Global Policy Forum

What Happens to Governments


By Hugo Slim

April 12, 2007

Most international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) want a strong efficient state. It is central to their liberal politics. The enlightened authority and capacity of such a state is crucial in delivering the things most NGOs care about: pre-planned and well coordinated disaster relief; enlightened policy and efficient delivery in health and education; the rule of law and the protection of rights; fair and free markets for economic exchange and the creation of wealth.

If a government and its various ministries are not interested in these things or not strong enough to oversee and deliver them, an international NGO finds itself in a difficult position. The financial and operational power of a big NGO or the presence of many smaller NGOs can act to replace the state in certain areas, challenge the state or do a bit of both. In many districts of Africa, the combined resources of NGOs in health, education or micro-credit can far surpass state capacity.

This brings about the possibility of effectively replacing the state as a socio-economic provider or enabler. This gives rise to dilemmas of substitution. Providing or enabling social and economic development is obviously a public good but, simultaneously, it can bring about political harm. The operational success of NGOs can undermine their vision of political success. Above all, it can see forms of neo-colonial service delivery, which are dependent not on citizens' political demands and action but on the extraneous largesse of political outsiders. This can create real problems for the organic and forceful establishment of genuinely binding political contracts between a people and its rightful government.


In a worst-case scenario, with rich and effective NGOs busy around one's country, an idle or corrupt government can simply abdicate its duties as a state. Effectively, government ministers can subcontract their duties in the realms of water, health, economics and education and take no real interest in them. They might then be tempted to run down their own ministries and attend to the more rewarding government business of personal enrichment, power play and foreign affairs. Here the risk of substitution is in creating a negligent state. Although, of course, the government may well have been negligent anyway, with or without NGO programmes. NGO substitution operations are not always the key variable in state neglect and negligence.

NGO programmes can also give unwarranted legitimacy and undeserved respectability to bad governments or, equally often, to bad armed groups in whose areas they work. With powerful NGOs substituting for them, negligent governments and guerrillas are able to present themselves to their people as socially responsible - "look how I care for your health and education and how I saved you after the flood".

Such claims can be used to extend government power. Many armed groups - like the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in South Sudan, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) in Ethiopia and the Taliban in Afghanistan - have also been able to consolidate their grip on power because NGOs have been the de facto welfare wing of their movements. And, of course, if NGOs are paying for clinics and war relief, governments and armed groups can use more of their own money on arms, military training and patronage instead.


If a government is idealistic, determined but relatively powerless, NGO substitution leads not to state neglect but perhaps, more subtly, to state humiliation. In this scenario, progressive and energetic ministers are personally and politically undermined by constantly having to thank NGOs for their resources in a health, education or disaster relief system which they dearly want for their people but which they cannot fully control and for which they cannot take the credit.

It takes exceptional humility and great foresight in a politician to be continually receiving rather than giving. Frustration soon shows. This can take rhetorical form when government ministers snipe at NGOs in their speeches or even go further to smear and discredit them as parasites and colonialists of some kind. In policy terms, governments can begin to coordinate NGOs more severely so that they lose their freedom of operation or become bogged in red tape. More than this, a humiliated government may also monopolize NGO resources directly so that they appear to come from government. This might be described as official capture of NGO operations - a process which can be creative under an enlightened and efficient government but which is often disastrous under a weak or inefficient authority.

Under most of these constraints, NGO resources seldom work so well on the ground. But it is not only government which can capture NGO resources as the official state authority. When a government is neglectful or powerless, NGO resources can also run the risk of unofficial capture by non-state power bases within a society. If NGO resources are not mediated to citizens by government structures and logical policies of fair distribution and allocation, then other local powers can appear who capture and protect NGO programming.

When governments are weak or negligent, and unless they are deeply informed and highly empirical in the allocation of their resources, NGOs can easily be steered by other powerful players. In fragile or failed states, English-speaking middlemen soon appear who "can help" to give NGOs access to areas of need. Often these are also areas of greed - where the middleman has his own constituency, can recruit his own family and reward his own supporters. Trade-offs are common in such programming - a bit of capture for a bit of access. This is protection Italian-style. Sometimes, NGOs do not know it is happening. At other times, the severity of the crisis demands that they make it happen.

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