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October 4, 2004

legitimacy of NGOs

There was a time (I would say, the later nineties) when people who promote the economic and social development of poor countries were tremendously enthusiastic about non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Democracy, these people had discovered, meant more than voting; it required freedom of association, pluralism, and civil society. In practice, "civil society" boiled down to NGOs that could be funded. When there was a democratic state in place, NGOs could be supported as components of civil society. When the state was authoritarian and/or corrupt, NGOs could be funded as alternatives to the government. However, a strategy of funding NGOs creates problems as well as advantages. Michael Edwards's book Civil Society is a good guide.

I'm part of a research project at the University of Tillburg, in the Netherlands, that will investigate the legitimacy of NGOs. (I'm an unpaid member of the research team, which means that my main contribution will be advice, which is worth about what it says in the budget.) The Tillburg researchers, Anton Vedder and his team, rightly lay out some of the main concerns about NGOs. Nobody elects these groups. They are accountable to foreign funders but not to local governments or publics. And they tend to promote single issues, which means that they are poorly placed to weigh competing values (such as environmental protection versus economic development, or economic welfare versus democratic processes). The Tillburg project will begin, usefully, by interviewing numerous NGO leaders to find our how they define their own legitimacy.

October 4, 2004 11:33 AM | category: none


This evolution of "civil society" and NGOs by academics and funders is fascinating. Etzioni makes a similar point recently on his blog (http://www.amitai-notes.com/blog/) and refers readers to Washington Post Editorial Page member Sebastian Mallaby's recent book on NGOs and the World Bank.

I frequently wonder about the development of constitutional cultures. In a "transitional" nation without historical agreements about how to disagree, how do advocacy NGOs operate?

William Everett Johnson's work on Religion and Federalism details how religious organizations and concepts help to create "publics" -- a concept he works hard to define. He studies German Reunification, India, and a sliver of the US polity.

Please continue to offer your thoughts on this subject.


October 6, 2004 11:28 AM | Comments (2) | posted by Scott

I am trying to write an article that looks at how Chinese NGOs define their own legitimacy.
I will take the liberty of emailing you and asking for your advice on how to bring out this "legitimacy" question to NGO leaders. I will introduce myself more in that email.

December 13, 2004 9:27 AM | Comments (2) | posted by Xuesong

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