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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). This illustrates the blurring of boundaries between
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).

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.

This work hereinafter abbreviated to ALP
Civil Society and Public Action (IDPM60521) - Assignment Student number: 7715980

Fig 1

Number of NGOs in Bolivia (1931-2005)

(Source: JICA 2007)








1931 1941- 1951- 1961- 1971- 1981- 1990- Oct2002-
1950 1960 1970 1980 1989 2001 Nov2005

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). The increase in numbers and confidence in NGOs was
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).

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 Student number: 7715980

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

NGOs but the data is for the period 2003-4 (VIPFE). Between 2002 to early 2007
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). The lack
of current data means that only a partial picture can be formed of the extent and nature
of NGO activity in Bolivia.

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). The
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
creative lives” (ibid 2). Any analysis of strengths and weaknesses of NGOs is therefore
Civil Society and Public Action (IDPM60521) - Assignment Student number: 7715980

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). A risk with seeing “Development” a NGO-delivered
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
1997, 445). Critics have argued that the new policy agenda, founded on neoliberal
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).

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,
3-6). It is understood that NGOs’ cost-effectiveness, experience, vitality and
entrepreneurialism enable the delivery of high quality and innovative services effectively
to underserved groups (Teegen et al 2004, 469, Edwards and Hulme 2002, 961).
Civil Society and Public Action (IDPM60521) - Assignment Student number: 7715980

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). It is claimed
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).

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.
Civil Society and Public Action (IDPM60521) - Assignment Student number: 7715980

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). NGOs are trusted because of their social welfare orientation built
on a set of values and goals of poverty reduction through application of technical
solutions (Teegen at al 2004, Kamut 2004, 168).

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
Civil Society and Public Action (IDPM60521) - Assignment Student number: 7715980

knowledge and equipment, whereas the grassroots organisation was only able to
provide (or withhold) their labour and access to the territory (ibid). There has been
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).

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
“beneficiaries”. Donor power is unlikely to be counterbalanced by the public, in that,
unless the NGO is a membership organisation, the public do not have any formal control
or voting rights (Kamut 2004, 159, Gill 1997, 146). Reliance on donors threatens to
undermine NGOs’ legitimacy as “honest brokers”, both with national governments and
the publics (Edwards and Hulme 2002, 968). NGOs can end up siding with the donors
to mute more radical local organisations and vocal social movements (Srivinas 2009,
Civil Society and Public Action (IDPM60521) - Assignment Student number: 7715980

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). Donor-led perspectives, mediated
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. Perhaps most tellingly, the same author observed
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).

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,
Civil Society and Public Action (IDPM60521) - Assignment Student number: 7715980

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
Civil Society and Public Action (IDPM60521) - Assignment Student number: 7715980

“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. It has focused on NGOs' organisational characteristics, their
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. The perspective from Bolivia in the current context is that
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.
Civil Society and Public Action (IDPM60521) - Assignment Student number: 7715980


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