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Back | Programme Area: Special Events (2000 - 2009) | Event: Regulating Global Institutions: Financial, Corporate and Non-Governmental Organizations

Regulating Global Institutions: Financial, Corporate and Non-Governmental Organizations

  • Date: 3 - 4 Feb 2002
  • Location: Porto Alegre, Brazil
  • Speakers: Deborah Eade, Peter Evans, Reinaldo Gonçalves, David Korten, Thandika Mkandawire, Peter Utting
  • Counterpart(s): Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analyses (iBASE)
  • Project Title: Geneva 2000: The Next Step in Social Development

Global Institutions: Where Do NGOs Fit In?, Deborah Eade

The World Bank estimates that there are ‘between 6000 and 30,000 national NGOs in developing countries’; and that ‘over 15 per cent of total overseas development aid is channelled through NGOs’. To make generalizations about the sector as a whole, or even to assume that any single NGO is monolithic and characterized by a single agenda, is therefore clearly impossible.

However, four broad trends have characterized the work of international NGOs in particular, and also the larger NGOs in the South in the last 10–15 years.

1. The belief that project-based anti-poverty work will achieve nothing unless there are simultaneous efforts to improve the policy environment. Advocacy, as these efforts are now called, is thus seen not as an ‘add-on’ or optional extra, but as an essential dimension of all development and relief work. Without it, so the argument goes, NGO activities are just so much band-aid.

2. The increasing emphasis, both within the former Washington Consensus and among progressive think-tanks and observers, on democratization and good governance. These are both seen to hinge on the existence of a vibrant civil society that can effectively counter the excessive powers of the state as well as the ravages of unfettered capitalism. As we can see from funding trends, and from who they choose as their operational partners, major international donors have tended to equate civil society with NGOs, to the exclusion of other perhaps more valid representatives, such as trade unions.

3. What the Bank refers to as the ‘exponential growth’ in the NGO sector has coincided with a similar expansion in the scope and impact of neoliberal policies, especially since the end of the Cold War. This has resulted in the increased pressure on NGOs to become involved in service-delivery, to compensate for the failures of the state, but in the name of promoting political pluralism. The danger is that NGOs are allowing themselves to be co-opted into the neo-liberal project, and hence, paradoxically, deepening its effects.

4. The ‘CNN factor’—shorthand for the competition among NGOs for access to the public limelight as this high visibility is what will ensure that the funds keep coming in. Tensions have always existed between an NGO’s fundraising needs, and the means it uses to meet them. Today, however, aid agencies jostle for television footage or interview soundbites since without this constant projection of their ‘brand’, they fear losing not only their market share and but also their influence in the policy arena.

Does this really matter? Many NGO staff, as well as outside observers, have argued that it does, raising questions about how agendas are set, the legitimacy of NGOs to advocate on behalf of others, their accountability to a diverse and often dispersed set of stakeholders, and the effectiveness of their advocacy work in relation to the resources invested in it.

Furthermore, some Southern NGOs have criticized what they see as an insidious division of labour, whereby Northern NGOs get to do the high-level high-profile advocacy while their Southern partners are left implementing projects and supplying information that the Northern NGOs can use in their lobbying work. More cynically, maybe, some view the growth of Northern NGO advocacy as a survival tactic, as Southern NGOs are being directly funded by donor agencies and no longer require mediation by their counterparts in the North. There are also concerns that NGOs are acting as Trojan Horses for structural adjustment, by alleviating its worst effects; and that they may in some cases undermine and depoliticize civil society by displacing other representative bodies, such as trade unions and other popular organizations.

It is hard to refute these concerns since most significant advocacy work is undertaken in conjunction with others, and hence the cause and effect chain is neither linear, short-term, nor entirely predictable, and no single actor can take credit for a tangible achievement.

These issues have been the subject of internal debate within NGOs. But what has brought them to a very public head is the apparent backlash against NGOs following the anti-globalization demonstrations in Geneva, Seattle, Prague, and Genoa. The perceived disjunctures between rhetoric and reality in the field of advocacy work, most obviously in the areas of legitimacy and accountability, have exposed NGOs to increasing criticism. NGOs need to have credible responses to these criticisms. Advocacy is about politics, but many NGOs steer clear of ‘politics’ as such, fearing that they will be viewed as ideologically motivated, or that the politicization of the aid agenda may also compromise their anti-poverty work.

New approaches to advocacy are beginning to emerge, largely based on cheap electronic communication and the vast amount of information freely available. Jubilee 2000 is one such example, itself in some ways modelled on the long-standing Freedom From Debt Coalition in The Philippines.

NGOs can wield enormous collective influence, and have mushroomed in size and number in the last two decades. At best, they are an important ‘moral conscience’, ensuring that the interests of those at the bottom of the global pile are not forgotten. Critiques of NGO advocacy have come from many quarters, not least from within the NGO community itself. However, the main challenge comes not from sceptical journalists or armchair critics, but from ‘active citizens’, from emerging forms of social organization and political struggle that do not depend on or want NGO mediation. The time has come for NGOs to move decisively away from what might be termed paternalistic advocacy (whereby international NGOs corner the international forums, and Southern organizations provide the raw material), to what the British NGO ActionAid calls participatory advocacy, whereby civil society organizations come together to broaden the political space within which the voices of the poor can be expressed and heard; and people-centred advocacy whereby people negotiate for their rights on their own behalf. The role of international NGOs will then be to act in solidarity—sharing resources, helping when invited, and above all generating support for a social justice agenda within their own constituencies.

Deborah Eade is Editor of the journal Development in Practice published by Carfax, Taylor & Francis on behalf of Oxfam.