International NGOs: a necessary good

Dr Hugo Slim

During the past 30 years, international NGOs have seen their operations and budgets swell, becoming more like slick multinational corporations than shoe-string charities run by cadres of dedicated volunteers. Critics question how donations are spent and why there is still widespread deprivation in areas where these organisations have been operating for decades. Despite this they carry out vital work that government and the private sector are ill-equipped and disinclined to do.

When I joined Save the Children UK way back in 1983, it had an annual budget of £16m and was led by a retired male senior civil servant from the former Colonial Service and some ex-military men. Its global headquarters was an old school in south London. Today, its global programmes are led by a woman with a background in investment banking, its UK branch is headed by a former advisor to 10 Downing Street and, in 2010, Save the Children UK spent £291.5 million. Oxfam GB is even bigger, with an annual budget of around £367.5 million.

Like many other international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), Oxfam and Save the Children have been transformed from small Western charities to large global agencies that have many similarities with – but still many differences from – multinational corporations. Even the radical French doctors, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), have gone global and struggle to finesse operational daring with strategic management.

INGOs have got bigger but have they got better? What value do they bring to international efforts to reduce poverty, create wealth and save lives in war and disaster? And why do some people hate them so much?

The last ten years has seen the large INGO families mould themselves more effectively into global alliances. For example, Oxfam International now includes Oxfam India, Spain, Australia, America and many more. CARE, MSF, Save the Children and World Vision are organised on similar lines. This scaling-up has brought INGOs a louder voice and the challenge of coordinated global programming.

Secular INGOs may attract the headlines but the real giants are religious, specifically Christian, with the Catholic alliance, Caritas Inter-nationalis, out in front with a combined global income of $3.01 billion in 2010. (See box for combined totals of the big NGO families.)

These big Western INGOs are the most prominent but they are probably not the largest network of voluntary aid money moving round the world. The biggest global private charitable system is almost certainly Islamic – huge sums of money are given as international charity by rich Muslim families in the Gulf and elsewhere. But there is no coordinated and transparent system for adding this up and accounting for it every year, and Islamic charities do not adopt the high-profile global advocacy of the Western Christian tradition. As a result, most of these investments remain unreported and unscrutinised.

And scrutiny is increasingly important. INGOs have long been asked to account for their expenditure. Many now do so on their websites and are less paranoid about having to show what they spend on administering their large organisations – on projects, campaigning, fundraising and maintaining reserves, as well as headquarters’ overheads. Quite rightly, none of them are defensive about investing in a good global campaign that could change a policy that affects millions of people. But it remains hard for them to show real evidence of positive change beyond family anecdotes and raw statistics around illness, mortality, water supply, school attendance and such like. This difficulty does not make INGOs unique – most private companies can work out their profit but not much else about their impact.

INGOs stand in a great tradition of social activism and human progress. Many important things that we take for granted today – like the abolition of slavery, child immunisation, workers’ rights, disaster relief, and education – exist because, time and again, a few determined people got round a table and decided to change things.

Secular INGOs may attract the headlines but the real giants are religious, specifically Christian. But they are probably not the largest network of voluntary aid money moving around the world. The biggest private charitable system is almost certainly Islamic.

INGOs still play this catalytic role by gathering, pioneering and delivering social action around the world. They gather social energy by creating a space where people can come together and support change. They mobilise concern, forge international solidarity, raise money and apply political pressure. In this way, they build important social movements. As pioneers, these organisations frequently set new international agendas and act as political entrepreneurs. Oxfam has been a leader here, consistently spotting critical structural issues in the world economy and surfacing them centre-stage issues like women’s rights, African debt, unfair trade and, most recently, the emerging global food crisis.

This kind of activist campaigning focuses on policy change at the global level, but INGOs also deliver on the ground. At the local level, they act as socio-economic entrepreneurs in agriculture, education, health and human rights by inventing and piloting new methods and techniques. Thousands of lives are saved in war and disasters today because INGOs have helped to create new emergency foods and medical techniques to keep people alive. Good INGOs are always innovating and have developed similarly new approaches in literacy, education, agriculture, livelihood and water supply.

