Roles and relationships of NGOs in the future of International Development

This is an essay submitted to the University of Birmingham as part of the Module: NGOs in a Changing International Context.

It is shared in this blog as information source, as it has been used as reference in another post of mine: The primacy of politics in development and theories of political development.



Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are vital part of the civil society, which belongs to what is known as the third sector of society – being the state and the market the other two. As key part of the civil society, NGOs contribute to solve needs that have been addressed neither by the governments, nor by the markets.

As cited by Stephen Heintz (2006), NGOs cover three primary objectives as key element of the civil society: a) providing the chance for self-organisation in the society, so that different sectors needs are addressed; b) balancing the state and market sectors, as NGOs work for a common good, compared to markets looking after private good and states looking after public good; and c) NGOs enable social change, as they face challenges with alternative methods.

Nowadays, NGOs are well recognised as key players in development. Their activities vary across different streams: disaster relief, service provider (e.g. education, water access and health), advocacy in policy making, training hubs, implementation of productive projects, link between funders and local communities, amongst many more. In terms or roles, “NGOs have three main roles in development work – as catalysts, implementers and planners” (Kanji and Lewis, 2009, p.22).

In this extend spectra of activities, development NGOs have shown strengths in flexibility and adaptation to changing environment and activities, high cost-effectiveness, good knowledge of the communities they work in, and a highly motivated staff (Kanji and Lewis, 2009). As weaknesses, NGOs are often mentioned to lack accountability and sustainable success in project implementations (Kanji and Lewis, 2009).

Even if NGOs have developed tools to improve their accountability, transparency and communication of results, the changing international environment is pressuring them to further efficient their activities, whilst questions regarding their future role in international development are increasing; taking into account the fast changes that globalisation, demographics, economics and technology are inducing in our world (Fine, 2014).

In 2012, Stephen McCloskey pointed a required evolution from NGOs, going from funding entities to social catalysts, calling for a transformative role “…going beyond aid provision…” (McCloskey, 2012), addressing the root causes of poverty and inequity, rather than alleviating the consequences. For this to happen, he called for alternative methods to address development challenges, besides the regular north to south transfer of resources.

Following this line of critics, Michael Edwards (2005) highlights the comfort zone in which NGOs have found themselves, behaving like a growth industry, with limited achievement in leveraging development. He points out as well the lack of creativity and innovative ways to address the “…systems and structures that perpetuate poverty and the abuse of human rights…” (Edwards, 2005, p.7).

In 2011, Andy Sumner added that there are current burning questions regarding the future of NGOs in international development: “… to what extent does funding compromise stance? How do INGOs ensure they are as (or more) accountable to the people they reach as they are to the development partners that fund them? How can INGOs experiment and innovate?…” (Sumner, 2011).

These critics and questions are available in different sources, geographic areas and points of time, but they always converge to similar conclusions: for NGOs to survive in the current challenging development field, it is necessary to improve their advocacy, downward accountability and transformative role; looking for synergy with partners (other NGOs and private sector), coming back to the grassroots and promoting/self-experiencing a transformation in the mind set: moving from funding entities to leveraging development.

In this context, this essay explores different propositions of the roles that development NGOs could take in the future of the civil society, so that the challenges listed above are tackled.


The transformative role of the NGOs

By transformative role, it is argued the evolution of the NGOs from aid and service providers to organisations able to tackle the root causes of poverty and inequality (McClosley, 2002, p.113).

As stated by Edwards (2005), it is now more than ever, that globalisation is reshaping patterns of inequality and poverty, opening the possibility for NGOs to propose new development approaches; but NGOs have not been able to propose any new options.

In order to achieve this transformative role, there are two approaches found in literature. The first one tends to criticise and disapprove the economic and social costs of the current neoliberal approach to development and postulates that NGOs should formulate an alternative way to development (differing from neoliberalism). Under this scenario, NGOs should go back to the roots – closer to the people they claim to serve to.

On this respect, Pearce (2000, p.20) cites that: “Development turned into just another business in a neo-liberal era…”. In her paper, Pearce highlights two major issues related to development NGOs nowadays: on one hand, NGOs have sacrificed some legitimacy in their own societies and internal values to be included in development programmes supported by neoliberal institutions; on the other hand, in the current neoliberal societies, NGOs have migrated from development promotion to technical fields. As cited by Pearce (2000, p.21): “This environment generates (…) a strong tension in institutions, forcing them to convert themselves into successful enterprises or social consultancies or to maintain and strengthen their promotion role without the resources to carry it out”.

Under this more “radical” point of view, the way for development NGOs to evolve as transformative agents is by returning to their roots, serving the sectors for which they are meant to represent. In this respect, Edwards et al. (1999) mention that only few NGOs have been able to answer grassroots demands; meaning that NGOs have relaxed in their downward engagement and accountability. As mention by Valerie Miller (1994, p.4), grassroots activities are the only way in which NGOs can “strengthen local capacities and structures for ongoing public participation”. Moreover, grassroots groups and NGOs have been traditionally the channel to give voice to those groups which have been marginalised and, most of the times, their only possibility to exercise their civil rights.

