NGOs in South America: Better off without?

South America has enjoyed a significant rate of economic growth and development in recent times.  The continent is a diverse land-mass home to over twelve sovereign nations that vary in population and cultural identities but are united by the same goal: the achievement of positive national growth.  Alexander Conesa-Pietscheck discusses the role of NGOs in the South American development success story, and whether nations would do better without them.

South America is  home to a difficult past. Colonialism had cultural, social and economic impacts on the countries, not only in matters related to identity, but also in moulding their frail institutions in a post-colonial world led by nations that were more advanced in arguably every facet of progress.

After the era of the dictatorships, the democratic openings were the ideal situation for development institutions – non governmental organisations (NGOs) in particular – to assist and go into these fresh political environments and advocate for issues revolving around poverty alleviation, health and basic human rights.

NGOs are different to governments mainly because they are generally issue based which essentially means that they place all their focus on a single problem instead of working with a wide variety of issues that can potentially complicate the success of the projects.

Given their focus on specific issues, NGOs are known not only for having expert knowledge in their areas, but also for being grassroots oriented. In other words, close proximity to the people that they work with or seek to represent. This particular characteristic is essentially valuable in a continent like South America in which present problems require specific knowledge that the governmental institutions might not yet possess.

Nonetheless, a globalised world mainly based on free markets and a reduced role of government might have significant limitations on the work that these organisations wish to carry out. NGOs are highly dependent on the institutions that fund their initiatives and projects, most of which are western establishments characterised by neoliberal agendas revolving around competition and profit.

© Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) /Creative Commons License

© Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) /Creative Commons License

The difficulty of getting funding in a competitive environment can jeopardise the values of an NGO. Their projects might be limited because they have to show a significant amount of impact to donors in order to keep existing. This can also mean that areas where it is more difficult to show results might be excluded from the organisation’s plans. By being very selective in where they work, and being guided by the agenda of  donors, NGOs have the danger of excluding in their work the people that are in most need of the knowledge and tools that they possess. It is also important for these organisations to remain true to their ideals and goals and not be guided by the interests of institutions that might not be entirely aware of the characteristics of the problems present in the South American continent.

A potential solution to the problem of clustering funds in specific areas of a country could be to actively engage with government institutions in issues regarding development. Communication between government and non-governmental organisations can lead to more efficient outcomes, as the government would be able to inform the NGOs of areas that need particular attention and could direct their resources to that region. Similarly, NGOs could inform government bodies of areas that would benefit from government-guided inclusive and sustainable forms of development.

None of this is to say that NGOs do not have an important role to play in development. The present limitations and difficulty in accessing funding might be problematic, but the skills that NGOs possess are valuable to nations in South America and can provide faster and more efficient solutions to certain problems than government-led initiatives.

© Ssave the Children /Creative Commons License

© Save the Children /Creative Commons License


As we move towards the setting of a post-2015 development agenda, NGOs and government institutions should work hand-in-hand, one focusing on strengthening the foundations of the nation, and the other on complementing the projects of the government and providing their expertise and tools in areas in which those skills might be lacking. A balance between micro and macro forms of development can be beneficial not only for a single South American nation, but also for the entire continent.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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  1. Interesting, I suggest you review the Paris Declaration Charter and the Acra agenda for action related to Funding and local government sponsored development agendas and aid effectiveness. Since NGOs throughout the last three decades of the XX century have carried out a vast amount of projects , interventions, activities at grassroot, local, national and regional levels, the experience they have obtained can and should be shared with local governments, however, as you point out, not all of them have remained loyal to their ideals and have “sold themselves” to the best bid in order to achieve financial stability and sustainability in a frail and scarce funding environment led by international donors. As for the Bolivian case, I believe that there were several other variables, not only neo liberalism agendas, that should be considered ie. poor institutional development, weak political system, higher levels of corruption, foreign interests and agendas undermining local needs and demands. I believe that your interest in the NGO phenomena in developing countries such as Bolivia has a great potential for understanding the very basis of the development efforts and their results, I do believe that several countries would be interested in knowing if their taxpayers contributions have paid off. By the way, Bolivia is leading the U.N. Debt Restructuring Committee. Best of luck! from La Paz, Bolivia.

    • Thank you for the input Erik! You are right, there are several factors involved in the work of NGOs as well as the services they provide. It is quite difficult to condense all of them in a short written piece, but I am aware that there are several variables involved in the discourse of development and non-governmental agencies. The South American situation is quite interest given the rate of growth of the continent as well as the current disenchantment that some nations have with the prevailing neoliberal narrative. It will be very interesting to see how the development paradigm will change in the coming years.

      Greetings from a fellow paceño!

  2. I suggest you to read “The state, popular participation, and the voluntary sector.” by John Clark in journal Science Direct. Some similar ideas.
    Sometimes government involvement may be beneficial, but a similar problem can arise similar to what you talk about with the Neoliberal agenda. Once there is government involvement, the NGO must also focus on ‘pleasing’ the local government and may divert time and resources into this. I agree that a relationship must exist between the government and the NGO, but with very limited involvement. The significant economic growth was partly due to the high prices commodities so we are still to see how many countries will fare with the falling prices. I hope our leaders will be able to sustain this economic growth.

    Lastly, NGO’s must not be solely based on funding by large corporate donors, but strive to become sustainable projects (perhaps at smaller scales), where individuals are the key benefactors and not only large institutions.

    • I will definitely have a read Joe, thank you for the suggestion. It seems that NGOs now face quite a challenging situation by having to satisfy the monetary donors, as well as having to follow the regulations placed by the national government (s).

      I fully agree with your last comment. NGOs were initially seen as the voices of the marginalised and the poor and worked for the empowerment of people in vulnerable situations and places. The donor constraints may not entirely hinder their capabilities, but the fact that impact has to be shown may limit their projects or lead them to choose a geographical location to work with where it is easiest to show the most amount of ‘results’.

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