The NGO Phenomenon


By Michael Hill

Baltimore Sun
January 9, 2005

When a disaster like the Asian tsunami strikes, an enormous industry surfaces to provide relief. In the United States, the companies that make up this industry might be called aid groups or charities or nonprofits. Most of the rest of the world refers to them as NGOs - nongovernmental organizations.

The image - in some cases carefully constructed, usually reinforced by the media - is of straightforward charity, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, treating the sick, in a hands-on, handout fashion resembling so many Mother Teresas dispensing aid and kindness.

The reality is that disaster relief is only the tip of the NGO iceberg. In fact, the organizations are as richly diverse in their goals and methods as private corporations. Many have specialties, ranging from trade policy to environmental concerns, democracy building to disaster relief. Others are multifaceted organizations that try to coordinate a variety of activities to sustain long-term solutions to problems that are both chronic (poverty, disease, corruption) and acute (natural disasters).

"In addition to saving lives, NGOs promote democracy and civic participation," says I.M. "Mac" Destler, director of the Program on International Security and Economic Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. "They have really had a significant role in a number of situations. The Ukrainian election is the most recent."

An event like the tsunami puts the NGOs in an intense spotlight where they must perform for an audience that will sustain them financially. But few in the audience will have a long-enough attention span to learn which NGOs perform well. The best of the NGOs know that the kind of relief effort going on in Asia is an unglamorous calling - hard work that continues long after the spotlight has moved elsewhere. The worst of them look at disasters as little more than fund-raising opportunities and relentlessly follow the spotlight to keep the donations coming in.

"During disasters, there is such a public relations frenzy," says John Hammock, an associate professor of humanitarian aid at the Fletcher School of Tufts University. "Everybody is trying to get on TV with their T-shirts on. And for good reason: That translates into dollars [….] For me, the key is to give money to organizations that are committed to stay there over the long term. Some organizations come in and leave when the money dries up," he says.

Such long-term commitment is seen as the way to turn relief into sustainable development that can make communities devastated by these disasters flourish again. "NGOs need to move beyond charity to address broader issues like of governance and accountability," says James V. Riker, associate director of the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland, College Park."I think many groups that started in Asia, in Bangladesh after its floods, in India and Sri Lanka, addressing dramatically the needs of hunger and health care, realized as time went on that they needed to go farther than addressing the symptoms, that they needed to get into community building and rehabilitation projects that would have a longer-term impact," Riker says. A group handing out food to tsunami victims today, for example, might put pressure on international trade organizations next month in an effort to aid economic development in the devastated countries.

Many of today's NGOs got their start in the aftermath of World War II, aiding refugees in war-ravaged Europe. The CARE package is a symbol of what might be termed the romantic image of these NGOs. For a generation of Americans, CARE - which originally stood for Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe - will always be connected with the package that carried its name, originally a box of military surplus foodstuffs that was delivered to the war refugees amid the devastation of Europe. A later version that included tools and seeds was promised to poor countries around the world in fund-raising appeals that aired during the early years of television. Some 100 million CARE packages were distributed over two decades.

The growth of NGOs in the post-World War II decades paralleled the growth of international awareness. The United Nations was created and helped focus attention on problems across the globe. It contracted with many NGOs to deal with those problems, a symbiotic relationship that still exists.

Television brought pictures of disease and destruction, famine and flood, into the comfortable living rooms of industrialized societies. Improved transportation allowed meaningful responses to the problems. Charity was not as it once was, giving money to a local group for the poor of your community - it was now responding to an outstretched hand halfway around the world. As the NGOs grew, their roles became more complex and sophisticated. Now the term "CARE package" has slipped into the vernacular as a box of goodies delivered to anyone in need - such as a college student facing exams - not as an instrument of disaster relief. Atlanta-based CARE no longer delivers them.

Contracting out relief

CARE - which now stands for Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere - is a $500-million-per-year operation with a wide variety of projects in the developing world. Most of its money does not come from the individuals who once bought CARE packages for specific recipients, but from governments and U.N. groups. It contracts out the business of relief. This is not true of all NGOs, as some large operators, such as Oxfam and Baltimore-headquartered Lutheran World Relief, continue to rely primarily on private funding, in part to insure their independence.

But, like CARE, many of the most admired NGOs, such as Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, get a great deal of their money from government and U.N. contracts. Certainly they cherish small donations - the outpouring of generosity after the tsunami has had a huge impact on NGO budgets - but they no longer depend on them. "There is still a very significant private fund-raising effort in international relief," says Lester M. Salamon, who studies the nonprofit sector at the Institute for Policy Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. "But it is the case that governments provide major parts of the money. It's cost-effective to do it that way. It is really hard to keep a major organization going through private donations."

