Who calls the NGO tune?

ANDREW GARTON explores the dilemma of non-government organisations attempting to aid the Third World when the people who provide the funds seek to control how they are spent.


NGOs and their projects are, more often than not, totally reliant on outside funding. Independent agencies such as churches, trade unions, aid and developmental bodies have provided a reliable financial backbone to developing country NGOs. These agencies are known as NGOs themselves, by which is usually meant voluntary overseas aid agencies in developed countries which work with partners in Third World countries.

Governments, national and local, also provide financial support to NGOs, though less and less in most Asia-Pacific countries. It is often seen as detrimental to the interests of governments to support NGO initiatives unless cooperation can be assured.

This has caused unrest amongst certain sectors of the NGO movement. For example, as more and more NGOs find themselves in hostile environments, relationships with government-funded NGOs pose security risks. Information passing through a government-

funded conduit may have severe repercussions for both sender and recipient if it is intercepted.

However, there are “recognised” NGOs which are in receipt of government funds and have remained very much part of people’s movements.

Independently funded NGOs are often bound to a form of “contract” with their funding agencies. These may commit them to:

  • completion of resulted-oriented projects;
  • report writing;
  • “accountability” to donors;
  • inclusion of donor nominated/appointed representatives in project implementation.

In most cases these are reasonable expectations, though there are many cases of disregard for the flexibility needed to take advantage of local knowledge accrued during project implementation. The tendency to exert control over funded projects is high, as is the danger of misappropriation of funds.

A case in point was a recent water sanitation program in the Philippines funded by an Australian agency. The funding provided for administrative needs in a joint effort between the agency, a

local government body and an NGO. The NGO administered the program whilst the agency provided pipes and the local government body provided pumps.

During the early stages of the program the NGO, working with the islanders, recognised a need for training in the program. But as the funding provided only for administrative needs, the agency bound the NGO to their “agreement”. After nearly a year, reports were issued by the local government body stating that the pumps had been installed and pipes fitted. On inspection, no pumps were sighted, and water-related epidemics continued, killing up to three children a day during the summer. The locals came to know the program as a “ghost project”.

As this example shows, donors can insist on inappropriate and sometimes detrimental requirements of project implementation.

In June 1990, a workshop conducted by the steering committee of the Pacific Island Association of NGOs (PIANGO) on “Management and Organisational Development of Pacific Island NGOs” cited several similar problems in their relationships with donor agencies and NGOs. Causes of organisational problems and weaknesses were recorded as:

  • donors not responding to our priorities;
  • conflict between donor agencies’ and local NGOs’ agenda and requirements
  • overseas NGOs and funding agencies which lack knowledge of PIANGO’s needs and priorities.

Increasingly, “aid” is tied to inappropriate and insensitive standards in Asia-Pacific. One such is the requirement that recipient NGOs submit information exclusively to their donor agencies. This practice has in some cases slowed the response time in acting on NGO requests for international support.

The “hoarding” of information provides the partner/donor NGO with fuel to gain favour with the larger funding agencies, ensuring approval for year-round funding. Information therefore becomes a commodity amongst donor agencies and related influential NGOs.

You could say that the plight of oppressed peoples in Asia-

Pacific maintains jobs in the First World. This has fostered a competition amongst the larger NGOs, often coalitions of smaller NGOs, as their own funding becomes more and more reliant on the “people’s struggles” of their partners in the Third World. It may be argued that today the donor NGOs play the imperialistic roles of colonial countries in the non-governmental sector.

A further concern is the tendency for funding agencies to encourage NGOs to become “self-financing”. A recent workshop organised by donors in Africa sought to “enhance the capacity of the NGO sector to generate its own funding from with the region”. Mr Irungu from the African Association for Literacy and Adult Education echoed the thoughts of NGOs on this push: “It is a fallacy to imagine that we can begin to ask for money from people who are struggling to meet their basic needs”.

As the economy undergoes upheavals in both North and South, governments, agencies and individual donors may be less able to provide constant and reliable financial support to NGOs.

The International Development Management Center of the University of Maryland, USA, suggests that “providing reliable revenue flows” can produce greater “self-sufficiency” amongst NGOs. Dr Marcus Ingle suggests that NGOs “… need to think about how they can do better in helping people to help themselves. They need to think about the kinds of goods they are providing — are they goods that create a multiplier effect to produce additional resources that might over time free the poor from part of their dependency?”

The underlying assumption of many donor programs is that “self-reliance will be increased as a result of project activity, not that funding will continue indefinitely”. A project requirement of many donor agencies is “a time-limited intervention which provides extra resources to build capacity for continuing provision of benefits”.

Journalist Ann Heidenreich states: “Most NGOs aim to build the capacity of people themselves to become actors in determining their own agendas. The end goal is to achieve a sufficient level of awareness and organisation to ensure that national governments, scientific institutions and the international community serve as instruments of the people and are accountable to them. This is not a private good to be sold in the market place, but a public good requiring public funding.”

Andrew Garton, 1993.

Published by GreenLeft Weekly, Issue 95, 1993.