Global Policy Forum

Making NGO's More Effective and Responsive in a Globalized World


By Ben Ofosu-Appiah*

African Path
March 28, 2008

Registered Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), variously known as 'Private Voluntary Organizations', 'Citizens Associations', 'Civil Society Organizations', but also increasingly called "NPOs", an acronym that stands for "Non Profit Organizations" are on the rise world wide. This is re-shaping politics and economics both at domestic and global levels, a phenomenon almost equal to the rise of the nation-state at the end of the nineteenth century. Today, NGOs address every conceivable issue and they operate in virtually every part of the globe.

NGOs create public goods needed by citizens that are not ordinarily found in the profit oriented market place. It is commonly accepted fact that NGOs form a distinct third sector separate from business and governments. This sector provides essential social services and the profit in this case is primarily social progress. One of the biggest successes of the last decade was the campaign to outlaw landmines where hundreds of NGOs in concert with the Canadian government pushed through a ban in a year. NGO activities are not confined to governments agenda alone. For example, NIKE has been targeted for poor labour conditions in its overseas factories. In short, NGOs are increasingly playing a vital role as lobbyists and activists at the corporate, national and international levels and their criticisms sometimes lead to reassessment of policies.

NGOs play roles that go far beyond political activism. Many are important deliverers of services especially in the developing countries. Some of the biggest NGO's such as CARE or Medecins San Frontieres are primarily humanitarian aid providers. As the initial optimism at the end of the cold war and the prospect of a "peace dividend" faded with the flaring up of ethno nationalist conflicts across Europe, Asia, and Africa, unleashing humanitarian catastrophe in an unequal proportions, the role and importance of humanitarian aid and relief providing NGOs became even more critical. In 1995, it was estimated that around 14 million people were refugees and some 23 million people were internally displaced. This provided fertile grounds for the rise of NGO activities in this area. In most cases, NGOs responded more effectively to these crises as the international organizations and states grapple with the issue of humanitarian intervention. Their operations have helped changed lives during and after conflicts. It has been argued that to make NGOs even more effective, they should think beyond relief and conceptualize their interventions along a relief-development continuum so that relief activities contribute to development programs as peace returns. The second strategic option involves providing a mix of relief and development activities that provide for immediate basic needs while creating the physical, human or social capital that will raise the likelihood of economic and social development in the future.

NGOs are partners in development or should be, especially those operating in developing countries. Many are engaged in development projects, providing technical assistance to help improve the lives of the rural poor. Through the increasing participation of NGOs in the design, consultation, operation and evaluation of projects, they are acting as agents to empower people at lower levels of society to improve their own lives thus reducing poverty. NGOs tend to be more sensitive to the needs and aspirations of the poor communities, minorities, and women thus commanding more legitimacy in their eyes than most governments. It is expected that NGOs with proper coordination to avoid dysfunctional competition will assume many of the conventional mandates that are usually undertaken by governments and specialized UN agencies. A case in point is the fact that in an era of decreasing foreign aid, the amount of aid being channeled through NGOs operating in developing countries is going up. According to the World Bank, today NGOs in Africa manage nearly $3.5 billion in external aid compared to under $1 billion in 1990. It is against this background that I see recent reports of corruption within some NGO's in Ghana as very troubling development. It is highly unfortunate that some people see NGO's as a business albeit making illegal money for themselves through fraudulent means. Some people use non existing NGO names to solicit money abroad and then divert them for their selfish gains. There has been a number of reports of such nature in the newspapers and on the internet lately that raise serious questions on the credibility of some of these NGO's operating in Ghana today. This is tarnishing the image of the country both at home and abroad and needless to say, NGO's must be made to keep proper accounting of all monies received and disbursed and have such accounts audited periodically and made public.

In spite of the few bad nuts in the NGO's in Ghana, some are doing a real good job. Every single day, they are helping to put tools in people's hands, hope in their hearts, and bringing back the smiles on their faces. Some of the greatest strengths of NGOs over governments lie in advocacy and participatory models of development that focus on human development. They are very effective in demonstrating that poverty, no matter how endemic can be tackled by involving project beneficiaries in planning, implementation and sustainability of the projects. According to a 1997 United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) working paper, the strength of NGOs lies in their "proximity to their members or clients, the flexibility and the high degree of people's involvement and participation in their activities, which leads to strong commitments, appropriateness of solutions and high acceptance of decisions implemented. For example in Africa, many donors view NGOs as an important part of Africa's democratization process, acting as watchdogs and advocates for human rights and good governance. NGOs often tackle issues that governments are unable or unwilling to take up. They provide efficient, innovative and cost effective approaches to difficult social and economic problems. In some cases, they provide leadership and inputs in producing and advocating public policy, and operate in spheres where government officials are constrained by bureaucratic or political considerations.

It is one of the greatest paradoxes of our time that globalization has been associated with increased intra-state tensions, and has exacerbated a host of worries; over the environment, labour rights, human rights, consumer rights, and so on. NGOs have and do play an important role in highlighting and addressing these concerns. Through the power of the internet, NGOs provide network services, by building coalitions through a network of contacts domestically and internationally providing information on important issues to concerned interest groups and individuals. Through these networks and coalition building they can organize to demonstrate against or even derail the gathering of any organization whose operations they feel detrimental to the environment, labour rights, poverty reduction etc. as happened in Seattle during the 1999 WTO meeting.

NGOs are confronting globalization not only by demonstrations at the international level but also at the grassroots level, where NGO's are already developing a number of strategies to help poor people address the realities of their position in global markets and play a creative role in re-shaping economic forces. First, by improving the endowments of the poor so that they can compete more effectively and achieve a basic level of security, voice and equality of rights, without which economic alternatives are hard to come. This continues the traditional role of NGOs in developing skills, building capacities and institutions, and increasing access to credit facilities and economic opportunities but also underpinned by a more systematic attempt to link different levels and sectors of the economy. Secondly, NGOs can turn market forces to the advantage of the poorer groups by reducing the benefits normally siphoned off by intermediaries. An example is an attempt by NGOs in South Africa to work with community associations to help them negotiate better contracts with commercial hunting and tourism concerns thus eliminating middlemen who would take huge consulting fees from the process of contract negotiations. All over the world, NGOs are acting as agents of change and empowering many of the disadvantaged to improve their lives.

In the field of international relations, scholars now speak of NGOs as non state actors (a category that can also include transnational corporations). This term suggests NGOs emerging influence in the international policy arena where previously only states played a significant role. The former United Nations Secretary General Mr. Kofi Annan, has called them "the conscience of humanity" and technical NGOs have been consulted on relevant issues by the World Bank and other UN agencies before policies are implemented and treaties drafted. It is certain that their role will grow as global governance becomes more pluralistic and less confined to state based systems.They will continue to be a beacon illuminating the way forward as the World rises to confront new challenges.

About the Author: Ben Ofosu-Appiah is a senior political and social analyst based in Tokyo, Japan. He is also a public policy expert and policy strategist who has written extensively on Third World issues.

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