Development Cooperation Handbook/Issues/NGOs as development actors: their role, their limits; their challenges

Issue 3

NGOs as development actors: their role, their limits; their challenges

Episode 4 - MDG 4 Reduce child mortality

playlist on YouTube

Relevant chapters in this handbook
Local Authorities and Civil Society
The development aid organization
Article on Wikipedia ⇒ NGOs; ⇒ Critiques of NGOs
Article on Global issues ⇒ Non-governmental Organizations on Development Issues



Most development cooperation work is done on the ground by non-governmental organsations or "NGOs", as they are popularly called, i.e. non-profit organisations whose mission is to alleviate poverty and improve people's well-being irrespective of ideology, race, religion, ethnicity and gender.

Most non-government organisations work among poor and marginalized communities, facilitating local processes that promote the universal values of peace, economic and social justice, democracy, solidarity, honesty, equality, compassion. These organisations implement activities that contribute to local development or respond to emergencies like disasters, droughts, internal displacement and they build awareness and capabilities among the poor and marginalised so that the latter are empowered to advocate for their rights with policy and law makers and choose the lives they have reason to value.

National governments and international agencies usually prefer to work with NGOs as project implementers because NGO employees are considered more committed and motivated in ensuring that donor funds are utilised in the most appropriate way for projects and activities that respond to the needs of the people and make a lasting positive changes in people's lives. Since local NGOs know ground reality and often enjoy greater acceptance and trust among communities, donor agencies nowadays prefer to partner with them than directly implement projects through internal staff.

NGOs have done great job in responding promptly to humanitarian emergencies across the world like post conflict Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor, Palestinian and Syrian refugees; disasters like the tsunami, Haiti earthquake. NGO workers have worked around the clock to save lives and livelihoods; worked hand in hand with Institutional Partnerships in International projects has allowed some NGOs to grow and have become a sort of big multinational no profit corporations. The job that was at the beginning seen as a sort of voluntary romantic idealism have become a highly professionalized technical position. Many university offer postgraduate courses to train for this high profile professionals.

However the very success of international NGOs has open the way to reveal some of their new punti deboli.

  • Institutions tend to use them more as safe subcontractors and so they lose the original grass root relationship that was motivating the spirit of subsidiarity in the partnership.
  • The high salaries offered by NGOs to local employes is turning away the best human resources from the governmental positions.
  • And the International donors tend to use the big NGOs as "trusted implementers" avoiding the need for closer supervision, monitoring and evaluation.
  • NGOs tend to become "progettifici", and become subservient to the policies of big donors.

This is prompting a re-thinking of the role of NGOs. A new subsidiarity has to be established where big international NGOs empower smaller local NGOS, train Governmental personnel and not substitute them. Be responsible for advocacy and mainstreaming policies. Share knowledge. Communicate and network.

This cultural growth of NGOs however will have to tackle the past connivance between donors and project executors that is more centered in giving easier visibility to donors efforts rather than provoking important changes in the relationship amongst people and Nation



We asked different stakeholders to share with us their view on the role that NGOs have in contributing to the Global Agenda for Development and what are the challenges that NGOs are facing in redefining their role in a changing global scenario.

We also want to compare the aptitudes of the peoples of different nations in the responsibility of civil society in development cooperation and inter-cultural dialogue.
Below are the answers we collected. The work is in progress and you are welcome to contribute.

Click on the name of the contributor to go to the page with the full interview.

Julian Parr, the Regional Manager South East Asia, Oxfam GB


New Delhi, India October 2010

Development needs civil society active and responsible engagement - Julian Parr

Do we really need NGOs to support development processes?
A robust civil society is very important in terms of both democratization and hearing the voice of the people. Civil society as an inclusive definition with NGOs, media, freedom of the press (India’s major strength). If you suppress freedom of the press, internet, twitter, etc. you suppress development. Civil society is massively crucial for the success of a nation state.

Present Role and future challenges of NGOs - Julian Parr

What are the challenges ahead for the NGOs?

NGOs are really having to define their role in a new world order, particularly international NGOs, like Oxfam where we have traditionally capacity built south based organisations for 60-70 years. So the question for us is what is our role now. NGOs cannot continue to deliver services because they undermine the role of the state in doing so. So challenges for big NGOs like BRAC or Grameen Bank in Bangladesh is that they do an awful lot of service delivery that in fact government should do. So my own sense in working for NGOs is that we are moving much more to policy and advocacy and that is the real role we should be playing. We should be arguing to governments like India, that you should be putting in more than 1% of your GDP growth into health, for example, and that is where we have a strong and valid voice – it is about accountability and transparency of governments on how they operate, how they spend aid and where they invest for the future.

Limitations of the NGOs - Julian Parr

What are the limitations of the NGOs?

NGO limits are whether they have a strong voice. They are good at speaking on behalf of people but they are not democratic institutions in their own right. We do critique the government and the private sector but when it comes to our own internal structure, our own accountability and internal structure, we do not audit ourselves externally very well. I can say that we have good and robust programmes on the ground but that is because it is me saying it. But if I had the same response from Cocacola, BP, Shell or even government, I would be highly skeptical about their statistics. So, if we are going to hold other stakeholders and other sectors, the public sector to account, I think we ourselves have to be more transparent and honest about our structures.