One major area of practical INGO effect in recent years has been the search for more ethical business practice. Their scrutiny of company supply chains, working practices and contract transparency has been the main driver behind the recent movement in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) that has resulted in July’s new UN Guidelines on Human Rights and Business. In this area, as in many others, so-called ‘development NGOs’ work closely with their international human rights cousins like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Global Witness. On the environment, they often combine with ecological cousins like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

But the most important allies of INGOs are national NGOs – the local groups of social activists they call their ‘partners’. The greatest changes in the world have actually been born from the courage and innovation of local NGOs that have been backed and ‘scaled-up’ by INGOs. The most famous example of this is the micro-credit industry founded by the Bangladeshi NGO, Grameen Bank. This proved that poor people make good borrowers, and spawned an NGO-led revolution in pro-poor financing now taken up (and probably overblown) by major banks.

INGO support to national NGOs and smaller civil society groups across Asia, Africa and Latin America has expanded the creative civic space in these continents and helped shape new democratic political contracts between people and government in many societies. In these partnerships, the big INGO families act like fund managers, spotting and investing in social entrepreneurs around the world. Many of these investments have brought vital gains in freedom, livelihoods, health and education.

INGOs easily become the victims of their own marketing. Their TV adverts and mailshots show people in terrible distress who are cured from disease and lifted out of poverty by simple INGO programming.

The public is told that their money can “make a difference” and “transform the lives” of children, farmers, refugees and people living with HIV. And yet, a few months later, INGOs are back asking for more money, declaring another emergency or announcing a new devastating global injustice.

This leads to a natural scepticism in some and outright fury in others. Sceptics wonder why INGO promises of “sustainable development” and “lasting improvements” never seem to solve the world’s problems. Why is there famine in Ethiopia again when INGOs have been working in that country for more than 30 years and have produced lots of pictures of smiling highland farmers in their brochures?

A more furious group of anti-aiders, like Dambisa Moyo and the pioneering African investor Miles Morland, loathe INGOs for the way they present Africa, in particular, as an incapable disease-ridden basket-case permanently in need of Western benevolence. Instead, they argue that the continent is booming and experiencing more peace and progress than at any time during the last 50 years.

INGOs need to be more coherent in their answers to both these criticisms. The answer to the sceptics is relatively easy. Size matters. INGO budgets, though large in charity terms, are really very small. INGOs may be able to deliver improvements in particular communities but their budgets of millions cannot make a real difference on poverty at national or global level.

Most importantly, INGO budgets are miniscule compared to foreign direct investment in infrastructure and businesses. It is these investments that – if there is a decent government – can leverage the tax base and provide the economic growth and public good that INGOs desire.

Private Equity and Hedge Funds focusing on South America, Africa and Asia have hundreds of billions of dollars to invest. In comparison, the amount money available to INGOs is tiny. If INGOs were more canny, they would focus their TV adverts on if, and how, private investment companies are delivering sustainable development. We can be fairly sure that most INGO dollars deliver a development dividend in various small communities around the world, but what about the development return of the really big money?

Even in the communities where they can have a significant impact, INGOs should stop presenting themselves as miracle workers. Poverty and injustice are not things that are ever solved once generation and need to be continuously struggled with. The rich countries of the world have not cured poverty in their own societies – they simply contain it with high spending on welfare and social investments every year. And now they are struggling to do even this. Why should the Ethiopian government and INGOs have solved poverty since the last famine?

Important and expensive things that reduce poverty – like education and health – need to be paid for as recurring costs each year. They can’t be solved in perpetuity by a single one-off payment. Britain spends billions of pounds every year to educate each new wave of children in its society. Other countries do not have these kinds of budgets and INGOs certainly don’t. So, INGOs could be more realistic in their account of poverty and injustice. They need to recruit supporters into a struggle not a miracle.

The anti-aiders charge that INGO representation of the developing world is highly distorted is an old and important criticism. INGOs need to take this seriously – not least because it accuses them of continuing to look on these parts of the world with a colonialist gaze.

INGOs easily become the victims of their own marketing. Their adverts show people in distress who are lifted out of poverty by simple INGO programming. They could be more realistic in their accounts of poverty and injustice.

