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Global Development Institute

WP171/2012

The role of NGOs and civil society in development and poverty reduction

Nicola Banks with David Hulme

Since the late 1970s, NGOs have played an increasingly prominent role in the development sector, widely praised for their strengths as innovative and grassroots-driven organisations with the desire and capacity to pursue participatory and people-centred forms of development and to fill gaps left by the failure of states across the developing world in meeting the needs of their poorest citizens. While levels of funding for NGO programmes in service delivery and advocacy work have increased alongside the rising prevalence and prominence of NGOs, concerns regarding their legitimacy have also increased. There are ongoing questions of these comparative advantages, given their growing distance away from low-income people and communities and towards their donors. In addition, given the non-political arena in which they operate, NGOs have had little participation or impact in tackling the more structurally-entrenched causes and manifestations of poverty, such as social and political exclusion, instead effectively depoliticising poverty by treating it as a technical problem that can be ‘solved’. How, therefore, can NGOs ‘return to their roots’ and follow true participatory and experimental paths to empowerment? As this paper explores, increasingly, NGOs are recognised as only one, albeit important, actor in civil society. Success in this sphere will require a shift away from their role as service providers to that of facilitators and supporters of broader civil society organisations through which low-income communities themselves can engage in dialogue and negotiations to enhance their collective assets and capabilities.