Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

NGO Sector

Many of the Development Dinner guests work in the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) sector and it was interesting to hear their self-reflections and criticism regarding their industry.

Personally, I have spent much more time of my life as student than a professional.  As a result, my mixed opinion of NGOs is largely based on academic reading instead of personal experience.

On the one hand, many scholars advocate that NGOs provide an important watchdog to governments: their activism helps to keep states in check. 

More pro-NGO information can be found here:

Moreover, I would like to believe that many NGOs are making positive difference.  I volunteered extensively with Engineers Without Borders during my final year at UBC and was highly impressed by the dedication and philosophy of the organization.  I can praise EWB for hours!

It’s hard to doubt the NGO sector when you meet the people involved.  They are passionate, educated, and altruistic – exactly the kind of people who are going to save our world.

On the other hand, however, some scholars highly criticize the NGO sector.  As many of the dinner guests lamented, NGOs tend to be tied to their financial donors.  Consequently, they are usually ultimately accountable to their benefactors instead of the people they aim to help.

In addition, the size of an NGO influences its effectiveness.  If the organization is too small, it is difficult to mobilize enough resources to make a significant impact.  If it is too large, however, it becomes too bureaucratic to respond to the quick changes that local projects usually require.

In his book Planet of Slums (2006), Mike Davis takes NGO criticism to whole new level by slamming the sector as “soft imperialism.”  He claims that since the 1990s, the World Bank and other aid institutions have bypassed the state by working with regional and neighbourhood NGOs instead of government organizations so that they can avoid accountability to the local people.

He argues that the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers requirement for governments to involve NGOs and advocacy groups does more harm than good.  Instead of benefiting the country’s citizens, this strategy mostly profits large NGOs.  Furthermore, he contends that the professionalization of NGOs has hindered grassroots activism: they are too bureaucratic to effectively address local issues and instead deradicalize urban social movements.

All these points of view are probably true to a certain extent.

So what’s a girl to do when all she wants is improve the world?

I think if you’re serious about making a positive contribution, you have to remain ever-vigilant of your organization.  You also have to stay informed regarding the bigger issues you are attempting to address.

I admit that at this point I am unsure of MHA’s impact – the organization has both negative and positive impacts.  Not only am I skeptical of affordable housing in general, but I’m also skeptical of some of MHA’s business practises.

I try to remember, however, the advice my roommate gave me upon graduating from engineering.  I told her some of my concerns about CIDA internships and she told me not to let my skepticism immobilize me – that I needed to get my hands dirty in real development work before I could discount it.


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