Global Policy Forum

Why NGOs Will Never Change the World


By Vincent Obiro *

Arusha Times
April 14, 2006

The role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in development in Africa has of late been a subject of rigorous debate. Opinions range from denial of effectiveness to management of donor funds. The now frequently asked questions among development practitioners and academics concern the possibilities and limitations of NGOs in Africa as development catalysts.

Most NGOs operating in Africa claim that their activities reach the poor and most marginalized groups in society. With this sort of grassroots connections, NGOs in Africa claim that they are able to articulate grassroots reality, much more than, African governments can do with their macro- development approaches.

Unlike the central government, which uses the "top down" approach in its development activities, NGOs use the "bottom up" approach in their development activities that take into account the perceived needs of the poor and improve their living conditions. This approach gives the poor in Africa the necessary experience and ability to gain control of their lives.

The growing presence and capacity of NGOs in Africa in all sectors of development "overtaking" African states, in some instances due to the lessening capacity of the latter, has put the two on a collision course. NGOs activities, which are pro- poor and tend to overshadow the state, are viewed by the state as a direct challenge to it. On their part, NGOs have exacerbated these concerns by penetrating areas that the state has been unable or unwilling to reach.

African governments have in the past few years attempted to control activities of NGOs through monitoring, co-ordination, co-optation or dissolution to undermine their capacity to empower the poor. This is because African governments do not want to be seen to have failed to empower the poor in their development strategies.

To say that most third world governments are less receptive to development initiatives being undertaken by NGOs is not an- over- simplification. This is so because NGOs are viewed as apolitical, socially accountable, and integrated into the communities they serve. But this, of course, is something of a fiction. In Africa as we all know, NGOs have adopted different relations with African governments. Some being bent on criticism while others have been co-opted by African governments for political reasons.

Those NGOs that are in African government's bad books are often unnecessarily branded as being antagonistic, anti government, and are referred to as friends and financiers of opposition parties out to destabilize African governments in power. Any opposition party leader, who identifies himself with such NGOs, is often unnecessarily branded as being a rebel, a traitor, or an enemy to the government that is in power. Such opposition leaders are often arrested and detained on trumped up charges of sedition and forced into exile.

One good thing with opposition leaders who are forced into exile is that they always end up landing very lucrative jobs while in exile. This is because most of the opposition leaders in Africa are professors with a handful of university degrees to their names.

On the other hand those NGOs that are in African government's good books, tend to become more political than apolitical and often become political wings of ruling parties. Their directors pay regular visits to senior government ministers' offices and are often accorded warm reception while there. This is because of the huge donations they always make toward the very issues they are supposed to tackle head-on at community level.

The survival of such NGOs depends on their loyalty to an African government that is in power on one hand, and on donations from abroad on the other hand. So one can accurately say that, most NGOs operating in Africa are, in practice more accountable to African governments that are in power and their donors, and not to the poor Africans they are meant to serve.

About the Author: Vincent Obiro Orute is a seasoned banker and micro-finance expert.

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