Getting the Word Out, part 2

My last post was about NGOs, why they’re important, why we should support them – there are other types of non profits, which also need to be described, explained, dissected…. Too often, for the general public, the non profit sector is considered a homogenous lump of idealists, with similar objectives, motivations and “raison d’être”. However, it is not so at all, and one of the most common misconceptions about this sector is how organizations such as UNICEF, the World Food Program, USAID – to name a random few – are construed.

International Agencies (not-for-profit):
The United Nations has its own more or less “independent” agencies – each is specialized (in theory), and furthers a global agenda. Whether it be UNICEF eradicating childhood mortality, WFP feeding the hungry, UN-Habitat developing an understanding of policy implications of growing urbanization – all of these agencies are fundamentally different from NGOs, per their structure, their mode of operation, how they select projects and partnerships…

While it should be noted that for example 58% of UNICEF’s income comes from governments (source: UNICEF Annual Report, 2006), that also means that nearly 40% is coming from the private sector – there are many NGOs that have a higher proportion of public funding.

Then, you also have agencies such as USAID (United States Agency for International Development), or AFD (Agence Francaise de Developpement), DFID (the UK’s Department for International Development), all of which are ever present in the field. These are very different organizations that are controlled by national governments – not to say that their work is of less importance, but their objectives are often motivated by geopolitical and strategic considerations for foreign policy.

Here is a video of Henrietta Fore, administrator for USAID (note: the US is the largest bilateral donor in absolute terms – not in relative terms)

So international nonprofit agencies, NGOs – “are they similar??”, you must be asking yourself. Well, in a way, yes – they exist to supplement public and State actions, and act where there is a void. A lof ot them have similar income structures as well. So what is the fundamental difference?

The fundamental difference is that UN agencies and national aid agencies are staffed by public servants, who represent their countries’ interest within that organization. Power struggles within these organizations and between them (UNICEF and UNESCO are typically at odds over who should get the most funding for education) are prevalent, and often, these structures operate like large bureaucracies.

Of course, some very large, influential NGOs are also faced with these issues – but to a lesser extent. It is quite difficult to untangle the reality of the global non-profit sector – there is such a large variety of organizations, that operate in myriads of ways, in every corner of the earth.

I mentioned Zoe’s Ark in my previous post (the French NGO which tried to have Darfur orphans adopted in France, except they essentially abducted Tchadian children…) The consequences of their actions negatively impacted all non profits which work in the developing world – both the beneficiaries of aid and financial supporters of nonprofits don’t differentiate between Zoe’s Ark, Doctors Without Borders, and UNICEF.

As I’ve tried to show, the international non profit sector is rich (in diversity), complex and is made up of largely different organizations. Do we compare Shell, Exxon or BP with MTV? Do we compare plastic container makers with Avis Rent-A-Car? We operate essential distinctions between all of these organizations, and the same type of critical approach is needed when assessing the international non profit sector.

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