Have NGOs lost their way?

Oxfam UK’s Duncan Green recently wrote a post for his ‘Poverty to Power’ blog  entitled: “What We Can Learn About a Really Annoying Paper on NGOs and Development”. Green was irritated about the Brookes World Poverty Institute paper “The role of NGOs and Civil Society in Development and Poverty Reduction”, in which Nicola Banks with David Hulme question the legitimacy of NGOs. Even though I work with and for NGOs and believe in what they do, my impression on reading the paper was at odds with Green’s, and I’m not alone. Green’s post stimulated so much discussion that it made the Guardian ‘Poverty Matters’ blog.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Banks and Hulme’s key argument is that NGOs have increasingly become donor-dependent, donor-driven, service providing entities. In the process, they have moved away from their foundations as grassroots-connected, participatory, bottom-up, political entities that aim to achieve empowerment and transform the structural causes of poverty.

Banks and Hulme contend that if NGOs want to remain part of a broader civil society focussed on transforming power relations between citizens, markets and the State, they need to reorientate “in line with their original strengths and vision, putting communities and the grassroots back at the centre of strategies and participatory approaches back at the centre of activities”.

Green’s response is that the paper generalised NGOs, that no NGOs had been interviewed during the writing or review process, and that there were no case studies to support some of the arguments being made. Green encourages the authors to engage with the internal and published work on NGOs’ efforts to address effectiveness and accountability issues. I have sympathy with Green’s criticisms and they weren’t incorrect. But they don’t deflate the overarching critique.

While NGOs have, and do, try to respond to past apprehensions regarding their work, overall it is not clear that this has led to  real-world change. Thirteen years ago Michael Edwards’ wrote an analysis of NGOs similar to the Banks and Hulme paper (but more specifically focussed on international NGOs). The fact that comparable arguments are being repeated today reinforces the concern that NGOs are not translating their internal reflections into change on the ground.

One of the reasons I appreciated the Banks and Hulme paper was because it reflects my observations while working and travelling in the Pacific. The activities of an NGO in a particular village I visited struck me as illustrative. At the community hall there was a blackboard with remnants of a workshop to establish a community crime prevention committee. The smudged chalk articulated who the ‘youth rep’ was, the ‘women’s rep’, the ‘community leader’ and the ‘church leader’: a one-size-fits-all approach to participation. Later I asked around about crime in the village. “We have a few drunken youths but not too much else”, came the reply. For certain this was not the end of the story on crime, but what people regularly apologised for and complained about during my stay was the lack of water. Communal taps regularly ran dry and only the lucky few with tanks could collect rain water for drinking. Where this community was ‘at’ was thirsty, not beseiged by criminality. Was the crime prevention committee really top-of-the-list for this village, and even if it was, was the establishment of a committee the best way for them to manage it?

I’m generalising here too but it is necessary to make a point (in 1000 words). Banks and Hulme, Edwards, and many others, have a valid critique and it is up to NGOs to respond to it through constructive action.

Having said that, what Banks and Hulme don’t articulate nearly enough is how complex the situation is for many NGOs (particularly international and/or large organisations). They have multiple stakeholders and audiences that require different approaches and pull them in different directions: engaging with communities in poor countries; seeking funding from and influence with donors; marketing to citizens in their own country; and sometimes (though rarely) undertaking development education with domestic citizens. Then there are board members and staff to consider as well.

In trying to stay true to their values and vision while juggling this diverse ownership, something has to give. What appears to have given most is an enacted commitment to grassroots connections, and working toward poor people’s empowerment through meaningful participation and global citizenship. What has gained is the drive for organisational sustainability and growth, linked with service-provision projects, technocratic advocacy, and the accompanying accountability and credibility-proving to donors.

Perhaps there are some NGOs that manage these tensions and balance them all equally well: if so, please share! But if not, hard choices need to be made. And there is no doubt that even harder than the choices will be putting them into practise.

While there are various possible choices to be made, I suspect that many NGOs would decide to remain focussed on their commitment to grassroots empowerment and to transforming poverty’s structural causes. Putting this into action will require sustained internal political will for self-analysis and action. While the task seems monumental, small first steps may be possible: inviting critical membership onto governing bodies; undertaking peer reviews based on measures of empowerment; investing in improved accountability to the communities we work with. Starting small, testing the results, engaging with academics to assist, and sharing the results, may begin the long road to transforming NGOs.

Finally, a word for donors – government, philanthropic or private citizen – who claim they want to see a world without poverty. There is an ever-decreasing space for investing in flexible, adaptable and risky activities. Yet, if the deep causes of poverty are to be transformed, funding these activities could provide opportunities. This involves building trusting relationships over time with limited opportunities to articulate the potential outcomes in advance. Given today’s demand for measurable results and fear of failure, it is not only NGOs that have some hard thinking to do.

Joanna Spratt is a consultant and coordinator of NZ Aid and Development Dialogues (NZADDs), with a background in nursing and international development.

Jo Spratt

Dr Joanna Spratt is a Visiting Fellow at the Development Policy Centre, and a Registered Nurse. She is currently Oxfam New Zealand’s Advocacy and Campaigns Director.


  • This is an interesting and important debate, so thanks for sharing it here. One thing that appears to be left out of this debate is the very question of the existence of NGO and their legitimacy. Its assumed that NGO are essential and that all we need to do is make them better, get them back to their “core” function. I am wondering if the issue at hand is not how NGO have been pushed and pulled from this “core”, but rather how NGO are actually part of the very power structures that create violence, injustice and inequity, no matter how well they performing their “core” function. Gramsci’s work on hegemony and civil society is most important in this regard.

  • Thanks Rhianon and Kay,

    Interesting points. Thank you.

    Kay, your comments reminded me of an article I read by Allan Kaplan. He explored the development of civil society in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2005, for CARE. He reflects on the potential for simply providing space for a society to engage in dialogue and conversation that enable it to “engage critically with its own limitations… and so begin to stimulate its own potential to determine and influence its own future”. Well worth a look: http://www.proteusinitiative.org/Writings/engaging%20with%20civil%20society%20in%20bosnia%20and%20herzogovina.pdf


  • I echo the concern… sadly we NGO’s working on the ground find we are ever more bound by restrictive funding parameters, and country strategies which don’t reflect the priorities we see on the ground. 2012 appears to be tighter than even in terms of what will be funded and what will not. And New Zealand Aid? humph. Where is it?? How on earth is it possible to access in any way that isn’t according to New Zealand’s internal benefit….

  • Hi Jo nice blog and good points. It also reflects a large thread of the discussion prompted by Oxfam UK Duncan Green’s blog you mention above. I recommend others to read it.

    I do want to pursue your last comment about the need for flexible, adaptive and risky activities to address the ‘deep causes of poverty’ and that this necessarily requires long-term trusting relationships and limits the articulation of potential outcomes in advance. I am concerned that this presumes too easily that we should start with ready-made practitioner ‘solutions’ to poverty (including standard formulas for process). I understand Hulme and Banks are challenging us to put all these aside if we are to really look afresh at our strategies for transformative change and our role in it.

    My problem with providing this kind of process solution from the start is that it too readily limits our thinking to what we already do. For instance, perhaps the most radical and transformative solutions have nothing to do with funding activities in communities but supporting nascent social movements that challenges rules and norms of capitalism. something that could unite the people, groups, political bodies and resources across borders. It would not be an aid movement but aid / development would be one part of that movement.

    My point is that leverage for change may well be more effectively gained well outside the usual aid/development scope of work and by working in partnership with more powerful donor country groups or people. ie something that is more overtly a political movement with political calculations. Funding risky activities and building trusting relationships (as opposed to identifying clear and realistic outcomes) may not be incompatible with other strategies but I don’t think they are necessarily the most obvious or relevant process solution for the kinds of strategies that we may need to consider in order to transform our world in way that eradicates poverty.

    By the way, as an aside – you might be interested in this – or may well know all about it but was new to me until recently… There is a typology that has become popular in the leadership literature which identifies three styles : 1- administrative leadership (traditional accountability and hierachical authority); 2- adaptive leadership (flexible, adaptive, tactical practitioner style); and 3 – enabling leadership (which provides the enabling conditions for connecting up administrative leadership with adaptive leadership). The argument goes that all three are important but it is the enabling leadership (ie usually in bureaucracy) which has tended to be under-developed – thus failing to connect up admin and adaptive leadership with either one prevailing (or failing) to the detriment of common aims. More attention in public service (and so i presume in aid world) needs to be paid to developing the techniques and style of enabling leadership. Leadership in this stream of the lit does not refer to heroic individuals but to collective and possible also structural agency. Might be food for thought.

    Keep up the good work.



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