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Trends in Government Support for Non-Governmental Organizations: Is The "Golden Age" of the NGO Behind Us?

1 Jun 2006

This paper looks at trends in government support for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), asking whether the “golden age” of the large international NGO (INGO) is behind us. Since the 1980s, INGOs have been seen as increasingly important actors in development policy.

The first part of the paper outlines the role of INGOs in development policy from 1980 to the present, arguing that, although the sector was promoted strongly during the heyday of neoliberalism, donor governments have always used INGOs as a tool to carry out aid policies in the South.

Part 2 studies the extent to which recent policy developments have affected the standing of large INGOs, looking at the funding trends for four organizations: Care, Oxfam, ActionAid and BRAC. It also examines the proportion of overseas development assistance (ODA) channelled to the NGO sector since 1980 by the main bilateral donors, asking whether government rhetoric on aid instruments is matched by disbursements of funds. This paper demonstrates that ODA going to NGOs rose steeply during this period.

The vast majority of ODA is still in the form bilateral aid; the amount reported going to NGOs remains a small percentage of the total. One issue this paper discusses is the dichotomy between the perceived importance of “civil society” in aid policy and the official financial support it actually receives. Why did governments decide to support so pointedly a sector that defined itself as non-governmental? What will be the position of large INGOs, currently funded to provide basic services, in the future? The last section looks at the implications of partnerships between Northern and Southern NGOs, asking whether recent policy initiatives have benefited civil society in the South.

The paper finds a mixed picture in terms of funding trends, and argues that this points to a change in the role of INGOs in the current development paradigm, rather than their demise. However, donor stipulations for “partnerships” between Northern and Southern NGOs in which INGOs, due to control over funds, exercise a significant amount of power over their Southern partners, are building lasting hierarchies that seem unquestioned by both donors and INGOs.

Despite often genuine aims to transfer skills to the South, resulting in endless well-meant “capacity building” programmes, lack of transparency and trust between partners are undermining attempts to build constructive partnerships. This discrepancy between donor rhetoric and practice is causing resentment in the South, and it is something that must be addressed in order to avoid perpetuating global power structures.

Catherine Agg is an independent researcher based in Nairobi.

Order PP CSSM 23 from UNRISD, 37 pages, 2006; US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students.