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Global Poverty Research Group

Have NGOs 'Made a Difference?'
From Manchester to Birmingham with an elephant in the room

Michael Edwards

Global Poverty Research Group


SARPN acknowledges the ESRC Global Poverty Research Group as a source of this document:
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In 1991, David Hulme and I found ourselves in a bar at the University of Hull enjoying a post-conference beer. The conversation turned to a mutual interest of ours - the role and impact of NGOs in development - and after a few more pints we hit on the idea that eventually became the first 'Manchester Conference' on the theme of 'scaling-up', later to be summarized in a book called 'Making a Difference: NGOs and Development in a Changing World' (Edwards and Hulme, 1992). Fifteen years on, the NGO universe has been substantially transformed, with rates of growth in scale and profile that once would have been unthinkable. Yet still the nagging questions remain. Despite the increasing size and sophistication of the development NGO sector, have NGOs really 'made a difference' in the ways the first Manchester Conference intended, or have the reforms that animated the NGO community during the 1990s now run out of steam?

In this paper I try to answer these questions in two ways. First, through a retrospective of the Manchester conferences - what they taught us, what influence they had, and how NGOs have changed. And second, by picking out a couple of especially important challenges in development terms and assessing whether NGOs 'stood up to be counted', so to speak, and did their best in addressing them. These two approaches suggest somewhat different conclusions, which will bring me to the 'elephant in the room' of my title.

It is obvious that making judgments about a universe as diverse as development NGOs is replete with dangers of over-generalization, and difficulties of attribution, measurement, context, and timing. I suspect my remarks may be particularly relevant for International NGOs and to larger intermediary NGOs based in the South. So with these caveats in mind, what does the last decade and a half tell us about the role and impact of NGOs in development?

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