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Credibility and Legitimacy of NGOs

NGOs are very diverse and by no means are all equally laudable. Some NGOs act irresponsibly and undermine the credibility of the larger NGO movement. This is particularly problematic when conservative governments attempt to use these problematic NGOs as justification for severing important future NGO partnerships/initiatives. This section examines the problem of unconditionally viewing NGOs as the “conscience of society,” and the need to hold NGOs as accountable as the governments and institutions they critique.


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Is the Faultline Among NGOs Over the Future of Development Deepening?  (Aug 17, 2012)

A study by University of Manchester has questioned the legitimacy of large development NGOs, saying that they are heavily influenced by government and corporate donors. This has sparked a debate about “development” programs that are too skewed towards aid rather than the structural causes of poverty. Grassroots organizations have criticized big international aid agencies for being bureaucratic and lacking the political commitment to force change. In the recent UK hunger summit organized by the government, big agencies praised the target commitments made in official policies. Those demanding more radical approaches charge that the government’s approach to simply earmark aid programs will not generate the systemic changes that are necessary. (Guardian)

Cashing in While the Earth Burns (Aug 7, 2012)

Foundations that claim to be “environmental” are supporting controversial programs such as the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative in California. The initiative created “marine protected areas” while allowing the state to export California Delta water, which killed millions of Sacramento splittails. The president of the Western States Petroleum Association chairs the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force—so the conflict of interest is apparent. While grassroots organizations are struggling to cover office expenses, the CEOs and top staff of large foundations and conservative environmental NGOs are receiving hefty salaries, up to $1,196,037 a year. “It is no surprise that the perspectives, interests and “environmental” programs of these NGO CEOs are aligned with the Wall Street 1 percent.” (Counter Punch)

Hired Gun Fight (July 18, 2012)

Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), is fighting to channel US foreign aid through local institutions rather than American for-profit contractors, in order to increase accountability and aid effectiveness. The Coalition of International Development Companies, an advocacy coalition of 50 government contractors, have objected to the procurement reform stressing the threat of waste and corruption by foreign governments and other institutions. Shah’s aggressive push for paradigm shift is stirring the development world to rethink accountability. (Foreign Affairs)

New Russian Bill Aims to Brand NGOs as "Foreign Agents" (July 2, 2012)

The ruling United Russia party has submitted a bill which aims to brand foreign funded nongovernmental organizations in Russia as “foreign agents.” The authors of the bill intend to stop the NGOs from “conspiring” and force them to admit that they are the agents of foreign governments. Rights activists accuse the Kremlin of seeking to discredit civil rights groups that oppose to the regime. (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)

"NGO": The Guise of Innocence (March 2012)

In December, Egyptian police raided the offices of several foreign “NGOs” leading to much Western press criticism. But the Western media has not investigated the history of the organizations and the nature of the charges. In fact, many of the groups are government sponsored organizations, receiving majority of their funding from the US National Endowment for Democracy which was formed to legally channel US government funds to opposition groups. By using the term NGO, the groups hide behind the illusion of innocent philanthropists, but if China or Cuba were funding opposition groups with a stated goal of regime change in the US, those involved would be facing much harsher consequences. (Irish Foreign Affairs)


Silence of the Lambs (June 20, 2011)

Though NGOs are often held as the “conscience of society,” NGOs should be scrutinized as harshly as governments and international institutions. This Slate article examines an alarming trend of NGO workers in Cambodia who are taking advantage of their “do-gooder” status by profiting from aid operations. While a number of Cambodian NGOs have done tremendously important humanitarian work, particularly in the area of landmine reduction and HIV education, these select NGOs undermine the credibility of the larger NGO movement.  (Slate)

Kenya: Outrage Over "Cash for Contraception" Offer to HIV-Positive Women (May 12, 2011)

NGOs are often cast in a virtuous light, yet not all are deserving of this characterization.  Project Prevention, a US NGO, pays drug addicts to undergo long term contraception or sterilization.  This organization is now also operating in Kenya, paying HIV+ women US$40 to undergo long term contraception, which may last up to a decade.  This program is discriminatory, illegal under Kenya’s domestic laws and a clear violation of the reproductive rights of HIV+ women.  NGOs are not necessarily the conscience of civil society, and their actions, as with those of the private and public sectors, must be examined with a critical eye. (IRIN)

