Is There a Role For NGOs in the Transformation of Society?

Lambert here: Betteridge’s Law chalks up another win.

By Michael Edwards, a writer and activist based in upstate New York, and the editor of Transformation. Originally published at Open Democracy.

Over the last 40 years NGOs have played increasing roles in lobbying and advocacy, the delivery of welfare, and humanitarian assistance, but can they also be a force for deep-rooted social transformation? That’s the question that activists and thinkers have been exploring on this site over the last five years, so I thought it would be useful to gather all their articles together in one place and reflect on their conclusions.

At first sight the answer to my question might seem obvious: NGOs – meaning registered charities and other non-profit ‘intermediaries’ – may not be especially radical when compared to social movements or grassroots organizing, but they do provide essential support and services to people who need them, and they help to secure a basic foundation of security and rights – without which the prospects for deeper change would be even more remote. In that sense they form an important part of the ‘connective tissue’ of a functioning civil society.

But such societies only work if those connections are activated, cultivated and held in balance so that one kind of organization doesn’t dominate to the detriment of others. The problem is that the current structure and mode of operation of many NGOs, their increasing bureaucracy and tendency to self-promotion, and their sheer distance from the people they’re supposed to serve, may be getting in the way of making these links effectively. Meanwhile, their actual impact is modest, at least if measured in terms of long-term structural change and not just the number of policy reports issued or children ‘saved’ between January and July.

This is largely because they have little traction over the social, cultural, political and economic forces that act as drivers of transformation – which is why those links and connections are paramount since no organization, interest group or sector can achieve much on its own. As the kick-off piece in the series put it, “too small to influence economics, too bureaucratic to be social movements, banned from politics and removed from the societies they’re trying to change, where do NGOs go next?” Re-reading all the articles in one sitting reveals an interesting range of answers to that question, as well as some insights into why there has been so little positive response to the debate from NGOs themselves.

The early pieces in the series focus on issues of power, size, ‘market share,’ funding and control, concluding that incentives to preserve the status-quo are more influential than internal commitments to reform or transformation, however strongly-expressed they might be on paper in the speeches and policy statements that emanate from the sector:

What’s to be done with Oxfam? By Michael Edwards

Five disempowering traits that international NGOs must drop, by Irũngũ Houghton

Are INGOs ready to give up power? By Deborah Doane

This situation is made worse by the fact that NGOs exist in resource environments which encourage competition for government contacts, foreign aid and voluntary donations within structures shot through by unequal access to funding opportunities. Since there’s little money to fund inter-agency co-operation, alliance-building or organizational transformation, the tendency is to pursue support within the existing system as aggressively as needed; no Board is comfortable with their own group getting less or growing smaller.

Unless these incentives are upended it will be very difficult to lever any deep-rooted alterations in the system, so building up alternative funding frameworks and sources of finance is an important part of the solution (and the subject of a separate series on Transformation around money and social change):

The inconvenient truth about foreign aid, by David Sogge

Could NGOs flourish in a future without foreign aid? By Michael Edwards

Healing solidarity: re-imagining international development By Mary Ann Clements

From development to dignity: a profound challenge for international cooperation, by Jonathan Glennie

A second set of concerns revolve around NGOs and the changing shape of the broader civil society ‘ecosystem.’ Because more public and private funding is directed to intermediaries for service-provision, humanitarian assistance, and advocacy – and less gets to smaller community-based groups and informal associations of different kinds – there’s a danger that the proper balance between different forms of activism and civic engagement is disturbed. If that happens, the ‘whole becomes less than the sum of its parts,’ and the overall impact of civil society may be reduced even though some of its constituent parts are growing larger:

Whatever happened to civil society? By Vern Hughes

When is civil society a force for social transformation? By Michael Edwards

What does ‘A Christmas Carol’ tell us about the meaning of charity? By John Picton

The everyday power of movement activism, by Laurence Cox

Where is civil society when you need it? By Michael Edwards

Social activism and the economics of mental health, by John Picton

Contained within these critiques was the fear that the increasing size and dominance of NGOs would tempt them to move away from their core values (like humility, service and the empowerment of others), and to make compromises on basic principles in order to build, protect and advance their ‘brands’ (corporate influence over the non-profit sector having grown considerably in the 1990s and 2000s).

