NGOs: Opposition to the state?

Non-Governmental Organisations boomed during the 1970s and 1980s following the rise of neoliberalist ruling classes’ realisation that “their policies were polarizing the society and provoking large-scale social discontent” (Petras, 1997). Now, there are roughly 40,000 international NGOs (, 2010). In many countries, NGOs show many positive sides to the developmental work they aid the state with. However, this is in no way what is expected by many governments – in many countries and in many aspects, NGOs can play an oppositional role to the state instead of operational, leading to suspicion and thus affecting the NGO’s developmental impact (Clark, 1993).

Above is an example of this: Uganda rejecting pro-LGBTQ+ agencies as they “promote the vice [of homosexuality], hiding under the umbrella of protecting human rights” (0:05s). Uganda’s ethics and integrity minister claimed that they were receiving support from abroad and “recruiting” youth into homosexuality, banning 38 NGOs (Smith, 2012). The question is raised here of whose voices are being presented. Frank Mugisha, the head of Sexual Minorities Uganda, stated that “Simon Lokodo [Ethics and integrity minister] is very homophobic but it’s coupled with politics… We will continue to ask for the oppressive laws that are being used to intimidate us to be abolished” (Smith, 2012).

The issue, then, is that the government in a democratic society should be working for the whole population, whereas NGOs often can only reach small groups – “the impact of NGOs on the lives of poor people is highly localised, and often transitory”, state Edwards and Hulme (1992). They also note the contrast that “governmental developmental efforts are often large in scale but limited in impact“. Indeed, a government often would not have in its existing infrastructure the means to radically change certain issues such as widespread prejudices against race, gender or sexuality. Clark (1993) argues that a strong interaction between an otherwise potentially polarised government and NGO sector can often push governments to take initiative to carry out development, or can effectively assist them. As seen in Uganda, however, the assumption that a government should want to shape the peoples’ minds in a way that many NGOs see fit, and that does not breach human rights, is not necessarily true.

For development to be implemented, the ‘developers’ should be able to harness the resources available to them in that country or region (capital, human or natural) to meet the population’s demands (Clark 1993). The government will ultimately be the entity that holds the power in deciding the power that the NGOs hold in a country, and as soon as these organisations are seen as a threat, the already fickle relationship between state and NGO can become even more unstable. Often it is argued by the NGO that the state, while able to reach all its citizens, is distant from them, and tends to “develop interests different from and opposed to those of its citizens”, while local initiatives can instead be more readily responsive to the people’s real demands. (Petras, 1997). It is also often argued that the “…Government has a mandate to look after the country but not the machinery to influence what other actors are doing” (Cannon, 1996). Marx argued that “the oppressed are allowed every few years to decide which of the oppressing class to represent and repress them“(Bellamy and Ross, 1996) – it is crucial to bear in mind that the views of the government often do not accurately portray the views of the majority of the citizens, and that the government itself is often not what the people themselves truly desire. To reference Uganda again, the current president of the country, Museveni has been in office for over 28 years, a political tenure that strongly suggests a hold over a party more powerful than true democracy should allow it to be.

Museveni addresses supporters in Arua, Eagle Online

The strength of a country’s democracy can be – but, it should be noted is not necessarily – what the strength of that country’s relationships with NGOs depend on. The more accurately the population’s desires are understood and (attempted to be) implemented by the state, the more efficiently the NGOs may work with them. If governments are working top-down, and NGOs bottom-up, then in theory a mid-point could be reached; an equilibrium can be found in which NGOs need not be an opposition to the state, but an enabler to improve the conditions of their peoples’ lives.


Cannon, C. (1996) NGOs and the State: A case study from Uganda, Development in Practice, 6:3, 262-269, DOI: 10.1080/0961452961000157844. Available at: 

Clark, J. (1993) The Relationship Between the State and the Voluntary Sector, The World Bank. Available at:

Edwards, M. & Hulme, D. (1992) Making a Difference: NGOs and Development in a Changing World, Earthscan. Available at:

Marx, K., as quoted by Bellamy, R. & Ross, A. (1996) A Textual Introduction to Social and Political Theory, Manchester University Press. Available at:

NGO (2010) Available at:

Petras, J. (1997) Imperialism and NGOs in Latin America, Monthly Review Vol. 49, Issue 07. Available at:

Smith, D. (2012) Uganda bans 38 organisations accused of ‘promoting homosexuality’, The Guardian. Available at:


How may development be defined?

Development is a word used constantly, and thus has the potential to become a word that is often misused. This is perhaps due to the fact that there is no clear definition, no “global concept of development valid for all regions and all cultures”(Emmerij, 2007)that may be used as a guideline to development actors.

A key reason for this is how much the word relies on perspective – whether it is that of news outlets, local governments, NGOs, the recipients of aid… all might see development entirely differently, making a definition of development seemingly impossible to come to. However, if this is so, at least a group of core ideals of development must be realised globally, many have noted. Efforts such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals attempt this, but conflicting views and overriding voices can alter the original good intent of a collective, broadly applicable set of guidelines. To combat this, “there certainly must be common elements in development theory and practice, but with polices around this adapted to different needs.”(Emmerij,  2007)

The UN's Sustainable Development Goals, 2015
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, 2015

Other reasons for which a universal definition of development is difficult to agree on are the tools used to measure development. The standards that are used to see a country or town or culture as ‘developed’ too often comes from Westernised principles of what economic and social development should be, with little regard for the desires of the people themselves. They fail to see the real object of development – the goal of bettering people’s lives, and doing so in a way that leaves them with dignity (an objective that many see as fundamental), choice and a sustainable future for themselves. Development is change – “good change”, as Robert Chambers describes it (1997), and it needs to be in aid of what is truly desired by those affected, and not what is envisioned by a single mindset. Traditional indicators of development when looked at individually do not truly show a country or town’s situation. One could not, for example, look at the percentage of people involved in the agricultural sector of an economy  as a development indicator without first understanding (for example) what drives a country’s education, or certain groups’ land and work inheritance traditions. This means that presuming the needs of those who NGOs or external governments aim to ‘develop’ becomes dangerous, as often there is a risk of personal agendas becoming involved, in the side of development that some describe as an ‘industry’; the true needs of the public are overlooked.

A global definition of development becomes ever more difficult upon the premise that much of the time, visions of development conflict; the object of development is often hard to understand when the discussion around it overwhelms the very purpose, as Raghuram notes: “the struggle for change has not been commensurate with the theoretical understanding that is available”(Palgrave Journals, 2007). With this in mind, as Rist also argues, the most important thing is really that the definition of development comes through “…actual social practices, rather than wishful thinking.”(Rist, 2007) A solidified, consistent core meaning of development is not yet genuinely established worldwide, but it is necessary if we are to cooperatively achieve the goals that are set out over and over again. Environmental, agricultural, technological, political and economic development are all intertwined. To help one of these, or instead to help one group of people or one region, the entire picture must be looked at, and development should be, in its purest sense, defined as the aim of letting people progress in a way that gives everyone a fair chance.


Chambers, R. (1997) Responsible Well-Being – A Personal Agenda for DevelopmentElsevier Science Ltd.

Rist, G. (2007) ‘Development as a buzzword’, Deconstructing Development Buzzwords, Practical Action Publishing

Palgrave Macmillan Journals – Development (2007), Reflections on 50 Years of Development. Available at: (Accessed 29/10/15)

(Image) UN Tribune (31/08/15), Understanding the Sustainable Development Goals: Five Key Questions. Available at: