In a perfect world, every state would be able to equally serve, represent, and protect its people. However, as we know all too well, the world is far from perfect. The effectiveness of the state varies immensely across different countries, communities, and groups, leaving many individuals falling through the cracks of development in bureaucratic, impersonal systems. Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) are thought to repair some of the damage done by the state by taking more personal, community-based approaches, but they are short term fixes. As a recent Guardian article explained about NGOs in Malawi, “Many NGOs don’t work closely with local communities, so when they leave, projects collapse.” (Pensulo)
According to S. A. Zaidi, the only solution to the failures of the state is to strengthen the state itself. Zaidi argues that “NGOs are usually not in a position to address the causes of the problems their project has been designed to address.” (Zaidi, 268) While I agree that most NGOs have very limited impact on the sources of issues, I do not think the state is necessarily the solution. It is not an issue of a government versus nongovernment program, but rather the ability of a program to act without restraints and contextualize. Large scale interventions often have sufficient resources to create change, but fail to contextualize the interventions, while smaller programs have the adaptability needed to address individual needs and act without restraints, but often lack the resources to create large scale or sustainable change. The root of the problem is this: the more funding a program receives, the less ability it has to determine its own agenda.
Funding is a necessary part of any aid project, but the demands of donors can weaken the mobility and flexibility of a program. The more degrees of separation between the donors and the intended beneficiaries, the more barriers there are to the effective use of resources. Donors are often more focused on numbers than people, and statistical evidence is easier to gather for single diseases or vertical campaigns. While vertical campaigns can be effective, they attack specific problems in society without addressing the structural problems that give rise to the problem. Smaller NGOs are better able to understand underlying problems in a community, but may have difficulty gaining traction for funding. Name recognition is a barrier for small NGOs to draw in funds, so “already large INGOs are likely to further grow at the detriment of smaller and passive players.” (Greensmith) Even if a program is funded, it must produce desired results to continue to receive funding. In the case of HIV treatment in Sierra Leone as presented in HIV Exceptionalism, drugs were overprescribed because “staff members worried about if they would be perceived as ineffective bureaucratic managers of donor goods if they had an overstock of drugs.” (Benton, 126) When funding is the priority, the goal is shifted from assisting communities in need to pleasing donors.
We can continue with the example of HIV in Sierra Leone to show the importance of contextualization. Disclosure of one’s HIV status is a powerful tool – it can prevent transmission, reduce discrimination, and relieve the psychological burdens of diagnosis. With all these positive benefits, it is difficult to see why disclosure would not be encouraged and accepted, and perhaps programs would operate on the assumption that disclosure will happen between sexual partners and families, but this is often not the case. As Benton explains, decisions of disclosure must be “interpreted within local moral notions of secrecy and concealment that are linked to gender and class.” (Benton, 72) Understanding the social context of programs is so important for a program to be effective, and extremely difficult to achieve on a large scale since it varies from country to country, community to community, and person to person.
No matter the amount of funds, if the proper framework is not in place, it is a lost cause. This is not so much a matter of state versus NGO, but top-down versus bottom-up approaches. While there is no universal answer, we have seen time and time again resources lost to worthwhile causes by programs without an understanding of the target community. An example of this was PEPFAR funding in Mozambique, where “the result is an ART scale-up with millions of new dollars flowing into the health sector but little support for the building blocks of the health system that make the scale-up possible.” (Biehl & Petryna, 174) An approach that first focuses on establishing the framework at the ground level before introducing funding may be more effective. Once funding is received, the program still must have the freedom to make decisions based on the beneficiaries and not the donors. This will help ensure that the priority is where it needs to be to create change.
1. Is it possible for an NGO to create a sustainable structural change, or as Zaidi claims, does it have to come from the state?
2. Is the type of organization (state vs. NGO) the most important consideration in determining potential impact, or is the type of intervention (bottom-up vs. top-down) more important?
3. How do we address the problem that large programs that receive the most funding are the least in control of their agendas?
1. A. Benton. 2015. HIV Exceptionalism: Development Through Disease in Sierra Leone. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
2. C. Pensulo. “NGOs in Malawi: What Happens When Donors Leave?”The Guardian. N.p., 28 Sept. 2015. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
Link: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals network/2015/sep/28/ngos-in-malawi-what-happens-when-donors-leave
3. J. Biehl & A. Petryna, eds. 2013. When People Come First: Critical Studies in Global Health. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
4. J. Greensmith. “Global Policy Forum.” Trends in Fundraising and Giving by International NGOs. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
5. S. Akbar Zaidi. 1999. “NGO Failure and the Need to Bring Back the State.” Journal of International Development 11(2): 259.