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What's With NGOs?

The role of non-governmental organizations in development has been subjected to numerous praise and criticisms in literature. Fisher (1997) reviews these schools of thought and identified two separate sets of views. One view regards NGOs as “apolitical tools that can be wielded to further a variety of modified development goals” while the second imposes large expectations of NGOs as “vehicles for challenges to and transformations of relationships of power”. Other theorists hints on another significant criticism of NGOs: their potential to eclipse the role of the state (Collier 2000, Putzel 2004, Kamat 2004) and succeed as agents of development at the cost of the state legitimacy (White 1999).

NGOs Replacing the Government?

NGOs in Bohol, despite its good intentions to supplement the efforts of the provincial government, have the potential to replace the state’s role as provider of basic services, thereby decreasing the LGUs accountability to the general public in terms of basic service provision. To proceed with the analysis, financial inputs - defined here as funds that were allocated to certain specific expenditures, namely, livelihood development and health, were used to compare NGO and LGU spending in the year 2006.

An analysis of the figures showed several significant interpretations. First, lesser amounts were allocated by both NGOs for health expenditures or programs while greater amounts were allocated to livelihood development, more particularly in the Third District. Second, NGO finances more livelihood development initiatives as compared to LGUs, but the reverse is true for health projects. The difference, in this regard, is very material. Third, NGOs collectively, planned to spend twice more than what LGUs intend to spend in the period covered for health and livelihood initiatives.

A closer scrutiny of the data will reveal significant realizations. For example, there are several towns where the LGUs did not budget anything on health while NGOs spent a considerable sum. This is also true with respect to livelihood development. Livelihood development, despite its importance, is not considered a basic service expected by LGU, hence, its underinvestment, despite its great importance to achieving sustainable decrease in poverty incidence. This is particularly true in the towns of Trinidad, Bien Unido, Alicia, and San Miguel.

The data, however, also points out to a reverse causality – that because municipalities were poor, resources were limited to allocate effectively on different levels of deprivation. Thus, in these types of scenarios, augmentation of local resources through NGO projects were one of the alternative options explored and sought by LGUs. Thus, it was understandable that in one consultative forum on poverty where municipalities were ranked as to levels of deprivation, a handful of municipal heads questioned the researchers why their municipalities were not considered as poor in anticipation of possible project assistance from donors (PEF 2004).

It can be said that the level of engagement between LGUs and NGOs in the province were more on the level of partnership, where NGOs, not having the intention to replace the state, were willing to own a particular problem to address. As such, in this case, NGOs can be seen as part of the process of configuring state institutions and state processes (Kamat 2004).

However, it may still be right to say that in the process, NGOs may have tended to create expectations on the part of LGUs, resulting to under-funding of critical poverty alleviation measures and basic state functions because of the anticipation that this will be handled by NGOs. Consequently, instead of proactively finding means within its boundaries to raise the needed funds, LGUs ,may have relied on NGO projects to fund most of its development interventions, some of which are its basic mandated functions. It is important to mention here, that NGOs are not permanent structures in the localities, and may cease to exist depending of availability of project grant funds or changes in organizational priorities. Thus, sustainability of these local development processes becomes a big question.

NGOs Help Themselves by Helping the Poor?

A very serious critique against NGOs was that NGOs were full of “charlatans only after the money” and were starting to become “entrepreneurial economic entities” or “opportunist pretenders” (Meyer 1995). NGOs were viewed as helping themselves by “helping the poor” (Lofredo 2004). Thus, it is important to ask whether this accusation is applicable to NGOs in Bohol.

Majority of NGOs in Bohol are dependent on project grants. A review of their audited financial statements revealed that most of them rely on grant funds both for project and administrative expenses. There are only a very few NGOs which have earning fund investments and income-generating projects able to sustain operations. Consequently, most of the employees were project-based, working on contracts that were co-terminus with project grant funds. Tenure of most employees were assured to the extent that grant funds were available, except for those considered as “core staff”.

Several key informants from funding agencies interviewed opined that a handful of NGOs were concerned with how much they were able to generate from a project. In a provincial forum hosted by a funding agency in 2006, a representative of the NGO network, the Bohol Alliance of Non-Government Organizations, expressed his concern over the small amount that implementing NGOs would be able to receive from the project grants if the new system proposed by the funding agency would be implemented. While this necessarily did not support the argument that NGOs are self-interested enterprises, this will tell us that NGOs were particular with how much funds they were able to get, whether or not this was for poverty reduction.

A study conducted comparing administrative and project expenses revealed that not all grant funds went to communities that NGOs committed to serve (Cemini, et al 2007). Forty-two (42) NGOs in the province were interviewed regarding their project funds for the period 2005 to 2007. It is interesting to note that among the 42 NGOs, seven (7) NGOs refused to give the project and administrative expense amounts reasoning out that this was confidential.

