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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?


Efficient and apart

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 delivery.

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?

Conduct: 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.


Challenges ahead

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 spheres.

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.

(1) See Borton, J., NGOs and Relief Operations: Trends and Policy Implications, Overseas Development Institute, 1994, London.

Joanna Macrae
Joanna Macrae is a research fellow in the Relief and Disasters Policy Programme at the Overseas Development Institute in London.


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