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UNESCO / MOST Discussion Paper No.53: "NGOs, Governance and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean" by Jorge Balbis
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Management of Social Transformations - MOST

Discussion Paper No. 53


NGOs, Governance and Development in
Latin America and the Caribbean


Jorge Balbis

Also available in Spanish


This discussion paper is the basis for the preparation of the seminar on NGOs, Governance and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean, (Montevideo, 28-30 November 2001) as part of UNESCO’s MOST Programme. The author begins by pinpointing the phenomenon of NGOs within the voluntary sector of Latin American and Caribbean civil society, before focusing his analysis on the particular case of “development-oriented” NGOs. He goes on to examine the various meanings of the concept of “governance” in direct relationship with the process of structural change currently under way in the Latin American region. On the basis of these considerations he then turns to the challenges now facing NGOs in the region, in terms of identity, legitimacy and social and financial sustainability, analysing some of the strategies that these organizations have embarked upon in order to deal with the changes in their field of action. Despite the difficulties that many Latin American and Caribbean NGDOs are currently facing in readapting to their new working conditions, the author concludes by noting the major contribution made by these organizations to democratic “governance” and the promotion of sustainable and socially equitable development on the continent.


I. Governance and NGOs: a recent “pluridimensional” link

II. Latin America and the Caribbean and the notion of “good government”

III. NGOs in the universe of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in LAC

IV. LAC NGOs and the specific case of Non-Governmental Development Organizations (NGDOs)

V. Current issues and prospects for LAC NGDOs

VI. By way of conclusion: the numerous dynamic links between NGOs, “governance” and development in Latin America and the Caribbean

Frequently used acronyms

Reference Bibliography


Over the past three decades there has been a notable increase in the importance of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in the field of cooperation and development. Around the world these organizations have been gaining visibility, recognition and legitimacy in the eyes of governments, international organizations and agencies, the media and the general public, not only thanks to their humanitarian aid action on the ground, but also, increasingly, as protagonists in development and social regulation on an equal footing with the State and the private sector. Something similar has occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) where NGOs have for a long time been at the forefront of the fight against scourges such as poverty, famine, illiteracy and social marginalization, but saw their numbers and activities grow swiftly in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Since then they have become vital players - albeit not immune to criticism and challenges – in the LAC region, thanks to their work in a wide range of areas including sustainable human development, democratization and the defence of human rights, the strengthening and participation of civil society (CS), preservation of the environment, the search for production alternatives, local development, the promotion of minorities, and the defence of threatened cultures.

By some, and to an ever greater extent, NGOs are even recognized and held up as social players of prime importance; yet they are also criticized or denigrated as dangerous groups of activists competing for space and influence, locally and internationally, with States and political parties, companies and trade unions, local authorities and international organizations. However, in reality little is known to date about this fragment of organized CS and much remains to be known about how it can be strengthened or sustained or about its potential to deal with present changes – and even more so future ones – in the field of Latin American development. [1]

In the particular case of Latin America and the Caribbean, the presence and actions of these organizations have been particularly affected by the changes that have taken place in the region over the past two or three decades, which have profoundly altered the political, economic, social and cultural contexts in which they traditionally operate. General processes such as democratic consolidation, economic, social and cultural globalization, the rise of neo-liberal politics, the growing interest in and attraction towards a more indifferent but more multifaceted CS, regional integration, State reforms and decentralization, along with more specific processes such as changes and fragmentation in traditional social movements, the new forms of social representation and demands, reduced foreign aid in the region and changes to the ways and means in which international cooperation operates, all maintain, extend and complicate the scope for action by these institutions. [2] Despite all of these changes the set of structural problems that NGOs have been fighting for some time in this part of the world has remained – or, worse still, even deteriorated – including joblessness, violence, illiteracy, poverty and inequalities.

Such changes have had marked knock-on effects on the work carried out by these organizations, necessitating a far-reaching revision of the premises on which their aims and strategies used to be defined, their capacities and forms used to develop, their links used to be established and their programmes used to be funded. In addition, not only have the agendas and capital flows changed along with the priorities, scenarios, forms of action and the disposition of their interlocutors, but also, as a consequence, so have the relations between NGOs and the State, other CS players, international funding organizations and agencies - including Northern NGOs, traditional sources of economic aid, companies and the market, the media and academia. Against this uncertain background of changes and demands, LAC NGOs are now reviewing their aims and operational activities, adapting old and acquiring new institutional capacities to increase and boost their contribution to the democratization and development processes, both in individual countries and in the region as a whole (Valderrama León, M. and Pérez Coscio, L., 1998).

It is against the background of this change – both in the action and the very world of NGOs – that we are proposing an overview of their specific contribution to the development and democratization of LAC societies, in the region’s current circumstances. This calls for a wide range of questions to be asked about these organizations, questions that for the time being undoubtedly do not have ready answers but which this study will attempt to find. These questions include how the changes in the political, social and economic and cultural context of the region have affected their work in promoting development; in that connection, how these organizations are reviewing their objectives and forms of action; according to what priorities they define their agendas and their aims with respect to the context in which they act; what adjustments and innovations they are making to their structures to guarantee and improve their financial viability and institutional strengths; how they are redefining their relations with other social players (the State, companies, international cooperation and multilateral funding bodies); what new consensuses and links they are forging among themselves and/or with their peers in the North to increase their operational capacities and the scope of their activities, and so forth.

In particular, this study sets out to tackle the current problems facing LAC NGOs from the viewpoint of “governance” or “good government”, a concept or expression with many meanings and a wide range of applications concerning basic management and participation problems, linked to a great extent, if not exclusively, with development policies (Alcántara, 1998). [3] From this point of view, whereas “governance” refers to the creation of new links between the State, the market and CS, NGOs are one of the pillars of “good government” which should bring about economic and social development on the basis of new associations between the authorities, the world of private enterprise and the non-profit-making associative sector. This notion, too, is not free of grey areas, not least the very concept of “governance” and the possible role to be played by NGOs in practice. That is why we must begin by clarifying and specifying the suppositions on the basis of which this connection has been established in current debates about development and, in particular, with respect to the particular political and social context of Latin America and the Caribbean covered by this report.

Focusing on the main subject to hand this report tackles the phenomenon of LAC NGOs in an attempt to try and distinguish them from other CS Organizations (CSOs) and classify them within their own world, concentrating the analysis on the conditions in which a particular group of these bodies came into being and developed, namely Non-Governmental Development Organizations (NGDOs). To that end we shall analyse the aims and internal functioning of these institutions, placing emphasis on their identity, their working dynamics and methodologies, and the ways in which they fund their projects and their institutional sustainability. We shall also take a look at the relations maintained by these institutions with other social players, with the State at its various levels, with companies and multilateral organizations, and with development-related international cooperation agencies. Finally, we shall consider, by way of conclusion, the main aspects tackled throughout the report and pinpoint certain questions about the future of NGDOs in LAC, with regard to the potentials and limitations of this CS sector and a clarification of the main challenges and tasks that they must face if they are actively and effectively to contribute to the region’s development.

To a large extent this document is based on a systematic ordering of material written by others who have painstakingly carried out a wide-ranging analysis of this subject, and we wish to express out debt and gratitude to them. It should also be pointed out that this study offers a broad panorama of NGOs in “the whole region” of LAC, in an attempt to summarize and conceptualize realities that often differ from one country to another. It is clear that any analysis or study of the former and new roles played by Latin American NGOs should stipulate the fact that NGOs in the region are not the same and that their actions vary according to a variety of circumstances, largely related to local specificities. It is therefore also difficult to reach conclusions that are valid for all LAC NGOs as a whole, in the light of the prevailing situation in each country, their different institutional forms, and the different aims that these organizations pursue, according to specific local contexts. While special attention has been paid to the major differences between the various national and regional contexts in which these organizations develop their actions, it has obviously not always been possible to consider in detail and with the necessary precision the special features of the phenomenon in each country and region of Latin America and the Caribbean. [4]


I. Governance and NGOs: a recent “pluridimensional” link

As has been pointed out, referring to other contexts, “NGOs” and “governance” refer to different realities and meanings and although they now seem closely related it was not always thus. The notion of NGOs obviously predates that of “governance” even though the spread of the latter term, especially in the sense of “good government”, has over the past decade contributed greatly to a strengthening of the leading role and public recognition of a player with its own merits and more than half a century of action in the field of development (Ben Néfissa, 2000).

A search for the origin of the expression NGO apparently reveals that it was first used, in the late 1940s, in United Nations documents, to refer to a wide range of institutions whose only common feature was that they did not belong to government circles (Padrón, 1982, quoted by Bombarolo, Pérez Coscio and Stein in 1992). As these authors point out, since they do not depend on State administration, in certain cases they may be seen as “private” institutions whereas others prefer not to be defined as such but as “institutions of the third kind” (i.e. neither public nor private) or as “autonomous organizations, or simply set apart as “private organizations of social interest”. [5] In any case, the popularization of the phenomenon of NGOs can be traced mainly to the 1970s when there was a veritable “explosion” in number and scope of these organizations worldwide (Cernea, 1988). [6]

The development of NGO activity initially depended on the solidarity of organizations in the developed world of a lay or religious nature and based on international cooperation with organized groups in “Third World” societies themselves. However, from the mid-1980s on, the consolidation of the NGO phenomenon was aided by a change of focus with regard to the dynamics of development operated by the major multilateral funding agencies and the specialized agencies of the UN, in line with the World Bank’s (WB) approach (from 1992 on) to “governance”, which it defined as “the general manner in which power is exercised in the management of a country’s economic and social resources for development” (World Bank, 1992). [7] From this viewpoint, instead of seeing governments as the main managers of development, these agencies began to look to the private sector to play a central role in the search for more democratic means of government or “good governance”, and in which according to them NGOs would be central players. Along the same lines WB decided that NGOs should play a vital role in promoting responsible government because, among other reasons, they contributed to the construction of more pluralistic institutional systems, creating linkages between the different tiers of society, giving local interests a say and exerting an influence through a very wide range of ideas and values on the framing of state policies (World Bank, 1993).

