Future Options of International NGO

Urwah Saari

International Development Analyst


The existence of Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) in international development is not a recent scenario and their contributions in the domestic as well as the international social resurgence in the recent years has influenced many public opinions and shaped government’s policies. It is more fascinating however, to discover the way the NGOs operate rather than defining what exactly an NGO is, which may sometimes be challenging. Although there are many acronyms used to describe this type of organisations, including Non-Governmental Development Organisation (NGDO) and International Non-Governmental Organisation (INGO), nevertheless, it is important to note that they are the same type of organizations focusing on specific cause and not profit oriented. In this essay, the acronyms NGO, NGDO and INGO can be looked upon as the same thing and simply reflect the author’s preferences.

This article consists of two parts. First, it analyses the future options for the NGO sector in international development in terms of the changing roles as well as the relationship based on relevant literatures and examples. Second, it advocates the best possible options and as well as the justification behind it. A big part of it is derived from the literatures, combined with the author’s personal arguments and opinions.

What have changes in the past 30 years?

It is premature to advocate the future options of NGO, without considering some of the important changes in the external and internal environments that have taken place directly or indirectly within the NGOs. Moreover, it is also vital to understand how these changes have affected the NGOs and the nature of their work. For the past 30 years, the growing challenges underlying most of NGOs way of operating is to live beyond aid scenario (BAS). The decreasing significant volume of aid and the redistribution of aid have been the major shift from world’s major donors, particularly the OECD countries. Among the contribution factors of the shift is the greater pressure from public scrutiny, for instance from the parliament and tax payers based on poor past performance (Fowler, 2003). Secondly, donors who are looking for more result based projects with numerical targets and finite dates also contribute to this. Aid modalities are now switched from projects and general budget support to Sector Wide Approach (SWAPs). Donors seem to focus on countries where poverty is most acute, democracy is most regress and the SDG’s indicators are behind schedule (OECD,2016).

In parallel, globalization has played significant part in changing the way aid are delivered. The Latin America and the Newly Industrialized Country (NiC) have seen their aid replaced by the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), as economic motivation has been the major trade-off by the donor countries.

The end of the old Cold War political rivalry has dramatically brought down the curtain which was known to have separated many different countries in the 20th century

The new World Order came in two forms; namely the international political and social convention reflected by geopolitical and regional boundaries such as the United Nation, and secondly, an economic agreement and coalition in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) (Fowler, 2003).

Apart from all the external changes, the NGOs are also faced with internal changes as well. Taylor highlights that there is increasing scepticism about the transparency of an NGO, on whether aid is utilized as they should. The NGOs are now losing their existing ideals especially the principle of voluntarism and enthusiasm work for the public good, due to high dependency on donors’ aid (Taylor, 1997). Fowler echoes this deterioration of values and voluntarism and argues some of these NGOs lost public trust and recognition when they are perceived as fronts for organized crime, failed politicians and deep-state anarchy (Fowler, 2003).

What are the future options for the NGOs

While many scholars have explicitly or implicitly indicated that over the last thirty years the NGOs have failed to accomplish their original targets, and are faced with uncertainties and dim futures, I personally believe that the future options for NGOs are dynamically evolving and broadly expanding. This section focuses on the possible options in the context of changing roles and relationships. For the changing roles, this section tries to contrast three most common roles of an NGO, which include service delivery, advocacy and capacity development.

Changing Roles

Among the critics in service delivery is that most NGOs, being part of non-service providers (NSPs) have taken over service delivery in many developing countries, particularly in health, education, social mobility and to a certain extent basic infrastructure. This, have also indirectly undermined the capacity of the government (Malhotra,1999). The governments in developing countries should not see the NGO service delivery as their primary approach to deliver services to isolated groups and communities, particularly in the rural areas and the marginalized peoples, rather than keeping it in their own accounts. On the other hand, Malhotra suggests that NGOs should deliberately and systematically reduce their provision on direct service delivery and work in partnership with the governments. The NGOs can focus on developing innovative development models for the government and its institutions for a better delivery.

To his point of view, Mitlin sees the NGOs as relying on the existing system in their development intervention, rather than working towards more appropriate approaches of development. The NGOs have taken the approach of capitalist in responding to poverty and inequalities resulted from the capitalist development, therefore the problems are not solved through a sustainable and long term approach (Mitlin etc, 2007). Hulme on the other hand accuses the NGOs of not having developed any credible alternative to neo-liberalism, particularly those outside of the USA and European elites. Even if they are able to criticize the US civil society policies and positions, they struggle to move beyond criticism to reshape the US public attitude towards poverty and social crisis in the developing world (Hulme, 2008). In response to that, NGOs in both the South and the North need to change their role into more strategic position in reshaping the US public opinion and towards being less Eurocentric, shifting towards being ‘socially isolated and narrowly self-interested’ (Hulme, 2008).

