Development, NGOs and Civil Society: the Debate and its Future

J Pearce


What is the relationship between development, NGOs and civil society? What were the key developments in the debate surrounding this relationship during the 1990s and what is their impact on the future for NGOs and development? These are questions addressed in this introductory chapter to a reader on development, NGOs and civil society.

Development debates in the context of neo-liberal economic policies have been disorganised and lack consensus. NGOs have largely failed to develop their own theoretical, normative and political critiques of neo-liberalism and their role in the world order. NGOs in both North and South must now reconsider their roles, relationships and the value of theory in informing praxis. It is time to shift from a ‘foreign aid’ paradigm to a one characterised by alliances between actors and institutions involved in the struggle against poverty.

The NGO community gained respectability in the early 1990s, thus soliciting finance from official donors. Donor finance enabled NGO expansion but brought tension as NGOs appeared more accountable to donors and their neo-liberal economic policies than to their beneficiaries. International NGOs have contributed to the weakening of states by taking advantage of the reduced government services caused by the implementation of structural adjustment programmes.

  • NGOs have sacrificed Southern legitimacy by their willingness to follow donor objectives, which many believe perpetuate poverty, not ameliorate it. Some began to perceive NGOs as businesses profiting from poverty.
  • In a backlash donors have now begun to question how efficient and representative NGOs can be, and transferred funding directly to Southern organisations.
  • Despite advocating North-South partnerships in the early 1990s, some Northern NGOs revealed their latent paternalism by resisting the direct funding of Southern NGOs.
  • As overall funding decreases, both southern and northern NGOs look for alternative funding which may threaten their original objectives and integrity.
  • As debates about the role of the state have progressed, it is now realised that an effective state is just as essential to development as a strong civil society.

NGOs lost direction and became fragmented during the 1990s. They failed to develop new tools for normative and theoretical critique following the collapse of socialist models of development that previously guided their action. A dichotomy was created between those who approached the problems by increasing technocratic competence and those who emphasised getting the politics right first.

  • NGOs have contrasted their action-orientated, problem-solving approach to the theoretical, abstract approach of academics. Theory, however, is necessary to inform praxis and can be meaningfully developed from the ground up.
  • NGOs must engage in critical self-reflection in order to consider their roles and relationships for the future. Lack of reflection can lead NGOs to inappropriately reflect the visions of official donors.
  • NGOs must accept that they are neither political parties nor grassroots social movements. NGOs cannot and should not replace the state in promoting development.
  • NGO inter-relationships should now be characterised by collaboration and effective alliances rather than charity and paternalism, although this may follow many different models.
  • Collaboration needs to extend beyond praxis to the realm of theory, normative reflection and politics.


Pearce, J., 2000, ‘Development, NGOs and Civil Society: the Debate and its Future’ in D. Eade, ed. Development, NGOs and Civil Society, Oxfam, Oxford, pp.15-43.