With regard to the LAC region, at the beginning of the 1990s, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Chilean Senate jointly published a document stemming from earlier work and a major seminar on “Good Government”, insisting upon the fundamental role to be played by CSOs and NGOs in particular. Since then that work has been taken up and added to by different development agencies as a key aspect of action plans for the region, helping to disseminate and promote the use of this concept, of which there exist several definitions, but which, to take the version preferred by UNDP, is “the exercise of economic, political and administrative authority to manage countries’ affairs at all levels. It comprises the mechanisms, processes and institutions through which citizens and groups articulate their interests, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations and mediate their differences” (UNDP, 1997).

The initiators of the concept of “governance” not only contributed thereby to a renewal of the aims of NGOs in terms of optimizing their capacities to assist in emergencies, disasters or wars, but also, by distancing themselves from the prevailing economic dominance of the discourse by international funding agencies, they helped to lend legitimacy to the role of NGOs as agents of development in allowing for the influence of political and social issues over economic ones in the processes of structural reforms being recommended by them. From this perspective, the expressions “NGOs” and “governance” refer mainly to the political phenomenon, the former in a negative sense (non-governmental) and the latter in a positive sense (“good government”). In this sense “governance” is, above all, a tacit way of referring to politics since, although the concept applies to many situations in which it does not refer to a formal political system, it nonetheless implies the existence of a political process: “governance” like “good government” means “creating a consensus, obtaining the consent or acquiescence needed to implement a programme in a scenario where different interests are at stake” (Alcántara, 1998).

Thorough investigation (Ben Néfissa, 2000) has already been conducted into the fact that, behind a similar definition, lies a “prescriptive” conception of “governance” whose application entails a set of political and administrative measures of structural adjustment and drastic cuts in State spending, especially in the social field, and therefore also tends to create a favourable environment for developing the private sector. The reforms required by this practice of “good government” call for new links between the State, society and the market precisely related to the new role that, in this context, has been allocated to NGOs [8] . However there also exist – according to the same author - a “standard-setting” dimension and an “analytical” dimension of “governance” making this concept more complicated and requiring a specification of the meaning with which it is being used in each case. The “prescriptive” and “standard-setting” notions of “governance” are the more visible ones: they indicate what is “good” or “better” and “what should be done” in the field of what is known as “good governance”. Here, the measures of good “governance” would be: a decentralized administration responsible for its actions; a lightweight, efficient and transparent civil service; a reliable judicial system; a fight against corruption; the development of civil liberties (of the press, association, etc.) and the respect of human rights in every sense. The third dimension of the concept, the “analytical” one, is related with a new way of approaching politics that is far-flung from the traditional perceptions that strongly focussed on a political and legalistic analysis of the State.

In this set-up, the State is not the only – or even the main – player in development (even though it continues to be the central entity thanks to its power and real ability to take action) but alongside it are the market (represented by enterprise, institutions and individuals, producers and consumers) and the important role played by so-called “Civil Society” (CS), corresponding - roughly speaking - to the universe that in the English-speaking world is known as the “Third Sector” or the “non-profit-making sector” including NGOs, cooperatives, mutual assistance funds, trade unions and community-based organizations, foundations, social and sports clubs, etc. In this way “governance” entails a set of reforms aimed at establishing a new linkage between the State, the market and society: it is not an end in itself other than that it facilitates the economic and social development of societies thanks to new relations between the authorities, the world of private enterprise and the non-profit-making associative sector (including NGOs).

Nevertheless, despite the difficulty in contesting the “standard-setting” and “prescriptive” notions, “governance”, seen from the analytical viewpoint put forward by Ben Néfissa, is not immune from criticism, especially if it is compared not only with the reality of developing countries but also that of the developed western countries where the liberal political model dominates. In this sense, the notion of “governance” conceals conflicts of interest, contradictions and hegemony; it places emphasis on consensus and involves no reflection on power other than the most efficient means of “managing” society (de Senarclens, 1998). Other more radical criticisms focus on the harmful effects of relations that may be established between “governance”, globalization, democracy and development and, in particular, how these phenomena may combine, increasing the dependence of the least developed countries on external pressures and thereby weakening the legitimacy of nation States whose political prerogatives may be undermined or transferred to other spheres (independent experts, civil servants at multilateral organizations, etc.) (Ben Néfissa, 2000). Similarly, other observations of particular interest are criticisms formulated, in particular, referring to the developing world, with respect to the relationship between the State, CS and the market, and implying the concept of “governance”.

Both because of the ability of States to defend themselves and to reconstruct their domination on new bases, and the fact that in many developing countries the State apparatus remains an important economic agent (such that a reduction in its participation in terms of available fiscal resources may weaken the influence of the private sector) it would seem that the theory of good government does not take into account the full complexity of the State. Moreover, the apology of market values underlying the notion of “governance” runs the risk of overvaluing the private sector in terms of its regulatory and management capacities without paying due attention to its limitations. The fragility of States with which “governance” is associated may lead to serious social problems, especially in the developing countries. The appearance of NGOs, experts, bureaucrats and local and regional networks is by no means the answer to the question of political participation and the control of authority. In any case, States are always present and the conflicts inherent to the essence of politics are unlikely to turn for any length of time into a technocratic and administrative form of “governance” (de Senarclens, 1998; Ben Néfissa, 2000).

Also taking a critical approach to “governance”, albeit less radical in their objections, other authors maintain that the most important message to be learned from this notion is that the reality of government is undergoing major changes, and that a far-reaching break with the past has taken place. Authors such as Stocker (1998) claim, for example, that “governance” refers to new forms and methods of governing and, at bottom, to a change in the very meaning of government. Stocker adds that the notion of “good government” depends on five propositions: bringing into play a complex set of institutions and agents that do not belong exclusively to the sphere of government; recognizing the loss of clarity in limits and responsibilities with regard to tackling social and economic problems; identifying the interdependence between power and institutions that take action collectively; reliance on autonomous networks of agents set up by themselves and recognition of their ability to get things done, rather than on the basis of government power exerting or wielding its authority; and the idea that government may use new techniques and instruments to govern and guide. [9]

This interpretation of the notion of “governance” is quite similar to the one frequently found in political science in which it is depicted as a new approach questioning the vision of a monolithic State overseeing the judicial pronouncements regulating society as a whole. In this sense, the State is nothing other than a set of institutions, players, groups or individuals interacting with each other and whose study cannot be limited to the institutional analysis of public action but requires in addition a sociological study of their action, interaction and conflicts, and of the way interests are negotiated and formed. According to this interpretation, the “analytical” notion of “governance” may help us to understand better the originality of the outward trappings of politics in different counties where they do not adapt to the model of developed countries, from where the “prescriptive” and “standard-setting” content of the notion of “good government” comes, as is analysed above. In other words, an analysis in terms of “governance” in its “analytical” sense should enable us to grasp the originality of politics in the broad sense of the word and its effects on development by highlighting and allowing for the full potential of the role of those non-State players who definitely also contribute to the functioning and regulation of social life (such as NGOs). From this viewpoint and in the light of what has happened in the region in recent decades it is not only quite relevant but it is also necessary to investigate the role of NGOs as players in “governance” and the development of Latin American societies in an analytical sense. The rest of this report is taken up with an exploration of these issues.

II. Latin America and the Caribbean and the notion of “good government”

As in all developing countries, in the LAC countries reform programmes have been initiated with a view to ensuring “good government” in the “prescriptive” and “standard-setting” meanings of the notion of “governance” set out earlier in this report. For at least the past fifteen years or so the whole region has seen the implementation of programmes aimed at: reducing the State apparatus; reforming and debureaucratizing the way in which public administration operates; encouraging the participation of the private sector of the economy through wide-reaching and fairly widespread processes of privatizing State-owned companies; promoting – albeit not always with the same will or the same margins of freedom – participation by CS in public management; decentralizing traditionally centralized States; bringing about greater control over and transparency in public management through active citizen management, and so on. “Good government” programmes are linked to a wide range of processes of change and reform that have profoundly affected the economic and market, the State, social entities and the cultural patrons of countries in the region over the past two decades.

The process has been extremely intense in some regions of LAC and less so in others and although, in general terms, the features of the process have been similar, there are specific national versions in each country such that, given the progress, hold-ups or reversals noted in different countries or aspects of the reforms, the process of change has led to a radically different panorama in the region to that found at the beginning of the 1970s. To use broad brushstrokes it could be said that the processes of change are four in number: democratic construction; restructuring of the model of development and international integration; social democratization; and the redefinition of Latin American modernity. According to one study “they are the basic processes defining, to a different extent and with differences from one country to another, the current problem or rather problems facing the continent” (Garretón, 1995). None of these processes has been completed and, even though some of them are more advanced in certain countries than in others, generally speaking, the difficulties to be faced in solving these problems in terms of “governance” still cast a shadow of doubt over whether they will ever be completed.

On this score, the central political process in LAC over the coming years will continue to be, without any doubt, the construction of solid, participatory and transparent democratic policies. Although the transitions have been concluded in all countries in the region with democratically elected governments, it is certain that the democratization process has not been completed in all countries and even less so has it been consolidated in a stable way, for various reasons. First, because – as recent experience in the West shows us – democratic transition is a very long process, always accompanied by lengthy State reforms and considerable successive efforts of many different kinds. Second, because in several cases there are still “authoritarian enclaves” or, in other words, institutions, authorities, players and situations inherited from the earlier authoritarian regimes; third, because in almost none of these countries has a successful solution been found to the problem of “truth and justice” vis-à-vis violations of human rights committed under the dictatorships; and fourth, because after democratic regimes were set up, in various cases there was a slide back into authoritarian rule or democracy lost substance as a political regime. In such cases, even if democracy was not replaced by another formal regime, it has in some cases been affected by phenomena of “loss of authenticity” or fallen under the control of rival powers, sometimes of legal or institutional origin, but sometimes of a repressive, corrupt or criminal nature. Completing the political transition and ensuring the consolidation of new democracies in institutional terms (as a system of citizens’ rights and standards regulating the competition for and access to power) were the first tasks on which the region’s post-dictatorial governments focussed. However, at present, although democratic policies and institutions are being formulated virtually continent-wide, the consolidation process has switched to the construction of more genuine democracies that guarantee representative government with majority support and that can neutralize rival powers and extend the exercise of citizenship such that every member of society can effectively enjoy their rights and freedoms.