These fears seemed to be confirmed by a wave of scandals that hit the NGO sector in 2018, at least in the minds of external observers if not the agencies themselves. First in the firing line was Oxfam-GB, which was accused of failing to deal adequately with allegations of sexual exploitation by a small number of its staff based in offices overseas:

What’s to be done with Oxfam, part 2? By Michael Edwards

What’s it all about, Oxfam? By Phil Vernon

Then came a series of articles about Save the Children-UK concerning how it had handled allegations of sexual harassment and bullying against two of its senior managers, made worse by aggressive attempts to shut down commentary about these cases in the media – a point made forcefully by a Charity Commission Inquiry that released its findings in 2020:

The courage of difficult women, by Leslie Francis

At what cost? A reflection on the crisis at Save the Children UK, by Jonathan Glennie

At what cost? A second reflection on the crisis at Save the Children UK, by Jonathan Glennie

Sexual exploitation and abuse: why pick on charities? By Mike Aaronson

Don’t shoot the messenger, by Michael Edwards and Mary Fitzgerald

A common theme in these pieces was that the NGOs concerned were spending too much time and money protecting themselves, and too little in opening up to serious reflection about what had happened, why, and how it might be linked to their broader trajectory as organizations. At around the same time other NGOs faced controversies of their own, including WWF-UK and Amnesty International, signaling that a sector-wide moment of questioning had arrived:

What happens when NGOs are accused of violating human rights? By Domenico Carolei

It’s time to take our charities to the cleaners, by Michael Edwards

However, the response to this ‘moment of questioning’ has been fractured. Oxfam-GB, Save-UK and Amnesty International have addressed issues of internal culture and altered their personnel policies to protect their staff and members of the community with whom they interact from bullying and harm. That’s a very good thing, but it doesn’t seem to have triggered any deeper changes in their strategies and modes of operation, perhaps because they don’t see much connection between isolated instances of harassment and exploitation and the broader debate about the role of NGOs in society.

By contrast, writers from outside the NGO community see such connections everywhere, and have seized on the chance to push for much deeper transformations in roles, structures, relationships and resourcing that should have been initiated years ago, and which were brought into sharper focus by the scandals and the wide public attention they created. The latest pieces in the series have a much more concrete focus on what needs to change and how, whether through re-orienting funding towards local groups instead of launching mini-versions of Oxfam and Save the Children in other countries (a strategy known as ‘localisation’); strengthening partnerships and alliances between NGOs and social movements as equals rather than ‘donors and recipients’; and ‘horizontalizing’ their structures and diffusing power and authority through democratic forms of decision-making:

#ShiftThePower: from hashtag to reality, by Jenny Hodgson and Barry Knight

An open letter to International NGOs who are looking to ‘localise’ their operations

Can NGOs and social movements be authentic allies? By Michael Silberman

NGOs and social movements: partnership or solidarity? By Madhuresh Kumar

Horizontalising international NGOs: can it be done? By Robin LeMare

Other contributors advised NGOs to learn from the environmental movement, return to the values of their roots, and utilize the coronavirus pandemic to re-imagine their role around solidarity and mutual support:

What INGOs can learn from Greta Thunberg and the global climate strikes, by Stephen McCloskey

100 years of Save the Children UK: what have we learned? By Mike Aaronson

How should civil society respond to Covid-19? By Alex Jacobs

Taken together, the series provides a great deal of rich material for anyone interested in the links between organizational transformation and the transformation of society as a whole. To achieve their stated goals of abolishing poverty, curbing inequality, ending injustice and addressing the climate emergency, NGOs will have to accept a smaller role in a larger system, since that is the only way that enough pressure for change can be mobilized and exerted. For the same reason, power and resources must be shared widely and diffused throughout society, placing people, not intermediaries, at the center of decision-making. There will be a price to pay in terms of organizational change and downsizing which must be carefully prepared for and managed. But the benefits, in terms of the potential for deep-rooted social change, will be huge.

However, is anybody beyond the critics interested in doing these things? To judge from current practice, not most NGOs themselves. CEOs and Board members come and go, often with much fanfare about their intentions, yet little changes where it matters most. A few tweaks here and there, more speeches, and lots of nodding heads when critiques like these are circulated internally, but that’s about as far as it goes.

Who will be the first to prove me wrong?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. NotTimothyGeithner

    But such societies only work if those connections are activated, cultivated and held in balance so that one kind of organization doesn’t dominate to the detriment of others. The problem is that the current structure and mode of operation of many NGOs, their increasing bureaucracy and tendency to self-promotion, and their sheer distance from the people they’re supposed to serve

    This reminds me about my opinions on unions. Trumka and his millions couldn’t do what Nelson and her 40,000 did and end the government shut down. I believe Flight Attendants are under the AFL-CIO, but I feel the scale of the two operations means Nelson can act while Trumka, even if so motivated, is stuck in a position where he can’t interact with members or even be pressured by members negatively or positively. The resources and time needed to get to Trumka are too difficult to muster. Nelson can be reached by the members.

    The teachers wild cat strikes. They aren’t looking to the state or national level of their unions which I don’t think are as dynamic as they have so many members to poll before they act.

  2. Susan the other

    Does the tax exemption offset the expense of caring for the poor? That’s the cost-benefit answer. With a rare emphasis on “benefit”.

  3. Bugs Bunny

    There’s a certain law about headlines that’s often tossed about on this blog.

  4. Mark Dempsey

    A memorial day note: My father, who volunteered for the Marines after Pearl Harbor, was on the first wave that landed on Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. He was lucky enough to get a non-fatal wound that the surgeons had just figured out how to repair, but he remained scarred by the experience, and was literally the most anti-war person I’ve ever known.

