Global Policy Forum

Who Else Will Do the Work?


By Risto Karajkov

July 16, 2006

There is a consensus that NGOs were the big thing for the 1990's. There is no consensus on how this came about. There is no one single factor to credit, but a multiplicity of interdependent and intertwined trends. According to Mary Kaldor, some of the factors involved include the end of the cold war, the reduction of the welfare state, the legacy of the Reagan-Thatcher ideology of anti-statism in international relations, the increased role of multilateral institutions (notably the United Nations) in global governance, big ideas like Robert Putnam's on social capital, which in turn led to the resurrection of Tocqueville's associational life, and the success of social movements such as Solidarnost in Eastern Europe.

The result was a tremendous growth in the resources available to NGOs. In addition to becoming the preferred deliverers of aid, these organizations were expected to promote democracy (and at the same time were considered an indicator of the health of democracy), to step in during emergency situations, to help wrought regime change, to foster social integration of marginalized peoples and communities, and a lot more.

Some of the numbers are indicative. For example, over 90 percent of the European Union's humanitarian funding in the 1970's was channeled through governments, and none of it was channeled through NGOs. Thirty years later, governments account for but 6 percent of the recipients, while NGOs account for 37 percent. According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.), 13 percent of all development assistance, which amounted to $8.3 billion in 1992, was channeled through NGOs. The figure was a mere 0.2 percent in 1970.

Before long, indications started appearing also of agglomeration vs. fragmentation on the opposite end of the pendulum. Andrew Natsios, still the chief administrator of USAID, the American development agency, has been arguing, with particular reference to emergency and relief work, that 10 U.S. and 10 European NGOs spend 75 percent of all the public funds that go to complex emergencies. Scholars speak of the "big 8," meaning the eight largest humanitarian NGOs, which account for the lion's share of the market, or of oligopoly.

As NGOs grew in numbers, they grew in power. Their capacity to influence international relations soon became obvious. Former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali once said that NGOs were "an indispensable part of the legitimacy" of the United Nations. Kofi Annan has called NGOs "the conscience of humanity." A series of "colored" revolutions over the last several years, in which NGOs played prominent roles in mass civic protests, put the democracy work of these civil society organizations in the spotlight. Several governments responded with restrictive legislative measures to curb the possibility of civil society organizations involving themselves in political affairs.

Every action faces a reaction. The unprecedented popularity and leverage of global civil society organizations started to be challenged by claims that they lack legitimacy, accountability, and transparency. Far too often, they were compared to businesses or an industry, and an unregulated industry at that. Governments started saying that NGOs do not have a democratic mandate, that they are not elected. Many critics of civil society organizations argue that they are not accountable to anyone but their donors. At present, NGOs are under intense scrutiny. The debate looms large and it is difficult to imagine it not having an impact on their scope and influence. At the very least, it will undercut their funding. In the same way that NGOs grew from a handful of groups to a strong global phenomenon, they can easily start to recede, perhaps over a longer period of time. The withdrawal of one type of funding can lead to a reduction in another, and eventually a trend will emerge.

Today, NGOs are mobilizing, defending their work, thinking of self-regulation, creating standards of proper conduct, and essentially reforming. Some of the donors are perhaps thinking about the alternatives. Is it better to go back to channeling the aid directly through governments? Or should they just give it to the big multilaterals? Still, with all the criticism going around — and some of it is definitely warranted — NGOs are well positioned to do things that nobody else can do effectively. Here are a few examples:

Recently, an NGO fighting for the rights of people with disabilities embarked on a national campaign in Macedonia and collected almost 20,000 signatures. Its aim is to put through parliament a new, modern law protecting the rights of the disabled. Who else could have done such a thing? The government? If the government cared, it would have passed the law in the first place. Can one imagine a donor subcontracting such a deal to a company?

In another example, from the same European neighborhood, a couple of years ago several environmental groups fought the government of Montenegro in court over its plan to build a power plant in the canyon of the river Tara, a wonderful nature area. And they won. Perhaps it can happen elsewhere, but in the Balkans, it is difficult to see small groups telling governments what to do. In Albania, the youth movement Mjaft has played a remarkable role in fighting government corruption over the past years. They contributed tremendously to building a responsible citizenship. Who else could have done this?

And the same goes for the thousands of unknown groups that deliver services every day in impoverished communities, ghettoes, slums, and other places too small for bulky governmental systems to address. They make sure Roma children do their homework and stay in school, drive up to remote villages and fight female illiteracy, fight discouragement in young people who are unable to find employment by enhancing their skills and employability. These are all tasks that should fall under the mandate of governments. That much is clear.

Who else can succeed where governments have failed?

More Information on NGOs
More Information on NGOs and States
More Information on Funding for NGOs
More Information on the Credibility and Legitimacy of NGOs


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