Oxfam, Save the Children or Greenpeace are morally good organizations. After all, what is wrong with organizations trying to eradicate poverty, help children or save the environment? 

Nothing. At least at first sight.

In an ideal case scenario, NGOs help strengthen civil society and local communities. Sometimes, they even fully replace governmental structures that are absent. Whether it is disease prevention and health care, infrastructure, education or nutrition, the charitable sector substitutes missing public services in war struck or simply in developing countries where the state cannot reach out to those in need. Other NGOs focus on promoting human rights, gender equality, minority right, individual liberties or democracy. This shows that the size, scale and sector of the different NGOs cannot be put under one roof – they vary immensely in their objectives and methods.

However, I grew more sceptical of the role of many NGOs in society, as well as their ability and willingness to “do good” – whether it is in Europe or abroad. Because NGOs are neither completely good nor bad. They have altruistic and pro-social aims, but that does not make them saints.

NGOs are organizations promoting a special interest – and not the common good. And it is not because they lobby for a good cause that they lack self-interest.

In regards to their size (Cancer Research UK, Oxfam or Mencap being NGOs handling millions of pounds on a yearly basis), they should be under public scrutiny, as every powerful organization able to influence governmental decisions should be. One of the big differences between corporate lobbying and NGOs is that the latter enjoy an incredible public trust, which makes it harder to scrutinize and/or criticize them.

I was struck by the presence of NGOs in everyday life in the UK, much more than in Germany. Of course, there is nothing wrong with solidarity. But at the same time, a large presence of NGOs means that public services are failing to help the poorest, even in developed countries.

NGOs should not substitute government in their tasks to help the population, whether in education, health care or social services.

Why not, you ask?

Because first of all, if citizens pay taxes every month, it is because our democratic system is supposed to make sure there is a welfare state available to anyone.

NGOs are “good” in the sense that they make sure those services are maintained, but are also a “symptom” of the problem.

Secondly, NGOs are partly funded through private donations, which makes public services depended on private sponsoring. This means that if a big donor decides to change the aims of his or her philanthropy, those dependent on the NGO’s work will not receive help any more.

But that’s not all.

Whether at home or abroad, the charitable sector is highly dependent on its reputation.

Indeed, reputation is an important issue when it comes to finding and keeping funding. This means that the stakes are higher to uncover corruption cases and to ensure transparency. NGOs have good reasons to hide mistakes when things go wrong, as it could undermine their work and their organization as a whole. “Nepotism, bribery, fraud, kick-backs and double funding, can divert resources, feed conflict and increase basic costs of services for the poor – undermining the very work of NGOs” says Jo Adetuniji in the Guardian.

Unfortunately, corruption is ingrained in many developing countries, where NGOs are particularly present. This makes it even more important for NGOs to adapt a “zero tolerance” policy towards corruption if they want to avoid scandals and bad reputation, which might eventually affect their funding sources.

Indeed, funding is a tricky subject for NGOs.

Some of them have a hard time to publicly criticize their donors, even if they would have good reasons to do so. This dependence on donors makes the work of NGOs not necessarily easier, and the willingness to publish funding sources might lack. But that’s not all.

What bugs me most is the “political incorrectness” to criticize do-gooders.

It is not because an organization has noble aims and they will also deliver good results or have only positive effects on communities.

Especially in developing countries, NGOs might adapt to the priorities of their funders instead of sticking to their areas of expertise. This leads to “briefcase NGOs” being unintentionally formed, making commitments to their funders they can’t deliver on. Thus the work of NGOs or certain decisions can also be devious or short-sighted in certain situations.

In addition, employees from local communities might see the work in an NGO as a good way of enriching themselves, or a least sustaining a lifestyle they would not be able to lead without the NGO’s presence in the area. This is especially the case when NGOs are the only “working institutions”, acting as employers in a dysfunctional economy:

“In developing countries employment is usually scarce and aid flows and grants generally represent a big share of a country’s revenue pool, which make NGO entrepreneurship or employment attractive options. Under such circumstances it may be imprudent to assume that only individuals with pro-social motivations and charitable missions select themselves into this sector”, according to Ronelle Burger and Trudy Owens.

NGOs don’t always have the relevant expertise to truly help communities. Indeed, the development experts Banerjee and Duflo explained in their book “Poor economics” that the economics of poverty vary from country to country. Thus efficient remedies require significant local knowledge. Local employees are particularly relevant in this respect. Otherwise, NGOs risk sustaining a system highly dependent on them, instead of remaining a temporary solution.

Above all, the work of NGOs is in itself contradictory.

NGOs only exist because of major failings of society and global politics at large. They substitute government and economy, provide food, health care or education where others failed. Thus, in an ideal world, NGOs would not have to exist any more. Of course, there will always be enough human suffering to sustain the work of NGOs. But the fact that the NGO’s aim is to eventually not have any work any more challenges their interest in developing sustainable structures in those countries relying on their work discount cialis online.

This leads me to my last point: NGOs often use fear and sensationalism as ways to raise donations. But it also makes people less sensitive. The constant display of grief and suffering makes people insensitive to their surroundings, and takes away the urgency for help.


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Photo: Banksy


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