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NGOs, Participation and Rural Development: Testing the Assumptions with Evidence from Zimbabwe

The paper argues that the individual organizations which comprise the development NGO sector make up a wide spectrum of organizational types, with a similarly wide range of project strategies and outcomes. Some NGOs are truly creative, independent, and committed to the egalitarian and participatory ideals upon which they were founded. At the opposite extreme, others act essentially as members of a service industry, developing and carrying out their activities in response to requests from donors. Some estimates are given of the proportion of organizations which fall into each extreme of this range. More importantly, however, the paper argues that it is the latter type of NGO - that which acts as part of a service industry - which is most likely to appear as a result of the current growth of interest in NGOs as agents of development.

The authors also analyse some of the reasons that rural development NGOs find it difficult to accomplish all that is expected of them. Among other questions, they discuss the logistical implications of truly participatory initiatives, the institutional constraints involved in reaching the poor, the complexity of the question of how to benefit rural women, the difficulty of going beyond the project approach, and the ambiguity of the concept of NGOs representing the "grassroots".

The paper constitutes a critique, not of the NGO approach, but of the overwhelming expectations placed upon the NGO sector, especially in recent years. The fact that some NGOs have been very successful does not mean that the entire NGO sector should be expected to match their accomplishments.
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  • Pub. Date: 1 Jan 1994
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD