A Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society

Nongovernmental Organizations Show Their Growing Power

The New York Times

March 22, 2002

By Norimitsu Onishi

Since the end of the cold war, private aid organizations have mushroomed across Africa, addressing every conceivable need in seemingly every corner of the world's poorest continent.

To supporters, the groups -- better known in the diplomatic world as N.G.O.'s, or nongovernmental organizations -- are essential to Africa's burgeoning democracy, giving communities the money and power to take part in their own development and circumvent ineffective or corrupt governments.

To critics, they are new colonialists who instill dependency among Africans, and their contributions to Africa's development are hard to measure.

Whatever the reality, the central role played in foreign aid by these organizations is acknowledged by their prominent place this week at the poverty and development conference in Monterrey, Mexico. An estimated 25,000 such organizations operate around the world.

"Five years ago, 50 percent of World Bank projects had N.G.O. involvement," said William Reuben, coordinator of the bank's N.G.O. and civil society section. "Now that figure is 70 percent." Since last year, the organizations have assumed an important policy-making role in 32 developing countries that have qualified for debt reduction. Those countries have agreed to consult with private aid groups on how to use money freed up from the debt reduction.

Most of the organizations involved in those efforts are local, not branches of international ones, Mr. Reuben said. Increasingly, he said, Western donors are financing local groups directly, instead of going through international structures. "It's becoming a trend and that has made the international N.G.O. community think about their role," Mr. Reuben said. The first rethinking about aid to Africa took place with the end of the Cold War. Until then, rich nations gave money directly to African governments and mostly financed the buildup of infrastructure.

But in the early 1990's, as the West tied aid to democratization, the independent organizations began flourishing. Foreign N.G.O.'s were respected for their skills in carrying out development projects that would actually benefit ordinary Africans; the local groups, meanwhile, were the foundation of a civil society necessary for democracy.

"That shift was much more beneficial and had more impact," said Chris Conrad, the programs director for southern and western Africa for CARE, one of the biggest independent aid groups. Mr. Conrad, who has worked in Africa for 25 years and is now based in Johannesburg, pointed to community-sponsored schools in Mali. With the Malian government unable or unwilling to build schools, many communities have started their own, with the help of private aid groups.

Some critics say the organizations have created dependency among Africans and their governments, which rely increasingly on them to provide services that would ordinarily be filled by the state. At one extreme, relief groups are providing so many services in places like Angola and southern Sudan that the authorities there can use their resources for long-running wars.

But even in a peaceful country like Mali, does helping a village build a school absolve the government of its real responsibility?

Bruce Wilkinson, a senior vice president for World Vision in Washington who spent 15 years in West Africa, rejects that criticism. "Creating dependency is a problem," he said. "But what's the alternative? If vaccination coverage is 5 to 10 percent in a specific area and there is no N.G.O., that vaccination coverage will continue at those levels for the next generation. How many children will die?"

Careful decisions, however, can limit dependency, Mr. Wilkinson said. After a drought in Mali, he said, food was supplied to herders. "We saved many lives," he said. "But we stayed too long, and they didn't return as quickly as they should have to their herding or other income-generating activities."

Critics of the groups say they have so much power that the good they do is undermined by the side effects of their presence. The groups are a new way for Western governments to perpetuate their influence in Africa, these critics say, and are in reality not accountable to Africans. The groups that provide relief are a big business that thrives on disasters. Often, they hire away the most-talented Africans, lured by salaries that African governments or businesses cannot match, experts say.

Many organizations that do not focus on development, but are advocates for human rights and other causes, are simply businesses that collect grants from Western donors, critics say. In Nigeria, some of these organizations participated fully in the fight against past military regimes, but others appear to do little except to insert their names occasionally in a newspaper article.

"In Africa, a $10,000 grant buys you an N.G.O., so these groups have multiplied exponentially," said Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "One of their main characteristics is that they have three people: a director, a secretary and a driver. They do not have members. Their usefulness in promoting democracy is very limited."

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