Why do some countries have so few NGOs?

by | Jan 31, 2012

Homegrown nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) play crucial roles providing social services to the poor, holding governments accountable, aggregating the political power of the disenfranchised, and helping to shape public policies. Their importance to development is well known.

But what explains the reason why some developing countries possess so few independent organizations while others have a multitude?

Take Pakistan for instance. Whereas in Bangladesh, the former East Pakistan, NGOs have played such a prominent role that they have supplanted the state in some crucial areas, in Pakistan they are far less influential. Despite having 180 million people, the latter has relatively few important NGOs, think tanks, and independent monitoring organizations (IMOs), as pointed out by former ambassador to Pakistan William B. Milam in his book Bangladesh and Pakistan. Despite a generally positive government attitude (at least towards domestic organizations) and much growth in recent years, the number of important institutions pales in contrast to Bangladesh’s total.

There are some excellent organizations (such as Kashf), but there is nothing quite like BRAC, Grameen Bank, and the other huge Bangladeshi NGOs. There is also far less scale and diversity than in India.

The situation is more or less the same when it comes to think tanks, IMOs, and other entities that might monitor, advise, or pressure the government. There are just four or five respectable think tanks, all of which are pretty small. IMOs are so uncommon that members of a working group on state building in Pakistan I chaired in October could not identify a single one.

The weakness of independent organizations even extends to the political arena, where two family-based political parties dominate, and the judiciary, which is often more beholden to local clans and powerbrokers than the law.

Pakistan’s underdeveloped civil society contributes to the country’s flawed political economy and partly explains its low level of human development. Politicians and officials feel little pressure to perform because there is no organized entity able to hold them accountable. The country’s poor are worse off than Bangladesh’s across a large number of indicators even though Pakistan’s income per capita is much higher.

None of this is a reflection on the generosity of Pakistanis, who generally do well on international comparisons of giving. According to the Pakistan Center for Philanthropy, charitable contributions make up nearly 1 percent of GDP, higher than India’s 0.6 percent and not far off from totals recorded in much richer countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom. The rate of giving in Bangladesh is closer to India’s than to Pakistan’s.

But, a relatively small share of this money is going to build institutions that contribute to state building and social development. The poor may be gaining adequate relief from destitution—the streets of Pakistan have far fewer beggars than India—in ways that did little to change the situations.

It is also not a reflection on the creativity of Pakistanis. There are some very innovative and successful civil society projects and NGOs in the country, but these are generally small in size and not well known beyond their immediate area of impact. They have contributed to Pakistan’s development, but not on the same scale as their larger brethren in other countries.

What then explains the weakness of the NGO sector in Pakistan?

One possibility might be the nature of Pakistani society. As Anatol Lieven describes in Pakistan: A Hard Country:

Society is strong above all in the form of the kinship networks which are by far the most important foci of most people’s loyalty. . . . the crucial question for Pakistan . . . is whether it is possible to create loyalties and ethics which transcend those of loyalty to kin.

Societies dominated by clans are more inclined to look to personal relationships for their needs and giving, seeing all impersonal institutions as being untrustworthy. Better to depend on someone you know than an organization run by people you do not know no matter how worthy the latter may seem.

Another possibility is the nature of the institutions that do spring up. As Akbar Zaidi explains in Economic and Political Weekly (subscription required):

Due to the lack of institutional development and institutional deepening, Pakistan’s macro and micro trajectory and development are highly dependent on the whims and fancies of the individual who happens to be in charge, whether at the national/country level, or as the head of a research centre or a public institution. . . .

Dynamic individuals may create innovative projects that have a real impact in a specific area, but unless they can develop a strong organization they are unlikely to ever be able to scale up to cover a large area.

The importance of individuals instead of organizations also contributes to the fragmentation of civil society, weakening its ability to bring about change. In Pakistan’s case, civil society tends to be focused on single issues (such as certain development issues or human rights goals) whereas the country really needs a comprehensive approach to development (that would, for instance, seek to promote both development and rights in an integrated fashion).

