Sunday, October 27, 2013

History and development of NGOs

Although voluntary organizations of various persuasions existed long before the twentieth century in the Western and the eastern hemispheres, their identification as NGOs have a more recent history. NGOs are categorized according to their origin and home base. Those coming from industrialized countries are referred to as “northern or international” NGOs while those which originate in and operate within developing countries are labeled as “southern” NGOs.

According to Clark (1990), the early Southern NGOs typically arose out of independence struggles. He cited the case of the Gandhian movement in India, which had many offshoots that still flourish today. These offshoots include “handloom centers and other appropriate technology initiatives; schools concentrating on functional education; people’s courts that use non violent citizens’ pressure to achieve justice for the lowest castes; and campaigning organizations for land reform and other aspects of social justice.”

The historical evolution of Northern NGOs is better understood when viewed according to the six schools formulated by Clark (1990), as follows:

Relief and Welfare Agencies
The first Northern NGOs emerged after the First World War, with relief and rehabilitation as their focus. After World War II, this type of approach was strengthened primarily in war-ravaged Europe. Pioneers of this relief work include, among others, the Catholic Church-based CARITAS, Save the Children Fund, Catholic Relief Services, and Cooperative for American Relief Everywhere (CARE). Shifting their attention to the Third World, they broadened their services with welfare endeavors as an additional feature.

Technical Innovation Organizations
Clark (1990) pointed out another development took place during the 1950s and 1960s when northern NGOs flourished with a new focus or direction. From welfare activities, they shifted to development endeavors. NGOs realized that relief work was palliative. It only dealt with symptoms, not root causes of the problem. Hence, they redirected their institutional work to community based projects. NGOs managed their own projects to pioneer new or improved approaches to problems, which tend to remain specialized in their chosen field. This approach has further opened the eyes of Northern NGOs to the full reality of poverty. In the first locations the symptoms of poverty are apparent, in the second, its root causes.

Public Service Contractors
NGOs at this period followed the conventional model of helping poor communities to become more like Northern societies by importing northern ideas, technology and expertise, unmindful of their local counterpart and other indigenous structures. NGOs set up their own projects, with their own staff to make poor communities a replica of northern societies. Funded mostly by northern governments, they worked closely with Southern governments and official aid agencies.

Popular Development Agencies
It did not take long when NGOs acknowledged and consequently criticized the weaknesses of the traditional development model. Seriously questioning their contribution to it, they started to shift to a new role, that of providing service to the popular grassroots organization and self –help movements. Landim (1987), as cited in Clark (1990) believed that this work was characterized by its small scale, its local (or at least national) leadership and its support for economic and political independence of the poor. Such change of direction, coupled with the increased funding opportunities from northern voluntary sources, led to mushrooming of southern NGOs. Many of these grew rapidly to become “national-level institutions which served as intermediate organizations, channeling assistance from the Northern NGO to the grassroots level.”

According to Broadhead (1988) as cited in Clark (1990), a conglomeration of events further introduced changes in the NGOs’ direction. New political concepts emerging from the Third World intellectuals, such as theology of liberation, generally influenced NGO thinking during this period. Development theory once dominated by northern practitioners, was becoming an indigenous process led by the people themselves. Such development has broken the homogeneity among NGOs. While some remained with their traditional activities, others progressed to new activities and analyses at different rates. Southern NGOs started to become assertive. Thus, the NGO community has become increasingly a shared ground, initially shared with southern NGOs created by their northern “partners.”

Grassroots Development Organization
In the 1970s, another leap took place in the NGO community. Many NGOs realized the limitation of self-help endeavors especially when dominated by the vested interests of the political and economic elite. Development perspective has also changed during this time. It was viewed as a liberating process for the poor, both from their physical oppressors and from their own resignation to poverty.

Consequently, new approaches were tried, e.g., the Brazilian “conscientization approach” which traces its roots from Paolo Freire. A combination of political education, social organization, and grassroots development, this approach was designed not only to improve the living condition of the poor. It also traces the root causes of the problem and offer opportunities to fight out exploitation through mass organization. This new approach became prevalent among NGOs in the Third World during this time resulting to grassroots organizations characterized by militancy.

Advocacy group and networks
The changing perspective on development, as well as the view regarding poverty being political in nature, gave birth to another phenomenon in the NGO community, i.e., and advocacy. NGOs began programs of development education, public campaigning, and parliamentary lobbying in pursuit of political changes. It was during this period when NGOs, particularly those who were dependent on government or conservative constituency for funding, faced a dilemma because the culprits that victimized the poor were most often Western based.

The NGOs who continued with advocacy work for the poor suffered a declining support when they opened up to their supporters. Those who continued advocacy but made little effort to communicate the dilemma to their supporters, have lived with the contradiction ever since.

An important leap in advocacy work happened in the 1980s. Influenced by their staff, some of the Northern NGOs with overseas programs became expressive and active in their advocacy work. Likewise, Third World advocacy groups started to make waves. As a result, North-South networks of advocacy groups started to take shape and to gain authenticity, strength, and power that made them a force to reckon with.

The first network to make a name was the International Baby Foods Action Network. Set up in 1979 by seven NGOs, it grew to about 150 NGOs from all parts of the world and led the successful campaign for international governmental agreement on a code of marketing for baby foods.

The more progressive Northern NGOs with Third World program have supported the evolution of these networks, have often funded them, but have tended to take a backseat role. This is partly because, according the Clark (1990), of a residual concern about their public image and legal status, partly because they have a few staff strong on the skills needed for advocacy and networking and partly – in spite of the rhetoric- because of an organizational half heartedness.


This article is part of the series of posts on NGOs. Admittedly, the current pork barrel controversy in the Philippines  involving the Napoles  network of fake NGOs has besmirched the noble aim and name of  non-government organizations (NGOs). However, we consider the crisis an opportunity to bring to the public consciousness the role of NGOs in nation building. 

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