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Essential Matter: Non-Governmental Organizations Are Changing: A Perspective from Latin America

1 Jun 1997

  • Author(s): Corina Villacorta


In Latin America, most non-governmental organizations were founded in the latter 1970s and early 1980s, as an outgrowth of the struggle for democracy and social justice in countries plagued by repression and deepening poverty. From the outset, most were highly dependent upon foreign financing. This not only made them vulnerable to changes in approach to development aid, but also encouraged relations between Northern and Latin American NGOs, and obviated the need to find resources locally.

Most of these organizations were involved in grassroots organizing, addressing structural problems of exclusion and inadequate access to basic resources. They were made up of people with ideals and commitment to change — often professionals, school-teachers, social workers and others who, for all their strong convictions, were not immune from the cultural and socio-economic contradictions of their own societies. They attempted to meet serious needs through promoting new ways of working together at local and regional levels, and through channelling money from outside sources toward local communities.

During the 1980s, funds were unusually plentiful. But by the early 1990s, there was a sharp reduction in foreign support associated with the perception on the part of donors that Latin American countries were entering a phase of economic recovery. Resources began to flow more frequently toward Eastern Europe and Africa. At the same time, the total pool of available funds shrank rapidly, as citizens of the North increasingly questioned the efficacy of development assistance and placed greater faith in the capacity of the market to resolve the principal problems of less developed countries.

To maintain their existing institutional commitments — both to their own staff and to grassroots constituencies — Latin American NGOs were forced to change their operations and strategies in a number of ways. As in most other sectors of society, downsizing often became an imperative. In many larger organizations, staff was reduced and regional offices closed. A larger proportion of the time of remaining staff then had to be dedicated to fund-raising, not only from foreign but also increasingly from domestic sources. For the first time, NGOs systematically approached local businesses and explored the possibility of obtaining support from local charities. They also began to engage in dialogue with multilateral banks, where funds for NGO activities were gradually becoming available. And they frequently considered establishing their own businesses, with the hope of using profits to become self-sustaining.

These changes occurred precisely during a period when falling government revenues and adoption of market-oriented reforms in the social sectors of many Latin American countries left growing numbers of people without access to basic social services. Established NGOs were under great pressure to fill the gap; and to do so, they frequently found it necessary to change their way of operating. Emphasis shifted from close personal interaction at the grassroots level to creating the technical and professional conditions for efficient service delivery.

The business mentality widely permeated the world of Latin American NGOs. Strategic planning, total quality control and other management concepts that had been developed within the corporate sector of the North began to influence standard operating procedure in many non-governmental organizations. Staff began to question altruism as a basis for action, and with increasing frequency to support the principle of charging fees for services.

Relations between NGOs and Latin American governments also underwent significant modification. At the time of their founding, most NGOs in the region were committed to an anti-government position and the rest were likely to be indifferent. As economic crisis worsened and repressive regimes were replaced by fledgling democracies, many NGOs abandoned this indifference and attempted to strengthen the institutional capacity of governments. Co-operation at the municipal level became particularly important. But this has been more successful in some densely populated urban areas than in rural or semi-rural settings. And as already noted, governments have been so weakened in the field of social protection that NGOs have often found themselves in the difficult position of having to stand in for the state or (as social services are concerned) to replace it altogether.

The experience of Latin American NGOs in the 1990s can be assessed in both a positive and a negative light. On the one hand, the need to adapt to austerity through the rapid adoption of a more business-like mentality has improved the operational efficiency of many institutions. It has also encouraged a more realistic perception of the complex problems of economic development. NGOs have learned how to deal with banks and how to make a strong case for providing credit to local people with limited resources. In consequence, they are more able now than in the past to bridge gaps between sectors of society that traditionally did not engage in dialogue.

There have also been positive changes in the relationship between NGOs and their constituencies, particularly when relatively vertical lines of dependency have been replaced by more practical joint efforts to develop viable enterprises. If the question that traditionally oriented the work of Latin American NGOs was "What do you need?", the first consideration underlying collaboration today is more likely to be "What resources do you have?". This reflects the feelings of most local people, who do not want speeches or gifts; they want work and the means to be self-reliant.

At the same time, there are a number of dangers in the trends outlined above. One of the strongest arguments against the new emphasis on profitability within the Latin American NGO community is that this ignores the problems of the really poor, who do not possess any significant material assets and cannot pay the fees increasingly associated with service provision. Furthermore, as many NGOs shift from community-based projects into small business promotion, they lose contact with children, the old and other vulnerable groups within local societies. A growing emphasis on individual advancement reduces the scope for building community solidarity — once a principal activity of NGOs (and still, fortunately, the goal of some).

There is also a danger that, in the current highly competitive environment, NGOs may be shifting their attention increasingly from promoting the development of others to promoting the development of their own institutions. Since they are hard pressed to demonstrate outreach and effectiveness, there is a temptation to encroach on the activities of others. In fact, Latin American NGOs are confronting the serious challenge of surviving in a competitive world while also collaborating effectively with each other. Perhaps most important, they must continue to open avenues for individual advancement at the grassroots level while focusing on the need to create opportunities for co-operation among the poor.

Corina Villacorta has worked for many years with non-governmental organizations in Latin America. This article is based on a report prepared during her stay at UNRISD during the summer of 1996.