I’ve never quite understood the automatic negative reaction that some people have to NGOs. Being anti-NGO makes about as much sense as being anti-business or anti-government. Every human institution has failures and successes. I suppose it’s possible to argue that a given institution has failed so egregiously that it should be disbanded altogether – but that’s a tough argument to make.

What worries me about anti-NGO sentiment is when it hinders the good work that many NGOs are trying to do. It’s sad when a local leader or a community-based organization is hesitant to get involved with an NGO because the last one failed to listen to local voices, ignored deeply held values, or simply overpromised and then dropped the ball. However, I don’t think such failures are universal, so while some NGOs clearly need to improve how they work, that’s not the point of this post. I’m interested in other ways to combat anti-NGOism.

Overcoming anti-NGO sentiment would be helped by a reframing of what international NGOs are all about. The domestic US nonprofit sector is well ahead of international development in this regard. You’ll often hear reference to the “social sector” or the “mission-driven sector”. Similarly, many new organizations call themselves “social enterprises” in an attempt to distance themselves from the perceived failures of the past, as in: “Oh no, we’re not an nonprofit. Certainly not. We’re a social enterprise.” (Murmurs of approval.) Never mind that many of these social enterprises use the same business models as “traditional nonprofits”.

The benefit of such terms is that they create a positive definition. They state what the sector is for (social good) rather than what it is not for (profit). I think international NGOs could learn from the reframing pursued by US domestic nonprofits. But I’m not satisfied with some of the vague terms used in the domestic space.

I propose the following alternative to “international NGO sector”: multinational civil society. Let’s break it down:

  • I use the word “multinational” as an intentional parallel to multinational corporations. Companies like Nike, Tata or MTN have operations in dozens of countries, and staff hailing from even more. Although the company’s home country influences corporate culture and operations, local conditions are important as well. I think the same is true of organizations like Mercy Corps, BRAC or Grameen. Our staffing, finance, IT and other systems mirror those found in multinational corporations.
  • The term “civil society” highlights the functions that our organizations should fulfill. In contrast, the incumbent term “nongovernmental” does little to frame what we do. It only indicates that the organizations are not governments – so what are they? Many things are not governments (corporations, churches, football teams) so stating that you are nongovernmental doesn’t say much. Civil society is a relatively narrower concept. We understand what civil society is and the roles it plays in a country. Civil society provides services, advocates for change, and convenes actors with similar interests. Most importantly, civil society organizations are truly part of the countries they inhabit. International NGOs have an air of existing outside or somehow floating above the local context. But to be effective, they must be in and of the communities they wish to serve.

This sort of reframing could help to clarify what organizations-formerly-known-as-NGOs are all about. This would help change the perceptions – both within such organizations and among their stakeholders – of what’s possible and what’s appropriate in terms of their involvement in countries and relationships to other actors in the system.

For example, there’s a lot of debate around how international NGOs interact with local organizations. Sometimes NGOs treat the latter as little more than contractors, even while speaking a language of “partnership”. However, if we start to think of an international NGO as part of multinational civil society, we might see how this issue parallels the relationships that national nonprofits/foundations in the US have with their grantees. Those relationships have seen significant innovations in recent years, with the introduction of new models like venture philanthropy. The international development community can learn from those experiences.

You could go so far as to say this is a new model for foreign aid. That argument was recently made in an article by David Holdridge. With regard to US involvement in fragile states like Iraq, Holdridge put his recommendation succinctly: “civil society, not civil service.”

I’m not optimistic that my proposed reframing will catch on. After all, terminology is subject to inertia. Still, maybe this can offer you a new way of thinking about international NGOs.

  1. Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values.

    To what degree are the current iNGOs really multinational civil society? Civil society consists normally of membership based organisations around the interests of the members: unions, churches, chambers of commerce. Most NGOs don’t qualify as such. iNGOs even less.

    NGOs get their legitimici from the work they do and the trust in their leadership. So they should earn their place at the table, without replacing the beneficiaries and their organisations.


    1. I don’t think that being membership-based is the sine qua non of civil society. I would count most philanthropic foundations (Gates, OSI, Carnegie, etc) as part of civil society, but they don’t have members. On the opposite end, many terrorist organizations have members without thereby qualifying as civil society.

      But to your larger point, on whether current iNGOs are part of “civil society” — I agree that it’s a stretch for some of them. For others, less so.


  2. Dear Dave,

    I think I did not make my point clear: the essence is legitimacy. Foundations can do a good job, but the ownership rests fully with board (cfr discussion +Easterly on the Gates Foundation). Not with the poor. It are “Knights in shining armour”.

    Nothing wrong with it. But they speak only for themselves. They might be speaking as benevolent, rich experts, but this should not not give them political legitimacy.


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