NGO role and challenges - M.Kumar
We want to enable local community to take leadership for their own empowerment - M.Kumar

Concern empowers people to overcome poverty by helping them to produce more food, get access to a reliable food supply, reduce their vulnerability to droughts, improve their access to water and generate more income to spend on their children’s education and health care.
Its aim is to ensure access to quality education for the poorest and most marginalized people.
Our prime partners are the communities themselves. The entire focus of Concern is build capacities of the most vulnerable communities

Our prime partners are the communities themselves- M.Kumar

It is government that must be responsible for development, not NGOs - D.Kumar    

Development is the responsibility of government. We, as non government organisations, do not have the resources to fund development activities. We can only demonstrate ways to optimally utilise limited available resources so as to live dignified lives within the meager incomes people earn. We show our work and our models to people and help them replicate it. We open a pathway for development and show people how participatory plans are designed and can be successfully implemented so that this process happens elsewhere too.

Unless people participate in planning processes, government plans cannot be successful. And it is usually NGOs, not the government that motivates and facilitates people’s participation in planning processes. And this is the reason why why NGOs and the government must cooperate in order to bring development to the villages.

Donors mustn't believe the documentaries and reports; they must come and see for themselves where and how their funds are utilised - D.Kumar    

I would like to share with the donors that their money is being utilised very well among the poor and that their money is being used for achieving the MDG goals. Those who donate funds must not only see documentaries, photographs or reports but must come here and see for themselves whether their money is reaching the most needy or not. Donors must continue to support if they want to respect the commitment for global partnerships- like an elder brother helping the younger brother in need. Isn’t this globalization - that well being must be enjoyed by all, that we must share each other’s resources. We must promote cooperation.

What happens is that the world only sees those few who are massively benefiting from economic growth in India and it does not get a chance to see the numerous poor. The ideal ratio of wealth distribution should be 1:10 but in India today the ratio is 1: 1.5m. We cannot measure India’s development on the basis of the 10% rich. We need to take into account the remaining 90%, half of whom are still below the poverty line, otherwise we will be unjust to the India’s poor. I want to tell donors that each penny of theirs is being utilised well and efficiently and that they must come and see for themselves the impact of their money and where and how it is being utilised.

What is the difference in the roles that Governments and NGOs play in local development?- R.Chauhan

NGOs are important because their work on the ground is based on an understanding of the needs and rights of communities they seek to empower. Government policies are implemented through programmes and schemes at the lower tiers of local governance. The government also makes efforts to build people’s awareness of policies, laws and programmes. However it is the NGOs that help people exercise their rights in accessing government support, in prioritising their needs, identifying which scheme is suitable for their needs and capacities, and training them in accessing local development opportunities. Our organisation, MSS, has been empowering women through awareness and leadership building, prioritizing needs, organizing women into groups for generating livelihoods as well as for advocacy.

Buone pratiche delle ONG nella cooperazione internazionale - V.Pira  

Partenariato nella cooperazione internazionale

Il rapido mutamento di contesto che caratterizza i processi di globalizzazione impone un riorientamento permanente anche delle modalità di impostazione della cooperazione internazionale.

Sono aumentati negli ultimi decenni gli attori coinvolti : oltre a quelli tradizionali presenti dagli anni '50, stati, enti multilaterali, ONG, missionari, negli ultimi anni hanno assunto un ruolo importante nella cooperazione internazionale anche gli enti locali, i sindacati, le cooperative, l'associazionismo, le imprese, le università, le scuole, ecc.

Questa pluralizzazione degli attori sollecita ad intraprendere un complesso e difficile processo di trasformazione degli approcci e delle strategie e modalità di azione, come degli assetti organizzativi e dei processi decisionali.

Co-sviluppo, partecipazione e partenariato appaiono come parole chiave e principi di riferimento indiscutibili per tutti. Diventano una sfida nell'operatività per tradurre questi concetti in pratiche coerenti. Una ricchezza potenziale della cooperazione data non tanto dalla eterogeneità degli attori coinvolti ma dalla possibilità di creare rapporti sinergici e complementari per il raggiungimento di obiettivi condivisi.

Finora la cooperazione internazionale ha espresso molto parzialmente questa possibilità di collaborazione e di coordinamento tra i diversi attori prevalendo la particolarità delle specifiche esperienze in modo frammentario, di nicchia, con un risultato di scarso impatto globale.

Per questo l'ottavo obiettivo di sviluppo contenuto nella Dichiarazione del Millennio prevede di “Sviluppare una partnership globale per lo sviluppo” che veda tutti i Paesi reciprocamente impegnati nel perseguire gli altri 7 obiettivi.

Il partenariato deve implicare quindi la condivisione di una visione del mondo e la volontà di realizzare insieme azioni che portino al raggiungimento di quegli obiettivi che sono alla base della cooperazione internazionale – sintetizzando - : globalizzare i diritti umani e sradicare dal pianeta la povertà. Ciò è possibile se tra i partner vi è un comune impegno a consolidare una relazione di solidarietà, rispetto e stima reciproca che duri nel tempo.