NGOs Must Form Creative Alliances to Tackle Global Poverty and Injustice (March 14, 2011)

NGOs must purse new, and perhaps unexpected, alliances to successfully affect change; this is the message from Oxfam International's Deputy Advocacy and Campaigns Director, Stephen Hale.  Hale argues that creative alliances achieve a number of purposes; including broadening and deepening public support and NGO capacity building.  NGO alliances with business are on the rise, not necessarily because business is growing a conscience, but rather "businesses see partnerships as a way of restoring people's trust and confidence in them."  While alliances can be effective, NGOs must be cautious that they are not pursued at the expense of affecting change. (Guardian)

Money can Taint NGO's Clean Image (Febraury 10, 2011)

The Seub Nakhasatien Foundation, a prominent Thai environmental NGO, has accepted 25.89 million baht - approx 851,000 USD - from the energy company Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT).  In the 1990s, the Foundation campaigned against a gas pipeline built by PTT through the Huay Kayeng forest reserve.  By accepting sponsorship from PTT, the Foundation exposes itself to the firm's influence.  Regardless of whether PTT exercises actual influence over the Foundation's environmental agenda, the appearance that it does is enough to damage the NGO's credibility. (Bangkok Post)

Aid and Corruption: Cleaning Up (February 17, 2011)

In January 2011, an Associated Press story detailed misappropriation of Global Fund to Fight AIDS monies. The story was based in part on an internal investigation by the Fund, the results of which were made public. In the weeks following the AP story there has been significant backlash against the Fund.  Donors, including Germany, Spain, Sweden and the EU plan to freeze their contributions, and others may follow suit. The Fund is, by no means, the only international aid organization that must deal with corruption however. Punishing the Fund for its transparency is not an effective response. (Economist)


Civil Society Self-Regulation (June 2009)

As civil society has grown in number and influence, initiatives in self-regulation have increased. NGOs use self-regulation for building public trust, protecting their political space and sharing good practice. Self-regulation is much more developed in Western countries, whereas it is largely absent in developing countries due to governments’ heavy control. (One World Trust)


The Myth of NGO Superiority (October 15, 2008)

This article argues against the idea that NGOs are less driven by political interest and more perceptive of poor people's needs than government-led aid agencies. The author gives examples from Sweden and Switzerland and claims that NGOs do not provide more efficient or "better targeted" aid, but that they tend to "mirror" their government's interest. (D+C Development and Cooperation)

Who Monitors the Monitors? (September 25, 2008)

Unlike governments and businesses, NGOs are responsible to multiple parties with different interests, such as members, donors, governments, the general public and those who receive their help. In his speech, Peter Phiri from CIVICUS argues NGOs should not give priority to already influential donors, but instead work to increase public trust by further including underrepresented groups like women, ethnic minorities and the poor in their activities. (CIVICUS)

Can Aid Be Effective Without Civil Society? – The Paris Declaration, the Accra Agenda for Action and Beyond (August 2008)

This paper by the International Council on Social Welfare discusses the role of NGOs in development aid and analyzes the events leading up to, and following, the Paris Declaration. The authors also look at how international NGOs can work for better aid effectiveness by improving cooperation between themselves and local organizations in developing countries.

Preventing Corruption in Humanitarian Assistance (July 2008)

This report is based on a research project involving seven major international humanitarian NGOs. It explores perceptions and consequences of corruption within the NGO community.  It also highlights increased awareness on corruption risks, and heightened efforts to mitigate such risks. Nevertheless, many still have a narrow view of what constitutes corruption, viewing it primarily as a "financial issue," rather than abuse of power. (Feinstein International Centre)

China, NGOs and Accountability (April 8, 2008)

Private donations account for almost 90 percent of NGO funding in China and the government has had more of a "monitoring" role than a "facilitating" one. This article describes how NGOs can strengthen their independence and credibility through examining each other's work and involving the people they serve. (OpenDemocracy)

Why We Need to Look Hard at the NGOs' Flaws (Spring 2008)

