The Truth About Foreign Aid

…That could be the title of a new 3-part BBC podcast, “The Truth About NGOs“. This documentary explores whether and how should NGOs be politically involved, as well as the consequences of having a large international NGO sector in a developing country. The first episode begins with a focus on Malawi, and how the LGBT rights movement has been buoyed by NGOs and their foreign donors. It’s an interesting piece, though this is not about “NGOs”, per se – it is also about the powerful influence of donors on their grantees, and even in this podcast, the politics of state-level aid are discussed. NGOs, the actors on the ground, are only one part of the puzzle.

The podcast is probably nothing new for NGO policy wonks – the discussion of whether organizations are influenced by or beholden to their funders and donors is an age old discussion. Same goes for failed, poorly designed and implemented development projects that never see the light of day and/or disappoint and anger communities. Or the notion that some NGOs only pay lip service to the notion of “participation” (the podcast actually defines “dragonfly skimming” and “helicopter consultancy.”)

In spite of going down some already well trodden paths, the podcast raises some interesting points concerning the role of NGOs in perpetuating the poverty they seek to alleviate. (I can already hear my aid/development colleagues’ feathers getting ruffled, but bear with me.) While this probably merits much more than a few sentences on this blog or a few minutes in a podcast, one of the more interesting notions explored by the podcast is the idea that international NGOs are “depoliticizing” poverty. ” I thought this line, by Firoze Manji, editor in chief of Pambazuka News, was spot on: “If the NGOs participate in the process of alleviating the nasty parts of becoming poor, they are actually colluding. It comes back to saying being brave enough to take on the “politics of impoverishement”. Either you fight that, or you’re part of the problem.”

The question posed at the end of the podcast is whether NGOs should focus on “on advocacy, on leverage, rather than delivery of aid.” What do you think? There are obviously circumstances where this might not make sense, in particular in emergency situations where NGOs provide life-saving aid. But beyond that, is advocacy, rather than aid delivery, the future of NGOs?

Listen to the podcast here.

5 thoughts on “The Truth About Foreign Aid

  1. But NGOs are taking on the roles of political parties and the stronger they get the weaker the parties (if they exist) get. Donors rather work for NGOs but these approaches are in fact undermining the development of democratic institutions.

    All the speakers coincide: better funded than parties, better staffed -but not by Malawians, by foreigners. This is dangerous. Driven by the evidence based policy mantra international ‘aid’ agents are brushing politics and ideology aside creating technocracies at the expense of democracy.

    Somewhere within these NGOs are ‘think tanks’ or NGOs that claim to do research or conduct analysis to develop their advocacy arguments -when in fact, much of what they advocate for also comes from the outside.

    It is quite a shame that this is just a radio potcast. DFID and others (via NGOs and think tanks and consultancies) are depoliticising policy in developing countries -even when the policies proposed are highly political in the UK (e.g. user fees, cash transfers, subsidies… etc.).

  2. Enrique, I think you raise a really excellent point : “Driven by the evidence based policy mantra international ‘aid’ agents are brushing politics and ideology aside creating technocracies at the expense of democracy.”
    So do you think that NGOs should be more overtly political instead? The first part of the podcast – which you mention above – about how NGOs are better funded and staffed than opposition parties – how do we get around this? Can NGOs staffed with locals – but funded internationally – make the difference? I’m not sure myself. It reminds me of Soros and the Open Society Institute funding pro-democracy movements in Eastern Europe – is that a good model to follow?

  3. We wrote about it in relation to think tanks in Latin America ( and then on think tanks and the media ( But there are other organisations (like the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection that are more open about their values.

    The problem with being funded by foreigners has ben identified by Indian academics and scholars who realise that think tanks (and NGOs more generally) pay more attention to international narratives than local ones. But this is also a problem of accountability. The model is not dissimilar as the model first adopted by think tanks in the US in the early 1920s. In the late 1800s think tanks had been associations of business people, individuals, academics, etc. concerned on local issues. So, in a way funding and agency were with the citizens. When the large foundations (Kellogg, Ford, etc.) got involved they allowed think tanks to act independently of citizens.

    What we find in Africa (in other places too, but here it is worst) is that these NGOs USE citizens to pursue agendas set in London, Brussels, Washington, etc. But lets not be too romantic, the big elephant in the room is that these organisations (and many in the North) are staffed by people whose capacities are simply not even the minimum necessary to plan and implement very simple projects. Change needs to start by reforming the education system and patience.. a lot more patience (

    In my view, aid to NGOs would be better used in leveraging domestic funds for civil society in general.

    A good model to consider is German political foundations’ support to political parties and think tanks. Donors should support political debate rather than policy change (policy change at all costs -even if this undermines democracy).

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