more adaptable, more sensitive to local conditions, more prepared to listen to the poor than state organizations.” (Streeten 1997 as cited in DeChaine p.54). NGOs are knowledgeably representative of those areas and are useful in providing aid to help develop them because of that. They are not distanced from the local context and so they have a combined perspective of expertise which they supply and the knowledge of conditions which is supplied by the area in need of development. “Many donors felt that NGOs understood the local context better than governments or official donor agencies, and were better placed to reach the very poorest. They were perceived to be working at the grassroots level using more participatory approaches.” (Wallace et al. P. 19). In the manner, NGOs can provide the most effective form of developmental aid because they understand the particular need since they are usually interacting at the local level. NGOs gain the perspectives of the people from the local communities and can apply that to their scientific or technical knowledge to offer programs designed specifically for particular areas. As stated by Willis, “[NGOs] work with populations at the grassroots to find out what facilities are required… are able to provide services more efficiently and effectively through drawing on local people’s knowledge, and also using local materials.” (p.98-99). One of the most important aspects of nongovernmental organizations is their function on the local level because that is where the developmental aid is transferred to. NGOs are comparatively more active on the local level than other organizations which allows them to assist in providing the most beneficial aid for development. They have a deeper understanding of what is required and are able to consider the local context in regards to the type of aid needed. NGOs working within the development areas have a greater capability to understand the needs and to structure developmental programs that fulfill them.

Nongovernmental organizations have gained positive recognition on a global scale, but have also been criticized on their short-comings. It is not arguable that NGOs do have some faults; however, it appears that these faults are inevitable. In regards to accountability, NGOs are accountable to both the aid recipients and the donors which causes a strain on how development aid is used. NGOs also face criticisms because they lack the ability to make formal decisions within negotiations. Although NGOs are not perfect in their structure or ability, they are much more effective than they are not. Since they depend on funds which largely come from the private sector, they are able to still provide development that is not completely controlled by a state or organization which is using developmental aid for their own good. They also have a great capital resource which gives them the ability to make up for their lack of formal political power by funding campaigns, lobbying, and media strategies which serve to project their position on issues of development to the public. The primary success of NGOs comes from their ability to assess developmental needs and provide the necessary aid and programs based on their knowledge from participating at a local level. Nongovernmental organizations have some short-comings but have overall had a tremendous, positive impact on developing countries by providing them with necessary aid and by influencing other organizations to implement beneficial programs in terms of development.

Works Cited

Allen, Tim, & Thomas, Alan (Eds.). (2000). Poverty and Development into the 21st Century. Oxford: The Open University.

Betsill, Michele M., & Corell, Elisabeth (Eds.). (2008). NGO Diplomacy: The Influence of Nongovernmental Organizations in International Environmental Negotiations. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

DeChaine, Robert D.. (2005). Global Humanitarianism: NGOs and the Crafting of Community. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Dijkzeul, Dennis, & Beigbeder, Yves (Eds.). (2003). Rethinking International Organizations Pathology and Promise. New York: Berghahn Books.

Heins, Volker. (2008). Nongovernmental Organizations in International Society: Struggles over Recognition. New York: Palgrove Macmillan.

Nelson, Paul J., & Dorsey, Ellen. (2008). New Rights Advocacy: Changing Strategies of Development and Human Rights NGOs. Washington: Georgetown University Press.

Ray, James L., & Kaarbo, Juliet. (2008). Global Politics (9th ed.). U.S.A.: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Rooy, Alison V.. (2004). The Global Legitimacy Game: Civil Society, Globalization, and Protest. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wallace, Tina, Bornstein, Lisa, & Chapman, Jennifer. (2007). The Aid Change: Coercion and Commitment in Development NGOs. Warwickshire: Intermediate Technology Publications Ltd..

Willis, Katie. (2005). Theories and Practises of Development. New York: Routledge.

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