NGOs: Has the 'N' gone missing?
By Joanna Macrae
Increasingly, international non-governmental
organisations (NGOs) are being funded by governments. Some estimates
put official contributions to certain NGOs as high as 85 per
cent of the moneys they receive. Why has this trend developed
and what are the implications for this important sector?
The original ethos of NGOs depended on their financial and
organisational independence from governments. They raised
their own funds for their own purposes and carried out programmes
according to their own standards. Over time, however, their
sources of funding and ways of working have evolved and today
many NGOs find themselves playing an integral role in a complex
system of international humanitarian assistance.
Between 1990 and 1995 total relief expenditures by official
donors rose fourfold from under US$500 to
nearly US$2 billion. Driven in large part by this considerable
increase in official relief aid, the role of NGOs
in emergencies, particularly in con-
flict situations, has increased dramati-cally. For example,
over 200 different NGOs were involved in the Rwanda crisis
delivering a wide range of basic services.
How do we interpret this? Why have governments turned to
NGOs as a channel for their aid? What are the advantages and
disadvantages of this situation? What are the implications
of these trends for NGOs and the groups that they serve?
In trying to answer these questions, it is worth reflecting
on why NGOs have become such a vital part of the humanitarian
aid system. Historically, the arguments promoting NGOs in
relief and development work have their origins in debates
concerning the relationship between civil society and the
state. NGOs have been portrayed as part of a process of liberating
people from oppressive state structures; an instrument of
empowerment and solidarity with the poor. They have also been
seen as part of a process of liberalisation where the state,
by delegating responsibility to NGOs through sub-contracting,
aims to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of service
The expansion of official funding for NGOs working in development
was well under way by the mid-1980s. However, relative to
today, their role in relief operations, particularly in conflict-related
emergencies, remained limited. Sovereignty and insecurity
were the crucial barriers to the expansion of NGO operations
in conflict zones. Relief operations were limited largely
to government-held areas or to second countries where refugees
had sought asylum.
During the 1980s, official emergency aid channelled through
recipient governments declined markedly. For example, the
proportion of emergency assistance allocated to governments
by the European Commission fell from over 95 per cent in 1976
to only 6 per cent in 1990 (1). Donor governments no longer
automatically accorded their government counterparts with
having either the legitimacy or capacity to respond to emergencies.
Indeed, recipient governments were increasingly seen as being
part of the problem.
Thus, NGOs became a means of maintaining humanitarian engagement
in war-affected countries, and of providing a political buffer
between donor and recipient governments. Sovereignty was quietly
eroded as donors sought to diversify their choice of implementing
partners, and turned to non-governmental agencies to help
them deal with complex emergencies.
From a donor perspective, NGOs offer important advantages
as partners in providing humanitarian assistance: they are
perceived to be politically neutral and to have the operational
capacity to deliver services which far exceeds that of either
the donors themselves or the UN specialised agencies. In sum,
they provide a mechanism to increase international access
to conflict-affected populations.
This shift in the channelling of assistance has generated
a number of dilemmas. Two in particular need mention. First,
it raises the question of who is responsible to ensure the
effectiveness and appropriateness of humanitarian interventions
in a regulated environment. Second, if NGOs are increasingly
linked with government funding, what implications does this
have on their decision-making and their operations? In particular,
is the primary aim of NGOs to represent the interests of their
donors or that of their constituents?
setting some rules
The perceived need for regulation derives from the particular
moral and political complexities of working in war situations,
and from the need to ensure consistent technical standards.
Recognising that relief resources can be manipulated by warring
parties to further their military and political interests,
principles such as neutrality, impartiality and independence
aim to protect the humanitarian goal of relief operations
and the integrity of the organisations that deliver aid.
However, with the exception of the Red Cross and Red Crescent
Movement, NGOs have no obligation to adhere to these principles
since they are self-mandated and are not necessarily committed
to such principles. Furthermore, they may not have the capacity
to strictly enforce neutrality. For example, they may not
have sufficient funds to work on both sides of a conflict.
Recent attempts to regulate relief operations according to
humanitarian principles are taking two forms. In southern
Sudan, the UN is enforcing what they judge to be key humanitarian
principles of neutrality, transparency and accountability
and NGO access to rebel-held areas is conditional on their
adherence to these principles. The UN exerts leverage through
both peer pressure and its control over the logistics network
upon which NGOs rely.
Self-regulation of NGOs is also on the agenda. The Code of
Conduct, elaborated by the Federation in cooperation with
the ICRC and five other major aid organisations, outlines
universal standards of professionalism and ethical behaviour
for disaster relief organisations. The Code has now been signed
by 77 NGOs worldwide and donors are increasingly interested
in incorporating these standards into their decision-making
processes by introducing systems of accreditation to which
NGOs must conform if they are to receive official funds.
However, it will be important to ensure that vigorous pursuit
of NGO codes of conduct and professional standards does not
serve simply to mask a far deeper crisis of international
engagement in complex emergencies. The very fact that NGOs,
particularly international and multinational NGOs, have become
such important providers of basic services to millions of
people around the world is itself indicative of a global crisis
of public welfare. While conditions of NGO engagement –
political and technical – clearly merit clarification
and formalisation, alone this will not provide the solution.
The fact that it is NGOs themselves, rather than the donors
and the UN, which have set the pace in these debates is itself
significant, indicating their commitment to upholding humanitarian
values in the face of increasing donor demands and more complex
and violent operational conditions and their sense of the
importance of remaining independent.
There is a fear, however, that if a significant proportion
of their income comes from official government channels, NGOs
will resemble more an instrument of foreign policy and less
a force for change and advocacy. This could be a real danger
for some organisations, particularly those who rely heavily
on official donations for their operations.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the NGO community is
not simply to put its operational house in order, but also
to engage the recipients, donor community and the UN to analyse
the origins and implications of contemporary disasters and
advocate for appropriate action in the human rights and political
Codes designed to regulate the conduct of relief operations
need to be linked with wider strategies to regulate the international
and national conduct of politics and war. In the absence of
such a coherent political framework, NGOs could become no
more than sub-contractors in a privatised world of welfare
and war, rather than advocates of those disempowered by poverty,
violence and injustice.
See Borton, J., NGOs and Relief Operations: Trends and Policy
Implications, Overseas Development Institute, 1994, London.
Joanna Macrae is a research fellow in the Relief and Disasters
Policy Programme at the Overseas Development Institute in
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