When Huntington in 1991 articulated the third wave democratization, it took nearly 20 years later for the fourth wave to take place. Democratization usually occurs because of the desire of citizens to attain political empowerment and denounces any attempt to set democratic change through undemocratic approach (Carothers, 2007). The fall of authoritarian leaders and oppressive governments in Africa, the Latin America and the Middle East have ratified the ‘prophecy’.

Civil societies and social movements have been provided with more spaces and breadth to soar as agents of change

Civil societies and social movements have been provided with more spaces and breadth to soar as agents of change and as the beneficiary of an enhanced democracy. Malhotra suggests that NGOs, especially the South NGOs (SGNO) to increase their advocacy works and build their domestic constituencies through education. This should help to instill the citizen’s awareness on their rights to hold legitimate actors such as the governments accountable for their actions (Malhotra, 1999). In the same notion, Rooy, in Eade and Ligteringen advocates that NGOs should emphasis on education and mobilizing domestic constituencies about development issue. This advocacy role should link domestic issues with international works and it is important to move beyond project and aid dependency to regulate globalization effectively (Rooy etc, 2001).

Dwelling on the same theme, an NGO can be a social mediator in this period of globalization where increased inequalities and identity conflicts have becoming a social endemic. Senillosa argues that NGOs have ‘peaked in their reputation as credible channels for delivering social development’. The significant increase in the number of social movements is very much attributed by the growing participation of the civilians fighting for different causes. As a result, the NGOs are viewed as important players in social movements. Senillosa outlines four NGO ‘generation’ and advocates a fifth generation in which the NGOs are now advocate themselves as promoters and part of social movements for structural change both in the North and the South (Senillosa, 1998).

Changing Relationships

Managing relationship’s change could be more challenging than the process of establishing it. NGOs relationships can be distinguished into two contrasts. First, between the governments and donor agencies, and second, between the commercial private sector. Future options of the NGOs in these two types of relationship are discussed in the following section.

The emergence of new economic powers such as China, India, and Brazil among others, have changed the development aid’s landscape. New targets in unprecedented approaches by these emerging donors provide more aid opportunities (Woods, 2008). New donor target and focus are different than the old or traditional donors, therefore the new types of NGOs should emerge to close the gaps in this new development aid. For instance, China’s approach for development relationship was drawn in unconventional schematic process, preferring bilateral relationship and long term investment way of approach (Information Office of the State Council, 2011). This further modifies the North-South relationship and could by-pass the North NGO–South NGO relationship. Senillosa acknowledges the new generation of NGOs may cause functional overlap between the NNGO-SNGO and increase diversity within the sector, and at the same time also believes that both sides can contribute to structural economic and political changes throughout the world (Senillosa, 1998).

The relationship between different entities within the private sector particularly the business and commercial units should be seen as contributing to a significant change in the future. This is possible through the increasing engagement with businesses as a funding source for the NGOs and more strategically, through a smart partnership (Molina-Gallart, 2014). Commercial private sectors are involving themselves in social contributions or in an act more commonly known as the corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives in order to get global recognition. This relationship has increasingly strengthened over the years, which can be explained by a number of trends. The NGOs and the commercial sector share common self-interests and goals. The NGOs and businesses need to scale faster by enhancing their relationship through partnerships, which in turn can help to achieve this objective while ensuring that common risks can be easily understood and addressed. Apart from NGOs advocacy work, the partnerships can also help businesses to understand the social impacts of their business.

Modern human slavery in goods production has been integral part of NGOs efforts to provide equality in working environment. It was revealed that some of football stitched products were produced by workers living below poverty line. 

The NGOs and businesses are now open to public scrutiny. The corporate businesses like to ensure that the NGOs understand their values – their business value chain, social value and culture, which is of course would be similar to the expectations of the NGOS of the businesses, and therefore, the best meeting point is to integrate them into the partnership (Howard, 2014). There are instances sometimes that show contradictions in their partnership. For instance, world’s sports equipment companies are now becoming more socially-engaging business after continuous NGO’s advocacy works, have revealed that their products are made through unsustainable approaches and discriminative in the worker’s chain, especially in developing countries. Adidas for example has been partnership with the Fair Labor Association, a non-profit organization to provide independent accreditation and oversees its sustainable business chains (Adidas Group, 2017).

The relationship between an NGO and a faith-based organization (FBO) has been in an unclear charter. This is mainly contributed by the disappearance role of religion in mainstream development studies since 1930’s as it is regarded as being irrelevant (Rakodi, 2007). Furthermore, Daneulin and Rakodi (2011) argue that one of the obvious reasons for this is the long history of competition between religious institutions, and the state for dominance as well as the state control have led to the ‘church-state separation’. However, it has been suggested that religion has become one of the important elements in development in recent years. It is reported that more than 80 percent of the world’s population are able to express their religious affiliations. The influence of faith communities are now recognized and “the UN needs to mark closely with faith communities over the next 15 years in order to achieve the new Sustainable Development Goals” (UNDP, 2015). The increasing influence of the FBOs is increasingly acknowledged. FBOs “were also increasingly favoured by international officials and the non-governmental donors” to deliver aided development project, due to their ability to reach to the poorest, less bureaucracies and being ‘sufficiently flexible to respond to emergencies’ (Rakodi, 2007). Their flexibility and prompt mobilization to any humanitarian relief missions have been recognized, regardless of any type of crisis. This should advocate the future relationship between the NGOs and the FBOs is changing towards more a constructive and inclusive one.

