[A version of this article originally appeared in Arena Magazine, Issue 131]
In an earlier article, John Hilary called for a radical re-politicisation of the NGO sector. He argued that NGOs need to start challenging global economic issues, uprooting colonial mind-sets and reconnecting with the global justice movement, if they are to remain valid in the fight for a better world.
“The message to the international NGO community is clear: get radical or get lost.”
Although I mostly agree with Hilary, I think the topic of NGOs needs some expanding. This article takes a step backwards, and has a look at the bigger picture: the role of NGOs in the global economy. Instead of reforming the NGO sector, perhaps we should be rethinking the very idea of an NGO sector. What purpose is it serving? How much do we need it?
There are too many NGOs
There are simply too many NGOs. Haiti is a painful demonstration of this. In 2010 the Caribbean island was devastated by an earthquake that left over a million people homeless. Soon after, in a country less than half the size of Tasmania there was an estimated 14,000 NGOs. That is around one NGO for every 700 people, one for every 2km².
In an attempt to organize this swarm of NGOs, the United Nations initiated the “cluster system”, wherein organisations were divided into cluster groups such as “shelter, “education”, “food” and “health”. However, one year after the earthquake the vast majority of Haitians were still homeless – sleeping under tarps and in tents. Despite the best efforts of the WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) cluster group, there was only one waste management site. Without adequate sanitation, a cholera epidemic broke out. This treatable infection, caused by dirty water, has claimed the lives of well over 10,000 Haitians to date. The NGO sector failed the people of Haiti.
Haiti might seem like an extreme case, but the numbers of NGOs around the world is exploding. In 1997 Kenya was aware of 113,000 registered NGOs. By 2005 this number had more than tripled to 347,000. That number was nine years ago, we can assume that there are a few hundred thousand more operating today. In India, there is an estimated 2 million NGOs, roughly one for every 60 people. Globally, there are millions upon millions.
Where did all these NGOs come from?
Many NGOs emerged to “fill the gap”. The 1980s saw the World Bank and IMF administering structural adjustment policies to many nations – particularly African nations – that were struggling to cope with knock-on effects from the oil crisis. These structural adjustment policies entailed extreme austerity measures. Basic food subsidies were removed and healthcare, education and other social services were withdrawn. As a consequence of this rolling back of the state, poverty increased. This was where many NGOs came in to “fill the gap” where the state had previously provided.
At the same time, there was a political drive for “bottom-up development”. NGOs were regarded as a democratic and efficient means of providing aid, and so aid money was increasingly channeled away from governments and through the hands of NGOs. This practice continues today, and so it is that we have the NGO sector. Today around 20% of foreign aid is funneled through NGOs (up from less than 0.5%).
The significance of NGOs
NGOs have become part of a concept called “civil society”, generally understood as the section of society that is separate from government and separate from business. It is also referred to as the “third sector” or the “not-for-profit” sector.
It is important to realise that thirty years ago nobody was really talking about “civil society”, or even “NGOs”. Non-governmental organisations have existed for as long as governmental organisations, but until recently we referred to them as charities, relief organisations, lobby groups, advocacy groups, social movements and other names. The term NGO, and the associated term civil society, are both relatively new.
They are not forces for evil. Government corruption has been an obstacle for aid in many countries, and civil society and its many NGOs are an often necessary way around this. There are many NGOs doing great things to help people, and to help people help themselves.
Major aid donors, such as USAID, UNICEF, the EU, Britain, Sweden and Australia have all brought civil society to the top of their agendas. For example, in 2008 the EU established the “Civil Society Facility” to financially support the development of civil society, and in June 2012 AusAID launched the “Civil Society Engagement Framework”.
It is important to be wary of this political drive to strengthen “civil society”.
Strong civil society is being often pursued at the expense of the state. Governments around the world are being sidelined. Quite simply – aid has become non-governmental, development has become non-governmental. The NGO-isation of the aid industry is ideological.
The prevailing form of capitalism today (neoliberalism) seeks to minimalise the state through austerity measures. This is happening in Britain, Greece, Australia and elsewhere in response to deficits and economic crises. The state is withdrawn and austerity is imposed. This same logic explains the NGO-isation of countries. In “filling the gap” made by austerity, NGOs (whether they like it or not) are part of a neoliberal system of aid.
Why does this matter?
Reducing the state in favour of an NGO sector can be disastrous for many reasons. NGOs cannot provide the centralised response that states can. Clustering does not provide the level of coordination needed in places like Haiti. Governments are needed for crucial infrastructure such as roads, housing, sanitation and waste management. Similarly, NGOs cannot provide the universal system that states can. On the whole, NGOs provide valuable services to people in need, but these services are dispersed. Every day, they choose who goes with and who goes without. Also, unlike elected governments, NGOS are virtually unaccountable. In place of national healthcare and national education, NGOs provide a fragmented approach that is unelected and unaccountable, uneven and uncoordinated.
Non-governmental organisations are not the problem; there is nothing wrong with a strong civil society. What is problematic is the ideological neglect of government. We need to rethink our NGO-obsessed system. There are too many NGOs, and not enough government.