Are NGOs the New Colonial Power?

As the U.S. and European governments use non-governmental organizations to dispense aid funds and services, NGOs are wielding greater power in developing nations. And the result, according to development specialist Henry Zakumumpa in Uganda, is not only development, it is a new form of NGO colonialism.

Citing a report in Foreign Policy, Zakumumpa explains that governments in fragile and failed states are unable or unwilling to deliver basic services that NGOs provide for many reasons. Some governments are corrupt and mistrusted. Others are cash-strapped, their insitutions are inefficent or unable to deliver services effectively.

As a result, as donor nations channel greater sums through NGOs, host nations avoid civic responsibility and change.

Aid skeptic Marcus Mann writes in a blog post that, “The net effect of the trillions of dollars and billions of man hours spent helping Africa and the rest of the developing world prosper has been negligible and possibly negative. The road to poverty appears to be paved with aid dollars.”

Both writers point out that many lives have been saved by NGOs, but they both question how this aid has affected longterm, structural change. Zakumumpa writes that NGOs are becoming more powerful as they receive significantly larger sums for humanitarian work. Mann says they are continuing a culture of dependency that undermines self-development.

These critiques raise one conundrum after another. As donor nations bypass national governments in favor of NGOs, are they also enabling the continuation of the very same policies and practices they deem unacceptable? NGOs operate at the permission of host governments. They are in no better position to challenge human rights violations, corruption, or misappropriation than their donor governments. In fact, they have even fewer pressure points and less diplomatic power.

Does aid through NGOs help to create the infrastructure needed for longterm change, or provide palliative comfort that discourages essential change? For example, health systems in developing nations are notoriously underfunded and staffed. Palliative care, while necessary, doesn’t strengthen hospitals, schools and other civic institutions, and may even take pressure off the need for reform.

As they assume a greater role as the dispensing agents for donor government funds, are NGOs risking the appearance of becoming parallel agents to national systems, or implementing agents of donor nation policies?

These are not new questions, but they take on new relevance as more dollars flow. Zakumumpa and Mann are raising important questions that deserve careful consideration by NGO leaders.

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