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Civil Society and Public Action (IDPM60521) - Assignment

Student number: 7715980

Using experiences in a developing country of your choice explore the strengths and weaknesses of NGOs as development actors

Word count: 3,198


This essay introduces the concept and rise to prominence of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) in Bolivia during the period of structural adjustment. It explores differing perspectives of the strengths and weaknesses of NGOs, drawing on theoretical sources and evidence from Bolivia. The essay then briefly reviews how this may change in the new political context, and, coupled with reduced aid from donors, foresees a potential diminution of NGO-led programmes.

The concept and rise of development NGOs

To define the term NGO is not straightforward, as it has become a “ubiquitous signifier of voluntary action in international development” (Srivinas 2009, 615), which can obscure widely variegated forms and practice. One author identified 18 different types of NGO (Vakil 1997), and recommended classification by means of orientation, level of operation, sectoral focus and attributes. Indeed the process of categorisation itself is not a value-free exercise, as it may, for example be most useful to those wishing to incorporate NGOs into broader development systems (Fisher 1997, 449).

For the purpose of this essay, the primary focus will be on “development NGOs” described as “nominally private, non-profit agencies that act as intermediaries between financial donors and local residents” Gill (1997, 146), although it is recognised that this encompasses a wide range of organisational types. NGOs are understood to embody a part civil society (Teegen et al 2004, 466), which may include other types of organisations, such as peasant organisations, social movements, churches and trade

Civil Society and Public Action (IDPM60521) - Assignment

Student number: 7715980

unions etc, and the for-profit private sector, who are also nongovernmental. Some have questioned whether all NGOs really warrant inclusion in civil society, or whether community originated membership based grassroots organisations are the “true” civil

social organisations (Srivinas 2009).

public, private, and civil society spheres (Hickey and Mohan 2005), although NGOs can behave or are driven to behave very similarly to private organisations (Mitlin et al 2007, 1709 and Edwards and Hulme 2002).

This illustrates the blurring of boundaries between

The rise of NGOs to prominence in development came about with the advent of structural adjustment programmes in many impoverished countries in the 1980s. Until then, national governments and the public sector were seen as the primary actors in development (Kamut 2004). During this period, states were “rolled back” and corrective price-based market systems were allowed to take control. A “new policy agenda” emerged (Edwards and Hulme 2002, Fisher 1997, 444) wherein international development institutions switched to channelling large volumes of funds to NGOs as the favoured means of delivering development. Some have argued that NGOs are the most “pre-eminent” type of organisation able to deliver “‘bottom up’ development” (Kamut 2004, 155) in contrast to the weakness and failure of the state.

Bolivia’s experience during the structural adjustment period of the 1980s was particularly harsh, and although inflation dropped dramatically, tens of thousands of people lost their jobs (Kohl 2010). Real incomes fell by 28.5% between 1980-5 and public sector funding was cut severely. Healthcare spending for example was reduced by 78% (Arellano- López and Petras (1994) 1 ). To ameliorate the hardship the government introduced the Social Emergency Fund (FSE), which was sponsored by the World Bank. In 1988 this amounted to $392m and by 1990 was $738m (Kohl and Farthing 2006). This drew in NGOs as the “planners and implementers of development projects” (ALP 1994, 555) and numbers surged, as can be seen from Fig 1.

1 This work hereinafter abbreviated to ALP

Civil Society and Public Action (IDPM60521) - Assignment

Fig 1

Student number: 7715980

Number of NGOs in Bolivia (1931-2005)

(Source: JICA 2007)

700 International National 600 500 400 300 200 100 0 1931 1941- 1951- 1961- 1971-

During the four years of the FSE programme, which benefited over 1.2m of the 6.3m population, 81% of institutions delivering support were NGOs. Other bodies such as government and private sector contractors received 32% of the funding (Kohl and Farthing 2006, ALP 1994). NGOs were considered to be less wasteful, corrupt and

weighed down with large bureaucracies than states, as a result of their private sector

status (ALP 1994, 561).

coupled with a change in role. NGOs, who under previous autocratic regimes had organised and supported indigenous groups as part of their radical social and political struggle, became deliverers of development programmes (ALP 1994, 556).

