Global Policy Forum

Do Aid Agencies Pull Too Many Strings?


By Hugo Slim

April 20, 2007

Much civil society in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East is extremely courageous. And a lot of it is in prison. Most Western non-governmental organisations want a strong - essentially liberal - civil society in any country where they work. Civil society - with its pressure groups, media, intellectuals and religious activists - is valued as the guardian of society against dictatorship, demagogy and patrimonial politics which allow big men to play "father of the nation".

NGOs know that state capture by a clique is best prevented by a broadly-based civil society which embodies alternative and competing social and political movements that can counter conventional government and business power. So international NGOs (INGOs) have a long history of funding civil society groups in disasters and wars. And many activists in disaster response in Asia have been supported by international NGOs in their work for land rights, safe building regulations, cyclone shelters, fair access to relief and government accountability.

On the advocacy side, INGOs have also backed brave civil society organisations investigating diamond mining, rape, abductions and forced labour which can be so central to the political economy of many wars. Post-colonial dilemmas emerge between international NGOs and civil society too. These relationships can also be ambiguous. INGO power can easily be seen and felt as neo-colonial by both parties.


INGO ability to fund civil society - often to a very high degree - creates dilemmas of control in which NGOs can find it hard to strike a balance between directing and controlling civil society or letting it prosper spontaneously and lead itself. At its worst, a failure to manage this balance can lead to problems of divide and rule, over-run and over-shadowing of civil society in emergencies.

The presence of many large international NGOs amidst civil society in poor African and Asian countries can seem positively regal. Despite their talk of solidarity and partnership, many international NGOs live in colonial style in their guarded villas and high-tech offices. Only a few big civil society players achieve similar splendour and then usually only as the favoured clients of NGOs and other international donors.

Most civil society organisations - universities, unions, religious groups and local media - see and feel an obvious mismatch between the wealth and political immunity of foreign NGOs compared to their own shoddy offices and the political threats they experience as local activists. This mismatch may not surprise or trouble them because they recognise that it is "their war" or "their disaster" but INGO power and influence can lead to other asymmetries in the development of civil society. As grant-givers, the wealth of international NGOs can begin to control local civil society by dictating its shape and priorities.


In their funding strategies and their attempts along with others to back "the best" civil society organisations, NGOs may inadvertently engage in the traditional colonial tactics of divide and rule. They may split civil society by issue, resources and geography by virtue of their own preferences. As significant funders of civil society, foreign NGOs often work alongside international foundations and Western governments as agenda-setters and most of them inevitably follow fashion.

Certain issues become the focus of the day and particular civil society organisations are rewarded and developed as their champions. If advocacy in a protracted African war is prioritised around uncovering elite competition over natural resources, then anti-mining groups are likely to become a la mode in the strategic planning of international NGOs. The war widows association which is working for inter-communal peace bridges may not be sought out and funded.

International donors, including NGOs, often fall over themselves in the rush to fund leading civil society organisations so that some organisations and some issues may become disproportionately big and powerful, undermining the diversity that is always a virtue in a healthy civil society. If civil society can feel overly shaped and controlled by international NGOs, it can also be over-looked and over-run by them in the heat of a high profile emergency when NGOs want to be there, have lots of money and need to be seen to be spending it fast.


When the cameras run, local civil society is frequently over-run. The Indian Ocean tsunami is now the classic case of such over-run in which many local organisations in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India were by-passed or superficially used in the international stampede of cash-rich NGO operations. With huge amounts of money and a keen sense of accountability for it, many NGOs arrived to work directly as operational providers of health, shelter and micro-enterprise without proper support and empowerment of existing civil society organisations.

Thinking that an operational approach would give them more power to control their own programming, INGOs took power away from civil society at what could have been a transformational moment for state and third sector politics in those countries. In many ways, NGOs barged in between the state and civil society instead of accelerating their necessary collaboration. It is genuinely hard for NGOs not to inter-position themselves between the two main contracting parties - the people and the state - as they try to bring them together.

It is truly difficult not to substitute, to legitimise, to divide and rule, to over-run, to over-shadow or to misrepresent one or both sides. But many INGOs are getting it right.

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


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.