In Africa, a small but powerful section of society is fed up with being paraded as inept victims, and Western cameras are not welcome in some places anymore because with these photos “you go and sell our suffering”. But more people still recognise that they are dependent on aid budgets and make the most of this help when it reaches them. The hunger for education, the lengths people go to reach a clinic and the work people will do for a living is extraordinary across the continent.

INGOs have done a lot to avoid negative stereotyping. Nobody I know in INGOs believes the basket-case account of poor people’s lives, but their advertising agencies usually reinforce it somehow. And, no matter how much they talk about people’s ingenuity, resilience and progress, INGO spokespeople are usually on air to announce more grim statistics that speak of failure more than success. This is because poverty is real. Billions of people’s lives are very hard and plagued by human rights abuses. Their governments are often led by businesspeople getting rich, not public servants determined to create the good society.

Anti-aiders like Moyo are not completely correct and are skewed in their own bias against the helping hand. But they are right to challenge the way INGOs think and talk about poverty. The best thing INGOs can do to avoid encouraging an unbalanced view of ‘poor countries’ is to give a complete picture of their economy and society. Many of them do this well in their more detailed policy work and have a very good sense of why poverty runs deep and some societies remain unequal despite economic growth.

Most important of all, as INGOs deepen their roots in countries where they have affiliates, like India or Mexico, their campaigners speak from within these societies as citizens, not superior onlookers. Most fundraising campaigns now launch simultaneously around the world so that many INGO activists genuinely represent the countries of which they speak. This must be the future.

International NGOs can be proud of their record in global activism and social change. The world is lucky to have them and would be a much worse place without them. But like all organisations, they need to move with the times. Born out of a distinctly European and North American 20th-century cocktail of mission, colonialism, war-relief and human rights, they now need to become much broader citizens’ movements with deep roots in the societies in which they work. They are beginning to do this already.

INGO finances 2010

About the author:

Dr Hugo Slim is a Visiting Research Fellow in the International Relations Department at the University of Oxford.


Post a comment

November 14, 2011 9:01 am

NGOs have one fatal flaw. In their attempt to restore a form of balance in the social and political discourse, they create their own flawed and restrictive discourse. And this only gets worse the larger they get…

November 14, 2011 5:10 pm

Liz Scarff of Save the Children UK, deserves a mention with her brilliant idea to involve three ‘mummy bloggers’ to steer the campaign to raise awareness for #blogadesh, effectively minimising overheads. With donor fatigue on the rise there is a need for transparency with regard to actual collected money reaching targets.

November 14, 2011 5:17 pm

Criticism and restrictive discourses aside, the larger and better funded an NGO becomes, the more people they are able to reach. No organisation can reach every one in need of aid and support–and the majority of governments certainly aren’t willing to step in. NGOs fill a much needed role in society and the success of many countries, whether developed and or still developing, is directly related to the work of NGOs. It’s easy enough now to disagree with the distorted generalisation of Africa-as-victim but the stability and strength that these anti-aiders use as proof is partially, if not greatly, a result of NGO aid and assistance to begin with. NGOs today may be flawed and flabby, but poverty and disease is still prevalent, so why attack those who are capable and willing to help??

November 15, 2011 9:07 am

My criticism is not questioning the existence of NGOS, but it is instead an warning that they can become counter-productive if left unchecked. There is a substantial school of thought that argues that in an NGO’s act of distributing aid, it in turn removes some of the agency from those who would benefit from the aid. The ‘gift’ giving process in this scenario is one of the only examples of its kind where the gift in question comes with strings attached. It is this discourse of gift giving and the resulting dehumanisation of the recipients which I criticise.

November 16, 2011 1:16 pm

The ‘dehumanisation’, as you call it, is a necessary evil when trying to aid billions of people around the world, would you rather they help only hundreds in an individualised manner?

And providing aid is not the same as giving a gift. Those strings are there to ensure the agency of affected people, instilling a sense of responsibility and need for action on their own behalf, the strings can act as guidelines to recovery, to regaining their independence. As opposed to being helpless chicks blindly fed from their mother’s beak with no hope of autonomy and an endless dependence of stringless gifts.

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