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Too much help: since the mid-1970s, non-governmental organizations have gained huge influences in world affairs. They are consulted by governments as well as international organizations such as the United Nations, which has created associative status for them. Many do excellent work, but do we need them all?

There are now tens of thousands of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the world, operating in both developed and developing countries. They are not linked with any national government but often have a significant impact on the social, economic, and political activity of the country or region involved.

In the field of development, they include such well-known Northern-based charities as CARE, OXFAM, and World Vision, as well as community-based self-help groups in developing countries.

Numbers vary wildly, but one estimate suggests there are as many as 30,000 national NGOs in developing countries and hundreds of thousands of community-based organizations. There are more than 20,000 in Bangladesh alone. Each group has offices to maintain, permanent staff to hire, infrastructure to pay for, and fundraising expenses.

Andrew Caddell is an Ottawa consultant with a lot of experience within the UN system. He has written that rebuilding Iraq, for example, will involve literally hundreds of agencies that are "poorly co-ordinated, media-driven, and unwilling to collaborate closely with what they see as their 'competitors' in the aid game." He says, "It has long been a dirty secret of the multibillion-dollar business of providing humanitarian aid that the lack of co-ordination among the plethora of UN organizations, UN specialized agencies, and non-governmental organizations is not unlike the cutthroat attitudes of 19th century capitalists."

According to the World Bank, from 1970 to 1985, total development aid distributed by international NGOs increased ten-fold. In 1992, they channelled more than $7.6 billion of aid to developing countries. By 2001, it was estimated that more than 15 percent of total overseas development aid of about $100 billion a year was channelled through NGOs.

Their funding comes from a variety of sources including: grants or contracts from governments and international institutions, fees for services, profits from sales of goods, and funding from private foundations, corporations, and wealthy individuals. But, increasingly, relief and development NGOs receive large grants from governments' international assistance programs. One UN worker estimated that public grants represented 1.5% of NGO income in 1970, 35 percent in 1988, and about 40 percent by the end of the century. There's some concern that this trend leaves the organizations open to government pressure and limits their capacity to act independently.

(In June 2003, the Financial Times reported that the head of the U.S. government's aid agency (USAID) told American non-governmental organizations they should highlight links to the administration if they want to continue receiving funding for overseas relief and development aid. The article points out that the U.S. has often been criticized by development experts and other governments for using aid as a foreign policy tool and declining to co-ordinate with other donors.)

Mr. Caddell says at the competition for aid dollars has resulted in many organizations narrowing their work "to issues that are media-friendly--immediate famine relief and other headline issues--while long-term questions like food supply, education, and economic infrastructure get token attention. The end result is duplication of services, and wasted funds."

In 2002, The Economist reported, for example, that there were 140 separate agricultural projects on the go in Kenya, and, while schools have been built by the hundreds in Tanzania, there is no curriculum or goals for education.

Two years earlier a World Health Organization expert said a large part of the international aid effort in the immediate aftermath of a major disaster is staffed by "crisis junkies" and does more harm than good. In an article in the London Sunday Telegraph in September 2000 the WHO's director of emergency relief in the Americas, Claude de Ville de Goyet, said that instead of supporting local emergency and medical services, they inundate them with "unrequested, inappropriate, and burdensome donations" of clothes, medical equipment, and packaged food. "You see hundreds of small agencies turning up at the scenes of disasters. Some of them pop up because there is money or because there is media coverage, which is emotionally appealing."

No one disputes the fact that many aid agencies do a tremendous amount of good, but some experts say NGOs axe most effective when they work together in coalitions. Professor Peter Willetts at City University in London says (in an article on NGOs for UNESCO Encyclopedia) that NGOs are so diverse and so controversial that it is not possible to support, or be opposed to, all NGOs.


1. While critics point to the inefficiencies of some NGOs, and duplication of effort, some specialize in coalition-building: InterAction, for instance, serves as the umbrella for dozens of humanitarian organizations in the United States, with 160 members operating in every developing country. BOND is a network of more than 280 U.K.-based voluntary organizations working in international development and development education. Third World Network, based in Malaysia, is another active international network that addresses a broad range of policy issues. Report on the work of these and similar co-ordinating operations.

2. Do a report outlining the strengths and weaknesses Of NGOs.


According to the united Nations 2002 Human Development Report, nearly one-fifth of the world's 37,000 NGOs were formed in the 1990s.

Aid agencies' desire for photo opportunities is known as the CNN Effect.


NGO Research Guide--

Third World Network--

Virtual Library: International Affairs Resource--http://
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Title Annotation:Non-Governmental Organizations
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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