The increase in numbers and confidence in NGOs was

Numbers continued to rise, but it appears difficult to establish the current number of NGOs in Bolivia and their income, as NGOs are funded a wide variety of local, national and international sources. Sandoval et al (1998) estimated in 1998 that there were 500 NGOs with an operating budget of US$150-200m, and one author estimated that NGOs

accounted for one third of the aid flows in Bolivia (Healy 2001, 60).

The official source,

Civil Society and Public Action (IDPM60521) - Assignment

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Viceministerio de Inversión Pública y Financiamiento Externo de Bolivia, identifies 534

NGOs but the data is for the period 2003-4 (VIPFE).

Bolivia had received $3bn of bi- or multi-lateral official development assistance, of which

over $1bn was grants. In 2005, (2007) estimated that there were 1600 NGOs, of which

667 were registered, and of these 75 were “international” NGOs (JICA 2007).

of current data means that only a partial picture can be formed of the extent and nature of NGO activity in Bolivia.

Between 2002 to early 2007

The lack

Available data indicates that development NGOs in Bolivia encompass a wide range of entities which include think tanks, rural development institutions, grassroots organisations, and service providers (JICA 2007). The majority of programmes delivered were in the areas of health care, education and small holder agriculture, with many

NGOs spanning multiple sectors (ALP 1994, 562, Boulding and Gibson 2009).

main areas of work were in women’s empowerment (62%), institutional strengthening (53%), farming support (48%), environmental education (47%), and human rights (45%). In addition, a burgeoning microfinance programmes have improved access to financial resources for producers (Healy 2001, 61).


Strengths and Weaknesses of Development NGOs from different perspectives

Notions of “development”

The role of NGOs is influenced by underlying assumptions, predominating goals and ideologies which inform the international development agenda, which themselves change over time. Economic development and growth identified have been described as key determinants (UN 2010, 9), but more recently multi-dimensional “human development” has been promoted as “about sustaining positive outcomes steadily over time and combating processes that impoverish people or underpin oppression and

structural injustice” and “the expansion of people’s freedoms to live long, healthy and

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undertaken in relation to this agenda, and in relation to other actors such as public sector bodies, bearing in mind that comparison are inherently problematic as the measures used are typically qualitative rather than quantitative.

“Development” has been differentiated between “Development” as a technocratic

exercise in delivering programmes, and “development” as a process of social change

(Mitlin et al 2007, 1701).

programmes, directed by donors, is that the structures and unequal power relationships that bring about and perpetuate poverty are not examined or addressed. From the perspective of “development” as an historical process of societal change, involving a transformative power struggle over rights and entitlements, it could be argued that a potential strength of NGOs is in their ability to become politically engaged in a discourse alongside disempowered groups. This includes confronting power structures and challenging the state, private sector interests and the machinery of development (Fisher

A risk with seeing “Development” a NGO-delivered

1997, 445).

economic and liberal democratic theory, incorporated NGOs as de-politicised participants in the process of embedding neoliberal hegemony (Fisher 1997, 445-6, Mitlin et al, 1715). Rather than fulfilling their aspirations of transforming society through discourse in the public sphere the NGOs are co-opted and “captured” (Teegen et al 2004, 469). This can be reoriented as “an externally imposed phenomenon…. herald[ing] and new wave of imperialism” (Mitlin et al 2007, 1700).

Critics have argued that the new policy agenda, founded on neoliberal

Organisational characteristics of NGOs

NGOs are seen as independent of, yet connected to, other civil society organisations and able to “mediate the excesses of the state” (Kamut 2004, 158), and their strengths

have become adopted these as “articles of faith” by the donor community (Tendler 1982,


entrepreneurialism enable the delivery of high quality and innovative services effectively to underserved groups (Teegen et al 2004, 469, Edwards and Hulme 2002, 961).

It is understood that NGOs’ cost-effectiveness, experience, vitality and

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However, many weaknesses of NGOs are the corollary of their strengths (Brown and Kalegaonkar 2002). Their low-cost basis may imply scarce resources which set capacity constraints. Entrepreneurial and innovative organisations may also have underdeveloped managerial capability, and be hard to replicate. A concentration on particular values and concentration on certain target groups may result in restricted programme focus and fragmented relationships with other NGOs. NGOs may also become politicised, causing conflict harmful to delivering development programmes (Kamut 2004, 168-9).

NGOs in Bolivia have been seen as more efficient in administering projects and more

honest in the use of resources than the state (ALP 1994, 555, Kohl 2003).

that NGOs have become low-cost and efficient partly as a result of private-sector imitation necessary under market-style competition for funding from an uneven bargaining position (Mitlin et al 2007, Edwards and Hulme 2002, 961, Teegen et al 2004,

469). One author observed that there is in any case no clear evidence NGOs’ programmes are less costly than the states own plans (Edwards and Hulme 2002, 964), and in another study, for every $100 spent on social development projects by NGOs only $15-$20 was received by the target group, as most of it was swallowed up in overheads (Kohl 2003, 321).

It is claimed

That the NGO sector became an important source of employment for professional Bolivians in a country with few opportunities for graduates (ALP 1994) has led to a situation where NGO employees try to sustain their positions rather than work for programme sustainability (McDaniel 2002, 383). Consequently, this raises questions about the supposed efficiency of delivery, at least for NGOs in Bolivia.

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NGO ability to reach and represent “the poor”

NGOs are perceived to be able to reach and represent “the poor” and other publics and as an “honest broker” between donors, states, publics and grassroots organisations

(Teegen et al 2004).

on a set of values and goals of poverty reduction through application of technical solutions (Teegen at al 2004, Kamut 2004, 168).

NGOs are trusted because of their social welfare orientation built

Kohl and Farthing (2006, 130) provide an example of NGO reach and effectiveness in their participation in the introduction of the ‘Law of Popular Participation’, which involved the devolution of budgets to municipalities. Where NGOs worked alongside the municipal government there was a better distribution of resources for impoverished rural communities (ibid, 136). Where NGOs were absent, local elites could direct funds to their own interests (ibid). NGOs’ educational efforts with local people enabled them to stake their claim for resources and also for recognition of their indigenous identity. It was noted, however, that the longer term involvement of NGOs could lead to dependency and patronage between NGOs and municipalities (Kohl and Farthing 2006, 140), and that as NGOs were dominant in this discourse which sidelined issues such as tenure of land. In this example, NGOs’ role as “honest broker” is mixed although Kohl (2010) is on balance positive about their involvement. Grootaert and Narayan (2004) too observed that NGOs helped steer the focus of regional leaders towards regional development concerns, and away from national politics (p. 1183).

Regarding NGOs ability to lever in resources in favour of local grassroots organisations, McDaniel (2002) documents experiences of an NGO working with the Chiquitanos of Lomerio in eastern Bolivia on a forest management and conversation programme. The strength of the local NGO was that its multiple local, national and international connections enabled it to draw in significantly more funding into an underserved area than would have been otherwise possible (ibid 380). There was, however, a serious power imbalance between the two organisations. The NGO had the budget, technical

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knowledge and equipment, whereas the grassroots organisation was only able to

provide (or withhold) their labour and access to the territory (ibid).

criticism that NGOs’ alignment with grassroots groups is a “mythology” and NGOs adopt “clientelistic relations” with grassroots organisations whereby the latter are not able to pursue more radical political goals (ALP 1994, 557).

