The significant growth and development of the NGO sector over the last few decades raises the question of whether NGOs are a permanent feature on the development landscape. Recent moves toward democratization of political systems and governments - in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America - have led to even greater recognition of the role of development groups in civil societies. An increased scope for NGO involvement in the process of development seems assured.
There is a realization on the part of governments, particularly in the developed countries, that "there is a vital connection between open, democratic and accountable political systems, individual rights and the effective and equitable operation of economic systems with substantial reductions in poverty. Participatory development requires strategies and approaches which combine effective economic policies, equitable access to basic social and economic services and broader participation in decision-making on the orientation of government policies and programmes". (DAC 1991 Report on Development Cooperation)
To promote effective people's participation and participatory development, NGOs are able to provide structures and mechanisms for the involvement of people. Because of their access to grassroots community groups, they are in touch with local realities. They articulate the problems found at grassroots level and assist communities in seeking solutions. NGOs help to conceptualize and formulate projects that respond to communities' particular needs and constraints.
NGOs and people's organizations are organized forms which demonstrate people's participation. People's participation implies empowerment. Empowerment as defined by the UN Research Institute for Social Development is "the organized efforts to increase control over resources and regulative institutions in given social situations, on the part of groups and movements of those hitherto excluded from such control". Empowerment means making people aware of their situation and helping them to address their own problems. It is a process of achieving greater political, social and economic rights.
With governments in the developing countries facing ever-increasing difficulty in meeting the basic needs of their populations, NGOs provide a complementary approach by promoting the mobilization of local resources for development. NGOs may also serve as additional channels for development resources from external sources such as donor NGOs and other philantrophic and humanitarian organizations.
NGOs and people's organizations, unburdened with large bureaucracies and noted for their flexibility and innovativeness, are often able to implement programmes and activities more effectively. NGOs are able to respond more quickly to grassroots needs, implement projects at a faster pace and gather feedback sooner than other types of development agencies. In most cases, NGOs are able to muster the necessary skills and expertise needed to carry out pilot programmes and projects and to implement government programmes for social service delivery. In certain cases such as in Bangladesh, the scale of operations of some NGOs has gone beyond pilot projects. With small or even non existent bureaucratic structures, NGOs typically have far lower operating costs than government service delivery mechanisms.
The effectiveness of NGO interventions in the development process hinges, to a large extent, on whether or not the policy environment is conducive. Governments which actively welcome NGO involvement and participation in the development process provide a policy environment where NGOs are viewed as partners and not as competitors.
As discussed earlier, NGOs may function as service contractors for government programmes and projects, they may monitor and assess government programmes and projects, or they may provide government with input to the policy-making process. While there will always be some differences in the perspectives of government and NGOs/POs concerning development strategies, there is strong case for continuing the existing dialogue and moving towards greater collaboration and cooperation. In order to pursue interaction and dialogue, governments, NGOs and people's organizations need to have a common understanding at all levels; this is particularly critical among senior and middle-level government and NGO staff. The higher the level of interaction among development actors, the more effective development interventions will be. Efforts to institutionalize mechanisms for dialogue and interaction should be made wherever possible.
The role of the donor community is a key to the total picture. As NGOs play an increasingly significant role in promoting people-centered development activities at the grassroots as well as national and international levels, both bilateral and multilateral donors are exhibiting a growing interest in and support for NGOs.
In recent years, there has been a marked shift in donor policy with regard to the types of projects or programmes being supported. In the past, most donors considered only individual projects; today, many provide block grants or programme funding which results in greater flexibility for NGOs. Donors have also expanded from funding community-level project delivery; they are increasingly taking into account other NGO needs such as networking, institution building, development education and advocacy. There is a growing awareness in the donor community - bilateral, multilateral and NGO - of the importance of providing support for the changing roles and needs of NGOs and people's organizations.
With the phenomenal growth of the NGO sector throughout the world, a number of issues need to be addressed by NGOs. The first is how NGOs can ensure accountability to their constituencies, which include the grassroots or community groups that they service and assist, other NGOs, donors, and the government. Public accountability requires transparency and openness on the part of NGOs with regard to their programmes, projects and activities as well as their financial operations.