Zaidi continues:

For civil society in Pakistan . . . the pursuit of democratic ideals is not a necessary and defining condition. . . . Many of them are the state’s partners, acquiring mutual benefits of some kind or the other. . . Development groups . . . are often co-opted by institutions of the state to become the latter’s “advisors” winning lucrative contracts and getting the publicity they need to further their credentials.

Civil society that cannot exist independent of the state, that hold values that prevent it from challenging those in power (whether for ideological or practical reasons), or that cater to the needs of the elite (as may be the case for some women’s groups in Pakistan) will be limited in its ability to promote progressive change.

A third reason might be the army’s long-standing domination of the political system. During General Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship (1977-1988), for instance, the state sought to eliminate or discredit NGOs that it saw as a threat, leaving Pakistan’s civil society in a state of disarray. Men in uniform have ruled the country directly for roughly half of its existence, and indirectly for much of the rest of the time.

A fourth possibility is the heterogeneity of the country. Pakistan has much greater ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity than Bangladesh, making it more difficult for NGOs that do well in one place to expand elsewhere. Needs (including those related to management and dealing with officials) vary between regions, and even within them. India is also very diverse, but it is in some important ways more cohesive than Pakistan, having more established norms of governance and a more integrated elite.

Whatever the cause (and I welcome reader input on the explanation), this is one area where donors should be playing an important role.

Investing much more in researching, documenting, and building up the capacity of the more successful NGOs (whether directly or through the establishment of a local organization to do so) such that they could increase their reach and scale holds much promise. The better these are at management, raising funds from non-state actors, and performing their various tasks, the more influential and independent they will become, and the more likely they will grow into nationwide organizations on the scale of BRAC or Grameen Bank.

Establishing new NGOs in a few critical areas should also be a priority.

For instance, a think tank focused on increasing economic growth (as suggested to me by Haroon Sharif of DFID) could help promote policies (through research, lobbying, media relations, etc.) to achieve this aim.

An IMO focused on gathering and analyzing information related to one aspect of government service (such as education) would shed much needed light on the performance of the state, providing Pakistanis with more tools to hold leaders accountable.

An organization focused on building institutions that cater to the poor, such as the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund, could make society more inclusive.

There are also many organizational models that have worked in India and Bangladesh that could be replicated in Pakistan.

Donors must, however, remember the necessity of nurturing the independence of these organizations if they genuinely want to help them grow. NGOs dependent on donors are unlikely to ever develop the capacity and relevance to make real impacts on their societies. The focus should be on building up organizations run by Pakistanis, fully funded by Pakistanis, and geared to meeting the needs of Pakistan.

* * *

NGOs are not a panacea. Despite the presence of strong civil society actors, corruption has reached alarming proportions in Bangladesh and India, and neither state has a government that is highly responsive to the needs of citizens, especially when they are poor. In Bangladesh’s case, an overdeveloped NGO sector may actually be contributing to the country’s abysmal governance by relieving the state of many of its responsibilities.

They are, however, a crucial element in a much larger system of elements that determine how development oriented a society and state will be. And they are pretty inexpensive to fund, especially given the limited alternative ways to influence the political economy and social development of a country like Pakistan.

Promoting NGOs that were strongly rooted in Pakistan society and eventually mostly self-funding and independent of both the state and foreign actors would ensure the maximum impact at the lowest cost. A lot could be accomplished with a relatively small sum of money, especially when compared to the total budgets allocated by Western governments to aiding Pakistan. $100 million, for instance, could help launch or strengthen a series of independent institutions. This is but one-fifteenth of USAID’s annual allocation for the country.

The biggest challenge may be managerial—some aid agencies are not entrepreneurial enough for these types of projects. But groups such as International Development Research Centre are.

Donors who want to help Pakistan and other fragile states would do well to make use of the NGO sector in a strategic way.


The above is based on my work chairing the working group on State Building in Pakistan during the 2011 Global Economic Symposium.


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    Seth Kaplan is a Professorial Lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. He teaches, writes, and consults on issues related to fragile states, governance, and development. He is the author of Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development (Praeger Security International, 2008) and Betrayed: Politics, Power, and Prosperity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). A Wharton MBA and Palmer scholar, Seth has worked for several large multinationals and founded four companies. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and Japanese.

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