There has been

Relationship with donors

Many have argued that entering an unequal relationship with donors has a number of implications which can influence the accountability, legitimacy and performance of NGOs (Edwards and Hulme 2002, Fisher 1997, Brown and Kalegaonkar, 2002). NGO autonomy is eroded as they are converted into service providers, and whilst providing a “palliative” (Edwards and Hulme 2002, 964), they may impede more significant change and are then less likely to question the nature of development itself (Mitlin 2007, 1707). NGOs were seen to move away from their early endeavours in education and empowerment focus to providing social and economic contributions solutions (Kamut 2004, 168).

Although they may be perceived as being aligned to the needs of poor people, funding relationships mean that NGOs’ accountabilities to all their principals have to reconciled, and NGOs may respond more to external concerns rather than those of the


unless the NGO is a membership organisation, the public do not have any formal control

or voting rights (Kamut 2004, 159, Gill 1997, 146).

undermine NGOs’ legitimacy as “honest brokers”, both with national governments and

the publics (Edwards and Hulme 2002, 968).

to mute more radical local organisations and vocal social movements (Srivinas 2009,


Donor power is unlikely to be counterbalanced by the public, in that,

Reliance on donors threatens to

NGOs can end up siding with the donors

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NGOs in Bolivia have exhibited a “notable lack of enthusiasm for participating in the political mobilizations of poor people that have occurred during the 1980s” (ALP 1994, 567) which has been blamed on the ‘top-down’ approach of the donor relationship that “usurped political space that once belonged to grassroots organizations'' (ibid). The competition for funding has resulted in the loss of diversity of NGOs (ALP 1994, 567) as NGOs professionalise and begin to model themselves on their funders’ identities (Teegen et al 2004, 472).

The power of donor accountability was evident to the Chiquitanos, for example, criticised the NGO in that they had to satisfy their donor rather than them, responding to

instruction “from above” (McDaniel 2002, 380-3).

through the apparent technical expertise of NGOs produced somewhat inappropriate solutions. McDaniel reports the wage labour offered, as part of the project did not comfortably fit with the Chiquitanos, who saw it as a low status and risky option

compared with subsistence farming.

a situation where development was being “simulated”, both by the NGO and the Chiquitanos, apparently they were both willingly playing their part but in reality effecting no tangible change McDaniel (2002, 391).

Donor-led perspectives, mediated

Perhaps most tellingly, the same author observed

One of the causes of inappropriate approaches is that the values and experiences of indigenous peoples are dismissed. Over half of the population of Bolivia is made up of indigenous groups, and Healy notes that an influential report produced in the 1940s described the farming practice of indigenous groups as “primitive and antiquated” and “inimical to the country’s immediate development prospects… [and] a barrier to growth” (2001, 20).

Whilst NGOs have been criticised for being too aligned to donors, and in particular USAID (Gill 1997, 164), there are examples where NGOs, particularly smaller organisations, have taken a different path to that of western-style modernization and have been able to participate in a rediscovery of indigenous cultural assets (Healy 2001,

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95). NGO influence has helped to re-establish cultural identities and recover: “forgotten or de-emphasised indigenous cultural resources” (ibid, 27). NGOs have promoted native livestock and crop varieties and farming practices, previously treated with disdain by governments and international donors, but which are much better suited to the local environment than supposedly ‘superior’ Western inputs, and offer a comparative advantage to Bolivian agriculture (ibid, 27).

