The current state of world affairs is regrettably quite bleak. With increasing poverty, civil unrest, sectarian conflict, inequality and struggles for power, tackling complex problems are not only challenging but multifaceted. An individual’s health and security, among other necessities, predominantly depends on the quality of services that a country renders for its own people.
However, some of the crucial services lie far beyond the mandate or capacity of individual nation states especially developing ones. International organizations (IOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) seek to fill the void through development assistance. But which does a better job?
The amplified growth of IOs has led to an increase in their political significance, financial resources and personnel since the establishment of the UN after World War II. Evidence of the practical importance of IOs can be seen in the considerable loans and grants provided to them by international development banks and funds. Furthermore, the sheer number of personnel employed by IOs signifies their political weight. For instance, the World Bank is the largest specialized agency with over ten thousand employees. IOs thus hold a degree of legitimacy as well as practical value. They supply forums through which states can mitigate “collective-action problems” that threaten stable patterns of collaboration and offer forums for international cooperation.
IOs further contribute to the creation and implementation of norms and rules regarding transnational problems. In fact, it is argued by some scholars that the absence of IOs would make it difficult for states to address the substance of contemporary world politics. IOs have the capacity and ability to provide tools and resources to advanced states. They have specialist expertise at their disposal which becomes vital to attaining development goal outcomes and the undertaking of difficult policy matters.
In contrast, NGOs act as coordinators for global and national level development and humanitarian efforts. NGOs improve decision making processes because they contribute information, arguments and perspectives not always expressed by governments. They offer a vast array of specialized knowledge and resources which governments are frequently lacking and by improving the availability of resources and expertise, NGOs aid in elevating the policy debate. NGOs further have the ability to help ensure decisions are made from “open and transparent” exchange and can be effective at distributing information at national levels, gaining public support and understanding. They have a direct line to citizens on the ground and have a vested interest reaching certain development and humanitarian norms. NGOs increase transparency through their recruitment of local volunteers and accessibility all the while remaining beneficial to governments who want to see increased developmental results.
For instance, the Red Cross/Red Crescent’s volunteer work is estimated to have a global value of US 6 billion dollars annually. NGOs thus have the advantage of being associated with the “conscience” of international civil society. NGOs can even amply public confidence. This all leads to increasing the legitimacy of NGOs as they are seen to be representing the interests of a global community.
The question that presents itself is whether development assistance is better directed through IOs or NGOs? Unfortunately, determining the answer to this question is not a straight forward, black and white matter. Both IOs and NGOs have their strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and shortcomings. However, NGOs hold several key attributes which make them superior candidates for governments compared to direct development aid.
NGOs do not share the same dependency on states that IOs do. IOs are routinely supported monetarily by states through various means, such as membership fees. This can be problematic when membership fluctuates downward, equating to a loss of money. In addition, by having states contribute money, those who contribute large amounts can use it as leverage to increase their own influence and power. IOs consequently have the potential to become an instrument of a government’s foreign policy.
By NGOs not being attached to states they avoid the internal structural problems of hierarchy and are not as susceptible to corruption. NGOs further have the advantage of operating outside government control and official scrutiny. However, accountability in this sense can be problematic given the lack of supervision. This means that NGOs must look for funding from a variety of donors. NGOs are thus faced with immense pressure to ensure their funds are used appropriately so that their reputation is left unblemished to compel future donors to contribute to their cause. This means that money donated to NGOs is more likely to truly end up where it is supposed to.
Finally, an essential requirement for development effectiveness is neutrality. It is a crucial characteristic in international development for gaining trust and respect. NGOs reach a higher degree of neutrality and impartiality simply by not being tied to state governments. Moreover, NGOs hold a larger degree of freedom in most instances to channel aid based on their organizational mandate as opposed to the interests of states. NGOs also draw advantages in proficiency in advocacy and operational capability. By being integrated into the local population while holding international recognition, NGOs are located at both the level where they can partake in high level decision-making forums and possess on-the-ground presence and expertise. This positioning ultimately allows NGOs to better tailor their assistance as well as implement more sustainable programs.
Thus it can be argued that NGOs are simply in a better position to act without the interference of state powers. Their degree of independence from state entities, obligation to prove their legitimacy as organizations, and integration with the local populations strikes an important balance between organizational effectiveness and the achievement of results. What this suggests is that NGOs should be designated as the more appropriate of actors to deliver development assistance.
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Sohaib Gabsis is an M.A. candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and currently sits on the G78 Board of Directors. He holds a B.A. in Human Right and a B.A. Honours in French and English literature. Previously, Sohaib worked with the UN – International Labour Organization on the Syrian refugees crisis in Amman, and later worked on the ILO-IPEC programme.
Featured Photo by Sohaib Gabsis