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:


One thought on “NGOs: Opposition to the state?

  1. Really like this article Maddie, you have clearly a keen insight into the relationships between NGOs and the state; and its implications of development. I really like your use of the literature and it is well referenced throughout. I also like your wide range use of sources, including a video which adds another dynamic to your blog. The only thing that I would like to see is maybe including your opinion a bit more especially in the introduction and the conclusion. Other than that I really like this one well done


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