The bureaucrats we always have with us

Non-Governmental Organisations and Rural Poverty Alleviation
July 5, 1996

After three decades of development initiatives, poverty and underdevelopment are even greater problems than when the "development industry" first began. Recognition of this failure has now become the accepted wisdom: development cannot be solely the concern of governments.

In the search for alternatives, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have been "discovered", peaking up like islands of hope in an otherwise bleak sea. But their new-found popularity has brought hazards as well as opportunities. There are signs that the growth and changes in NGOs are leading to organisational problems.

A range of NGOs has been active participants in the process of development. Those based in the advanced industrial countries have, in the past, attempted to influence governmental policy through direct access to policymakers and through public opinion. Today they recognise that they need to have a much broader view of "governance", incorporating both the market and civil society.

In developing countries, NGOs have had a role in supporting local community organisations working to establish democracy. In the 1990s, this role has gained in importance as the World Bank and bilateral agencies continue to expand their funding of NGO projects. The capacity of NGOs to understand and incorporate local approaches and needs in assisting the poor, thus empowering them, have become increasingly important to development work.

The well-informed research in this book is a major step in placing the NGO contribution to rural poverty in its proper perspective. The methods of assessment of NGOs and their accountability to donors have been weak, with little hard evidence available on their impact. The book takes a critical look at these issues and describes how NGOs can and must improve the way they measure and account for their performance.

It does this by considering the results of 16 evaluations in four countries: Bangladesh, India, Uganda and Zimbabwe. The case-studies fill gaps in our knowledge by presenting a cross-country analysis of projects funded by the British NGOs Action Aid, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development (Cafod), Christian Aid, the Save the Children Fund, Oxfam and a dozen or more NGOs in developing countries, many of whom have responsibility for executing the projects funded, or part-funded with British NGO money.

The book shows that not all NGOs are successful and that they fail to reach the poorest population of rural areas. It is also rare for NGO projects to be financially self-sufficient. At times, too, the NGOs concern to keep costs down has meant that the level and quality of benefits have been affected.

The authors recommend the fostering of a collaborative relationship between NGOs and governments. In each country they admit that the impact of overall NGO effort is usually still marginal in the fight against poverty. They believe that greater transparency on the part of NGOs in respect of the problems that they face in project implementation and the often major problems involved in trying to overcome poverty would not only help to undercut the hollowness of criticisms made against them, it would also reinforce the moral basis of public support for the important work which they are trying to accomplish.

Vandana Desai is a lecturer in geography, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Non-Governmental Organisations and Rural Poverty Alleviation

Author - R. Riddell and M. Robinson with J. De Coninck, A. Muir and S. White
ISBN - 0 19 823330 2
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £35.00
Pages - 303

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