There have been several instances in the last few weeks when I have come across the suggestion that NGOs are the Trojan Horse of a global neo-liberal conspiracy to undermine the role of the public sector in the Third World. The claim, endorsed by the likes of Carleton University’s Manfred Beinefeld, who is currently giving a series of public lectures at the LSE, is spelt out more clearly in David Harvey‘s A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism:
The rise of advocacy groups and NGOs has, like rights discourses more generally, accompanied the neo-liberal turn and increased spectacularly since 1980 or so. The NGOs have in many instances stepped into the vacuum in social provision left by the withdrawal of the state from such activities. This amounts to privatization by NGO. In some instances this has helped accelerate further state withdrawal from social provision. NGOs thereby function as Trojan Horses for global neoliberalism.
As a world-renowned geographer, he might be excused for being a little confused on the matter. But the accusation still stands, and it is important to clarify why it is misleading.
First of all, the term NGO refers to a non-governmental organisation, and this simply means an organisation that does not operate under governmental control. Harvey uses the word NGO, however, in its more commonly-known embodiment, referring to the sphere of international non-governmental organisations that are usually northern-based and run development and humanitarian relief programmes mainly in the developing world. The World Bank defines NGOs as “private organizations that pursue activities to relieve suffering, promote the interests of the poor, protect the environment, provide basic social services, or undertake community development” (Operational Directive 14.70). In wider usage, the term NGO can be applied to any non-profit organization which is independent from government.
When discussing public service delivery, NGOs are part of a much broader spectrum of non-profit/voluntary organisations that are usually lumped up under the umbrella of the Third Sector (in the UK, Italy), the Social Economy (in France, Spain), the voluntary sector (in the US). Part of the third sector is the emerging social enterprise sector, which has been defined by the UK Government as:
[…] a business with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximise profit for shareholders and owners.
Social Enterprises can encompass everything from mutuals, employee-owned businesses, private companies limited by guarantee and – most importantly for our analysis – the vast world of cooperatives:
A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise. [source: International Cooperative Alliance]
To put Harvey’s statement into perspective, we need to understand that NGOs play a significant role in the delivery of public services, but they are not alone, and certainly not the most well-endowed. Worldwide, for example, over 800 million people are members of a cooperative and the sector provides 100 million jobs, 20% more than multinational enterprises. We’re often led to believe – by a certain mediatic discourse – that ‘poor people’ are passively waiting for our help to survive, but this is rarely the case. And in some cases, local initiatives become an example for the North itself, like in the case of Brac, an almost entirely self-financed Bangladeshi NGO/social enterprise, which employs some 97,000 people, helps providing livelihoods to another 100 million and offers education to 11% of Bangladesh’s primary school-children.
So back to the provision of social services. On the one hand, we have Oxfam and Wateraid recently publishing a report on the subject, In the Public Interest: Health, Education, and Water and Sanitation for All, where they state that
[…] developing countries will only achieve healthy and educated populations if their governments take responsibility for providing essential services. Civil society organisations and private companies can make important contributions, but they must be properly regulated and integrated into strong public systems, and not seen as substitutes for them. Only governments can reach the scale necessary to provide universal access to services that are free or heavily subsidised for poor people and geared to the needs of all citizens.
[…] the summary recommendations are written for a) developing country governments — to direct money (they don’t have) toward basic services, abolish fees for what minimal services they currently do provide […], train workers (with crippled education systems, to fill government jobs that they can’t fund); b) to rich countries and the IFIs to give more money for these purposes; and c) to civil society to push for all of the above. Recommendations for the private sector? Or to civil society or the public sector as to how to engage the private sector in ways that actually deliver the public benefits they purport to support? Sorry, nothing worth saying, apparently.
In a nutshell, the NGOs want a greater role for the state in the delivery of public services, while the private sector complains that they are not taking its potential role in poverty alleviation seriously. Will someone please explain to me at this point how the former is meant to be the Trojan Horse of the latter, given neither seems to be endorsing this idea?