In recent years, Non-Governmental Development Organisations (NGOs) have increased their visibility at local, national as well as international level and have become key agents in the fight against poverty. As independent, non-profit organisations, NGOs are often regarded as exhibiting certain advantages over the state and the market, a position increasingly made use of by donor agencies and governments that have intensified their ties with NGOs.
However, these relationships have raised concerns over the ability of NGOs to function as independent development actors, and hence to live up to their potential contributions to development overall. Whilst in theory, NGOs are regarded as drawing on certain strengths in their function as development actors, such as fostering participation and empowerment of poor people, scholars have questioned their ability to make use of these strengths in practice (Hulme&Edwards 1992, Kang 2010, Lewis&Kanji 2009).
The following paper will analyse the strengths and weaknesses of NGOs as development actors by specifically focusing on the NGO sector in Ghana. As one of the most developed countries in Africa, Ghana has become a focal point of donor agencies and has experienced a considerable growth in the number of NGOs, in recent years. The increasing interaction of those organisations with donor agencies as well as the Ghanaian government have been often characterised by high dependence and power interests. Ghana therefore constitutes a relevant case study to assess the strengths and weaknesses of NGOs as development actors.
The paper will be structured as follows: The different roles of NGOs will be presented and their perceived strengths as development actors outlined. In order to assess whether those strengths are ultimately reflected on the ground, the paper will draw on different studies on NGOs in Ghana, paying particular attention to their relationship with foreign NGOs, donors and the government. The paper will finally assess the factors that determine the ability of NGOs to live up to their potential contributions to development, by means of the case of community-based actions in urban poor communities in Accra.
Overall, this paper claims that despite the significant increase in visibility and capacities available, the ability of NGOs in Ghana to successfully contribute to development efforts on the ground has been considerably overshadowed by their prevailing dependence on foreign aid and thus on donor’s interests. The dominance of powerful interests at community as well as state levels has contributed to undermining local participation and empowerment and therefore to the inability of NGOs to live up to their potential contribution to development. Their ability to successfully function as development actors eventually depends on the level of participation and empowerment by the local communities addressed, as well as the nature of the NGO’s partnership with donors and the state.
2. Conceptual Framework
2.1 NGOs and their different roles
In the last decades, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have grown in numbers and have been able to establish themselves as important actors in society in almost every country around the world. Although NGOs focus on a variety of different issues and are driven by different motivations, they are generally said to constitute of five main characteristics: They are formal, e.g. have some kind of organisational structure and permanence, are institutionally separate from the government, and are non-profit, meaning that surpluses are not disbursed to the owners or directors of such organisation. Moreover, they are self-governing and voluntary, such as in form of a voluntary board of stakeholders (Lewis&Kanji 2009).
Concerning their different roles, NGOs are regarded as making part of civil society that constitutes “the third sector vis-à-vis the state and the market…” (Fowler 2003: 184), and thus as “a counterweight to state power by opening up channels of communication and participation…” (Hulme&Edwards 1997: 6). They are furthermore perceived as a means of filling the gap between the state and the market by providing services to those that cannot be reached by the former (Clark 2006).
NGOs are also said to provide alternative ways of organising the economy, politics and social relations. According to Bebbington et al (2007), “NGOs are only NGOs in any politically meaningful sense of the term if they are offering alternatives to dominant models, practices and ideas about development” (1). Edwards (1999) defines development as “the reduction of material want and the enhancement of people’s ability to live a life they consider good across the broadest range possible in a population” (4, cited in Lewis&Kanji 2009: 62). NGOs may thus use their position in society to influence agendas and processes of debate in a way that benefits the poor and marginalised people (Hulme&Edwards 1992).
Regarding the specific functions NGOs are said to have as development actors, scholars have generally come up with three categories. According to Lewis&Kanji (2009), they function as “implementer[s]”, “catalyst[s]” as well as “partner[s]” (12). They work as implementers in the sense that they mobilise resources to provide goods and services to people in need of them. To this end, NGOs are often contracted by the government or donors to deliver such services (Hulme&Ibrahim 2010). As mentioned above, NGOs are also viewed as providing alternatives to current development approaches through advocacy at different levels. Thus, they attempt to change institutions through external pressure and protest, but also foster more appropriate and effective policies by working within these institutions (Hulme&Edwards 1992). NGOs thus function as catalysts through their “ability to inspire, facilitate or contribute to improved thinking and action to promote change” (Lewis&Kanji 2009: 13).
