NGO dependency not the real issue: a response to Joanne Spratt

I was struck by Joanna Spratt’s Development Policy blog about NGOs’ dependency on government donors, and Banks and Hulme’s related critique which she summarises as:

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.

Of course, the fear of NGOs losing their political edge due to government funding is not new, and was first aired by Jorgen Lissner back in the mid-1970s with his book The Politics of Altruism, and there has been a lot of hand wringing among NGOs and academic commentators on this issue ever since.  Most notably was in the 1990s when, after a burst of increased official funding of NGOs’ programs through the 1980s, Michael Edwards and others argued that NGOs were Too Close for Comfort (to government that is), and they have lived off that assertion ever since. Their argument is based on a romantic view of NGOs as being about broad social change through social movements when most NGO aims are more prosaic and focus on community development and local level empowerment.

The evidence of increasing dependency, however, is hard to find:  the level of government funding to NGOs to some extent reflects the political cycles of donor governments. Social Democratic governments generally see support of NGOs in aid work as worthy of support because there is sharper and more direct poverty and basic needs focus, while conservative governments with a stronger individual and market focus, generally do not support NGOs as much, and tend to wind funding back. Take the record of the Howard government in Australia, the Harper government in Canada, the Key government in New Zealand, and the Rutte government in the Netherlands as being cases in point with their heavy cut backs of support to NGO aid programs, when they were/are in power.

In Australia the high point of being ‘too close for comfort’ was in the mid-1990s when some eight per cent of ODA went through NGOs, and 30 per cent of total NGO funding came from AusAID sources (as highlighted in this ANAO report [pdf]). This was hardly a case for dependency even at that time, but by 2011 (according to the ACFID Annual Report) this figure had dropped to four per cent of ODA and only 15 per cent of NGO funding came from AusAID, with the rest coming from the agencies’ own public appeals and other international donors. So much for the ‘increased dependency’ that Banks and Hulme argue and Joanna picks up on.

These discussions however about dependency invariably are connected to questions of NGOs effectiveness.  While there is little in the public space on overall NGO effectiveness what there is generally positive. In 1995 at the height of the ‘dependency’ debate in Australia, an AusAID review of NGO Effectiveness (‘Review of the effectiveness of NGO programs’, not available online), which involved looking at a sample of all of the projects funded by AusAID under its NGO subsidy scheme, over the previous five years, found them to be effective in meeting their objectives for the vast majority of their work. Similarly in the UK in 2010 the National Audit Office [pdf] found that 80 per cent of NGO projects were largely successful. Despite this almost overwhelming evidence, questions still keep being asked if NGOs are effective and deliver ‘value for money’.  Jo Crawford argues, in relations to gender issues in the ACFID Report of Aid Effectiveness:

There are real risks that a narrow focus on ‘value for money’ may work against the long-term, complex, holistic work required to overcome gender inequality and discrimination and enable women’s empowerment.

The question of value for money hinges of course on the time period. A focus on too short a period for issues such as gender justice or social change may not show meaningful results, and so on this basis funding may be cut, and a lot of good work end up being lost. The other issue worth reflecting on is whether value for money measures, and results-based planning, can easily co-exist with the notion of participatory development, where the voice of the local communities and the aid recipients are what is being listened to,  one of the hallmarks of NGO work. The problem is that value for money is seen through the lens of economy, efficiency and effectiveness, while NGOs might see it as something more structural. The British NGO Christian Aid sees it [pdf] not as economy, efficiency and effectiveness but as scale, depth, and inclusion:

Value for Money as being about achieving the best results we can with the money and resources we have. In defining the ‘best’ results, we are concerned with scale (numbers of people benefiting), depth (intensity and sustainability of change) and inclusion (in other words, a change has greater impact if it benefits people who are more excluded and marginalised).

Of course this can only happen if the aid recipients are involved in these planning and implementing processes. The results -based development and value for money agendas are one of the Challenges to Participatory Development, the theme of an ANU Conference next month with Robert Chambers, one of drivers of the notion of participatory development, and a critic of some of the results-based agenda, who argues for alternative approaches.

Now if we bring this discussion back to the issue of NGO dependency the issue that concerns NGOs is not one of the volume of money coming from government to NGOs, but rather the disproportional leverage that government might have in shifting the agenda from participatory development and participatory approaches, to one based on a narrow focus on short term easily measured externally defined results.

Patrick Kilby is the program coordinator of the Masters of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development at the ANU.

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Patrick Kilby

Dr Patrick Kilby is a Senior Lecturer at ANU.


  • Much of this discussion is about the concern that Western NGOs engaging in international development can be coopted by their own governments (or other Western governments). While there may be concerns about this as a distraction from the founding mission of social change organizations, I am curious if the writers could address the issue of local, developing-country, NGOs being overly influenced by their own or outside governments? In the Lao PDR, a nascent civil society struggles to find flexible support without strings attached. They find themselves pulled by international assistance and their dollars asking for clearer financial accountability, transparency, and equity; and pushed by the national and local governments to be accountable only to local officials. There is scarcely room for accountability to original interest groups in the equation. Most NGOs here end up serving an agenda set by international development assistance and/or local governments.

    I have several specific questions on which I would be very interested to read people’s comment:

    1) How, as international development assistance organizations, are we to support self-determination in the face of near overwhelming pressure for alignment in one direction or the other?
    2) What are we to do when local culture and interests do not coincide with our values of organizations accountable to membership and managed with transparency?
    3) There was much discussion about whether iNGOs provide value for money, but I would be interested to see if we can justify organizational capacity development assistance to local NGOs focused on accountability, participation, and transparency with any clear indication that this capacity building leads to greater performance?



  • Both Jo and Patrick’s blogs are useful contributions to the long and ongoing debates about NGOs: ones that we probably need to have more of. For me, one of Jo’s observations is particularly important: that what has “gained” in NGOs’ struggles to balance the demands of multiple stakeholders and audiences is the “drive for organisational sustainability and growth”.

    I’d like to see much more discussion of this issue, in particular in relation to the very large INGOs that often dominate civil society engagement in development. In 2010 the five largest INGOs had revenue of $6.7 billion, and around 90,000 staff worldwide. Collectively, the big INGOs –despite all the heartache about declining funding sources – are actually financial powerhouses. Their very major presence in developing countries often crowds out smaller, Southern organisations, both in terms of “on the ground” program delivery, as well as in policy discussions. Yet INGOs are constantly looking for new opportunities to increase their revenue, strengthen their “brand”, and ensure an even stronger local and global presence. Of course,many INGOs do great work – but they need to think more about the implications of their size and scope. In many cases, INGOs might do better by doing less – so that Southern organisations can have a greater presence, and take a greater role in development, both in terms of programs and advocacy.

  • “Michael Edwards and others argued that NGOs were Too Close for Comfort (to government that is), and they have lived off that assertion ever since.” What on earth does that mean Patrick? Please elaborate.

    “Their argument is based on a romantic view of NGOs as being about broad social change through social movements when most NGO aims are more prosaic and focus on community development and local level empowerment.” No, it was based on the self-declared objectives of NGOs such as empowerment and structural change, areas in which their performance continues to disappoint, partly because they are tied so deeply into the foreign aid system. So the argument still stands, I think. What’s disappointing is that most NGOs have done so little to face up to it in the intervening years.

    • Michael and Bill thank you for your comments. There is a lot there and I take Bill’s point on large NGOs crowding out local initiatives. Of course though my point is that it depends on the NGO, their reach, and to some extent the country. Countries with a strong local NGO sector like India Bangladesh or the Philippines see little crowding out; except in the case of Bangladesh where is the big local NGOs like Proshika or BRAC who do the crowding out.

      On Michaels’ point I sort of answer that in the following section and that is I don’t to think it is the closeness to government or otherwise that limits NGOP effectiveness in what they set out to do but rather their world view or what Lissner calls their Weltanschauung or world view. Most NGOs run agendas based on their values, and for the majority these are altruistic or religious values, and for a minority it would be structural social change. My point is that historically it has always been thus. Lissner’s Politics of Altruism was written long before the big government donor dollars were there and it reads as relevant today as it was in the 1970s. In Australia the number of NGOs accredited to receive AusAID find has halved in the last 20 years. The accreditation criteria are largely about the foreign aid system and its approaches, but with a strong emphasis on transparent partnership and local control. The Codes of Conduct are trying to move agencies towards more local control and participation in their processes but it is a slow process.

      I think the issue of about NGOs and what they are on about rather than their closeness or otherwise to government which fluctuates according to the national political cycle (i.e whio is in power). The one big change over the last forty years has been the internationalising of donor NGOs, where most are now part of larger global networks, but this does not mean they are more or less in the thrall of government funding, but perhaps that their world views are reinforced, which may or may not be a good thing.

  • Thank you for your interesting article. As to questions of impact and effectivness of NGO work and value for money optic, I recommend the following article. There are suggestions on not trying to change the set system of measuring results and impact, however trying to best comply with this system. The two interesting things were coming up: how to “design our organisations to have the most impact”? and to the way of reporting- that the crucial thing is to be able to know how to communicate stories of people whose lives were transformed. The former draws upon a model of British NGO Christian Aid (scale, depth and inclusion factors), which was mentioned in your article. The latter is in particular interesting because it suggests that it is about both the art of communicating the message as well as having people narrate how they their lives have been changed, which seems to ignore the quantity factor to prefer the quality one. However, the problem with participatory development is not dealt with here, which speaks about only those approaches of how to accommodate in the best way to the given system.

  • Hi there Patrick,

    Great to see a response to my blog. I think your blog covers interesting and important points. But I think it is a shame to have titled it as such, as it is not really a response to my blog. Donor dependence wasn’t the key point in my blog. In fact your summary paragraph about shifting a focus from meaningful participation was a central component of what I was saying in the blog (or at least a message I was attempting to get across). I think the discussion on value for money is a crucial one to be had, and its connections with the measureable, quantifiable results-focus of many donor agencies now. (Not that results are bad but the pathway to them is complex.)

    But on the donor-dependency issue, I think there is a distinction to be made between chasing the money and getting the money: the former can have insidious impacts on NGO-direction similar to getting the money.

    There is so much more to pull apart in this discussion and I hope other writers can share their perspectives too.

    • Jo some NGOs (and governments) will chase money because it is there and so dependency has little to do with it, but rather the question should be whether there should be earmarking of funds by donors. The issue of whether NGOs takes money for certain things (which do not make sense) because the money is there is a little bit about earmarking (earmarking though is in the eye of the beholder gender justice programs ‘good’ security programs ‘bad’ sort of argument), but it is arguably more about poor appraisal processes on the part of both the donor and the NGO. If the NGO could not undertake the project well and it was outside its capacity, values, or principles, then that should have been identified in both places.

      Whether these things are the priority of the local people is one NGOs struggle with. The local people is not an amorphous mass so some (women) may like anti-domestic violence programs while the men might say is it a donor intrusion. Government donors have these issues as well. I tend to think some earmarking of funds is good to ensure human rights, social justice, and environmental issues are addressed. Social justice issues are important, particularly with the marginalised in communities, which the majority in a community may not agree with.

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