    Later in life, he pursued a career in philanthropy, leading staff for Los Angeles area foundations that were established primarily as a tax dodge. Many did not have enough of an endowment to fund full-time staff, and as a consequence, their grant-making was haphazard, at best. Norton Simon hired my father to provide the staffing to evaluate the grants proposed to several foundations, so as a consequence, dad got to meet lots of the wealthy benefactors. One thing he said that I still remember: Most of these guys were born on third base, but they all want to act like they hit a triple.

    More recently, I’ve tried to emulate at least a little of his public-spirited philanthropy with local (Sacramento) environmentalists. They face incredible odds in proposing local development practices be lower impact (see this post for a description). And they have limited success.

    Nevertheless, the environmentalists soldier on…nibbling around the edges of what clearly needs to be dramantically transformed. Unfortunately, retired planners who were instrumental in building the high-impact development (sprawl) in the first place dominate most local environmental organizations opposing it.

    Like the emperor in his new clothes, they have the option of saying “Oh thanks for pointing out my mistake…I’ll go home and get dressed,” or they could “grimly continue the parade.” Most often they choose the second option.

  5. David

    This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been involved with NGOs – by which I mean, incidentally, western organisations working at home or abroad, and if abroad largely I what used to be called the Third World. Two points.
    The NGO Industrial Complex is highly competitive, and there are very few barriers to entry. There is a massive surplus of supply over demand, and a significant lack of actual expertise. This creates a tremendously competitive climate, where may NGOs spend a considerable proportion of their time applying for grants and schmoozing with donors, just to keep in business.
    Most NGOs are funded by national governments, or international organisation like the EU or the UN. They are therefore obliged to follow, and even anticipate, the political fashions favoured by the donors, and if necessary adjust their organisation and personnel to suit. But donors themselves are often answerable to (eg) national parliaments, and so programs that are funded tend to be what public opinion in donor states wants, rather than what is actually needed. In addition, many countries (the Germans and the Swiss for example) use NGOs as foreign policy instruments, in order to avoid the appearance of interfering directly in the politic of other countries, which of course they are. Because NGOs tend to be well funded, they can often pay their local staff more and offer them better conditions than the government of the country can, which is why (in Africa for example) NGOs tend to be greatly resented, as just another form of neocolonialism.

    1. Off The Street

      Some appear to take on, or self-assign, roles outside their official remit. There can be a temptation to expand reach in novel ways, while enjoying, nay, invoking, a type of immunization from that international imprimatur. If such behaviors don’t spur resentment, due to hogging all the tables at that new boîte in the capital, then the participants need to Up their Game while telling the locals Up Yours. Spending all those late nights striving for that First Upper Second Lower Second should pay off beyond The City, which has become so dreary in the corona period.
      It seems fitting to reference quangos gone wild.

      Obi-Wan Kenobi: That’s no moon… It’s a space station.
      Han Solo: It’s too big to be a space station.
      Luke Skywalker: I have a very bad feeling about this…

  6. chuck roast

    In my days of collecting signatures for Move to Amend I found that there was a high degree of understanding from the general public about the Corporate enemy. The general response was, “Where do I sign!?” And I met several people who were involved in 401c(3)s. They understood the basic contradiction as well…when the Corporations were euthanized, they would get the gas as well.

    So, when the day comes, and I’m certain that it will come, that we finally put the bit in the Corporate mouth the NGOs will have spent their last in resistance. Enjoy the mixed metaphors. The Corporations and the NGOs will have to bite the bag at the same time.

  7. Lambert Strether Post author

    I can’t find the deeply and appropriately cynical Trillbillies podcast on grant-making, but here’s an article from Trillbilly Tarence Ray on the same topic in The Baffler. This is a great takedown. Here’s a snippet:

    There have been only seven grants awarded for actual broadband infrastructure out of the total 184—many of which were for projects that require broadband in order to be successful. But these seven are easily outnumbered by projects that promise mere broadband feasibility studies. One project in West Virginia received $100,000 for “an online hub hosting information concerning prospective broadband deployment in West Virginia.” There’s a cruel irony to using a slower internet connection to access a website about the potential for a faster internet connection. Suffice it to say that the government would rather pour money into feasibility studies than simply build the goddamn fiber optic lines.

    So in essence a Jobs Guarantee for grantwriters. And other credentialed professionals…..

  8. timotheus

    I’m going to take some time to study this trove of articles and hope we can revisit the topic. Meanwhile, may I say, as a veteran of nonprofit work of a very grassroots, seat-of-the-pants nature, that it is important to distinguish between the big-budget & highly professionalized NGOs and the efforts much further down the food chain where actual work is taking place, work that often is siphoned off by the big players and monetized for their continued prosperous existence. There is a big difference between the Red Cross-type operations that swoop in to the scene of a natural disaster, say, with gran fanfare (and media coverage) and then quickly head (and cash) out versus the toiling locals who are still there six months or a year later helping people put their lives back together while constantly scrambling for some measly grant money.

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