Future implications for NGOs under the MAS government

Much of the literature reviewed in this essay encompasses the period prior to the new MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo) government in Bolivia under Evo Morales which came to power in 2005. However, there are indications that the environment that has been favourable to NGO proliferation may be changing. A new National Development Plan sets out an altogether different development path to the previous neoliberal approach, with the state as the central actor in national development, and in particular re- establishing control over the country’s valuable natural resources (OECD 2008, MDP 2007). This heralded a new dawn of indigenous rights founded upon the Andean concept of “living well together” (vivir bien entre nosotros) (MDP 2007, 11) and in harmony with the earth. This is contrasted with western and neoliberal notions of improvement of welfare and “living better” at others’ expense (MDP 2007). The role for NGOs, especially those who are funded by external agencies, is facilitating “development” through establishing a collective process of decision and action, rather than people being “recipients” of directives from above (ibid), and thus the strengths which make them attractive to funders may be seen as weaknesses which undermine their legitimacy by the government.

Secondly, there has been growing suspicion of the motivation of foreign-backed NGOs, especially those associated with USAID. Political tensions between Bolivia and the United States over the latter’s perceived support for regional opposition incited coca growers in the Chapare region to expel USAID representatives, accusing them of being

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“agents of imperialism” (BBC 2008), and culminated in the expulsion of the US ambassador in 2008 (Kohl 2010, 117).

Finally, the level of international aid fell between 2006 to 2009 from $2.4bn to $666m (World Bank 2010a) possibly as a result of changing international aid priorities with Bolivia’s graduating from “low“ to “low middle income” status (over $996 per capita GNI) in 2005 (World Bank 2010b). This could indicate a fall in potential funding for international development programmes, although these figures will exclude many other sources. These factors together present an environment in which the role of the NGOs in Bolivia, particularly those backed by US government and who seek to deliver externally defined development programmes, may be diminished.


This essay has explored strengths and weaknesses of development NGOs from different perspectives and has brought experiences from Bolivia which challenges the

“articles of faith” of NGOs.

ability to “reach the poor” and the impact on NGOs' accountability, legitimacy and

performance from their relationship to donors. A key observation is that in attempting to analyse NGOs’ strengths and weaknesses it depends on the presuppositions and goals

in undertaking the task.

NGOs, particularly the ones supported by the US government are implicated in the spreading of neoliberal hegemony and in political destabilisation within the country. The scale and role of NGOs is likely to change, although with the potential for favouring indigenous and grassroots groups, which may perhaps encourage the return of NGOs to their earlier task of supporting indigenous groups through social and political struggle. However, it is as yet unclear how the government will deal with conflicting views across indigenous groups, or whether it is able to overcome historic institutional “inefficiency,

disorganization, and rent seeking” (Kohl 2010, 112) to deliver a more radical and inequality reducing development.

It has focused on NGOs' organisational characteristics, their

The perspective from Bolivia in the current context is that

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Arellano-López, S. and Petras, J. (1994) Non-Governmental Organizations and Poverty Alleviation in Bolivia, Development and Change, 25, 555-568 BBC (2008) Bolivia: USAID se va del Chapare, June 27, [online] Available at

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University of Notre Dame Press Hickey, S. and Mohan, G. (2005) Relocating Participation within a Radical Politics of Development, Development and Change 36(2), 237–262

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JICA Japan Desk Bolivia (2007) Directorio de ONGs que trabajan en Bolivia, La Paz, Bolivia:NGO JICA Kamut, S. (2004) The privatization of public interest: theorizing NGO discourse in a neoliberal era, Review of International Political Economy 11(1), 155–176 Kohl, B. (2003) Nongovernmental organizations as intermediaries for decentralization in Bolivia Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 21, 317-331 Kohl, B (2010) Bolivia Under Morales: A work in progress, Latin American Perspectives 37 (107), 107-122 Kohl, B. and Farthing, L. (2006) Impasse in Bolivia: neoliberal hegemony and popular resistance, London: Zed Books MDP (2007) Plan Nacional de desarrollo - Bolivia digna, soberana, productiva y democrática para vivir bien, Lineamientos Estratégicos 2006 – 2011, La Paz:

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Teegen, H., Doh, J., Vachani, S. (2004) The importance of nongovernmental organizations(NGOs) in global governance and value creation: an international business research agenda, Journal of International Business Studies, 35(6), 463-


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