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Global Poverty Research Group

Reclaiming development? NGOs and the challenge of alternatives1

Diana Mitlin, Sam Hickey and Anthony Bebbington

Global Poverty Research Groups


SARPN acknowledges the ESRC Global Poverty Research Group as a source of this document:
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In 1987, World Development published a supplement entitled 'Development Alternatives: the Challenge of NGOs' (Drabek, 1987). Twenty years of development studies later, everything seems more complicated: it has become defensible to claim that 'there is no alternative,' that the term NGOs has no analytical or even descriptive value, that development is a form of governmentality rather than a project of emancipation, and that it is far more important to ask how the term is used to serve particular (increasingly global) interests rather than to ask what it means. The supplement's title, once eyecatching, now seems to fall apart under the weight of the apparent meaninglessness or impossibility of its terms. This paper attempts to restate this reflection on the relationship between NGOs and development alternatives. It does so through four steps. It begins with a reflection on the concept of 'development,' one that stakes out a terrain on which the term can be defended as having both analytical and normative force. This then lays the base for discussing possible meanings of 'alternative' development. Second, it suggests a conceptualization of nongovernmental organization that gives the term more meaning at the same time as linking it to the concept of development through a reflection on the meaning of civil society. Third, it places a discussion of NGOs and development in terms of relationships and flows that are as much global as local in their reach, and link processes and actors at different sites across space and time. Fourth it offers a review of both historical and contemporary experiences of the roles of NGOs in development and the pursuit of something called 'alternatives'.

Integral to reflections on NGOs for two decades, thinking about NGOs as alternatives has gone somewhat missing of late. The NGO literature has been voluminous since the 1980s, termed by some the 'NGO decade' (Bratton 1989), with these 'new' actors frequently lauded as the institutional 'alternative' to existing development approaches. Critical voices at this point were largely muted, confined to expressing concern that NGOs might be an externally imposed phenomenon that, far from being alternative heralded a new wave of imperialism (Tandon 1991). Apparently inclined to offer the benefit of the doubt, much of the literature focused on locating the importance of NGOs as a key plank within the emerging 'New Policy Agenda', including a new role at the vanguard of donor agendas on 'civil society' and 'democratisation' (Robinson 1995). The diversification and multiplication of NGO activities and their move to the mainstream came under close critical scrutiny, both from supporters and sceptics of the NGO phenomenon. 'Internal' debates looked both ways. On the one hand were discussions of how to scale-up NGO activities (Edwards and Hulme 1992), how to run NGOs more successfully and ensure their sustainability as organisations (e.g. Fowler 1997, 2000a, Lewis 2001) and how NGOs might better manage their relationships (Groves and Hinton 2004). On the other, commentators feared that closeness to the 'mainstream' undermined their 'comparative advantage' as agents of alternative development, with particular attention falling on problems of standardisation and upwards accountability (Edwards and Hulme 1996, Wallace et al 1997), on the effectiveness of NGOs in reaching the poorest (Edwards and Hulme 1995, Riddell and Robinson 1995, Vivian 1994), and an apparent increased tendency to employ 'radical' methods of empowerment such as participation as technical means rather than political ends (Lane 1995). The apparently limited success of NGOs as agents of democratisation came under critique from within (e.g. Fowler 1993) and without (e.g. Marcussen 1996, Stewart 1997, Mercer 2002), while the simmering debate over NGOs as an externally driven phenomenon that threatened the development of 'indigenous civil society' and distracted from more political organisations re-emerged (e.g. Hashemi 1995, Mamdani 1993). Such concerns seemed to feed a period of millennial angst within the sector, with growing calls for 'northern' NGOs in particular to devise new roles and rationales for themselves (Lewis and Wallace 2000) or risk becoming obsolete (van Rooy 2000). NGOs were advised to reach beyond the aid system for alternative forms of funding (Aldaba et al 2000, Fowler 2000b) while also lobbying for a fundamental restructuring of the international aid system itself (Edwards 1999).

However, and while the academic output on NGOs remains more diverse than has been fully reviewed here, what has perhaps been most remarkable of late is the extent to which these critical concerns have been allowed to pass by with very little evidence that they have been seriously addressed. We are arguably no clearer now concerning questions of effectiveness, accountability and successful routes to scaling-up than we were when these questions were raised over a decade ago, let alone concerning the wider challenge of what being 'alternative' means at this juncture (Tandon 2001). And while some NGOs have undergone profound institutional changes (e.g. ActionAid's relocation to South Africa), a sense of complacency concerning these and other key challenges appears to have replaced the earlier sense of angst. It is perhaps a frustration with this as much as anything that encourages us to ask again whether and how NGOs might re-engage with their founding project of offering genuine 'alternatives'.

With this background and the above four steps in mind, the paper elaborates a framework for discussing the links between development and NGOs. It then uses the framework to review NGO modern history, since the 1960s. In the light of that review, the final section suggests possible futures in the relationships between NGOs and alternatives. In this sense, the paper is both analytical and normative for, as will become clear, we are specially interested in particular alternatives - those reworking state-society relationships towards more radical, socially inclusive forms of citizenship (Hickey and Mohan, 2005), and reworking economic relationships such that markets have more potential to become vehicles of social justice.2

  1. A longer version of this paper was prepared as a background paper for the GPRG and Ford Foundation funded conference, 'Reclaiming Development: Assessing the Contribution of NGOs to Development Alternatives Conference', held at Manchester, 27-29 June 2005. We are grateful to comments received on the paper, in particular from Pim Verhallen, David Hulme, Giles Mohan and David Lewis. The work has been made possible by a grant from the ESRC to the Global Poverty Research Group (GPRG) at the Universities of Manchester and Oxford (grant no. M571255001).
  2. The risk is that the paper repeats the limitations of the more general normative turn that Lewis (2005) identifies as a source of much analytical weakness in writing about NGOs and development. We would argue, though, that all development studies is normative, and that what matters more is making one.s normative position clear, and engaging it with a theoretical framework in such a way that avoids a normative commitment becoming a romanticized argument.

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