No less important from the viewpoint of this consolidation of democracy is the strengthening of party systems, since a representative, stable, functional and renewable system of parties is necessary for an effective democratic exercise: “which means opening spaces in society to form new parties and to consolidate existing ones and not being scared of a multi-party system” (Muñoz Ledo, 1998). Democracy is distinguished from other forms of government by the major role given to political parties in the operation of its institutions; indeed, in countries where they do not exist as national organizations, where they are being constituted or where their “volatility” prevents them from guiding political affairs, the lack of parties has a negative effect on the proper functioning of democratic institutions and, at the same time, on the possibility of tackling the problems and needs of development: “This is the serious flaw in Latin American democracy compared with the experiences of Europe and North America, where the quality of democracy and the good results of its management are determined by the solidity and merit of the political parties” (Hurtado, 1998).

The aforementioned situations of democratic regression have a lot to do with the difficulties that reformers have had to face when trying to make the economic and political dimensions of change mutually compatible and to deal (democratically) with the logical increase in demands and reactions related to them. Much of the literature on the transition and democratic consolidation process in the region has been dedicated to an attempt to understand the complex relations between economic reforms, political reforms and social equality. Unfortunately, generally speaking, the material in this bibliography sets off alarms about the effects that reforms may be having on the quality of the democratic regimes being created in the region, especially with regard to the effectiveness of some of the more traditional requisites of representative democracy and its legitimacy (O’Donnell, 1992). [10] The reappearance of the threat of “ungovernability” in the region has at least had the virtue of highlighting the complex meaning behind the democratic formula, which does not only consist in guaranteeing a wider expression and participation of citizens but also means that whoever governs must also have the ability to take decisions. Confronted with the need to construct – or reconstruct – this ability to govern in order democratically to solve controversies involving the different demands and to put some order into the priorities of change, the governments of the region have been testing various formulae in accordance not only with a series of more or less common factors but also with specific national conditions that might be connected with the “analytical” notion of “governance” (such as the conditions in which the transitions are taking place, the type of political regime prior to authoritarianism, the depth of the economic crisis and/or the options made to tackle it, etc.).

In the end, this dilemma of democratic governability during the transition might force political players in the various countries to change the institutional framework of their democratic regimes, to redefine the role and weight of the State and to alter the way it functions. Forming a substantial part of the so-called “Washington Consensus”, this reform has meant that, from one country to another, a notion quite similar to the State function is reproduced and fairly similar policies and instruments for public management are adopted. [11] There has also been an attempt to strengthen the institutional framework of fledgling democracies through processes of reforming those constitutions inherited from authoritarian regimes or older constitutions often riddled with amendments and partial revisions. However, the unpopularity of these reforms, the lack of clear parliamentary majorities in favour of the reform programmes and the need to reach vital political agreements in order to carry them out has led to the signing of “governability” agreements and pacts and a second generation of constitutional reforms which, generally speaking, have further strengthened presidential prerogatives. These new pacts and constitutional reforms are probably the expression of a new way of facing the political uncertainties arising from the current changes taking place across the continent but also of a new style of government whose effects on the future of democracy in LAC have yet to be gauged.

It seems clear that the problems of consolidating and deepening Latin American democracies are closely linked to the (so far) relative progress made in the field of social democratization or, in other words, in the fight against poverty and other forms of inequalities and exclusion in societies whose fractures and gaps (be they economic, cultural or of another kind) have steadily widened in recent times. While there is no doubt that the process of social democratization may be relatively independent of the political formulae that promote it, in the current circumstances of LAC the achievement of greater political democratization must go hand in hand with the extension of social democracy without sacrificing either or replacing one with the other. After all, during the 1980s, democratization and impoverishment both advanced in LAC and, whereas there was an upturn in the economy in the early 1990s, the 1995 Mexican crisis revealed the fragility of the economic growth and interrupted an improvement which, in any case, was neither deep enough nor fast enough to enable the continent to pay off its social debt inherited from the “lost decade” and, less still, to offset its historical social deficits. [12]

Even more serious, thanks to the aforementioned reform plans the LAC States have rid themselves of many of their traditional instruments for economic and social action and regulation, thereby reducing their ability to deal with the increase in those problems associated – though not necessarily or exclusively linked – with the extension of poverty and exclusion (such as the new forms of violence and crime now affecting these societies, for example). This has all resulted in the widespread disenchantment and detachment of Latin Americans vis-à-vis traditional democracy, whether as a political regime or in terms of its various institutions and players. [13] Although this disenchantment does not yet seem to pose a threat to the stability of political institutions, it nonetheless affects the very nature of the democratic regime and is a source of doubt about its future development in that there are more and more contradictions between a market logic, excluding many people both economically and socially, and a “citizens’” logic, going along, and going beyond in many ways, the traditional political channels. [14]

On the other hand, the progress made in the field of political and social democratization is not totally separable from the model of development and international integration that various countries, or the continent as a whole, are completing. In the early 1990s when the effects of the foreign debt crisis began to be controlled and foreign capital began to flow into the region once again, a new development model seemed to win acceptance. Measured in these terms various countries in the region showed, at various times in the 1990s, sharp increases in GDP and income per capita. It is obvious that a new growth-oriented regime, both more open to and integrated into the global economy, is developing in many LAC countries as a result of the structural reforms undertaken in the 1980s and most of them have made considerable progress in improving their macro economies since – in a context of openness, eliminated subsidies and regional integration initiatives – investment has increased, businesspeople are more entrepreneurial and less dependent on the State, and elements of an entrepreneurial culture are beginning to emerge, cultivating the virtues of efficiency and competitiveness.

However, the succession of crises that have hit the region since the Mexican peso collapsed in 1995 have held up and clawed back the expected progress. Furthermore, in the 1980s and 1990s the foreign debt of the countries in the region increased (doubling in some cases). Rare are the countries that managed in the 1990s to bring about external openness and increase savings and investment at the same time as modernizing and diversifying their production structure, so that they might consolidate in the longer term a new system of sustained and sustainable growth.

According to ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, a United Nations body), as part of its general assessment of development in LAC, in spite of the major efforts by the countries in the region, the results of the new “development and environmental models” are unsatisfactory in economic and, even more so, social terms. Moreover much of the population barely enjoys citizens’ rights, which in judicial and political terms means a fundamental inequality in their access to justice and precious little participation in political decision-making, while in the economic and social spheres this is translated into unequal opportunities, precarious employment, low income, obstacles to social mobility (especially for women), no acknowledgement of ethnic or cultural diversity and no protection from hardship. This means that the major challenge facing the region at the beginning of the new century is that of constructing fairer societies: “What is required is a reorientation of the development models in the region around a main axis, equality. The main effort should be to strive towards breaking down educational, vocational, demographic and property-owning structures through which poverty and inequality are transmitted from one generation to the next” (ECLAC, 2000, b). [15]

Finally, to sum up the analysis of the processes of change taking place in the region, a model of development that enables the continent’s countries to be stably and quite autonomously integrated into the global system and generates the material bases for a process of social democratization, an ethical precondition and inseparable dimension of political democracy, brings us back to the fourth process mentioned above when defining the current situation in Latin America: namely the redefinition of Latin American modernity. Now, in 2001, albeit with some distinctions, the structural reforms in Latin America are complete, a major historic change in terms of development, imposing on the players those levels of complexity that are characteristic of the globalized economy. It is as if the uncertainty, risk and unpredictability of scenarios were part of the predominant cultural climate of the age. Here, it is worth making at least two general points. First, in the 1970s and 80s there was a crisis of paradigms that helped to explain the reality of Latin American societies in terms of a situation of conflict or a central contradiction (i.e. over the type of development, revolution, modernization, tendency or liberation), especially with regard to the all-knowing pretension of those interpretative schemes that failed to take into account new social processes, the uncertainties that they generate, and the possible future courses. Consequently, the whole idea of a type of “emerging” society vanished into what Latin American nations were becoming (namely modern, democratic or socialist societies), along with the linear motion that had apparently led there. In its place were designed partial utopias that led to the achievement of only some of the principles defining a society (Garretón, 1995).

Something similar has occurred with the political and social players entrusted with achieving these historic projects, in the sense that it is not possible to think of the Latin American process in terms of a leading player-subject of historic action (the State, the working class, the revolutionary movement or party, etc). In that case, the actor-subject would be determined by a specific struggle or conflict, since each of the processes and each of the dimensions of social life recognizes different subjects and players that sometimes oppose one another. This also implies that the classical repertoire of forms of collective action and traditional set-ups of organization and representation on the continent, constructed on or centred around principles such as development, labour or revolution, are increasingly inadequate and questionable as models for action; the logical outcome of this is that it disorients the players who not only expect the final objective of a model of social integration but also experience, in flesh and blood, the consequent crisis of their identities. The definition of the new Latin American modernity is related, along these lines, to the constitution – or reconstitution – of collective subjects, and even this possibility seems to have been thrown off course by two centrifugal forces. First, the drama of being prevented from acting as subjects (affecting a huge sector of the population) and second, the imposition of a copied (or media-dominated) modernity taken from other contexts that squeezes collective identities between the models on offer and historical memory (Calderón y Dos Santos, 1995).

All the processes analysed here are interlinked but they are not mutually dependent nor is there, apparently, an essential dependency or cause-and-effect relationship except for their ethical imperatives and the aspirations to a better society and living standards. While all are indispensable each is the product of its own struggle, has its own dynamics and its own players, and the achievement or failure of one, in part or in whole, does not necessarily lead to that of the others. In this sense it is highly probable that, in the coming decades, we shall continue to see in LAC major processes of destructuring and restructuring of social life and, as they are defined, there will be progress, stagnation and partial reversals. It is also probable that the changes will take place at different rhythms, and in different areas and at different times will move in opposite directions or have different meanings. As in every process of social change involving many players and concerning different interests, tensions and conflicts are likely to be generated, however, agreements will be reached and there will be alliances between the different agents, institutions and public and private sector, both in the sphere of the State, that of the market and CS in the analytical sense of “governance” outlined above.


