(This article is based on the new syllabus of IAS Mains Exam i.e. General Studies Paper III. The article covers the following topics from syllabus: the role of NGOs, SHGs, various groups and associations, donors, charities, institutional and other stakeholders )
Two distinct roles for Civil Society are highlighted, both as service providers and advocates for the poor. The service provider–advocate divide differentiates between the pursuit of ‘Big-D’ and ‘little-d’ development (Bebbington et al 2008; Hulme 2008). ‘Big-D’ development sees ‘Development’ as a project-based and intentional activity, in which tangible project outputs have little intention to make foundational changes that challenge society’s institutional arrangements. In contrast, ‘little-d’ ‘development’ regards development as an ongoing process, emphasising radical, systemic alternatives that seek different ways of organising the economy, social relationships and politics (Bebbington et al 2008).
The shape of NGOs has changed over time. While many NGOs, particularly in Latin America, were created around the explicit intention of addressing structural issues of power and inequality and expanding civil society against hegemonic or weak and unrepresentative states, they have seen a shift in their organisational character and in the nature of their work, instead adopting technical and managerial solutions to social issues such as poverty through service delivery and welfare provision. Ninety percent of registered NGOs in Kenya, for example, are involved primarily in service delivery (Brass 2011). In the process, NGOs and their activities have become professionalised and depoliticised (Kamat 2004).
In their role as service providers, NGOs offer a broad spectrum of services across multiple fields, ranging from livelihood interventions and health and education service to more specific areas, such as emergency response, democracy building, conflict resolution, human rights, finance, environmental management, and policy analysis (Lewis and Kanji 2009). Interests in the contribution of NGOs to service delivery did not rise only because of the enforced rollback of state services, but also because of their perceived comparative advantages in service provision, including their ability to innovate and experiment, their flexibility to adopt new programmes quickly, and most importantly, their linkages with the grassroots that offer participation in programme design and implementation, thereby fostering self-reliance and sustainability (Korten 1987; Vivian 1994; Bebbington et al 2008; Lewis and Kanji 2009).
These strengths, it was widely believed, would foster “more empowering, more human, and more sustainable” forms of development (Foster, in Bebbington 2004). These grassroots linkages are, after all, the reason NNGOs work through local partners, recognising that objectives and priorities of international organisations may not reflect those at the grassroots, and closer proximity at this level is necessary for more effective participatory designs. In the wake of failed top-down development discourse, NGOs were seen to offer the sole organisational forms that could implement the global commitment to ‘bottom-up’ development (Kamat 2004; Hearn 2007).
It was not until later in the 1990s that donors started promoting a second important role for NGOs, viewing them as organisational embodiments of civil society that could play a role in political reform (Harsh et al 2010). While their role in as ‘democratisers of development’ (Bebbington 2005) is highlighted as frequently as their role as service providers, rarely is it articulated how NGOs should participate in the political process to achieve this (Edwards and Hulme 1996). Challenging the state can lead to hostile government–NGO relationships and threaten prospects for sustainability, and donors, too, are often are anxious to ignore the political realities of NGO interventions (Clark 1998).
Their role as social development agencies, therefore, takes precedence over their role as political actors (Clark 1998). The role and contributions of NGOs in advocacy and empowerment is difficult to define, but we can look at their efforts along a broad spectrum. At one end are those NGOs actively intervening in democracy-building and transforming state–societal relations, such as those emerging to mobilise and support radical social movements in the early ‘NGO decade’ in Latin America. NGOs are vastly constrained in this sphere, seeking instead to convince governments that they are non-political. Instead, at the other end of the spectrum, most NGOs seek ‘empowerment’ as an indirect outcome of their wider service delivery activities.
People-centred and participatory approaches to service delivery are suggested in this approach to lead to local-level capacity building in the long run, fostering a stronger democratic culture in which changes are hypothesised to feed into local and national institutions and processes. Others argue that NGOs pursue advocacy by stealth, by working in partnership with the government through which they can demonstrate strategies and methods for more effective service provision (Batley 2011; Rose 2011).
The inability and/or unwillingness of NGOs to engage in political dimensions has forced us to re-evaluate early claims that NGOs can promote democracy with a caveat: NGOs promote democracy only when they contribute to the improvement of citizen participation (Hudock 1999; Ghosh 2009). NGOs do, therefore, have a strong political dimension, even within service delivery and welfare provision (White 1999; Townsend et al 2004). Ghosh’s (2009) description of NGOs as ‘political institutions’ highlights the difficulties NGOs face in remaining nonpolitical (or convincing the government they are non-political) while advancing their and their clients’ interests in a highly political arena. One account of NGOs in Uganda, too, highlights the delicate balance NGOs play in becoming “entangled in the politics of being non-political” (Dicklitch and Lwanga 2003). Viewing NGOs as strengtheners of democracy and civil society is, therefore, an overly generous view, given they must embark on advocacy work in incremental ways and can rarely operate in ways that reach genuine transformative agendas.
Throughout the 1990s, NGOs may have been viewed largely as ‘heroic organisations’ seeking to do good in difficult circumstances (Lewis and Kanji 2009), but this rose-tinted view has been rolled back amidst increasing acknowledgement that NGOs are not living up to their expectations. A number of emerging criticisms highlight problems of representativeness, limitations to effectiveness and empowerment, and difficulties remaining loyal to their distinctive values, which are all undermining the legitimacy of NGOs (Atack 1999). That early worries have yet to be systematically addressed by NGOs has led to them becoming fully-fledged concerns and criticisms, and as NGOs have become increasingly professionalised and service-oriented, their proposed strengths in terms of their loyalty to the grassroots and innovative ability have been undermined.