The phrase non-governmental organisation (NGO) is hard to define as it covers a wide range of organisations with different motives, structures and methods of gaining and distributing aid.
(Lewis and Kanji, 2009) summarise that “an NGO is normally characterized … as an independent organization that is neither run by government nor driven by the profit motive like private sector businesses” (pp.2) and that NGOs have a common focus on delivering “basic services to people in need” as well as “organizing policy, advocacy and public campaigns for change” (pp.1). NGOs also have specialised roles such as emergency response, human rights work, environmental activism and many more (Lewis and Kanji, 2009).
(Lewis and Kanji, 2009) also state that not every definition will relate directly to each NGO as they are so diverse. Each NGO also has different people supporting or opposing its values and actions, therefore the arguments I make here are generalised and not related to specific organisations.
Although NGOs by definition have no connection to government and are not profit driven many do have business-like ideals or are funded in some way by governments (Roy, 2014); Lewis and Kanji, 2009). This is problematic if NGOs were created to step in when governments cut funding or if they are not dealing with a situation appropriately as they are still answerable to their paymasters (Roy, 2014).
However, NGOs are generally perceived as more personable than government and are therefore better able to listen and respond to citizens; they are more efficient and less corrupt than larger governments and businesses who strive for profit; and they also tend to have a more willing approach to development as they look to help others rather than themselves (Desforges, 2004). NGOs are also much better at engaging with Westerners as volunteers, donors and protestors and educating them on social justice and poverty. They also tend to be less biased towards race and religion and do not have geopolitical influences which makes them approachable to everyone (Lewis and Kanji, 2009). However I feel that academics often over-emphasise the negative aspects of NGOs even if these problems are a result of something else positive.
Desforges (2004, pp.566) quotes Edwards (1999, pp.199-200) who says that NGOs are increasingly trying to “build support for one’s own organisation, not the cause”. This is often seen in larger NGOs which target similar issues in similar areas but still push for their organisation to be given the money. Many NGOs which gain funding from the public have been criticised for seeking public opinion and involvement just so they keep getting donations and continue the “sustainability of the organisations projects” and that they don’t actually take into account any ideas or engagements the public have (Desforges, 2004). More specifically in the developing world, NGOs have been criticised for undermining the government, not listening to local people’s needs and instead implementing their Western views. Lewis and Kanji (2009) cited Abdel Ati (1993, pp.113) who describes how larger NGOs can stop smaller, local NGOs from doing their work as they cannot compete financially and logistically. These local NGOs could possibly have done a better job however as they have more idea of local issues and may be able to reach smaller communities and implement more appropriate aid. In Uganda large NGOs have implemented their own ideas and projects which has meant the local people have completely lost their voice such that the NGOs effectively act like lawyers speaking for the local people (Nuwagaba, 2013).
Many Westerners have developed cynical views about NGOs and charities in general which makes it difficult for them to operate in a cost and time effective manner. As they are under such scrutiny they cannot experiment with new ideas, as “when you prohibit failure, you kill innovation” (Pallotta, 2013). Pallotta (2013) compares views on business and charity and highlights contradictory opinions specifically regarding large employee salaries, high advertising budgets and long lead in times to develop projects – all of which are accepted as normal in big business but unacceptable for NGOs and charities. Being constricted in this way can mean that overall there is less impact made on development as well qualified people are less likely to work for NGOs and the public are less aware or less patient to see results and therefore contribute less. We are made to believe that overheads are negative however without such costs I believe NGOs would not be run so successfully.
In conclusion, the demands from people are changing and NGOs need to respond to these changes if they want to continue (Van Rooy, 2000). New skills are needed, not only in technological advances but also in engaging the public as well as reducing the imperialistic approach to development. The younger generations want to be more active in development and are more willing to ask questions or criticise and therefore will not just donate and let decisions be made by other people (Desforges, 2004). There is also a view, often by those less aware of development issues however, that humanitarian aid in emergencies is more important than long-term development (Van Rooy, 2000). NGOs need to work with the public to fully inform them of where money is going and why and so enable more positivity and hopefully gain support. This will ensure that more people, such as myself, trust that NGOs are improving development.
Desforges, L., 2004. The formation of global citizenship: international non-governmental organisations in Britain. Political Geography, 23(5), pp.549-569. [Online – 27/10/16] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0962629804000174
Kofas, J., 2015. NGO’s: Agents of globalization or grassroots humanitarianism? [Photo – Online 02/11/16] http://thedailyjournalist.com/the-strategist/ngo-s-agents-of-globalization-or-grassroots-humanitarianism/
Lewis, D. and Kanji, N., 2009. Non-governmental organizations and development. Routledge. [Online – 29/10/16] http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.711.9975&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Nuwagaba, V., 2013. NGOs in Uganda a threat to democracy. [Online – 28/10/16] http://www.pambazuka.org/governance/ngos-uganda-threat-democracy
Pallotta, D., 2013. The way we think about charity is dead wrong. TED. Ideas worth spreading. [Online – 31/10/16] https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pallotta_the_way_we_think_about_charity_is_dead_wrong
Roy, A., 2013. The NGO-ization of Resistance. Foundations. [Online – 28/10/16] http://www.wrongkindofgreen.org/tag/white-savior-complex/
Van Rooy, A., 2000. Good News! You may be out of a job reflections on the past and future 50: years for Northern NGOs. Development in Practice, 10(3-4), pp.300-318. [Online – 31/10/16] http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09614520050116479