III. NGOs in the universe of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in LAC

As in other parts of the world, and for similar reasons, a great variety of “non-State” organizations, belonging to the so-called “Civil Society”, have made an appearance in recent decades, and been consolidated in nearly every LAC country. [16] These entities have greater numbers of and increasingly heterogeneous responsibilities, and they try, through various kinds of activity, to cooperate in such a way that, in general, their respective societies, and in particular the least favoured and most vulnerable sectors of the population, can face up to their most serious and urgent problems (housing, education, health, employment, etc.). Also, and in an increasingly flagrant way, these organizations are not only characterized by their ability to offer answers to the various needs of sizeable sections of the population but also stand out, among other reasons, for their ability to invent and establish direct relations, for representing a stimulus to participation and dialogue, for the cost/efficiency ratio of their actions, for their sense of responsibility and the way in which they account for their actions, and for being able independently to diagnose problems. That is how, going far beyond its ancient origins, the concept of CS acquired a new relevance at the close of the 20th century and took on innovative meanings, as these organizations emerged as institutional players, whose probability of turning into an autonomous sphere of social interaction does not depend on their size or the quantity of their initiatives but on an ability to generate meaningfulness based on the rationality that breathes life into the entities that they comprise, unlike the other players on the institutional stage where they operate – namely the State and the market.

But such a wide-ranging reality as this one makes any attempt to classify or categorize these organizations with a single common label a difficult task. Many of them are non-profit-making organizations – in some cases we speak of the “non-profit-making” sector just as we speak of the sector of organizations with social or solidarity aims. However, cooperatives may promote projects of benefit to the community while yielding profits for their own members, just as more and more “non-profit-making” organizations are coming into play in the field of promoting credit, offering assistance for micro-enterprises or other finance-related activities. Others tend to identify themselves as “non-governmental”; nearly all of them define themselves as non-party or non-religious to denote the independent nature of their action; and a large group portrays itself as part of the so-called “Third Sector”, a term apparently coined some decades ago by Waldemar Nielsen, inferring the existence of two other sectors, the State and the market. Some authors endow this Third Sector with a capacity to mediate between citizens and the State but it is clear that the contacts, links and bonds between all three sectors call into question or at least draw attention to the borders that supposedly divide one from another. For example, the limits are often too vague to enable us to locate in the so-called “Third Sector” those organizations that outwardly have public missions which primarily ought to be assigned to the State while enterprises often take initiatives that might, prima facie, be reserved for social organizations, or create their own machinery or instruments to perform a task of “social responsibility”. (A. Cruz in Cruz; Barreiro (dir.), 2000).

This is precisely why we preferred to adopt a more general grouping for these organizations, denoting the fact that they belong to the so-called Civil Society (CSOs), as private entities with public aims, extending the said concept beyond the world of organizations in the so-called Third Sector. [17] In their studies on “Social Capital” in Argentina, UNDP and IDB claim that solidarity, generosity, disinterestedness and love of one’s neighbour lie at the basis of the rationale upon which CSOs operate. [18] This attitude of generosity and reciprocity based on the exercise of democratic participation mechanisms within the entities that make up the sector expresses the citizens’ mandate for constructing a sense of equality and fairness. Cooperation among citizens, their participation in organizations and social movements and their ability to establish reciprocal and collaborative relations in networks of organizations of all kinds emphasize the importance of the horizontal relationships established between members of the CSOs (UNDP-IDB, 1998).

It is not our aim here to explore the thought-provoking concept of CS and its organizations in general but, as part of the aim of this study, and with the sole purpose of establishing certain reference points for a later analysis of the phenomenon of NGOs as part of the universe of CSOs, we shall pragmatically assume the validity of a certain consensus that seems to exist among researchers and social leaders who conceive of CSOs as entities with the following features. They are institutionalized organizations in terms of their own organizational structure, regardless of their legal status; they are private in the sense that they are structurally apart from the State and public administration (which means that, in certain circumstances, these organizations cannot receive government support and that civil servants and State employees cannot belong to them); they are non-profit-making, i.e. they do not distribute profits among their members or boards (but they can accumulate profits and/or capital as a product of their operations, but these must be reinvested and used for achieving their specific mission and not distributed among their members); they are self-governing, in other words they have their own governing bodies and maintain autonomy and control over their own actions; they are non-religious, unlike churches or congregations dedicated to the practice and dissemination of a credo, although organizations linked to or promoted by churches are not excluded; they are non-party in the sense that they are not meant to impose any political ideas, they do not field candidates in elections and they do not seek State power, although organizations promoted by political parties are not excluded. [19]

The multifarious world of CSOs (analysed in a number of interesting studies listed in the bibliography) is a broad and heterogeneous one. CSOs can be categorized in a good many ways, depending on the parameters used to identify them: the beneficiaries of their actions (membership organizations, or those whose beneficiaries are the members or associates, and organizations whose beneficiaries are people other than the members of the organization); the type of activity carried out, the institutional origin, ideology, the origin of the resources used for the activities, the age or sex of members, etc. It is not the intention of this study to look in depth at this question but it should be pointed out that CSOs are sufficiently diverse to undermine any analysis that deals with them indiscriminately and without taking into consideration the fact that these institutions have different interests and take different world views. Nonetheless, given its topographical value with regard to such a wide-ranging, diverse and heterogeneous universe of associations, we could usefully draw upon the classification of CSOs set out in the aforementioned study on “Social Capital” in Argentina (UNDP-IDB, 1998) recognizing four main types of organizations:

  • associations of affinity: they direct their action at defending the interests of their associates, who share the attributes that define them. They obtain their resources mainly through their members’ subscriptions, the payment of which is a sine qua non for their membership. This category includes mutual assistance funds, trade unions and workers’ associations, professional councils and employers’ associations, clubs and cooperatives;

  • organizations with a territorial and community base: their purpose is to respond to the needs of the inhabitants of a given territory. The category includes: neighbours’ associations, promotional companies, neighbourhood clubs, people’s libraries, school cooperatives. They obtain their resources from different sources along with contributions by their members. Their aims and functions cover a wide range of activities that not only meet a wide variety of community interests but also generate and promote links based on solidarity;

  • entrepreneurial foundations: these institutions are created and financed by companies in order to canvass for donations and carry out philanthropic activities, legally apart from the original company;

  • support organizations: created by a group of persons with the aim of helping others. These include entities providing social services, organizations for promotion and development, organizations for the defence of rights and academic centres.

Most of the studies and research carried out internationally have highlighted the fact that this sector is far broader, in terms of its structure, and more complex, in terms of the quality of its institutional work and achievements, than was supposed a few years ago; it has also been demonstrated that its characteristics vary within and between countries. With regard to LAC, from 1995 to 1996 the IDB’s Regional Programme of National Consultations for Strengthening Civil Society in Latin America conducted a process of consultation in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, designed to establish bases for dialogue between State, Market and CS (Valencia, Winder, 1997). The findings of the Programme – according to which CS covers all non-profit-making organizations and activities of mutual assistance by citizens dedicated to the issues affecting them and concerning the common interest, including groups operating for the benefit of their own members and those benefiting others – show that in the region there is a strong and heterogeneous associative phenomenon involving millions of individuals and carrying out multiple tasks. [20] It can be fairly easily concluded from all this that NGOs are a sub-category in the associative world of CS and that they can be readily identified as belonging to the fourth category of the classification set out above (i.e. support organizations). But any attempt to take the analysis further immediately begs other questions about this particular type of CSO: What distinguishes or differentiates NGOs from other CSOs? What are the objectives and characteristics of their actions? What is known about their origins, trajectories, profiles and projects? In what areas do they work and what are the functions that they actually perform? What are the problems that they must face in LAC at present (and how many such problems are there?) and how are they facing them? What kind of relationships do they establish with the State and enterprise, with other social sectors, parties, churches and what situations are presented in each of these relationships? How do they finance their activities and what relations do they have with the market in general? And so forth. These are some of the questions that the next part of this report endeavours to answer.


IV. LAC NGOs and the specific case of Non-Governmental Development Organizations (NGDOs)

NGOs as a form of CSO

In LAC there is a fairly long tradition of NGOs dedicated to elaborating and executing research and action programmes designed to tackle the various social problems affecting the region, especially those resulting from the underdevelopment in which a large proportion of the population lives. Some of them have solid experience and have contributed to the search for alternative development models in their respective countries, with a great sense of fairness and justice. Others, on the other hand, more fragile institutionally, carry out small-scale work projects, without making a major quantitative or qualitative impact upon the social issue they deal with. In quantitative terms, the world of NGOs is continually changing. In recent years the number, kind, variety and heterogeneity of NGOs in the region has been on the increase and become increasingly diversified, coinciding with a constant increase in the recognition and support that they receive, especially from international organizations, both in terms of the quality of the resources financing their projects and their increased presence and participation in the forums and other bodies that discuss and elaborate development proposals. The same is true of their growing role as leading players in a whole range of social, economic and political scenarios, and the attention that they are paid by governments, the media, academia, etc. Yet in reality it is also harder to speak of NGOs in LAC as a whole. As has already been pointed out “a glance at the catalogues of NGOs produced in some countries is almost like leafing through a telephone directory: the number of NGOs has been over-inflated including, as it does, every imaginable kind of institution: philanthropic associations and charities (…), cultural associations, sports clubs and even companies and consultancies disguised as NGOs. The whole gamut of the Third Sector in other words. The origin of this confusion lies in the very way in which the concept of NGOs was defined in the first place, by negation (non-governmental) rather than an affirmation of their task in a positive way”, i.e. the set of activities, links and contributions that should be decisive for identifying this sector (Valderrama León, 1998).