Related to accountability is the need for NGOs to set up systems to monitor their own performance and ensure the quality of the work done. Monitoring systems and other forms of control instituted by the NGO community at national and local levels will help discourage the emergence of "fly-by-night" or pseudo NGOs.
NGOs also need to consider ways to enhance their own abilities in order to make the greatest impact. NGOs recognize that they still lack many necessary skills, particularly in view of changing realities which call for new types of interventions. Commitment, good intentions and good feelings are not sufficient. The bottom line is a professional approach to development. NGOs need to maintain and develop their "quality circle" approach, their capacity to view and implement projects in an integrated manner - distinct from the more compartmentalized approaches of government.
One very important mechanism for NGOs to facilitate their own capacity building and monitoring within the sector is through networks and coalitions. Networking not only provides opportunities to link up in order to obtain financial and technical resources. It also can lead to group accountability within the NGO community. Networking based on geographic proximity should be facilitated at all levels - local, national, regional and international. Networking on the basis of common issues and concerns is another worthwhile pursuit. With the rapidly increasing numbers of NGOs, it is essential that the sector move towards expanding and strengthening alliances based on common agendas and a shared vision.
NGOs also need to continue building their own popular bases for political and financial support. Even as donors expand their support of NGOs and NGO activities, NGOs should begin to address the issue of over-dependence on donor assistance and to develop schemes for greater self-reliance.
With regard to their relationships with government, NGOs need to initiate and strengthen lines of communication and interaction with government. NGOs have a responsibility to present well researched, responsible positions to government on matters of mutual concern. Closely connected with this is the need for capacity building by NGOs, as discussed above.
As a first step, many governments need to assess existing policies and the legal framework for NGO involvement in the development process. The legal framework includes regulatory and financial measures that affect NGO operations. Policies that constrain NGO participation should be reviewed with a view to providing NGOs with a favourable environment for contributing to development. This favourable environment includes governments providing NGOs and POs access to information on various aspects of their work. Moreover, major efforts should be directed towards lessening bureaucratic and "red tape" including simpler procedures for accounting and auditing. If accreditation of NGOs is made mandatory as a prerequisite for government/NGO collaboration, simple, non-bureaucratic means for granting formal recognition to NGOs should be developed.
Where governments are committed to pursuing the active participation of people in development, inputs from the NGO and PO sector on relevant policy questions should be sought on a regular basis. Through consultations and other similar mechanisms, NGOs and people's organizations can provide important inputs to the policy-making process. However, government should make a clear distinction between development-oriented NGOs and private businesses when referring to the participation of the "private sector" in policy-making bodies and government programmes.
At the level of projects, NGOs can be actively drawn into the project cycle - beginning with conceptualization and on through formulation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. NGO involvement is particularly relevant at the local level. With increasing government decentralization of decision-making and resource allocation, partnerships with NGOs can be particularly effective at the lower levels of governmental administrative structures.
In the past governments have sought to organize various sectors such as farmers, peasants, fisherfolk or community groups and clubs. Community or sectoral organizing and mobilizing of base groups are also recognized as a particular area of competence for NGOs. Many NGOs have high levels of competence and strong track records in developing self-help groups and pre-cooperative societies. It is the NGOs' strong view that governments should avoid duplication of efforts by exercising the principle of subsidiarity; that is, that they should not perform work that NGOs are already doing. In essence, government-related organizations should not be promoted in areas where NGOs have already organized base constituencies or where NGOs/POs have the chance to facilitate people's self-organization.
One concrete step that governments could take to facilitate relations with NGOs and people's organizations is to identify focal points within key government ministries for dealing with NGOs.
For international development organizations
International development organizations, particularly bilateral and multilateral agencies, need to involve NGOs in dialogue and policy discussions with government with regard to development cooperation. They also need to incorporate NGO involvement in the projects they support.
Bilateral and multilateral agencies can also provide increased funds for NGO projects through a variety of mechanisms. As much as possible, these funds should be in the form of block grants, to allow for greater flexibility in responding to the needs of POs and NGOs. Areas in need of increased support include institution building, networking, research and fact-finding to enhance NGOs' capacity to engage in advocacy and policy dialogue.
International NGOs, particularly in the North, need to advocate favorable policies towards countries in the South. They also have a responsibility for ongoing consultation with Southern NGOs, to achieve a common vision and true sense of solidarity.