- International NGOs
- Commonwealth NGOs
- International NGOs are criticised for lacking in democracy. Detractors have raised many questions on this front. What rights do members of these organisations have? Who elects their executive? Is there any consensus on projects and policies within the organisation?
- International NGOs have been criticised for their apparent paternalistic attitudes in their delivery of services and formulation of policies. International NGOs claim to altruistic but how representative are they of the public interest and the people they are trying to help? Critics argue that their interests are defined by virtues of ‘western society’ or societies in the ‘North’ and ask how relevant is the application of international NGO interests in many of the developing or ‘South’ countries.
- A lack of transparency including decision-making behind closed doors forms key lines of criticism against international NGOs. The level of influence of their donors including governments, the private sector and individuals in determining policy may not be clear and the public may not know the true source of much of the funding.
- International NGOs may operate within certain regulatory requirements for transparency within national borders, however on a transnational level it may be difficult to find a clear perspective into their practices and source of funding since no regulatory oversight may exist.
- Critics argue that it is difficult to determine who international NGOs are accountable to. The full roster of actors involved in the international NGO space includes beneficiaries, NGO workforce, volunteers, members, donors (including governments) and local NGO partners. The plurality of these actors portends a divergence of views and interests. International NGOs therefore may have to make a decision on the order or rank of who they are accountable to – which party comes first and who comes last?
International non-governmental organisations in the Commonwealth and beyond
International non-governmental organisations (INGOs) have expanded their influence rapidly since the 1980s in many Commonwealth countries and beyond. Throughout history, there have been a number of internationalised non-governmental bodies with altruistically aligned goals towards various worthy causes. Today the defining characteristic of what it really means for any organisation to be considered an international NGO is mainly its presence on the landscape of international development.
INGOs have responded rapidly to humanitarian crises throughout the Commonwealth and the rest of the world at the same time, mobilising governments and the public in the developed world to support these responses. In addition, lessons from previous humanitarian crises have led to the development of global normative standards for humanitarian action which have notably being led by INGOs. Traditionally, local versions of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are renowned worldwide for their rapid response to international humanitarian crises. Today they share many of their humanitarian operations with other INGOs like Oxfam, World Vision and CARE. In 2010 Commonwealth member state Pakistan was hit by its worst natural disaster – floods which affected 20 million people. Oxfam was initially involved in search and rescue operations but went on to help secure clean water and sanitation, enhancing food security and livelihoods through cash-for-work schemes and providing shelter kits to families. At the same time Oxfam was aggressively involved in securing funding from the UK public whilst partnering with the UK Department for International Development.
A significant proportion of resources secured by INGOs comes from private individuals in the form of funding, volunteer assistance and expertise. Campaigns carried out by INGOs to attain such resources have helped build solidarity between people in the developed world and the world’s poorest communities which includes many parts of the Commonwealth. Examples include numerous child sponsorship programmes, issue-based campaigns such as Live 8 and petition campaigns.
INGOs have used their growing influence in leveraging policy change. The Jubilee 2000, an international campaign led by international civil society and church groups, brought about ultimately the cancellation of more than U$100 billion of debt owed by 35 least developed countries. Beneficiaries of the scheme, which was mainly implemented under IMF/World Bank Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, include several Commonwealth member states. In fact, Commonwealth member state Uganda was the first country to be declared eligible to benefit from the HIPC Initiative in April 1998.
Through their networking, seminars, policy papers, joint operations and various other initiatives INGOs have become channels for knowledge-sharing. For example, INGOs have helped bring pro-poor approaches and best practice in education, health, environment and governance and microfinance into the mainstream of international development. Successful innovations of microfinance in Commonwealth member state Bangladesh which were developed by the Grameen Bank have been taken over by many INGOs and adapted throughout the Commonwealth and the rest of the world. With the support of INGOs and other stakeholders, microfinance is flourishing today all over the developing part of the Commonwealth, with many organisations following the example set by the Grameen Bank. At the same time, the Grameen Foundation, an international NGO inspired by the success of the Grameen Bank has now become a prominent international player providing funds and technical assistance around the world.
Many successful domestic, localised NGOs and civil society organisations have come about as result of funding and capacity-building initiatives carried out by INGOs. In many cases the intertwined nature of international and local NGO work has made it difficult to distinguish where most of the credit lies. WaterAid has been present in Commonwealth member state Ghana since 1985, working in partnership with eight local NGOs. The partnerships have resulted in considerable expansion of its programmes with significant coverage and have enhanced the ability for WaterAid and its partners to influence policy transformation in favour of poor communities.
Commonwealth civil society and NGOs
The Commonwealth is often described a ‘family’ of nations and peoples. The sense of family is most apparent in the wide network of organisations of varying scale that support the Commonwealth. The long list includes notable non-governmental organisations such as the Royal Commonwealth Society, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, CPU Media Trust and the Commonwealth Forestry Association.
At times, amongst international NGOs there tends to be bias towards working in the Commonwealth for a variety of reasons. A number of organisations have their roots in the Commonwealth in terms of their funding and initial focus of operations for instance Sightsavers International began as the British Empire Society for the Blind. It is now known officially as the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind. Sightsavers focus now goes beyond the Commonwealth. WaterAid, whose earliest operations began exclusively in the Commonwealth now includes 16 Commonwealth countries amongst others in the list of countries it operates in.
Criticisms of international NGOs
The existence of international NGOs working throughout the Commonwealth and beyond has not been without criticism. The following lists some of the key criticisms and the questions raised: