What Do Non-Governmental Organizations Do?

by Eric D. Werker & Faisal Z. Ahmed

Overview — Non-governmental organizations play an increasingly important role in international development. They serve as a funnel for development funds both from individual donors in wealthy countries and from bilateral aid agencies. At the same time, NGOs are frequently idealized as organizations committed to "doing good" while setting aside profit or politics—a romantic view that is too starry-eyed. Development-oriented NGOs, which have existed for centuries, have played a growing role in development since the end of World War II; there are currently 20,000 international NGOs. This paper argues that the strengths of NGOs and their weaknesses easily fit into economists' conceptualization of not-for-profit contractors. Key concepts include:

  • Strengths of the NGO model produce corresponding weaknesses in agenda-setting, decision-making, and resource allocation.
  • The increased presence of NGOs can be explained by 3 factors: a trend to outsource government services; new ventures by would-be not-for-profit "entrepreneurs"; and the increasing professionalization of existing NGOs.
  • As NGOs increasingly produce their own funding and develop their own professionalized class, it is appropriate to expose them to greater market forces beyond donor preferences.
  • The use of aid vouchers allowing beneficiaries to purchase private goods and services is one tool for introducing more market forces.

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