The research revealed that project expenses only accounted for 43% of project funds while 53% was for administrative expenses of NGOs. Thus, the actual benefit of the communities is lesser than that of the NGO by close to twenty million pesos over a period of three years. This somehow would prove the contention that NGOs exist for themselves as they exist for others. It is not implied here that NGOs are self-interested individuals but to point out to the reality that NGO existence depended on grant funds that they were able to source out in the course of implementing projects in communities and still, NGOs are “vulnerable” to movements and trends in development aid (Fowler 2000).

NGOs Create Dependency?

Finally, the third critique that I would like to mention is the possibility that by helping communities, NGOs unintentionally “overlook existing local capacities and responsibilities” and can “result to doing more harm than good.” (Collier 2000). NGOs, despite attempts to ensure bottom-up approach in development practice, have the tendency to encroach, not only on the state’s responsibility to provide access to basic needs, but also on the individual’s, household’s or community’s capacity to provide for their own.

An evaluation study of an area development program implemented by World Vision Development Foundation in partnership with a community organization in 3 municipalities in Bohol revealed that over-investment on education of children have tended to create dependency on the part of their parents, to the point that some parents were reported to have asked for necessities that they themselves have the responsibility to provide (Canares 2005). Similarly, another evaluation of a project implemented by another NGO in 10 upland barangays in the central part of the province reported that some people’s organizations assisted through the project were becoming increasingly dependent on the project to solve their community problems (Canares 2006).

This reality is not new in development literature. The argument that NGOs create dependency were highlighted especially in the stark context of humanitarian assistance (Summerfield 1996, Vaux 2001). Though it has been argued that NGOs can not create this dependency because the amounts spent were immaterial as compared to the needs of individuals or communities (Stockton 1998), it can also be argued that the amount was not an issue but the act in itself. The thought alone that help will come, though how small, would create a rule of expectations that when continually reinforced at every occurrence of need, may have resulted to dependency. This is an important concern that NGOs need to contend with in the design and implementation of projects and programs because instead of helping to eradicate poverty, they may reproduce it in a certain way.

To do good – giving food to a child, treating the sick, providing potable water, training people for improved livelihood - is oftentimes considered unassailable. But it can always be argued that good actions do not necessarily bring good results and that the goodness of an act is not intrinsic in itself (as contended by deontologists) but is dependent on the results that it later generates (as argued by consequentialists) (Slim 1997).

What I would like to argue, that while what NGOs have done in the province were essentially good but they may have not yielded good results altogether. To have a more nuanced frame in understanding development work is necessary in order to ensure that NGOs do not help in reproducing the same structures and institutions that cause, rather than eradicate poverty.


Perez said…
Excellent post, and about time this issue was discussed in relation to Bohol. I haven't read all the literature on NGOs but I do think that the real appeal of NGOs is that they act faster and more efficiently than government in many cases.
I can't help thinking that there is a very simple solution to the problems you raise. Simply redefine NGOs. An NGO must follow the principle of sustainability and 'working itself out of a job'. In other words, if the NGO is working on water quality they must write their goals into their charter and there must be a sign-off date, after which time the NGO is automatically dissolved. It might be five years or ten years but when the deadline arrives the water quality standards must be reached and their must enough locals trained in water quality monitoring and maintenance to take over all the functions of the defunct NGO. The role of the provincial government would be to make sure the NGOs are accountable to this by setting a policy that no NGO can operate in Bohol unless its goal is to 'work itself out of a job'. This means that NGOs would have to work closely with government because, after all, it's most likely to be the government that would be handling the transition to full sustainability.
Anonymous said…
thank you for such an enlightening post about the NGOs in Bohol. I believe that there is so much that NGOs and civil societies in Bohol must reflect upon... on how do thye do their work, the quality of outcomes and the sustainability of their interventions. In recent years, the NGOs in Bohol have received tremendous amounts of development aid from AusAID and other donor agencies. Forerunners on this are the NGO members of BANGON and international NGOs in Bohol such as World Vision and Feed the children, along with many others. But the question that reverberates in my mind is "what happened"? A good reflection area for NGOs, (I do hope they still have the time to read this..).. is are we really effecting change??? On a sidenote, consultancy work in Bohol stepped up as well, so is the consultancy fee... Ha! if you can only delve into the amounts of consultancy fees in many projects in Bohol, well, maybe "there is money in Poverty indeed". its sad that development work is being replaced by development consultancy! I hope you can elucidate on this point next time in your blog.
Anonymous said…
Bro,try reading Nicanor Perlas' book entitled, "Shaping Globalization". It's about civil society and its relationship to government and business on a global scale.

Nicholas Dee
Anonymous said…
This is a great analysis. My perspective comes from the US-based nonprofit organization models. I've worked in the Gulf Coast rebuilding the communities affected by Hurricane Katrina and I've noticed there will always be two types of organizations: the national organizations who want to be noticed by other funders for their dedication in this impoverished region in the short-term, and the organizations who truly commit to building capacity and strong local leadership on the long-term.

To make capacity-building more a reality, this must be a very intentional objective and outcome, and it often takes the most time to develop.
reaearch paper said…
Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.
Orton said…
It is important that the ngos receive feedback also on how they are perceived. People react to perceptions which may or may not be the truth.

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