That is why various authors have tried to differentiate NGOs from other CSOs as entities dedicated to promoting and carrying out development projects favouring the least protected sectors, economically and socially speaking. However, these same definitions change from one country to another, although in all cases there seems to be a search for a name that better qualifies the bodies known as NGOs and would define these organizations more accurately. Yet, even when they are looked at from different perspectives, there are some common denominators in all these definitions, for example in the majority of the definitions it is stated “from which part” of society NGOs operate, and it is made clear that they do not belong to the government (non-governmental, private, autonomous, etc., although sometimes they may include organizations created by certain LAC governments with a view to supporting and complementing their policies). It is also clearly stated “for whom” they work, making it clear that the people benefiting from their programmes are not the members of the institutions themselves but other persons or groups, in particular the poorest sectors of the population (the “working classes”, the poor, grassroots groups, popular movements, etc). Finally, it is always stated “why” they do their work, namely to improve the living conditions of these sectors, but with different terms used according to the particular case (development, promotion, support, education, training, etc), invariably without aiming to make a profit (although it is not excluded that members of the organizations might strive towards their own development or economic and occupational sustainability).

Non-Governmental Development Organizations (NGDOs)

Even if we categorize the universe of NGOs in this way vis-à-vis the broader world of CSOs, for a more satisfactory study of the relations between the organizations and the issue of development in the region, we shall have to focus on a sub-category of NGOs of special importance: Non-Governmental Promotion and Development Organizations, more usually known simply as Non-Governmental Development Organizations (NGDOs). This sub-category makes the distinction among NGOs between those that offer assistance or charity and those that offer promotion and social development. According to Mario Padrón, NGDOs are specifically involved in the study, design, execution and assessment of development programmes and projects, in direct action with social groups and organizations (Padrón, 1985). While the former do not see the process of community participation as a means of giving the groups involved in the projects more social power, the latter direct their actions not only at meeting the one-off needs of individuals, families, groups or communities but also at promoting values and attitudes that go beyond the immediate needs of those at whom their actions are targeted. They achieve this by means of material and social mediation, in order to achieve greater community participation (based on the criteria of fairness, solidarity and democracy) and as an instrument to influence the variables determining the living conditions of the poor (Padrón, 1985).

Strictly speaking, this is a small group of organizations accounting for no more than 10% of the total of CSOs, but from the 1960s or 70s onwards they have come to play an increasingly important role in dealing with various economic and social issues, consolidating democracy and proposing alternatives for development in the region. They may emerge from various sectors of the ideological spectrum (they may, for example, be linked to the Catholic Church, universities or independent groups of professionals) and they are dedicated to research, action and/or training in quite different subject areas (housing, poverty, social exclusion, health, education, democratization, employment, childhood, environment, gender, etc), but they are all fundamentally made up of technicians and professionals and seem to have a formal structure with which, thanks to national and international funding, they can carry out programmes and projects that aim to promote social and economic development in the least favoured sectors of society. As such, we might take on the definition of NGDOs as “non-profit-making entities essentially made up of professionals and technicians and not administered by governments, whose beneficiaries are the poor and/or excluded sectors of the population and, in particular, whose institutional mission is not only to meet one-off health, education, housing etc. needs but also to promote values and attitudes among the beneficiaries of their work and among other social players (States, international bodies, media, etc.) on the basis of the criteria of social justice, fairness, real democracy, participation and solidarity .(Bombarolo, Pérez Coscio, Stein, 1992, p. 32-33; Valderrama León and Pérez Coscio, 1998). Their area of action covers a wide range: offering services (health, education, housing, etc.), generating or supporting productive activities (farming, crafts, state-of-the-art technology, business consultancy, etc.), full-time training and awareness-raising about problems and how to solve them, support for organizing and consolidating the weakest social sectors, etc. The way in which these sectors work is based on the criteria of organization, participation, self-help and self-management, and is channelled through development projects, programmes and policies. [21]

Although there are well-known differences in the process of their generation and development from one country or region to another, the advent of the first NGDOs in all LAC countries is a phenomenon dating back several decades. Over time, their evolution seems to have been strongly marked by a tendency to deal with a relatively constant set of problems affecting the region, but has also responded to the appearance of new themes and agendas, and an ongoing process of review and adjustment of strategies and intervention approaches, style of work, institutional capacities, access to resources, recognition, links at local and international levels, etc. Any finely detailed tracking of the trajectory of NGDOs in the LAC region should take into account these thematic and generational differences. That enterprise far exceeds the aims of this study and the findings of research into this have been published for quite some time. They have provided this part of our work with information and we refer to them for a farther-reaching assessment of the issue (Bombarolo, Pérez Coscio, Stein, 1992; Valderrama León and Pérez Coscio, 1998; Valderrama, Benavente, Bombarolo, Cunha, 2000). Although the appearance of these organizations may be explained by specific socio-political and economic circumstances in each country in the region, over the past four or five decades there seem to have existed certain characteristic historical correlations in the different regions of LAC thanks to which we may identify some common traits and itineraries regarding their origin and development. This might be relevant to the present situation and the challenges of the future.

The first generation of NGOs began to develop in LAC towards the end of the 1950s, in direct relation with the emergence of a new economic and social scenario in the region. [22] Sectors of the Catholic Church, with a business and/or professional approach, looked at the social issues and offered assistance to poor communities, albeit in a collateral way, bearing in mind the powerful presence of the nation State in social policy. It is in this context that the idea began to be propagated of strengthening the solidarity-based unity of efforts and help for the weakest in society, which would later be the ideological basis of many NGDOs. The period from the 60s to the 70s was characterized by an explicit “compromise with the poor” and the organization of the people and various concepts – predominantly anti-State – oriented the actions of the region’s NGOs. One of them was the so-called “conscience-raising” (à la P. Freire) that promoted education or training for the people and social organization while aiming to bring about change; another was that of “community development” (Veckemans-DESAL). From the mid-70s on, and mainly under dictatorships, NGDOs began to take off in LAC. The 1980s were marked by a process of institutionalization of NGOs and the development of new areas of work: technology, women, human rights, survival strategies, etc. The return to democracy that began at that time in the whole region created new areas and opportunities in local management and in the planning of alternative development policies, against the background of a major economic crisis throughout the continent, associated with the problems of repaying the countries’ foreign debt and the gradual advance of neo-liberal government action models materializing in “structural adjustment” policies. Alienated in many cases from assistance practices, developmentalism, or dogmatic, theoretical schemes, institutions were then created that sought alternative ways of solving the crisis based on a direct relationship with the working classes, with more complex operational mechanisms, with more systematization and less improvisation.

The 1990s seem to have been marked by the hegemony of the economy and by neo-liberal concepts in practically the whole region. NGOs began to be more involved in new areas such as microfinance or ecology and the environment. These new NGOs tended to be more pragmatic and lacked the ideological discourse of the NGOs at the foundational stage, were promoted by financial supplies and were more highly specialized and professional. Private enterprise also created NGOs and began to receive resources from international cooperation agencies. Alongside the process of State reform and minimization, small NGOs were founded, mostly by former civil servants.

The classification of NGDOs is another point that has been tackled by the different authors studied and their presentation is of interest if we wish to go into greater detail about their distinctive features (the kind of tasks that they perform, their beneficiaries, their fields of action, etc.) or specify the different issues that affect them. Bearing in mind that each NGDO can be analysed from different viewpoints and may be defined at the same time according to different criteria, some possible classifications, according to the variable regarded as the most pertinent and useful for analysing this type of organization, would be:

  • By philosophy, for although nearly all of them belong to a defined ideological tendency, most of them being “progressive” (i.e. they promote greater distributive equality, democracy, participation, etc.), there are some which take more “radical” approaches (promoting a complete change of the economic and social system), while others are more “humanistic”, “theological” (especially those connected with philosophical views such as the Theology of Liberation) or “professionalistic” (basing their work on diagnosis and proposals related to the profession of their members). In the same NGDO it may be possible to find a combination of different philosophical orientations co-existing.

  • By the field of action in which they are involved, since although all NGDOs are dedicated to subjects related with meeting the urgent needs of the poor population, these organizations may be differentiated by their field of work, namely education, housing, health, human rights, environment, gender, etc. There also exist institutions with interdisciplinary projects or that execute integral programmes covering various fields of action simultaneously.

  • By specific themes, since within each field they may specialize in particular aspects, for example, for housing: homes or infrastructure; for health: food, maternity or child health; or in the legal field: dismissals or land occupation, etc.

  • By the sectors assisted according to the subgroups of the sectors they work with: rural poor (especially in the Andean or Central American countries), suburban residents (especially in countries with a high percentage of urban population, mainly in the outskirts of conurbations), indigenous groups, women, children, the sick, smallholders, etc.

  • By the scale of their actions, in the sense of the geographical scope of their activities, be it neighbourhood, township, province, region, country or even internationally (as is the case of the Networks and Alliances of NGDOs on the increase in the whole LAC region).

  • By the tasks that they perform, given that the emergence of these organizations is related to that action directly aimed at meeting certain basic needs of the poor sectors and over time NGDOs have begun to work on more integral tasks of “research-action” while others, albeit to a lesser extent, are now dedicated exclusively to research, training or consultancy for given groups and areas. [23]

  • By the amount and volume of the resources that they mobilize, since there are no established parameters for defining the size of an NGDO it might be possible to classify these organizations according to the volume of projects that they handle, the quantity of financial resources that they mobilize or the number of people working for them.

  • By their institutional origin since (see below) the emergence of NGDOs may be basically rooted in different churches or religious groups, business groups, university and/or professional groups, grassroots groups and, more recently, associated with political parties and the State itself or sometimes brought about through international cooperation. This different origin may affect the development of the organization, its working philosophy, its methodologies, its sources of funding, etc.

  • By their degree of consolidation bearing in mind that NGDOs may go through different institutional stages in their lifetimes (formation, consolidation, expansion of their work scale, decline, etc). Currently some NGDOs in LAC with considerable experience of activity over many years (even decades) and a consolidated management capacity coexist with those in the throes of institutional consolidation or even some that are struggling to survive.

