Last semester I did a research paper on INGOs in South America, and while adapting papers for blog posts won’t become a habit, I think its relevance to this blog merits a post. While I am by no means a comprehensive expert on this topic, I found that INGOs consistently acted reactively in relation to the state. When there was a weakness in the state, INGOs that could fill that gap responded.
INGOs started becoming involved in South America in the 50s, coinciding with the emergence of developmentalist ideas. However, they didn’t have a huge presence or impact until the 70s. South American politics at this time was dominated by military governments, with extreme limits of political expression and dissent in their home countries. Formal political opposition was nearly nonexistent, life-threatening, and generally officially illegal. As a result, domestic NGOs were extremely stifled and limited, and the ability to perform any activity often relied on protection from the Church.
The lack of opportunity for domestic political opposition provided an opportunity for INGOs. Sheltered by their foreign bases, INGOs were able to use the boomerang effect extremely successfully. Through informal communications with silenced domestic opposition, human rights INGOs created records of human rights abuses and put pressure on military governments. This caused further problems for the many South American governments that relied on foreign support. Especially with a weakening Soviet Union, Western powers were reluctant to back brutal dictatorships with the spotlight on their abuses. Amnesty shot to prominence in this period, although their influence stretched well beyond just South America. Despite INGOs and the human rights movement still being in its early stages, in some ways this was their most effective period in South America. The state provided no outlets for domestic opposition and accountability for human rights abuses, and INGOs responded to great effect.
The reactive tendencies of INGOs were extremely clear again in the 80s and early 90s. The prevalence of military governments had lessened, but governments quickly faced problems through the impacts of the Latin American debt crisis. Reduction of the role of the state, often mandated by structural adjustment, was widespread, slashing government budgets in favor of liberalization. A huge number of services that the government used to provide were suddenly in the control of the private sector. This resulted in huge numbers of people without access to health, education, and other services, and this burden was largely picked up by NGOs. INGOs played a role in this, but domestic NGOs also were extremely important in providing these services. To fill the enormous and sudden gap left by governments, the total NGO presence grew rapidly. For example, Bolivia had around 100 NGOs in 1980, but 530 in 1992.
The efficacy of NGOs in this period is a large debate. Essential services people relied on were suddenly no longer provided by the government, and the market-based solutions to this problem simply weren’t accessible to most of the poor. It would certainly be better if the government provided these services than a collection of NGOs that struggle for coordination and consistent funding, but I tend to think it is better that someone provides these services than no one, and the government was not providing these services. Critics on the far left, however, see NGOs in this period as legitimizing and enabling structural adjustment. This debate comes down to whether policymakers recognized the ability of NGOs to fill the gap left by the reduction of state service provision and this influenced their decision to implement structural adjustment policies. I would guess it played some role but was far from a primary factor, but it’s really hard to determine causality for this one.
In recent years there has not been as clear a need for one type of INGO as there was in response to military governments and structural adjustment. Modern South American states, especially recently with Pink Tide leaders, are typically somewhat democratic and fairly involved in welfare policies. INGOs still do some service provision and human rights work, as well as a trend towards environmental work and indigenous rights. While I think you can still see reactions to state weaknesses in the activities of INGOs in South America, there is not one overarching gap that INGOs fill.
The history of INGOs in Latin America raises important questions for INGO strategy in relation to the state. A major challenge is how to fill gaps left by weak states without furthering state weakness. I think this is easier for democracy and human rights work. In the 70s INGOs were able to react to the lack of domestic political opposition and pressure states to respect human rights and democratize. It is fairly easy to determine when disappearances stop and fair elections are held, and if governments revert towards autocratic tendencies, pressure can recommence. Rather than serving as an obstacle to strong governance, human rights and democracy INGOs can serve a monitoring role and help enable effective governance.
When it comes to service provision and welfare policies, it is much more difficult for INGOs to determine when they should step in and when they need to step out, even when discounting institutional incentives for INGO involvement. It is clear that for meaningful development an accountable state, and not a patchwork of NGOs, needs to take on the bulk of these responsibilities. Developing the state’s ability to fulfill this role takes time, and there will be problems as they learn how to do this effectively. However, the human costs of waiting too long for governments to develop this capacity are high, and it rarely clear whether something is a hiccup in state development or a sign of a dysfunctional state. Ideally, NGOs could fill some of this role as the state develops its institutional capacity, but in practice it is extremely difficult to determine when NGOs should cede ground to the state and how they can avoid hindering state development. Fortunately, as the creation of programs as successful as Bolsa Familia demonstrate, NGOs and aid were not an insurmountable barrier to the development of South American states’ ability to provide for its citizens.
Ultimately, I think INGOs have fulfilled their role fairly well in South America. I think smarter policy responses by INGOs in South America than Africa has been partially a result of a relative lack of paternalistic attitudes and a greater availability of informed analysis. However, the changes in South American states also created clear windows for INGOs to focus their attentions, and it is only since the mid-90s that there has not been one primary gap for them to fill. INGOs are not particularly good at knowing when they are no longer needed, and it will be a test to see how well they achieve this as South American politics continue to evolve. This dilemma presents itself to INGO far beyond just South America, and learning from their past evolutions will be essential to successfully managing INGO relations with the state.