Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are now recognized as key third sector actors on the landscapes of development, human rights, humanitarian action, environment, and many other areas of public action (Lewis, 2010). Moreover, “The NGO phenomenon is recognition of the fact that the State, with resource constraints, has failed to provide the targeted level of social services, economic opportunities, and political empowerment to its people” (Khan & Bari 2005:1). Therefore, the figure of NGO replaces the role of states in order to ameliorate the basic living standards as health care, education and welfare caused by a poor economic growth and languidly development.
Although the NGOs began their proliferation after a horrible chapter in the history of humanity, the Nazi holocaust, we can mention that NGOs beginning to appear in mass after the II World War when the coloniser countries started to lose their territories in Africa, Asia and Latin America, leaving these “free and new” countries in pauperism with weak institutional infrastructures that were not capable of improving their own economy and society wellbeing. Hence, the need of external economic support to develop them was carried, unluckily by the same European countries that settled and looted their lands from 15th to the 20th century (Khan & Bari 2005:2). Moreover, according to Peter Hall-Jones, the Anti-Slavery Society, formed in 18th century “created the foundations for many organisations that followed” (2006).
The NGOs entrust themselves with an arduous task, due to they try to replace, to a certain extent, the failures of a government, not only through aid or programs but also through information, that is why Suter (2003 cited in Witt 2008, p10) describes them as “warning voice” of society, as they are organizations that seek to create a more equitable society, pointing out the weak points that should be limited.
The limits of the power the government have been in between due to the social pressures exerted by NGOs, since apart from providing aid in the different social categories (education, health, work, etc) they have managed to create social pressure, which in many times the government has been forced to change policies or launch new social, political and economic initiatives. This leads us to think that the power of government has been blurred, since non- governmental organizations can affect change.
Moreover, according to Leonard, “NGOs have three key resources not readily available to foreign governments: credibility, expertise, and appropriate networks” (2002, cited in Witt 2012, p12). In addition, the constant emergence of NGOs, especially in developing countries, places these as contributing factors to the development of these countries, as pointed out by the World Bank President Barber Conable (1986-1991): “Government policies and public programs play a critical role in poverty alleviation. But governments cannot do everything. Nongovernment organizations in many developing countries have enormous potential for flexible and effective action […]” (Cited in Paul, S and Rael, A (eds) 1991, p94). NGOs have been transforming the basis of their work, leaving aside the charity of religious NGOs to enter to the political arena, merging political activism with “charity”, therefore that social changes would be more effective for development and the democratization of the country (especially in countries of the African continent), as Mawuli remarks, “for a long time NGOs in Ghana were not into advocacy: they were charities. All the policy work, the activism, was left to so-called progressive movements.
The destruction of those movements meant that NGOs were the only places that you could raise those issues of policy. So, charity work was directly turned into policy work. (Mawuli cited in Yarrow 2011 p21). Moreover, Claire Mercer is correct when she used Michael Bratton idea about that “NGOs are significant bolsterers of civil society by virtue of their participatory and democratic approach”. (Mercer 2002, p6)
Many NGOs, especially international (Western), focus on Africa, drawing it as a poor and uneducated continent that needs development. These focus on the more charitable aspects, such as creating orphanages, food and clothing campaigns, construction of wells, when the truth is that “Africa’s developmental failures and not in the absence of raw materials, technology or infrastructure, as previously supposed, but rather in the lack of democratic and accountable institutions […]” (Yarrow 2011, p34), therefore, the most necessary type of aid in Africa is a political activism, which helps to unblock the institutions inherited from colonialism and bring a democracy to the continent. But this is a conflict for governments, no government wants to lose power and control over their own country. As Claire Merce points out:
“[…]the important role played by the NGO sector in democratic transitions and democratic consolidation in a number of countries, particularly across Latin America, and specifically in Chile and Brazil. In the context of southeast Asia, Clarke (1998b) argues that in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, NGOs have contributed to the fight for and transition to democracy, and have remained a significant political force since. In India and the Philippines NGOs are considered to have emerged to fill the institutional vacuum caused by the weakness of political parties and trade unions (Clarke, 1998a). Similarly, in Thailand the growth of NGOs and the weakness of the party political system during the 1980s encouraged NGOs to take on a key role in organizing the opposition movement against General Suchinda”. (2002, p9)
But, how is it possible for NGOs to have so much power? For this, we must underline the characteristics by which, according to Suter, NGOs are political forces:
“First, he recognizes that NGOs provide an alternative focal point for the loyalty of some citizens. Next, in this age of communication, they show that governments do not have a monopoly over information and ideas. Further, NGOs can be very adept at using the mass media for their campaigns. NGOs provide an alternative for those who wish to work for a better world. And, as mentioned earlier, they are recognized by a broad spectrum of intergovernmental organizations providing consultative status to the NGOs and enabling them to take part in the work of the larger organization” (Rusasill 2008 p12-13).