With all these groups, personnel who once might have been handing out those old CARE packages are now engaged in very unromantic work. That often means trying to run huge freight transportation companies under difficult conditions - finding trucks and drivers and passable roads in order to get the basics of life from the places where they are plentiful to the places where they are needed. "They are still romantic in their objectives," Salamon says of the NGOs. "But they are very concrete in their content."

The story of the nuts-and-bolts work at the core of NGO operations is coming out in the tsunami disaster probably more than ever before, in large part because of the intense media concentration on the disaster. Still, newspapers and television are filled with the kinds of stories that perpetuate the traditional image of NGOs - stories that tell of an individual from the developed world enduring hardships and risking his or her health for a small paycheck to help pitiful victims of floods and famines, earthquakes and, now, tsunamis.

Often these stories resonate with memories of bygone colonial eras, with all their racist underpinnings. "Look at most of the images of famines in Africa," says Hammock, former head of Oxfam America. "It's always a white nurse feeding a black African. There's always the native victims and the white person comes in to save the day. It's like a morality play."

The media play their parts in this image-making dance, usually arriving at the scene in tandem with their peers from the NGO community, often sharing quarters with the aid workers. These First World visitors certainly live in a rough environment, but it is almost always one that offers protection from whatever disaster is at hand - disease or hunger or homelessness. It is not surprising that these Western reporters seek out stories of their peers dispensing aid, nor that the NGOs encourage this approach, knowing it is grist for the fund-raising mill.

Hammock and others say the long-term success of these operations depends on getting away as soon as possible from that handout relationship - though it plays well in the heartstring-tugging news stories and donor appeals - and instead taking advantage of the tremendous capabilities that disaster victims possess. "Any organization that defines its mission as just giving stuff has got it wrong," says Hammock. "You might save a person's life by sending stuff, but what you have to save is their livelihood.

"It is true in Asia right now, that most people are going to survive on their wits, not on foreign aid," he says. "Most of these people are not victims, they are people like you and me. They do not want aid. They might need it for a bit of time, but then they want to make it on their own."

That means not setting up large camps stocked with donated food that might provide good photo-ops but also foster a culture of dependency. Instead, it means getting people back in their homes - exactly where they want to be - as soon as possible, and figuring out what help they need to stay there and flourish.

Bangladesh example

Bangladesh is considered a case of how to do it right. The country was born in 1971 in a man-made disaster - a horrific war as Pakistan tried to retain control of its eastern province on the other side of India. That drew the attention of Beatle George Harrison, whose Concert for Bangladesh focused a spotlight on the nascent country, about to face a famine, and raised $9 million in relief funds. The first of such concerts - now de rigueur after any disaster - it helped bring the international NGO community to a new level of awareness and importance on the world stage.

"It was the classic case of a country doomed not to survive," Tariq Karim, former ambassador from Bangladesh to the United States, says of his native land. "One phrase from the early '70s got it all - Bangladesh was a 'bottomless basket case.'" But what happened is that the international NGOs that descended on Bangladesh just primed the pump. Bangladeshis began forming their own organizations that focused on education, industry and other fundamental development work. One, called BRAC, is now considered the largest NGO in the world.

"These NGOs went into empty spaces that the government could not cover," says Karim, who is a senior adviser at the IRIS Center (Institutional Reform and the Informal Sector) at the University of Maryland. The result, he says, is a growing economy, a declining birth rate, a fairly stable democracy and tremendous progress on the problems of famine and flooding that used to draw the world's attention on a regular basis.

Karim contrasts what happened in Bangladesh, a Muslim country, with its former ruler, Pakistan, where the government kept the international NGOs out and saw the growth of madrasses, fundamentalist Islamic schools that are seen as incubators of the fanaticism that leads to terrorism. "This confirms my theory that no space remains vacant, that it will be occupied by some agent or another, benevolent or malevolent," Karim says.

Salamon says that the Bangladesh experience has been repeated in many other countries where people frustrated by corrupt governments and inefficient economies formed NGOs as the best way to have a positive effect on their societies. "I think there has been a global association revolution, a massive upsurge around the world of private nonprofit activists," Salamon says. "It is striking in its dimension and its breadth. And it is not limited to individual countries as networks have formed among organizations on international levels, among environmental groups, human rights groups, major development organizations.

"To call it an industry comes with unfortunate pejorative implications, but it is certainly now a major economic and major political force," he says. "These are vehicles in which people take the initiatives and change the lives of their countries. It is an absolutely massive worldwide phenomenon."

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