Nor is it easy to estimate the numbers of NGOs in Latin America and even more so to specify the number of NGDOs. In the mid-1990s, a study based on a survey of national directories put the number for the whole region at around 10,000 [24] while a more recent study that more narrowly defined NGDOs put the figure rather lower than that (Valderrama and Pérez Coscio, 1998). [25] This difficulty in specifying the number of NGDOs in the region at present might also be linked in some cases to the identification of these organizations as “Third Sector”, as pointed out in the study by FLACSO (Filmus, 1997). This has often led to methodological inaccuracies. But the confusion between the concept of NGOs and “Third Sector” not only has statistical consequences but also ideological ones, since NGOs have often incorporated as an essential part of their identity the search for democratic alternatives for development based on the concept of social justice, differentiating them from other more assistance-related institutions. As we have already seen in some detail, in recent times there has been a tendency for NGOs to change their beneficiaries and to broaden their alliances with other social sectors, which has led to many of them to seek refuge in the so-called “Third Sector”. They therefore are more numerous but they obviously lose some profile, especially that won during the 1970s and 1980s as the mouthpieces of the excluded and marginalized.


V. Current issues and prospects for LAC NGDOs

After forty years of democracy, LAC NGDOs have undergone a noteworthy increase in numbers and important qualitative changes associated with the intense transformations experienced by LAC economies and societies over the past decades. Recently, despite the variations between country and region, or special cases, we have been able to detect certain general trends of change in LAC NGDOs which are, according to a recent study on the subject of change and institutional strengthening of NGOs in nine countries in the region, carried out by the Latin American Association of Promotion Organizations (ALOP) and the Programme for the Institutional Strengthening of Latin American Non-Governmental Organizations (FICONG), as follows. The new leading role of the market for organizations – where previously there was a marked rejection of the market logic, they now seek to be incorporated into it in the best conditions (for example, those excluded from the market are now resorting to credit mechanisms, marketing, dissemination of technologies, etc.); closer relationships with the State (both central government but also and especially local governments) and multilateral and bilateral funding agencies and entrepreneurial sectors; the reduction in traditional foreign aid and the increase in operational costs, which mean that the subject of the economic survival of these organizations is becoming a priority concern – this is also felt in the search for formulae that ensure their sustainability and self-financing, forcing many NGDOs to take part in business-generating utilities, the sale of services or contracting their projects; a change in the communities at whom these organizations target their activity in keeping with the changes that have taken place in the organizational forms and types of demands of popular organizations (before, NGDOs used to channel their proposals through popular organizations but now they have a new role as players); some lines of work are losing their importance (e.g. popular education and trade union consultancy) while others are gaining in importance (technical assistance, microfinance management and local development, for example) and they are changing the main ideas that orient the organization’s work: before these were dominated by concepts such as social forces, political movements and popular democracy but today the buzzwords are consultation, citizenship, “governance”, social policies and poverty.

Since NGDOs came into being, their established “mission”, and an essential part of their identity, has been the search for democratic alternatives for development based on the concept of social justice, something which has set them apart from other “assistance” institutions. Recently there has been a tendency for NGDOs to change their beneficiaries and to broaden their alliances with other social sectors. As a result, many of these organizations seem to be increasingly associated with and less differentiated from other types of institutions with very different raisons d’être and specific interests. Their numbers seem to be on the increase but that this may result in a loss of identity and a loss or dilution of their special powers to make proposals or negotiate, powers that were gained through their past actions (Bombarolo and Pérez Coscio (1998) and Valderrama León (1998)). However, it is clear that the development of NGDOs in various LAC countries is not uniform and is marked by the national and regional contexts in which they take their action. For example, while the adjustment processes appear to be a common phenomenon throughout the region, there are countries where they are taking place less forcefully or more gradually. For example, in the Cono Sur (southern South America) the dictatorships defined the context in which the NGDOs first developed, and the return to democracy has led them to reconvert and even compromise on their former proactive stance (as other players have increased their presence or because many agencies have come to think that the solidarity of the dictatorship era is no longer justified or because they prefer to channel some of their resources into supporting the actions of governments so as to support the consolidation of the new democratic regimes). In Central American countries civil wars were one stage in their institutional lives whereas the peace accords marked another, and the natural disasters that have affected the region in recent years have also taken their toll. In Colombia and Peru political and social violence and subjects such as drug trafficking create special situations in the respective national scenarios. All these factors may affect the evolution of NGDOs and give rise to different concerns and action plans.

Against this background there seems to be a generalized agreement about the need to focus the problem of the identity of these organizations as a central point of their agenda. That is why Eduardo Ballón (Ballón, 1997) set out to discern three plans of analysis or three sets of questions referring to: first, a crisis or refocusing of the visions of development on which NGDOs base their action in the region; second, the social legitimacy of NGDOs which used to stem from their alliances with leading popular organizations, now weaker in many countries, since the changing spectrum of social organization has obliged them to adjust their links, alliances and bonds (with other sectors and social organizations – churches, companies, trade unions, universities, etc, with the State, political parties, funding agencies, etc.); and third, with regard to their sustainability, given the cuts in international cooperation resources which have highlighted the external dependency of NGDOs, some of which are now struggling to survive and must find new sources of income.

In the light of the changes that have taken place in international cooperation and North-South relations it is obvious that we need to rethink the whole concept of international cooperation and that the notion of development, central at the beginning of cooperation, is undergoing a crisis. The application of adjustment policies and reforms is defining not only the new configuration of Latin American economies but is now also affecting the reference framework for their social organization too. They further concentrate power, they entrench the unequal distribution of wealth, they fail to fight massive poverty and the lack of decent employment while abolishing acquired rights and seriously undermining the concepts of solidarity and fairness. It is imperative for Northern and Southern NGOs alike to find alternative approaches to economic and social development and to deal with the problem of inequality. [26] What are the current concerns of NGDOs in this regard? One of the most important is that of improving the way they receive resources which, in addition to strengthening individual abilities of receiving resources, means developing consultation strategies between the Northern and Southern NGOs and public awareness activities to reverse the trend towards declining aid. [27] The effects vary from country to country. The impact of the reduction in resources affects some more than others. The cut in foreign aid to NGDOs has been more dramatic in countries with a higher level of economic and social development such as Argentina, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Chile and Venezuela whereas countries like Bolivia and El Salvador have seen an increase. Even countries like Ecuador, Guatemala and Peru whose populations mostly live in poverty have suffered cuts in the amount of international cooperation funding they receive.

Work by NGDOs is being affected not only by the variations in the volumes of cooperation but also by the changes in the criteria for approving projects and the types of relationship with Northern funding agencies. Short-term projects now dominate and there is a certain erratic tendency in the agencies when defining agendas and priorities for countries and topics. This all counteracts institutional development aimed at the medium term and sustainability. As is pointed out in a study by the OECD (Smillie; Helmich, 1993), NGDOs around the world are currently experiencing financial insecurity of a kind that would have bankrupted any company. The processes for the approval of projects are lengthy and complicated, based on criteria that have nothing to do with the needs of those receiving aid and undermining the professionalism and the continuity of the organizations’ activities. Moreover the dialogue between Northern and Southern NGOs has deteriorated. Notions such as “solidarity” and “partnership” have lost their vigour; relations are increasingly based on criteria and conditions imposed from the North, dominated by a greater pragmatism and the predominance of projects and premises for action in the short term instead of real development programmes.

This panorama of instability in the funding of NGDOs has enhanced the relevance of the proposal to create funds to encourage more sustainable development along strategic lines, namely: support for self-funding activities; the generation of income and jobs through micro-companies; funds for micro- and small-scale production, etc., for anything needing funding from a wide range of funding sources. [28] What is certain is that the dizzying changes taking place, the questioning of the old paradigms and the reduction in resources have all thrown NGOs, in North and South alike, into a crisis that is jeopardizing their attempts to redefine their identity, a task which is not, of course, a necessity exclusive to NGDOs in the South. The representatives of the NGDOs in the South recognize the importance of their relationship with those of the North, since they have a long trajectory in common and share the same aims, a relationship that it might not be easy to transfer to the new form of interaction that is developing with bilateral and multilateral agencies. That is why it is important to establish new forms of dialogue enabling them to face the new situation creatively. In this framework of North-South relations, we should highlight the importance of global strategic alliances, in other words, consultation and cooperation among NGOs around the world and between them and Northern NGOs, along with links with other sectors of society and an opening up of areas of dialogue with State and multilateral organizations. Work by the International Forum on Capacity Building of Southern NGOs is one example of this kind of interrelation as is that of the NGO-World Bank working group and many other examples related with the international campaign Jubileo 2000, the mobilization of NGOs around the Multilateral Investment Agreement at the World Trade Organization, etc. [29]

Among the changes (“re-engineering”) taking place in the management system, many important changes have been under way in the internal organization of NGDOs as part of the new requirements imposed by international cooperation. These changes include: greater rigour in the planning systems with the application of modern techniques; new institutional assessment mechanisms; the inclusion of business management elements in institutional management; and a rationalization of resources and staff adjustments. At the same time, to deal with the greater uncertainty due to growing economic instability (systems of funding based on short-term, extremely “volatile” resources, from many different sources, and with different themes and conditions), projects are becoming more short-term, cuts are being made in permanent staffing and sizeable budgets cuts are being made (with more and more short-term contracts or contracts for individual projects or programmes that have been specifically funded and ever decreasing institutional “overhead” margins”). This is all leading to greater dispersal and a lack of focus in the organizations’ work, which hampers efforts to make medium-term institutional plans and requires a continuous, time-consuming search for new resources.