Going back to the grassroots means that NGOs should re-adopt their original driving values, focusing on the problem they want to solve and how they will do it (aligned with the common values in the organisation).

As successful examples of this approach, international campaigns, such as Make Poverty History, Dropt the Debt and Jubilee 2000, can be pointed out. For the case of Make Poverty History, they advocated to the G8 group three main demands: double the aid budget, deliver trade justice and drop the debt. As result of this international movement, the aid budget from the European Union was agreed to increase to 0,7% of the GNI by 2015. In terms of debt relief, the countries which were able to complete the Heavily Indebted Poor Country Initiative got 100% cancellation of their debts to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the African Development Fund (Oxfam, 2013).

The second approach for NGOs to evolve as transformative agents, suggests that NGOs should take advantage of the opportunities than globalisation and neoliberalism provide to widen their advocacy, lobbying and impact possibilities.

Rajesh Tandon exposes three major areas which could benefit development NGOs in their transformative role. The first area is to leverage on sustainable development. To the view of the author, development NGOs have not been able to connect their provision of aid and services with “a more efficient, transparent, and accountable apparatus of democratic governance” (Tandon, 2011, p.53). The author mentions that development NGOs have improved their accountability to their donors, but have opened a communication and accountability gap to the grassroots. As cited by Edwards and Hulme (cited in Tandon, 2001, p.57): “The orientation of accountability (to donors) away from the grassroots is a particular threat to NGOs”. There is indeed a recurring mentioning of accountability as major challenge for NGOs in any of both approaches.

The second opportunity area for NGOs to develop a transformative role is by understanding the political processes that are the hearth of the current governance discourse (Tandon, 2001, p.54). The author mentions the lack of comprehension of politics negotiation and consensus building within some development NGOs. Similarly, Tandon critics the “high moral ground” in which some NGOs have put themselves, making it difficult to negotiate and make compromises when trying to influence the policy making. As Brodhead and Copley cite “the international development field has now become a marketplace … A strategic re-orientation means that NGOs must acknowledge the complexity of development and the reality of a more inter-dependent world” (cited in Tandon, 2001, p.55). Comparing this approach to the previous one (proposing a distancing of NGOs from the neoliberal development approach), it is possible to notice a discrepancy. In this case, the author implies that NGOs should “lower” their “high standard” values (or expectations) in order to increase their possibilities to participate in the decisions making that may affect positively their sectors they represent – by lowering the profile of their advocacy, NGOs could be integrated then in policy making.

The third and last opportunity observed by Tandon (2001) for a positive evolution of development NGOs is their acceptance of globalisation as a profitable phenomenon. According to the author “UN conferences in the last 15 years have promoted the globalisation of development discourse and development policy-making” (Tandon, 2001, p.55), highlighting the strategic importance of globalisation as catalyst of development. Tandon mentions that the contra-discourse from some NGOs against globalisation would mean to keep their activities in a national level, losing the chance of benefiting from international development organisations and successful projects in other regions of the world. On the same line, Pearce (2000, p.39) finds in globalisation an opportunity for development NGOs to “…take advantage of the new supranational spaces to argue for dialogue in markets and international regimes in favour of the poor”.

For this second approach, diverse literature highlights partnerships of development NGOs with private companies as successful stories – including Corporate Shared Value in multinational companies. Similarly, trade and commerce organisations, chambers and institutes are counted in this category. This engagement of development NGOs with private companies may be decided on two different reasoning. On one hand, as reported by Dahan et al. (2010), NGOs may enter into a partnership with the objective of further financing their own projects (purely seen as economic income); or they may partner because they see the possibility of including their own agenda into the partnership objectives (as in fair trades organisations).


Increase in advocacy

As reviewed in the previous section, advocacy is seen as a clear direction for the future of development NGOs. In the recently published report Ahead of the Curve – Insights for the International NGO of the Future (elaborated by the FSG), advocacy is mentioned as one strength of the NGOs of the future (Fine, 2014).

Although NGOs perform already advocacy as part of their projects, this report emphasises a change from project-based to global advocacy (FSG, 2014), calling current project advocacy as obsolete, as it is “…limited by both their narrow focus and the funding duration of the project” (FSG, 2014, p.18). Instead, FSG recommends the usage of program advocacy, using it as a tool beyond projects and incorporating it to the mission of the organisation.

Similarly, advocacy is seen as a long-term solution to poverty and inequality, tackling directly the root causes of these phenomena, rather than working on the consequences. FSG (2014, p.17) cites Save the Children, World’s Vision, Oxfam and CARE, as examples of NGOs which have been able to lobby for more including policies, reaching wider sectors of population, rather than just concentrating in local short-term development projects. As reported by Oxfam (2009), there are three factors that NGOs require to advocate successfully: the propitious environment (e.g. political unrest), sustained evidence on the advocated matter and a matured network and continuous contact to the policy makers (e.g. government officials) (Oxfam, 2009).  In the examples given by FSG (2014), it is indeed possible to see the junction of these three mentioned factors.

