What is the role of NGOs in development today?

Non-Governmental Organizations are legally constituted organizations that are non-profit and can be said to have social aims (World Bank, 2013). There is no doubt that they play a huge role in development today, with millions of NGOs across the globe combining to make a total operating cost of $1.6 trillion and reach over 250 million people (Kelsall & Hennings, 2007). However I believe that it is not just their large reach that make NGOs crucial to development today but also their role as the most humanitarian contributors to development. In this blog I will argue why I believe them to play to have the role of the humanitarian contributor, and also why I believe they are also beginning to lose the role due to the influence of both the media and governmental bodies, looking at the example of the NGO Oxfam.

The first NGOs that arose were primarily church lead, for example Christian aid was one of the first, created in 1940. (Barrow & Jennings, 2001) Secular organizations have now overtaken these, however,I believe that their religious beginnings have given NGOs in general a benevolent nature by which they aim to help the most disadvantaged groups. In my opinion this has been the defining feature of NGOs, and they have hence gained their eminence due to this, as organizations which can work on local, grassroots development projects to reach the most marginalized communities in a bottom-up approach. Nicola Banks and David Hulme support this theory, arguing that NGO’s impartial nature gives them an important role in development today because top down, governmental approaches often prove to be beaurocratic and hence slow to react, and also wasteful and ineffective due to lack of knowledge, corruption or bias (Banks & Hulme, 2012). Top down approaches can even work against rural communities, in which case NGOs may be employed to fight against development projects backed by the government, such as in the case of the Belo Monte Dam.

Indigenous people protesting against Belo Monte hydroelectric plant

Indigenous people protesting against Belo Monte hydroelectric plant

For more information on Belo Monte please watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-seAAIsJLQ

However, in recent years large NGOs have been looking ever more towards media and communication networks to maximize donor support (Van Rooy, 2010), and this, has lead to critiques of these organizations as publicity oriented. Lauren Gelfand, a journalist who spent a year working for Oxfam stated ‘A lot of what Oxfam does is to sustain Oxfam’ (Gelfand in Rothmyer, 2011,p1.) This suggests that the charity considering . Although this can still be seen as the charity having good intentions, creating innovative projects that catch the public eye may compromise the output of Oxfam’s work. Furthermore, focusing on big projects that draw media coverage can mean they ignore the marginalized communities they were initially set up to help.

An advert for Oxfam Hunger Banquet: Appealing or Effective?

The idea of a ‘Hunger Banquet’: Appealing or Effective?

Moreover, I would argue that donors have an even greater influence on NGOs. Banks and Hulme wrote that due to the involvement of governments and other donors ‘NGOs could no longer be viewed as the autonomous, grassroots-oriented, and innovative organisations that they once were, raising questions about their legitimacy and sustainability’ (Banks, 2012, p31.) In my opinion this can be true as conditional donations can force the NGOs to focus on issues that they otherwise would not. For example donor governments may give the condition that their money goes towards former colony states, distracting the organisation from focusing on less connected populations. On top of this, because so many donors and isolated from local level development issues it is difficult for them to understand what needs doing, meaning large NGOs may lose sight of the real issues. In 1998 one quarter of the US$162 million income of Oxfam was donated by the British government and the EU (The Economist, 2000) indicative that these donors can have a sizeable impact.

Proof of donor interference is that the following video presenting the UK government’s contribution to aid can be found on the Oxfam website: http://www.oxfam.org.uk/what-we-do/the-impact-of-our-work/uk-aid-promise

Although there is limited information to show where NGO budgets are spent, I would argue that they play a significant humanitarian role in development today through reaching the most destitute populations, entailing small scale, grassroots projects. This being said, large NGOs in particular are becoming susceptible to the sway of the media and their donors, drawing them to focus on other issues, and meaning that the most isolated and deprived parts of the world may be left behind in the developing world.


Banks, N. with Hulme, D. (2012) The role of NGOs and civil society in development and poverty reduction, Manchester: Brooks World Poverty Institute.

Barrow, O. and Jennings, M. (2001) The Charitable Impulse: NGOs & Development in East & North-East Africa, Cambria: Long House Publishing Services.

Kelsall, D. and Hennings, C. (2007) A call for mandatory aid project registration: Who’s doing what and where? Can Fam Physician, Nov. 2007, 53(11):1841-2.

Rothmyer, Karen (2011) ‘Hiding the real Africa: Why NGOs prefer bad news’ Columbia Journalism Review 17th March 2011

Van Rooy, A. (2010) ‘Good news! You might be out of a job. Reflections on the past and future 50 years for northern NGOs,’ Development in Practice, 10(3): 300-318.

World Bank (2013) http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/CSO/0,,contentMDK:20101499~menuPK:244752~pagePK:220503~piPK:220476~theSitePK:228717,00.html last accessed 02.01.14


One response to “What is the role of NGOs in development today?

  1. I think you did a good job showing evidence to support both sides of the argument, in a fair way. Your use of videos, pictures, and graphs really helped drive your point across and were informative!

    That being said I think you could have been a bit more provocative with your main question, but you answered the question you put forth well.


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