The sustainability or survival of NGDOs is a source of concern for those working in or studying this important sector of CS. Self-funding is still more an idea than a reality but some progress has been made in the sale of services, contracts with the State and in specific fields, such as micro credit. The incursion into the business world (one group of NGDOs ventured into business activities to obtain facilities) is in the early stages and the results so far have been contradictory: some NGDOs have succeeded in setting up efficient, profitable companies but others, following initial success, are now facing virtual bankruptcy. In some cases it has been difficult to combine the social aims of NGDOs with business dealings, and they have found it hard to keep certain aspects apart or to link them up where necessary. In some countries funding has been made available from the business sector for NGDO work. Primarily funding for assistance work and those NGDOs most closely linked to the business sector, but also philanthropic funds have been directed at a wider range of sectors. In many cases, NGDOs are becoming contractors working on projects masterminded by the State or by multilateral or bilateral cooperation agencies. They run the risk of turning into mere instruments of policies and losing their ability to command alternative proposals. Another problem concerning the direct funding of NGDOs through multilateral and bilateral organizations and States is that these sources of funding generally do not pay the administrative costs nor those connected with social aspects (organization or education of beneficiaries). This type of funding conspires against the possibilities for an institutional development of NGDOs and a strengthening of CS.

On the other hand, it is clear that institutional sustainability is not limited to the issue of funding. It concerns the way in which NGDOs’ activities interact with the social fabric, the alliances and coordination that are established with other social sectors and their social impact. On the subject of relations with social players, it should be remembered that the raison d’être of NGDOs used frequently to be associated with their alliance with “popular” (or working-class) organizations. However, in recent times many of the historical counterparts of NGDOs have withdrawn to the background or disappeared completely, although the process of the ebb and flow of social organizations is probably far more pronounced in some countries than in others. At the same time, however, throughout LAC new spaces and new social interlocutors are appearing in the activity of NGDOs. One of the main areas, for example, is the local area where, thanks to the processes of administrative and budgetary devolution taking place in various countries, there is an interaction with locally based organizations, governments, decentralized public sector bodies and even, in some cases, the business sector. NGDOs are no longer envisaging their work exclusively in terms of their relations with working class players and see themselves as social players with their own profiles and as fully paid up members of CS – this means, in turn, that they attach greater importance to their own presence in public arenas, such as research and communication. Even so, NGDOs’ strategy vis-à-vis the rest of CSOs is neither explicit nor clear and coherent and the same goes for the policies of consultation and cooperation that they are establishing in local arenas (municipalities, provinces and regions) (Valderrama, 1999). Another serious fact for the historical trajectory of NGDOs is that they lack an X-ray vision of the new profile of working class organizations, their demands, and their operational approaches – all of which are priorities for any institutional strengthening on their part.

Many NGOs arose in the context of and as a response to authoritarian regimes (frequent in the countries of Cono Sur – southern South America – and in some Central American countries). This made them anti-government and in many cases the vision of the State as an instrument for dominating the working classes led many NGOs to distance themselves from it even when they mobilized together with working class organizations to make certain demands on the State. The return to democracy in the region and the peace agreements, but also State reforms, meant that the dynamics behind the relationship between the State and NGDOs have been heading in different directions: in some countries the executives of these organizations or those close to them have access to the Government, while in other countries the leaders of working class organizations have taken up positions of responsibility in local government and even, in the new democratic dynamic, the opposition are now called upon to make proposals for viable public policies. The pressure for them to work with the State is not disconnected with the process of State reform itself and the subsequent tendency for tasks and resources to be hived off to the private sector. State reform entails privatization of the health, education and other services, which often gives resources to NGDOs, while the programmes of social investment to offset the effects of the adjustment programme have led to a widespread tendency to subcontract NGDOs to carry out projects or provide services. Despite these strategic considerations, there are repeated references to problems of coordination with the State, the lack of continuity in State initiatives resulting from changes of government, ministers or heads of programmes, and the problems of excessive red-tape and delayed payments.

In the LAC region numerous efforts have been made by NGDOs to coordinate. Undoubtedly the most consolidated NGDO network in the region is the Asociación Latinoamericana de Organizaciones de Promoción or Latin American Association of Promotional Organizations (ALOP). It has been in existence for over twenty years, uniting 50 of the region’s mightiest private organizations for the promotion of development, and it has been responsible for wide-reaching, intense activity for promoting and strengthening Latin American NGDOs. [30] But we should not overlook other thematic regional networks such as the Consejo de Educación de Adultos de América Latina – CEAAL (or Council for Adult Education of Latin America), with its head office in Mexico City; its central thematic axis is education, but it has also been setting up working groups on related subjects. Others include regional feminist networks: Red contra la Violencia (or Network against Violence) and Red de Salud de las Mujeres (or Network for Women’s Health). Based in Costa Rica is the Fondo Latinoamericano de Desarrollo – FOLADE (or Latin American Development Fund) which includes some twenty NGDOs working on micro credit and is responsible for wide-ranging conferences attended by many bodies involved in micro finance; it is promoting an investment fund. Then there are Latin American thematic networks in the fields of human rights (for example Plataforma Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, Democracia y Desarrollo – or Inter-American Platform for Human Rights, Democracy and Development, based in Bolivia), housing, the environment, and so forth.

Special mention should also be made of subregional NGDO networks such as “Concertación Centroamericana” (or Central American Consultation and Cooperation) created during the conflict that affected the region and intended to bring about peace accords and democratization. Various Central American NGDOs dedicated to popular education joined the “Alforja” (or “Knapsack”) network which has its head office in Costa Rica. In the Caribbean there is the Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales (CRIES or Regional Coordinator for Economic and Social Research) which brings together research centres and NGOs promoting economic and social research in order to extend the participation of CS in the integration process in the region. In most LAC countries there are associations of national NGDOs and a variety of thematic and regional networks, while it is interesting to note the appearance of new kinds of networks such as those for citizen initiatives (“Viva la Ciudadanía” or Long live citizenship, in Colombia; “Propuesta Ciudadanía” or Citizens’ proposal, in Peru; “Ciudadanos por la Democracia” and “Alianza Cívica” – Citizens for Democracy and Civic Alliance – in Mexico, but also the “National Campaign of Citizens’ Action against Hunger and Poverty and for Life” in Brazil, and two Nicaraguan networks: “Grupo Positivo de Cabildeo e Incidencia” – defined as a CS coordination body aimed at making sustainable development proposals to solve the problem of social exclusion, and “Iniciativa por Nicaragua”, a network aimed at involving public opinion in discussions of subjects of national interest; finally, with regard to the new concern with citizenship issues, we should refer to “Poder Ciudadano” or Citizens’ Power, one of the most active organizations in Argentina in recent years.

These networks, we can see, play a positive role in promoting the work of NGDOs, enabling them to improve their links with CS and facilitating dialogue with other bodies, such as the State, universities, international cooperation bodies, Northern NGOs, etc. However, the potential and dynamisms of these networks varies and we should therefore also examine in what conditions some networks operate dynamically and have a noticeable impact on society while others become bureaucratic bodies. It would seem that networks are more dynamic when they act on behalf of wide-ranging interests and movements (hence the high number of human rights networks in countries with high rates of violence, for example) while it seems that their survival is linked to their ability to tailor their strategies to changes of context.


VI. By way of conclusion: the numerous dynamic links between NGOs, “governance” and development in Latin America and the Caribbean

NGDOs are only one of the many players and social forces making up the complex – and ever richer – fabric building Civil Society in our countries. Nor are they the panacea for solving the problems of development and the practice of “good government” since they cannot be expected to do more than they can effectively offer, within their scope of action. Their role, however, in spite of the difficulties facing these organizations at present, is vital for enhancing democracy and promoting sustainable, socially equitable development continent-wide.

The findings of recent experience of structural adjustment in most countries in the region would indicate that, as far as an overall assessment of development in LAC is concerned, despite the considerable effort made by the countries in the region, the results of the new “development models” and environmental models are unsatisfactory, economically and, even more so, socially. It should be recalled that this situation is accompanied, for much of the population, by a lack of exercise of citizen’s rights, manifested in legal and political terms via a fundamental inequality in access to justice and feeble participation in political decision-making, while in the economic and social areas it is translated by unequal opportunities, occupational instability, low income, hindrances to social mobility (especially for women), no recognition of ethnic and cultural diversity, and lack of defence from hardship. That is why, despite the progress that may have been made in political and macroeconomic matters in the region, it may be stated that the LAC countries now find themselves in an ambiguous, contradictory situation in respect of the development model being created on the continent as a result of the “exclusive modernization” taking place there.

On one hand, thanks to progress in the democratization process and economic modernization, by the late 1990s, Latin America had become a quite different place to what it had been some twenty or thirty years earlier. On the other hand, despite that progress, a whole range of political and social problems still awaited solution and their persistence suggested a continuity with the past that recent reforms had failed to alter. How, after all, is it possible to build a democracy with social cohesion in countries where poverty, marginalization and social exclusion are on the increase? Or when, despite economic growth, instead of decreasing, social differences are becoming deeper and wider in terms of the distribution of profits and whole swathes of the population are excluded from the production and consumption systems? Or when the improvements in international competitiveness and exports occur alongside an explosion of the hidden economy and a steep increase in precarious jobs, while violence and crime are rocketing and more and more people are expressing their disenchantment with, and a distancing from, the democratic regime and its institutions and other representative mechanisms?

Obviously there is no single answer to such questions, and one-track predictions (whether they foretell catastrophe or express ingenuous confidence in the immanent virtues of economic growth and the functioning of democratic institutions) are certainly not valid solutions. It is clear that LAC needs to develop a model of production and accumulation that would enable it to enter the world economy competitively, but it must also overhaul its internal mechanisms so that its whole population has access to welfare; find stable ways of representing and articulating a growing diversity of interests and demands; and consolidate a political order that guarantees the exercise of rights and freedoms. Solutions seem to lie beyond the mere implementation of policies to offset the more negative social effects of the structural adjustment: what is needed is the construction of a new paradigm of life and political and social organization or, to put it another way, a reformulation of the relationship between State, the market, the market and CS, the ingredients and the areas of development for any development strategy. As CEPAL itself has warned: “there needs to be a reorientation of the development models in the region around a central axis, equality. The main effort needs to focus on breaking up the educational, occupational, demographic and property-owning structures through which poverty and inequality are transmitted from one generation to the next” (CEPAL, 2000, b) [31] . In other words, an all-out social change is called for: the exercise of power and possession of wealth need to be redistributed, and new ways of exerting political and social control over economic activities that have nothing to do with social class or politics should be found. That control must be democratic, not necessarily ruling out all conflict but nonetheless applied within an institutional framework and based on fundamental consensus.

