In recent months, five earthquakes have wreaked havoc on Indonesia. The Sept. 28 earthquake killed more than 2,000 people and left thousands missing after a tsunami slammed into the island of Sulawesi.
International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) rushed to the scene to provide relief services to survivors, as they had done after similar disasters in Haiti, Puerto Rico, Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the world. But much was wasted in these responses, according to analysis by watchdog groups. In early October, the Indonesian government ordered foreign aid workers to leave. The government said that such assistance “may hamper the rescue and recovery work.”
Why are NGOs coming under fire?
These developments follow a number of highly publicized incidents involving NGOs. Half a world away in Liberia, a prominent NGO, More Than Me, recently was exposed in a sexual abuse scandal. One of the leaders of an organization formed to protect children from sexual exploitation instead allegedly assaulted or raped them between 2010 and his arrest in 2014. In an undated statement, the organization confirmed the allegation.
This tragedy follows a media storm earlier this year about a sexual abuse scandal involving one of the world’s largest NGOs, Oxfam International. Oxfam admitted that some staff members engaged in sexual misconduct in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
And a new report from a leading British research institute suggests that an expensive, decade-long NGO program, the Millennium Villages Project, came nowhere close to meeting its goals. The program, spearheaded by Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, aimed to prove that a simultaneous focus on education, health, agriculture and small-business development could transform living standards at the village level. Other research published this year concurred that the project’s investments did not lead to expected outcomes.
This wasn’t how much of the world saw NGOs
But globally, people have tended to have highly favorable opinions of NGOs. About three-quarters of respondents in a 2007 survey (the most recent year the question was asked) conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes project said that NGOs had either a very good or good influence on their country. Likewise, nearly 70 percent of randomly selected respondents to a 2008 survey on NGOs and service provision in Kenya reported having “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of confidence in international NGOs. Approximately 30 percent of respondents in the same survey reported having had recent direct contact with NGOs.
Private donations and government contracting in the United States today also suggest Americans view NGOs favorably. U.S.-based NGOs contributed $15.4 billion to developing countries in 2016, and private donations make up most of the money in NGO budgets. Organizations such as World Vision raise as much as $800 million annually through fundraising efforts.
In 2017, 13 of the top 100 fundraising charities in the United States were organizations focused on international issues. The U.S. Agency for International Development implements almost 15 percent of its international development assistance through NGOs, suggesting that the U.S. government trusts and values NGOs.
Are NGOs still the good guys?
So what should we make of the recent scandals, failures and dismissals of NGOs? When the good and bad columns are tallied, where do NGOs fall?
In our recent article reviewing 35 years of scholarship on NGOs in international development, we probed whether NGOs more often help or harm. We find that when published research reports the effects of NGOs on development outcomes, it tends to say that these organizations have favorable effects on target communities.
Here’s how we did our analysis. We reviewed a random selection of 300 published articles on NGOs and international development, where more than 125 articles included some findings on the effects of NGO interventions. We focused specifically on health and governance interventions because health is the most common sector of NGO service provision and governance programming covers NGOs’ civil society work.
Health interventions included efforts such as vaccination campaigns and family planning programs. Governance interventions focused on democracy promotion, building civil society or other forms of political empowerment. Most of the interventions we reviewed were relatively small scale, meaning that the published articles were focused on NGO interventions in an individual community, town or region within a single country.
Much of the time, NGOs bring benefits
Nearly 60 percent of these articles reported solely favorable effects of NGOs on development outcomes, while just 4 percent of articles reported that NGOs had only unfavorable effects. Unfavorable NGO effects included things such as unintended reinforcement of Western ideologies, hollowing out of health systems and exclusionary practices. Most of the remaining articles described mixed results — but even the majority of these articles concluded that NGOs primarily had favorable outcomes, including greater contraceptive use, increased knowledge about health issues or human rights, and policy change.
There are, of course, limitations to our findings. Most notably, academic journals are notoriously unwilling to publish null results — those showing that an intervention had no effect. Additionally, a sizable proportion of authors of these articles had some connection to the NGOs they wrote about. Specifically, they either worked for the NGO they wrote about or received funding from the NGO for the research described in their article.
These connections could lead them to preferentially write about positive effects of NGOs while playing down their failures. And our results are hampered by the fact that few studies measured whether NGOs were effective compared with other actors, such as the government or private sector.
Even with these limitations, our findings suggest that the NGO balance sheet tips more toward good than bad. Media outlets tend to focus on extreme cases of abuse, neglect or mismanagement in NGO programs. But according to our research on the many projects that don’t get media coverage but do make it into the pages of academic journals, these disappointments are not representative cases. Instead, most interventions we studied provide small, favorable benefits to the communities in which NGOs work.
Jennifer N. Brass is an associate professor at the Indiana University School of Public & Environmental Affairs and author of an award-winning book, “Allies or Adversaries? NGOs and the State in Africa.” Follow her on Twitter at @jennifer_brass.
Rachel Sullivan Robinson is an associate professor at the American University School of International Service and author of “Intimate Interventions in Global Health: Family Planning and HIV Prevention in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Follow her on Twitter at @rachsullrobin.
Allison Schnable is an assistant professor at the Indiana University School of Public & Environmental Affairs and a returned Peace Corps volunteer. Her research focuses on volunteer-run NGOs working in international development.