Wetenschap - 13 juni 1996

Northern NGOs criticised

Northern NGOs criticised

Lack of evidence continues to pose doubts about the impact of the work of private aid agencies or so called NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations) to reduce poverty in countries in the South. With few questions asked many NGOs enjoy public confidence and government subsidies. Their annual budgets can easily run into hundreds of millions of dollars, with the organisations acting as major brokers between the North and the South.

A barrage of criticism was the result of a public debate between scholars, activists and NGO representatives from South and North on the future of NGO development aid, organised by the Transnational Institute (TNI), Thursday June 6 in Amsterdam. According to the critics NGOs are neither fully accountable in their work to their beneficiaries in the South nor to their fund providers and the donating public. The agencies publicise their efforts, but have few successes or visible results to share.

One suggestion is that a quality seal should be imposed, like that given for fair trade and ecologically sound products, which would give an indication of the agency's performance. Although NGOs claim to involve their Southern partners in steering their own development, the agendas are still largely determined by the Northern NGOs. We knock on doors in the South and call out: Hi there, I'm here to help you. How is your sex life, how many children do you have and why ? That is actually what NGOs are doing," states Alan Fowler, former programme officer for the Ford Foundation.

Representatives from Northern NGOs, like Oxfam, Christian Aid and NOVIB agree partly with the criticism but take a rather defensive position in the debate. They admit that the NGO community should be more open to constructive and critical debate over their performance. The debate should not be about effectiveness but about learning. If it ever existed in the first place, solidarity has to be reinvented," sighs Marcos Arruda, coordinator of PACS, a Brazilian institute for alternative policies.

The debate coincided with the launch of TNI's latest publication Compassion & Calculation, The business of private aid (TNI/Pluto Press). In the book Northern and Southern contributors discuss the claims made by the NGOs, their motives and future.

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