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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 1 .

Civil Society, NGDOs and Social Development: Changing the Rules of the Game
Alan Fowler

Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 2000
76pp. Biblio. ISBN 92-9085-021-3.

This study has been published as Occasional Paper 1 of "Geneva 2000: The Next Step in Social Development", a project of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD). It reviews the role and contribution of non-governmental development organisations (NGDOs) in promoting social development and makes some recommendations about ways in which their performance and the institutions might be improved.

The first section tries to 'unpack' the concept of 'civil society' in relation to NGDOs and concludes (in a footnote) that, "for our purposes, civil society can be understood as the realm of citizen's informal and formal private association to pursue non-economic interests and goals." (p. 3) The author is critical of the tendency by aid agencies and the aid system in general to, "adopt a formal, uniform and historical view of civil society in relation to international development", which "misrepresents how the poor associate in order to cope and survive informally through intricate trust-based webs of familial and other networks". (p. 6) Further, he make the point that "civil society encompasses contending power relations and group interests that can both advance and impede poverty reduction, equity, inclusion, justice and other social development objectives." (p.7) He then elaborates on the "complex nature of NGDOs" with respect to differences in their origins, goals and behaviours in different socio-political contexts. He makes broad distinctions between historical experiences on the different continents and how these have influenced the natures of NGDOs on each continent.

The second section is focused on what NGDOs have actually achieved in social development. Based on intentions expressed at the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995 and publications from the official aid system, he lists a summary of what NGDOs are expected to contribute to social development, including that they "will have a positive influence within (civil) society." (p. 12) He then draws upon a variety of studies and assessments to compare the achievements of NGDOs with these expectations, and highlights a number of shortcomings and constraints (both internal and external) on their performance and impact. In the realm of "civic impact", he concludes that "NGDO-supported groups tend to remain isolated from each other and from other civic formations. Mobilization or aggregations of local organisations into substantive civic actors has been poor." (p. 16) In relation to "policy leverage" by NGDOs, he states: "Concern is being raised about NGDO legitimacy and accountability as policy actors" and that "NGDOs using multilateral bodies to gain leverage on their own governments ? can undermine local political processes, erode sovereignty and weaken (local) governments' ownership of initiatives." (p. 17)

The third section begins with a list of factors that the author believes condition the "evolution and activities" of NGDOs. He summarises these as Tolerance, Civic life, Profile of poverty and exclusion, Governance, Reform, Decentralization and Aid, and describes the use of these seven factors for a kind of 'mapping' of the situation in particular countries with respect to the strengths or weaknesses of each of these factors. As someone who does a lot of 'mapping' of situations in relation to conflict, I find this an interesting suggestion which might be a useful tool for analysing conditions for promoting political development as well as social development. The section continues with an examination of the nature and range of relationships that NGDOs have with communities, 'partners', the wider civil society, government at various levels and with each other.

In the final section, the author makes a number of recommendations about "changing the rules of the game", including "repositioning aid", moving toward more "authentic partnership", "involving an honest broker" (an Ombudsman or mediator), "preventing a development monoculture", "improving NGDO practice" by enhancing organisational capacity, "expanding engagement with civil society beyond NGDOs" and "institutional reform".

Although the study does not focus specifically on ethnic conflict, I found the discussion about complexity in the nature of civil society and about the different factors and constraints in different contexts to be relevant. This study will be of interest primarily to those who are concerned about the impact of development programmes with respect to social development, the quality of relationships between international and local development organisations and the wider 'civil society', and the nature of the international aid system.

Steve Williams

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