NGOs are also perceived as important partners for governments, donor agencies as well as the private sector (Hulme&Ibrahim 2010) and have furthermore intensified the ties among themselves, at local, national and international level. International NGOs (INGOs), Southern NGOs (SNGOs) and Grass-roots Organisations (GROs) often work together, “cooperate for community development through exchanging funding, operations/technical assistance and staff members, or implementing programs together” (Kang 2010: 226).
2.2 Strengths of NGOs as development actors
Taking the above mentioned roles as basis, NGOs are generally said to have the following strengths as development actors. According to Kang (2010), NGOs focus on “bottom-up development” as opposed to the predominantly growth-centred development approach pursued by many agencies and governments. They consequently have the capacity to promote local participation, since they are often rooted in local communities or “tend to develop bonds with the people they serve…” (Cernea 1988: 18). They thus try to identify the needs of local people by directly involving them in the agenda-setting and decision-making processes at different levels. NGOs moreover foster empowerment “by inspiring the marginalized and the poor to organize themselves and advocate for their own rights” (Hulme&Ibrahim 2010: 8).
The direct interaction with local communities consequently enables NGOs to reach the rural poor and to promote service delivery in remote areas where governments only have limited outreach (Cernea 1988). Moreover, their less formal structures as compared to governments and aid agencies and their small-scale focus render NGOs more flexible and responsive to local needs, and also more cost-efficient (Kang 2010). Finally, due to their flexibility, they have the capacity to innovate and adapt, using transfer technologies that were already developed elsewhere and adapting them according to the local conditions (Cernea 1988). Overall, NGOs are thus regarded as “flexible, innovative, grass-roots oriented and [as having] broad knowledge and strong commitment to issues relating to the emancipation of the poor” (Matanga 2010: 114).
3. Case Study - To what extent are NGOs able to live up to their potential contributions to development?
As discussed above, NGOs are said to have a number of strengths as development actors, in theory. However, their ability to make use of these strengths in practice has been increasingly questioned, especially regarding their relationships with donor agencies and governments (Hulme&Edwards 1992, Kang 2010, Lewis&Kanji 2009). The following section will analyse the strengths and weaknesses of NGOs as development actors in Ghana. The analysis will assess how grass-roots oriented and participatory the work of NGOs in Ghana are, to what extent they are able to act in an autonomous way and how sustainable their work is, in practice. It will be discussed what role the relationships between SNGOs and INGOs, donors and the government respectively, have played to this end.
The analysis will be based on two studies on the potential and actual contributions of NGOs to development in Ghana. Mohan (2002) focuses on the intervention of a UK-based NGO in northern Ghana that aims to strengthen the relationship between SNGOs, government departments and agricultural research institutes in Community Forest Management. The second study, by Porter (2003), discusses how and to what extent experiences and knowledge acquired by local and INGO staff working on the ground has been ultimately transposed into poverty alleviation programmes.
In order to be able to reach the grass-roots communities, INGOs often collaborate with SNGOs on the ground, as “foreign interests may lack the local knowledge or legitimacy to enter local communities” (Mohan 2002: 141). However, whilst this strategy in theory leads to a closer relationship between INGOs and SNGOs - and therefore seems to enable for the sharing of knowledge, the support of local empowerment, and the adoption of an agenda based on community needs - reality often looks different.
In his analysis of the partnership of the INGO Village Aid with its local SNDGO partners, Mohan (2002) recorded complaints raised by local representatives about inadequate information flows and a lack of participation at the planning level. This is to be traced back to a lack of a transparent mechanism for decision-making that would ensure participation at all levels of the partnership as well as the pressure by donors on INGOs to deliver on successful outcomes, Mohan (2002) believes.
Moreover, the partnership of SNGOs and INGOs may be based on the formers’ dependence on funding and thus lead to a determination of the agenda from outside (Kang 2010). Hence, “the acceptance of increasing volumes of foreign aid involves entering into agreements about what is done, and how it is to be reported and accounted for” (Hulme&Edwards 1997: 8). This consequently raises questions about the sustainability of such projects. Porter (2003) observes that due to the lack of Ghanaian funding available to NGOs, “there is a tendency for NGOs simply to jump to provide whatever foreign donors (including INGOs) demand” (136). This may eventually lead to discontinuities in the work at community level and to inappropriate programmes in the local context.