Evaluations of NGO effectiveness "have been patchy at best," says Robert Glasser, Secretary General of CARE International. Glasser argues that measuring the impact of NGO's operations is crucial in improving their response to crisis situations. He points to the confusion in Aceh, Indonesia, following the Indian Ocean tsunami, where 400 NGOs and UN organizations were competing for resources, staff and funding. CARE and six other NGOs have created an Emergency Capacity Building Project to strengthen NGO cooperation in assessing their own performance. (Europe's World)

Swindling by Fake NGOs (March 15, 2008)

Legitimate NGOs in Bangladesh struggle to preserve a pristine image whilst corrupt law enforcement agencies register fake NGOs as fronts for illegal operations. This Daily Star article identifies thirty illicit NGOs who swindle the poor in remote Bangladeshi villages and misappropriate foreign funds. Transparency International Bangladesh recommends that the government swiftly establishes an independent NGO commission.

Forming a Donor Monitor NGO (January 16, 2008)

This article argues that international development aid serves the interest of donor countries by setting short-term goals, creating dependency and promoting trade rather than stability in poor countries. The author argues it is not a problem of funding, but a lack of public oversight and bad management of aid by NGOs. He therefore suggests that a strong and independent "Donor Monitor NGO" could assess the global and local impact of NGOs' work, evaluate their "overall professional quality" and set up ratings to inform the public. (Policy Innovations)


Silences in NGO Discourse: The Role and Future of NGOs in Africa (2007)

This collection of essays argues that NGOs are Africa's new missionaries. They dispense services in a spirit of "charity and pity" as puppets of "neo-colonial" powers. NGOs rely on their funding partners in a paternalistic relationship where foreign "true friends" – as one US ambassador termed donors – treat the poor as recipients of aid and exclude citizens from policy-making. The author recommends that NGOs in Africa stop pretending neutrality and engage in political activism. (Fahamu)

Western Humanitarianism or Neo-Slavery? (November 7, 2007)

In October 2007, Chadian authorities arrested European NGO workers for kidnapping more than 100 children they falsely claimed were Sudanese orphans. In light of this scandal, UNESCO Chair in Human Rights, Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu critically assesses "Western humanitarianism" and the role of NGOs in Africa. Omara-Otunnu argues that "little has changed since the mid nineteenth century," when Christian missionaries viewed African people as lesser human beings who needed to be saved through European colonization. (Black Star News)

An Atrocity That Needs No Exaggeration (August 12, 2007)

The New York Times reveals that the "Save Darfur" campaign greatly inflated the number of deaths in order to heighten the sense of crisis in Darfur and press for intervention. Experts have contested the widely advertised death toll of 400,000 and the most reliable estimate suggests that there were 131,000 excess deaths in Darfur as of June 2005, after which date, United Nations and relief groups register a sharp drop. According to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster, most deaths were due to malnutrition and disease, not violence. "Ultimately, the inflated claims fuel a death race in which aid and action are based not on facts but on which advocacy group yells the loudest," concludes the article. Facts were manipulated in order to promote a policy of humanitarian intervention.

Civil Society Wants Transparency - For Itself as Well (May 14, 2007)

Most NGOs strive to make the allocations of their funds transparent to the public, especially to skeptical benefactors. However, keeping track of finances and making the records accessible to outside parties can have high costs. Some NGOs that cannot afford a formal audit, hold regular meetings, require multiple directors' signatures for expenditures, or write down expenses on a blackboard in order to keep track of their accounting. An Argentine organization, Help Argentina, which aims to increase NGO credibility has created a "self-evaluation" booklet for its member organizations to use to analyze their transparency. (IPS Terraviva)

Do Aid Agencies Pull Too Many Strings? (April 20, 2007)

This AlertNet opinion piece discusses some problems that could arise when wealthy, foreign NGOs appear to wield more influence than domestic groups on social, political and economic issues. According to the article, the dilemma of "cash-rich" international organizations pushing agendas that do not seem to correspond with the needs of the local populace "can easily be seen and felt as neocolonial." The author calls on foreign NGOs to use their resources to not only carry out their mandates, but to also help strengthen the local NGO sector without overshadowing it. (AltertNet)