Even though advocacy is seen as a key role for development NGOs in the future, critics have already been formulated. According to Fine (2014), there are two reasons why advocacy should not be seen as key role for all development NGOs: a) not all of them are working in fields where advocate is possible, and b) funding for advocacy is even more difficult to obtain than funding for projects implementation. Fine (2014) recognises the importance of addressing policy issues as long-term solutions for poverty and inequality, but given the current reality of NGOs as efficient project implementers, a radical change to advocacy would weaken their current structures and would jeopardise their funding.

In my personal opinion, advocacy is indeed a role in which development NGOs should get more involved – only then the real root causes of current poverty and inequality can be tackled. Nevertheless, the level of advocacy should be related to the field and the resources that NGOs have. A proper risk and opportunity assessment should be conducted to evaluate what is the real impact that a NGO can have in policy making and how much resources would be invested on it – is it worth the investment? As observed, advocacy has been proven to be successful for international NGOs which have a strong image, wide funding base and the appropriate contact to policy makers.


Capacity building

By capacity building, it is understood the empowerment of the communities in which or with whom development NGOs work (Eade, 2010); it may be as well, the training and knowledge transfer from North based NGOs (NNGOs) to South based NGOs (SNGOs). As cited by Eade (2010, p.206) the origin of capacity building “…lay on the belief that the role of an engaged outsider is to support the capacity of local people to determine their own values and priorities, to organise themselves to act upon and sustain these for the common good, and to shape the moral and physical universe that we all share”.

Even if capacity building is not new to development NGOs, diverse authors agree that it has been overlooked in the latest years, becoming less meaningful to NGOs (Lewis, 1998). Moreover, the term capacity building has been re-shaped by international financial institutions, especially by the World Bank, relating it to the neoliberal agenda and as a building block of the good governance and democratisation (Eade, 2010, p.205). Edwards et al. (1999, p.9) concludes that “…there have been some successes in strengthening the enabling environment for civic action (…), but in general capacity-building is still in its infancy”.

According to Eade (2010), there are two main reasons why development NGOs have not succeeded completely in capacity building: a) “…they do not have the inherent capacity to build the capacities of the poor”, and b) “…the capacity building approach hinges on the capacity for self-criticism” (Eade, 2010, p.207). Regarding the first, the author focuses on the participation of NGOs in communities, bringing experts, knowledge and tools to solve local problems, but without knowing completely the local environment; this creates then short-term results, but no sustainability to solve the problems’ root causes. For the second reason, Eade (2010) calls NGOs to recognise their own role when working in communities and to recognise changes in the environment they work in, “it also means a commitment to learning as intrinsic to their interventions to build the capacities of others” (Eade, 2010, p.208).

The critics on underdevelopment of capacity building get intensified when analysing NNGOs. Bebbington et al. (2006) comment that rather than capacity building, some NNGOs have moved from a non-governmental partner to a kind of bilateral agency when transferring funds to SNGOs. Fisher (1994) (cited in Lewis, 1998, p.4) cites that “…much of the discourse on capacity building is tinged with a subtle paternalism which assumes a comparative advantage for NNGOs in the South”. A stronger critic comes from Eade (2010), declaring that instead of real partnership between NNGOs and SNGOs, the firsts transfer money to the SNGOs, whilst these SNGOs transfer in return “stories and pictures” than NNGOs need to continue chasing funding. Besides this critical approach, it is common in literature that the partnership between NNGOs and SNGOs is more dependency than partnership (Bebbington et al., 2006).

In their future role, NGOs should move from the current rhetoric of partnership to capacity building; this means several attitudes that NGOs should improve within and amongst them, but as well when implementing projects in communities (Lewis, 1998). Eyben (2006) (cited in Eade, 2010, p.212) concludes that capacity building “…calls for time, flexibility, shared risk taking, open dialog, and a willingness … to respond to feedback”.



Development NGOs, more than ever, are important players in the civil society to cover those gaps that states have left behind in their adoption of neoliberalism as development approach.

In the current international scenario, NGOs are challenged to keep performing their aid and poverty alleviation activities, but still need to keep thinking on their role in future international development.

In this essay, three main future roles for development NGOs have been highlighted: a) transformative role, as social catalyst for alleviation of poverty and inequity; b) increase in advocacy to get involve in policy making; and c) capacity building as a way to build autonomy and self-reliance. Based on literature, it is believed that efficient and well-structured NGOs would be able to develop these three roles, assuring their future.

But even if these roles would be successfully developed, there is still a stronger and more radical vision of the future for development NGOs, calling for a Global Civil Society. In the eyes of Michael Edwards (2005, p.7), the Global Civil Society: “takes its cue from cosmopolitan articulations of an international system in which international law trumps national interests, and countries …negotiate solutions to global problems through democratic principles, …respect for local context and autonomy, and a recognition of …the nature of causes and effects in the contemporary world”. Nevertheless, for a Global Civil Society, a personal change in every global citizen is required, as citizens and nations would have to share their power, control and live a life consistently with universal values (Edwards, 2005).











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