Privilegiare nella programmazione una logica di processo, che si leghi intrinsecamente alla troppo focalizzata centralità del progetto. Ciò significa operare con prospettive strategiche chiare, non perdendo mai di vista le finalità predisposte. Significa, aver presente ed operare nel quadro di un Programma Paese, in coerenza con le pianificazioni settoriali a cui tutte le entità presenti in un Territorio devono far riferimento; significa privilegiare in ogni intervento l’attenzione agli aspetti di vitalità e di continuità dello stesso; significa rafforzare le organizzazioni locali e creare condizioni di trasparenza, maggior indipendenza, partecipazione e autodeterminazione.

Significa che se si inizia una attività di cooperazione in una determinata regione o paese con l’intento di insediarsi per un lungo periodo, per collaborare nel risolvere, in maniera incisiva, i problemi di quell’area e non solo per realizzare efficientemente dei progetti. La logica del processo presuppone da subito l’impostazione di partenariato con le organizzazioni locali, basata sull’interscambio reciproco. Presuppone il passaggio obbligatorio da una logica di emergenza ad un impegno di sviluppo sostenibile, con tutte le conseguenze organizzative e metodologiche che ciò comporta . Tale logica obbliga a una continuità di presenza e una conseguente specializzazione sulla conoscenza del contesto locale e degli attori che in esso operano.

Ciò permette il consolidamento del rapporto con partners e autorità locali, ottenendone la fiducia e garantendo l’obiettivo dell’ “Instituition Building”; permette la conoscenza del contesto locale (soprattutto delle micro-realtà) e quindi l’identificazione dei veri bisogni e delle modalità per soddisfarli; permette una migliore organizzazione logistica e gestionale evitando investimenti costosi; permette di evitare la dispersione e aumenta l’impatto degli interventi.

Altro aspetto importante è come scegliersi tra partners. Tale scelta deve essere fatta privilegiando sia l’effettiva affidabilità e capacità gestionale, sia la riconosciuta struttura democratica, il forte radicamento nelle realtà locali e il chiaro impegno nella soluzione dei problemi sociali.

Nelle varie realtà non si può fare a meno di considerare con la dovuta attenzione le istituzioni statali e governative. E’, però, maggiormente importante creare le condizioni affinché gli enti locali e le organizzazioni della società civile aumentino la loro influenza e diventino partner privilegiati. L’ideale sarebbe identificare in ogni paese “partner forti” con cui condividere strategicamente tutti gli aspetti della analisi, programmazione, gestione, interscambio delle attività di cooperazione.

Considerare poi gli aspetti di sussidiarietà e complementarietà delle azioni che devono assumere i partner locali e le ONG internazionali nelle attività di lobbying e di programmazione strategica delle attività. Atteggiamenti corporativi che privilegino rivendicazioni “di bottega” sono nocivi per tutti. Più fruttuoso sarebbe affrontare insieme sia il livello che attiene alle politiche sia quello più direttamente legato alle regole di funzionamento della cooperazione. Non dimenticare le finalità strategiche (globalizzare i diritti, sradicare la povertà...) e pretendere che le pratiche e i progetti siano coerenti e adeguati per raggiungere tali finalità.

Farlo insieme, condividendone metodologie e strumenti, crea le condizioni per il partenariato e fa si che la cooperazione internazionale risponda efficacemente ai propri fini.

La frammentarietà e la poca continuità degli interventi progettuali, spesso conclusi senza la garanzia di sostenibilità e vitalità di quanto costruito. I modelli di gestione sono il più volte imposti dalle entità donanti. Non può essere che si creino delle relazioni in cui chi ha i soldi possa decidere il futuro di tutti gli interlocutori coinvolti. Ho letto anni fa una vignetta in un giornale del Mozambico che raffigurava un operatore della cooperazione internazionale che diceva a un suo interlocutore locale : “ Qui comanda chi paga!” La nostra visione di partenariato deve andare in senso opposto a questa affermazione.

Partnership between European and Non European NGOs - Consolo
The mandate of CONCORD and its critical cooperation with the EU - Consolo

Not subcontractors but partners - Consolo

Shiva Kumar Development Cooperation Expert

The virtuous synergy between NGOs and United Nations - S.Kumar

Investing in the economic and social rights of the citizens - the question is political not economical - S.Kumar

B.Hoeper - NGOs Importance, Challenges and Limits

[[Development Cooperation Handbook/Interviews/P.Krishna|P.Krishna] - Krishnamurti Foundation]

P. Krishna - Governament and civil society - Importance of NGOs - P.Krishna

Delivering results is much more complex than designing Government schemes: social participation is required - M.S.Ahluwalia

Collaborations between Civil Society, Government and Private Sector - JM Balmorugan

See also


Relevant chapters in this handbook
 Local Authorities and Civil Society
 The development aid organization
  Article on Wikipedia ⇒ NGOs; ⇒ Critiques of NGOs
  Article on Global issues ⇒ Non-governmental Organizations on Development Issues