Impact Measurement and Accountability in Emergencies: The "Good Enough" Guide (February 9, 2007)

Drawing from the experiences of a number of international aid agencies, this guide outlines how NGOs can assess the effectiveness of their responses to humanitarian crises. This report emphasizes the need for an assessment system to enable the people affected by emergencies – as well as donors and host governments – to hold relief workers to account for their activities. Further, with evaluations that more accurately reflect the impact of their work, NGOs can improve existing field operations and better prepare for future unforeseen disasters. (Oxfam UK)


Foreign NGOs Have Their Own Agenda (October 5, 2006)

This Yemen Times piece recognizes the important contribution that foreign NGOs can make to the development of their local counterparts, particularly those in fledgling democracies. But the author cautions against relying too heavily on foreign groups whose agendas may not necessarily align with domestic needs. The author calls, instead, for greater popular support for local NGOs which, once better equipped, can play a more formative role in engaging their fellow citizens in domestic political, economic and cultural affairs.

Strengthening Democratic Governance: The Role of Civil Society (September 21, 2006)

This Wilton Park report delves into the challenges that grassroots organizations face in their efforts to promote government accountability and citizen participation. In their intertwined activities of advocacy, monitoring and providing services, NGOs often encounter government interference, unreasonable donor demands and questions about their own legitimacy. The report encourages NGOs to focus on attaining sustainable results and to "not be diverted" in their operations by such obstacles. (Wilton Park)
This Jakarta Post article draws attention to the increasing incidence of corruption and embezzlement among local and international NGOs in Indonesia. A UN official has charged that some NGO representatives use hard-earned funds for personal gratification, destroying potentially successful reconstruction projects. In an attempt to stem this corruption, a network of independent groups will rally against the issuance of work permits to "notorious" NGOs. (Jakarta Post)

How Genuine Are NGOs? (August 7, 2006)

According to this New Times opinion piece, western donors, particularly the US, have historically used NGOs to exploit economic opportunities in poor countries or to counter hostile political ideologies. Citing US-led wars and the ensuing relief efforts in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, the author strongly criticizes what he calls the "mockery of humanitarian aid." This occurs when donor nations use NGOs to provide humanitarian assistance in countries occupied by their troops. The article concludes that government-dependent NGOs work more to attract funds than to strengthen democracy. (New Times)

The NED, NGOs and the Imperial Uses of Philanthropy (May 14, 2006)

Agencies such as the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED) have, for many years, funded foreign NGOs who support chaotic "democratization" and "development" processes such as overthrowing elected governments and stemming any reformist movements. Oxfam UK, which receives significant donations from the US, has pulled its workers out of Iraq, showing that the source of funding largely influences NGO activities. In addition, the same sources funding NGO activities often also provide the information necessary for assessing local support for these NGOs. (Counter Punch)

Marketing Humanitarian Crises (March 31, 2006)

YaleGlobal Online reports that many of the worlds' worst crises "remain off the international agenda." NGOs carefully choose which international issues to devote time too, due to limited resources and "internal needs" such as pleasing funders. As a result victims must "sell themselves" to NGOs, in order to gain attention and major support. (YaleGlobal Online)

Overview of Accountability Initiatives (January 2006)

This One World Trust working paper provides information on initiatives promoting accountability of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), transnational corporations (TNCs) and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs). In addition to a brief description about accountability within each sector, it provides an extensive database on organizations focusing on accountability. (One World Trust)

The Power Shift and the NGO Credibility Crisis (January 2006)

Over the past half century, NGOs have increased four-fold and become astute at mobilizing support. In the midst of transnational threats, like global warming, and a wave of democratization, international and domestic institutions rely critically on NGO input. Yet there is a dearth of mechanisms to scrutinize NGOs themselves. This paper argues for a set of "industry-wide standards" to enhance NGO credibility. (International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law)

Rev. Moon and the United Nations: A Challenge for the NGO Community (November 2001)

According to WEED, three Moon front groups operate as accredited NGOs at the UN and more have applied for NGO status. This paper raises questions about who should qualify for NGO status and what protections should be developed against well-financed charlatans. Click here for the PDF document. (WEED)

Archived Articles

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