Hidden Agenda: Re-thinking roles of NGOs

As Non-governmental Organizations (NGO) become more active in global development especially in the area of humanitarian assistance,  their role in the socio-economic and political spheres in various regions of the world need to be given a closer look.

A Non-governmental Organization is a legally constituted organization created by natural or legal persons that operates independently from any government and a term usually used by governments to refer to entities that have no government status. The number of internationally operating NGOs is currently estimated at 40,000.

Although NGOs are claimed to be independent, they still can be financed by governments. For example, both the US and the EU announced during the International Conference on Financing for Development (ICFFD) unilateral decisions to gradually increase their development aid, promising an additional US$12 billion within a few years. In the cases in which NGOs are funded totally or partially by governments, the NGO maintains its non-governmental status by simply excluding government representatives from membership in the organization.

In a record prepared by the United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service (NGLS), it was stated that “Diplomacy is always about trade-offs; the issue always being that at the end everybody wins something, even if not every aspiration of all participants has been met. In the case of the MDGs [UN Millenium Development Goals], it is important to confront the trade-off between the need to focus on the poorest of the poor and the need to widen the constituencies to support a campaign or action plan, without which the political will to actually implement the resolutions will be lacking.”

Everybody wins something. These are the words that should be paid attention too. Although there are some organizations and individuals who work to really help others, there are also ones that operate pursuing their hidden agendas.

In her article  The Growing Market for NGO Influence,  Lynn Ilon from Florida International University stated:  “NGOs are often required to act as policy agents of donor organizations. Whereas local communities may have identified specific needs, these needs do not always coincide with the goals of the donor. For example, a local community may need better local health facilities while the donor may be motivated by a desire to show immediate health results, such as HIV testing, in order to justify their spending and legitimize further funding. Immediate results may conflict with long-term institution building and the NGO is left to negotiate between the two. Known as the “principal-agent” problem in Economics discipline, the result is that recipient needs are mitigated by the actions of the agent (NGO) in order to maintain a relationship with the donor”.

The impact of NGOs on the lives of poor people is highly localized. Local knowledge is indispensable to every organization of this type. And this knowledge is obviously a very valuable asset that makes NGOs more attractive means than other organizations.  

“Making solid local contacts and understanding the locals’ worldview is especially important if you want to work in a foreign culture. Good use of local knowledge can really make an NGO effective. Without local knowledge, you may do more harm than good,” Ryan Libre pointed out in his article,  How to start a successful NGO in 10 steps, published by the Matador Change.

“You have a unique presence on the ground, in communities,” Ban Ki-moon, the eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations, told the 63rd UN Department of Public Information/NGO Conference in September 2010. “You understand, like no one else, the daily challenges faced by the most vulnerable. You have the passion and networks to spread our messages far and wide.”

But “it is inconceivable that NGOs will achieve their objectives in isolation from national and international political processes and their constituent parts. Different NGOs will play different roles in these processes, and will find their own answers to the questions we are posing, but all will need to interact with wider forces in one way or another,” Michael Edwards and David Hulme reported in Boiling Point.

The current situation in Haiti highlights many problems with the modern NGOs. While thousands of non-governmental organizations have been set up to combat the problems in Haiti, some are said to be cashing-in on the country’s misfortune, RT (Russia Today) reported.

The island is home to more NGOs per capita than any other country in the world. The nation of 10 million people is home to an estimated 10,000 NGOs. That is, one NGO per 1,000 people.

While millions of nonprofits provide vital services to people around the world, others are created for not-so-charitable purposes.

However, “in many ways Haiti is the model of the future, not Afghanistan, not Iraq where they’ve spent billions of dollars, where thousands of lives of US soldiers and NATO soldiers have been lost. By comparison, Haiti has been done on the cheap,” says Investigative reporter Jeb Sprague.

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