The activism of the NGOs with political purposes, which has impregnated a large part of the society, in struggle for human rights and social, and democratization of their countries, has caused that in some authoritarian systems of the global south the perception of “the ‘warning voice’ is seen as interference with the sovereign rights of the state, generating tension between the government and the NGO” (Rudasill 2008, p13). Even though, these “NGOs can provide goods and services” when they are needed (Henry 2012, p156). Each government has a different approach to NGOs and the idea of sharing power or letting influence in decision making. In democratic countries it is seen as a salvation, a role mole or a disturbance to the democratic system. On the other hand, in countries that do not enjoy democracy as in the case of China “the development of organizations that give voice to the intrinsic problems of an area is frowned upon and varying controls are in place to prevent any thought of power sharing or governmental influence by these organizations”. Other states have restricted “the activities of NGOs include Nepal, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, and Ethiopia” (Rudasill 2008, p13).
As has been mentioned before, dictatorial regimes, where political adversaries are forbidden, NGOs are the only “political” adversary, many of them carry out their activities through an alliance with the government, which is vital for its subsistence until the regime falls, as in the case of NGOs in Asia, “NGOs in many Asian countries have demonstrated substantial adeptness in building alliances with those in government who are both influential and sympathetic to their cause. conscious political strategy aimed at securing political protection for the NGO and its activities” (Korten 1991, p30-31).
Another way that governments have to interact with NGOs is through the incorporation of NGOs into government social funds with they are also, supported by the World Bank and international donor, through them, NGOs have been able to maintain their services social although the political effects are negligible. On the one hand, some authors criticize the inclusion of the NGOs to the social funds of the government since they consider that it is a “threat to state legitimacy, and may actually boost it, both among international donors (because civil society involvement, in the form of NGOs, complies with donor demands for good governance) and among the electorate (owing to better services, associated with the state development program even if delivered by an NGO)”.
In contrast, in authoritarian countries, they are open to form alliances with NGOs, since “a key priority for these new governments has been to shore up their legitimacy by reaching down to the poorest sections of society, previously the constituencies of the NGOs”. (Korten 1991, p30-31).
Overall, using one of the ideas presented above, NGOs are rising not as charities but as advocates of social power to achieve equality, development and in other cases, democracy as Merce points out “NGOs strengthen civil society simply by increasing the number of intermediary organizations between citizen and state, and that furthermore, the sheer number of NGOs indicates the strength of civil society” (2002 p10). In continents like Africa, more should be bet on this type of organizations to “work” with the government, debating every aspect that should be improved. As mentioned earlier, Africa is rich in materials and infrastructures, what is urgent is a democratization and decolonization of institutions. On the other hand, it must to highlight the need to create more local and national NGOs, because foreign aid is very
Despite the political thrusts that NGOs are getting, they are not prepared to “govern”, but their help would be more effective if each government included in each ministry a “listening group” or “advisors”, which would be the NGOs to know the faults of the Government, also “legislation has the potential to institutionalize the core values associated with NGOs, shape their legitimacy, enhance their upwards and downwards accountability and consolidate their role as indigenous development partners.” (Mayhew 2005 cited in Rudasill 2008, p13). Even so, the relations between the government and the NGOs will continue to depend on the attitude of the government and its ideology, it is clear that thanks to their[NGOs] struggle, society begins to move demanding their rights, therefore it can challenge the power of the government.
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