INGOs and the State in South America

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.

The Biggest Development Agencies Forget Big Parts of Development

The largest international development agencies- the World Bank, USAID, DFID, etc.- perform some valuable roles and have huge resources when compared to NGOs.  However, these governmental development agencies, by which I mean both national and multilateral agencies, tend to ignore major parts of development.  While the most important factors leading to development will not originate in external actors, governmental development agencies still ignore many of the development issues relevant to international actors.  They have two main blind spots: an excessively aid-oriented focus and disproportionate focus on the policies of developing countries at the expense of developed ones.

As the Center for Global Development highlighted in a recent report, aid is just a small part of development.  For example, 3.4 times more money comes into developing countries through remittances than aid.  Development agencies should focus more on aid than other parts of development since this is the aspect they are best placed to perform, and when done well aid can also have indirect benefits for other important factors in development.  However, there is no reason that governmental development agencies should focus on aid, and loans in the case of the World Bank, to the near exclusion of other important issues, such as trade, remittances, and other “beyond aid policies,” as they have tended to do in the past.  As the Center for Global Development argues, “the benefits to poor people that can be brought about by even quite modest ‘beyond aid’ policy changes are likely to be much larger than can be brought about through aid alone.”

The other major blind spot of governmental development agencies, and one which frequently prevents them from looking beyond aid, is their tendency to focus exclusively on the role of developing countries in development.  They focus on projects in developing countries and push for policies and institutions in these countries to enable development.  These are valuable practices when done right.  However, these major governmental development agencies tend to focus only on one side of the equation, neglecting the role developed countries play in global poverty and development.  The outcomes of poor people in developing countries are closely tied to the policies of developed countries.  While the World Bank would focus on technical assistance to farmers in developing countries, such as more efficient fertilizers and reducing soil degradation, the larger problem for the farmers might be that they cannot compete with foreign producers benefiting from US and EU agricultural subsidies.  Immigration and banking policy’s effects on remittances, interest payments on debt, and the effects of climate change all have profound impacts on development, yet the role of developed countries in perpetuating these problems is largely ignored by governmental development agencies.

The disproportionate focus on aid can largely be fixed for cases that do not also involve the second blind spot.  Development agencies will have to shift their activities and be more willing to work politically, but it is not excessively difficult for them to realign their focuses.  The second blind spot is much more difficult to reform.  Multilateral development agencies tend to be primarily controlled and funded by developed countries and this is entirely the case for the national development agencies of developed countries.  Many policies that could have huge benefits to developing countries are not clearly beneficial to developed countries, and undoubtedly some require stripping away the advantages developed countries have traditionally enjoyed.  Furthermore, wealthy countries do not appreciate having the agencies they fund telling them what to do, and currently policies must always be presented as win-wins to have any chance of passage.  I do not think these problems make governmental development agencies useless, as they can still make important contributions through effective aid without changing the policies of developed countries.  Despite the constraints presented by governmental control, it does allow for far more resources than NGOs can ever achieve.  However, governmental development agencies do need to find ways to push the limits of their mandates and better engage with multiple aspects of development, but even with these improvements many problems will remain.

These shortcomings are why, for all their flaws, I think NGOs are far more effective than the size of their budgets suggest.  Rather than being enormously constrained by governmental control, NGOs are able to engage in advocacy and a broader range of development issues.  The recent issues surrounding Somali remittances highlight these advantages.  Even though an already impoverished Somalia receives more from remittances than all aid and foreign direct investment combined, the US plans to cut off 60 to 80 percent of these remittances out of a primarily unfounded fear of the money finding its way to al-Shabaab.  Oxfam extensively covered the issue and called upon the US to reverse its decision, but governmental development agencies were largely silent.  This issue would have required them to deal with something that did not involve aid and challenges the policies of the US.  It will cause enormous damage to Somali citizens far outweighing aid’s benefits, but crucial issues like this are beyond the narrow scope of governmental development agencies.