What are the best future options and why?

We have now discussed some of possible future options for the NGOs in international development based on some literatures in the previous sections. Among those options, what would be the best to be advocated? To answer this question, we have to analyse the position of an NGO in the current challenging era in a more comprehensive way and incorporate them together.

When discussing on how the NGOs should play a more significant role as a social mediator, Fowler advocates a ‘fourth position’ role for the NGOs, in which the NGOs should seek policy change rather than being just an entity that tries to fit into the existing system. An NGO should act as a negotiator, mediator, watchdog, validator, and promote innovations for scaling up a vis a vis government (Fowler, 2003). An NGO can influence corporate behaviour through continuous systematic advocacy, as well as establish and validate standards for the government and the private sector to comply. This is a very important role as in most developing countries, the NGOs are the alternative pressure group to any dominant political block due to their nature of people-centric thinking. One of the increasing role of the NGOs is to act as a social entrepreneur if they are mandated to do so; mediate, negotiate, articulate interests, support and represent civil society (Fowler, 2003).

Following Fowler’s fourth position model that captures interaction with the state, market and civil society, Figure 1 is my personal vision of how the NGOs would place their role in the subset of three paramount factors that circled those interactions; political motivation, state institutionalisation and social aspiration. This would effectively build the future role of the NGOs in a good predicate. Political motivation is something that relates to the political and social elites’ motivation to ensure changes are implemented. State institutionalisation brings the state machineries in a cooperative response towards the social aspiration – society’s desires and demands.

Adapted and modified from Fowler’s Fourth position role

Within the spectrum, Senillosa’s idea of the fifth generation NGO role would be another advocated future option for the NGOs. The NGOs now advocate themselves as the promoter of social change and therefore need to see themselves as part of the growing influence of social movement both in the North and the South. The social movements now cover the new growing issues which include trans-migration as well as social insecurity due to mass migration from conflict areas and conflict of identity in nation states. Due to its characteristic of being non-political in the essence of being politically affiliated, the ‘fifth generation’ NGOs should play their role and place their position within any form of social movements. How can NGOs incorporate themselves into these social movements?

The answer perhaps underlies within the four stages of social movement, an idea initially introduced by Herbert Blumer. The four stages he described include: “social ferment,” “popular excitement,” “formalization,” and “institutionalization” (De la Porta & Diani, 2006). The concept has since been refined by other scholars and renamed to emergence, coalescence, bureaucratisation and decline (Christiansen, 2009). The last stage in the cycle may sound negative, nevertheless, decline can be interpreted as success, organisational failure, co-optation, repression or establishment within the mainstream society (Macionis, 2001; Miller,1999). Blumer’s final stage – the co-optation of the social movement with Senillosa’s fifth generation NGOs could be the answer to how the NGOs and the social movement can be incorporated and become more significant as a social change advocator.

Thinking and working politically (TWP) is another approach that can be looked into by the NGOs in the effort of changing their roles in the domestic or international arena. Booth argues that ‘development assistance works best, and is least liable to do harm, when the people designing it are thinking and working politically’ (TWP). With the future of beyond aid life is inevitably scenario, the idea of TWP requires the donor to politically think and plan their aid framework, design and deliver the programs effectively. This is also requiring new ways of relationship between donors and organisation that are capable of accommodating with the flexibility to deliver development programs (Booth, 2015). NGOs in this case should be able to advocate their role and relationship in a smart and adaptive ways of working regardless in any sector of service delivery, humanitarian or advocacy.


To sum it all up, over the last thirty years some immersing global changes have placed international NGOs in development at a crossroad of identity, roles and relationship. Amid all the changes and challenges, the NGOs need to work beyond their ‘organic growth’ whilst changing their roles and relationships in order to adapt or overcome the challenges. In future, the NGOs should deliberately and systematically reduce their provision on direct service delivery and work in partnership with the governments. The NGOs both in the South and in the North need to change their place to a more strategic position in reshaping the US public opinion and becoming less Eurocentric, while shifting towards becoming less ‘socially isolated and narrowly self-interested’. The NGOs, particularly the South NGOs (SGNO) should increase their advocacy works and build their domestic constituencies through more development education efforts such as instilling citizen’s awareness on their rights to hold legitimate actors like the governments accountable for their actions. The relationship between the NGOs and the private sector has strengthened over the years, attributed by the NGOs and businesses increased common self-interest and goals. The NGOs and businesses need to scale faster through partnership whereby common risks can be easily understood and addressed. The NGOs must also engage in a constructive way with the faith communities and increase relationship with faith-based organizations (FBO). Potentially, to remain relevant in international development, the NGOs must change their role and relationship, embed themselves into social movement as a rejuvenated generation of NGOs, while thinking and working politically.



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