NGOs Revisited

A non-government organization (NGO) refers to a (usually) non-profit group that is independent of a government, or that the organization has not been established by a governmental entity or international agreement. Some of them however, can be funded by nation-states and are active in many realms that range from humanitarian, educational, health care, as well as social and environmental areas. Their raison d’être is fundamentally, to bring about some form of change where they operate, according to prior-set aims, mission statements, values, and so forth.

The activity that NGOs undertake is significant in many ways. In the context of peace initiatives for instance, NGOs can play pivotal roles as mediators. Today, there are almost 2,000 worldwide according to the United Nations (UN), which made provisions in its charter to give such organizations consultative status, functioning at the international, national, and subnational levels of governance.

Most NGOs originate from Western, ‘developed’ world countries, with a large amount of their work being implemented in the ‘developing’ world. Nations like the United States (U.S.), United Kingdom (U.K.), and Canada are home to many of them. It is an imbalance worth noting, as the roots of NGOs are reflective of the economic and political power differential between states: from the highest level of diplomacy, to the purported altruism of individual Western citizens (as is the case of many NGOs).

Global governance agencies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank have sought to strengthen their legitimacy by establishing relationships with NGOs. While many NGOs promote a neoliberal agenda, several of them are also prominent in the anti-globalization movement (which aims to highlight the harsh effects that neoliberal global integration is having). This is a key rationale behind the ethos of many NGOs, as they fill important vacuums that a retrenching state can have.

NGOs are not without their controversies however. Their lack of internal democracy, their governance arrangements, and the credibility and the representativeness of some of their statements, are among the worst offenders. Institutional problems of the like have led to the discovery of horrific behaviour on the part of some of these bodies.  Britain’s OXFAM for example, was the last such entity to be put on the spotlight as it had created and reproduced a web that exploited vulnerable populations across two different continents. It does not help either that, as mentioned earlier, many NGOs have Western origins, meaning that they are from former colonial powers (mostly the U.K., but also France). And while this fact has been used to articulate an anti-imperial agenda by many left-wing governments who are hostile against the work of NGOs (think Russia, think China, think Bolivia, Venezuela, think Nicaragua), the OXFAM case is unequivocally representative of the abuses that can occur when NGOs operate without an ethical code, and when they misuse their own power and privilege.

It is the kind of problem that has contributed to a public distrust of NGOs, which is necessary to re-establish if they are to continue to do their work. Many recommendations have arisen for NGOs to consider, ranging from modifications to the way they govern themselves, the implementation of robust codes of conduct, and improvements in project implementation, as well as in communications.

NGOs need to be more holistic and cognizant of the power they have, as failure to do so can make them part of a colonial machine on the basis that they either perpetuate violence themselves, or allow it to go unchecked. It is here, where NGO communications are of key import to their credibility. Knowing for example, when to denounce internal irregularities is pivotal, and the same goes for organizations that fail to adequately denounce an abusive regime as they can become indirectly implicated in the reproduction of their abuses.

Making NGOs more democratic is also necessary if they are to continue their work seamlessly. Having a clearer understanding of their objectives and the economic foundation for their implementation, would help contextualize them in relation to the putative vacuums they seek to fill (to be sure, not all NGOs have this vertical approach to development, but many of them do). It is a pressing matter as well, as there are many regions in the world that rely exclusively on these organizations. And as such, suggestions for their improvement need to be considered with urgency.

Keith G. Sujo
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