The “analytical” version of “governance” may enable us to grasp the very originality of politics and its effects on development by highlighting and enhancing the role of non-state players – including NGDOs – in the quest for the broadest, fairest, most responsible and most transparent consensuses possible. It is obvious that NGDOs have for decades focused on assisting and helping the less favoured categories of LAC societies while in recent times they have concentrated on increasing the effectiveness of the compensatory programmes that have accompanied the structural adjustment and have been taking on missions that used to belong primarily to the State, in areas such as education, health, poverty eradication and so forth. They can help to meet basic survival needs by promoting social participation to tackle the practical problems facing LAC societies, especially the working classes – but increasingly the whole of society. These societies are experiencing the knock-on effects of what is happening in the rest of the world along with the effects of Latin America’s diverse social origins. Traditionally LAC NGDOs have handled all these problems, but in addition to these social functions – which they will undoubtedly continue to carry out – NGOs are now being called upon to play, in the “analytical” sense of “governance”, a more global role in development matters. They may contribute to the democratization process in their respective societies and create, maintain and expand the existing forms of democracy without forgetting what in English are known as “advocacy societies”, i.e. the main social and humanitarian causes such as human rights, the environment and so on. NGDOs have also demonstrated their efficiency in supporting popular participation at municipal level and in providing technical solutions at local level. We can also assert that their function as development protagonists covers virtually all fields: employment, company start-ups, the implementation of farm projects, the development of vocational training and fundamental urban services (transport, water, waste, cleaning, etc.), fighting pollution, combating corruption and calling for transparent and efficient administration, to name just a few.

In the face of such demands is it possible to go as far as to assert, on the basis of the concepts set out earlier, that the CSO sector, and NGDOs in particular, may now tackle all of these problems while proving to be players able to contribute to the practice of “good government/governance” in LAC? We are not sure that it is, but there is no doubt that, without the presence and action of NGDOs in LAC societies, there would probably be less pluralism, participation, solidarity and democracy. NGDOs are now rediscovering how to “do politics” in LAC, working from the basis of CS and employing more complex, more pluralistic styles. The changes that have taken place in the popular organization of our countries have called into question the old radical approaches; they are changing the ways that grassroots organizations are organized, their claims and their conscience, obliging NGDOs to plan anew their working methods. The new strategies are by no means clear. NGDOs lack a specific diagnosis of the situation of this popular movement, and the strategies for strengthening CS and building a new democratic set of institutions are as yet imprecise. NGDOs increasingly suffer from staff shortages whereas previously they could rely on specialized teams to conduct systematic studies and research in order to prepare their proposals.

Nevertheless, the NGOs in the region have decisively taken on the task of increasing the dynamism of their role as “generators of analysis and critical thought on the paradigm of supposedly unique hegemonic development and on the construction of alternatives to it”. On the basis of their identity, which emphasizes an ethical compromise with reality and the impoverished sectors of society, they wish to help to construct processes of dialogue and pluralistic consultations to reaffirm CS as the necessary counterweight to the political, economic and cultural authorities that currently predominate in the region. As CS institutions they ratify their willingness and openness to foster great alliances and convergences with the various national and international players in order to tackle global problems, in the defence of Human Rights – especially economic, social and cultural rights – promoting justice and implementing policies for a socially equitable and sustainable development. With similar emphasis they are acknowledging their function of monitoring state policies and social waste, following up pledges made by the regional governments at various international conferences and other meetings. They believe that special attention needs to be paid to their relationship and contacts with the multilateral organizations, so decisive for the definition of national policies in the region. That would enable them to strengthen those areas of their activity and provide deeper analysis while arguing for policies to be framed for development investment in the region’s countries and, in particular, for the programmes for strengthening the NGOs’s own structures to be implemented.

Here emerges one of the vital concerns of LAC NGDOs and whether or not it can be answered will determine not only their possible contribution to “governance” in the region but also their own survival. Clarifying the prospects for the social and financial sustainability of these organizations is a question of life and death in many cases. Sharp cuts in foreign aid over the past decade highlight the marked external dependence in which LAC NGDOs first arose and have since developed, casting a dark shadow over their prospects for material sustainability in the case of many organizations. Many efforts have also been made by these organizations to survive in a situation of constant change in the flows and parameters of international cooperation, pointing to new opportunities for access to the public resources administered by local and national governments and the activation of funds from entrepreneurial sectors in the region. As these organizations themselves have warned: “It is certain that one cooperation model has been used up but others are emerging and we must be aware of their potential for NGOs”. [32]

The central theme for the future is undoubtedly that of the sustainability of NGDOs (Ballón 2001). Even so, although solving the alarming problems of funding is an emergency, funding is not the only sustainability problem facing NGDOs. Whereas overcoming funding problems can meet with an appropriate solution (such as the search for a combination of external and internal resources and own incomes), some problems are much harder to solve, calling for an attempt to strike a coherent balance between the resources that NGDOs have access to and the objectives they pursue. Obtaining more resources seems to mean selling services and operating projects on behalf of third parties (central State, local governments, bilateral and multilateral agencies); this strategy, while bearing economic dividends, often distracts the NGDOs from the mission for which they were originally set up and their raison d’être. It seems that the issue of social impact is the main concern of their directives, implying a better handling of their resources and improvements and innovations in their working methods while they search for better results. This increased impact of NGDOs’ activities may be achieved in many ways: one is related to the increase of size of these institutions, their budgets and the use of economies of scale, all of which seem improbable in present circumstances; the other is that of optimizing internal resources and inter-institutional coordination, developing work strategies that induce synergy between NGDOs and between them and other social institutions (Valderrama, 2001). This coordination should be extended to Northern NGDOs too, and efforts should be made to involve them with those of the South in better coordinated intervention strategies. The coordinated action of NGDOs is also important for creating an environment that is favourable to the work of NGDOs (public opinion, regulatory frameworks for their action, smooth relations with the central State and local authorities, cooperation bodies, etc.).

To sum up, as has been pointed out throughout the previous pages, the accelerated changes that have taken place in the world and, in particular, in LAC over the past decades have led the regional NGDOs to reaccommodate against their will, calling into question, inter alia, their identity, the paradigms they took on board when they were founded, their strategic alliances, their funding methods and the medium-term planning of their objectives. Yet, despite all the changes that they may be going through, LAC NGDOs are not abandoning their deep-seated conviction that they must work for the sake of fair and equitable development models in the countries of the region, “certain that it is possible to activate what is best in our societies to achieve that, (and) reasserting the pledge to continue to foster processes and activities that turn into reality the respect and promotion of human dignity”. [33]


Frequently used acronyms

ABONG          - Associação Brasileira de Organizações Não Governamentais (Brazilian Association of Non-Governmental Organizations)

ALOP             - Asociación Latinoamericana de Organizaciones de Promoción (Latin American Association of Promotional Organizations)

CS                   - Civil Society

CSOs              - Civil Society Organizations

IDB                 - Inter-American Development Bank

LAC                - Latin America and the Caribbean

NGDOs           - Non-Governmental Development Organizations

NGOs             - Non-Governmental Organizations

UNDP             - United Nations Development Programme

WB                 - World Bank


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[1] Since the 1960s, the role of NGOs in humanitarian action, the fight against poverty, social mobilization and participation, self-management, etc., has been the subject of a wide range of studies by academics and international organizations such as the United Nations, UNRISD, FAO, ILO and UNESCO and, more recently, by the organizations themselves and their collaborators. Similarly, in recent decades, there have been increasing numbers of international meetings, statements and resolutions recognizing and promoting the role of NGOs as players in human development, along with discussion forums, initiatives for disseminating experiences, international networks and projects aimed at improving and strengthening these organizations’ capacities for taking action. Some of these are mentioned in the Reference Bibliography at the end of this report. However, many more are neither mentioned nor quoted in this text. The main reason is that this is not a general study into the work of NGOs and their evolution but a paper dealing with the relationship between these organizations and the phenomena of “governance” and development, in the particular context of Latin America and the Caribbean in the present day.

Without a doubt, the bulk of studies into the issue of NGOs and associations is written in English and mostly originates in the United States, while French and Spanish language works are more recent when they exist at all. Of the English language studies, one that stands out currently is the one being conducted by the International Society for Third-Sector Research (ISTR) at the Johns Hopkins University, while other prestigious universities such as Yale (USA) and Manchester and the London School of Economics (United Kingdom) have departments specializing in NGO studies. In Latin America, despite the scant production of systematic analyses and empirical studies on the subject, in the 1970s studies were carried out in some countries by international organizations working in the region. Nonetheless it was undoubtedly not until the 1980s that the issue of NGOs began to attract attention as a subject of study, a reflection of the remarkably fast development of those organizations in the region from then on. See Reference Bibliography.

[2] As has been pointed out in a study on the sustainability of Latin American NGOs in recent decades: “one of the most important  transformations that have taken place throughout the world and in the region, is the transformation in social interest representation: the transition from societies structured around clearly defined production sectors, to societies organized according to economic processes, significantly diluted the transition of social interest representation from class-based organizational axes to a less clear representation of micro-social dimensions. Also part of this process are changes in rationales based on confrontation and convergence, the emergence in public life of issues such as gender, ethnic and cultural diversity, varying lifestyles, religious values, neighbourhoods and ties with nature, and the organization of civil society based on them. As a result, the people who have been the subjects of NGO action have changed radically while new social players and arenas have emerged. Organizational  modes, claims and demands, and the grassroots organizations’ perceptions have changed, forcing NGOs to rethink their working methods, leading them to rediscover how to be involved in politics from the position of civil society and in necessarily more pluralistic, open and complex styles”. (Ballón, 2001).

[3] Neither Spanish nor Portuguese have a literal translation of the English term “governance” or the French “gouvernance”. They are often translated as “gobernabilidad” (Spanish) or “governabilidade” (Portuguese), but these terms have somewhat different meanings from the original English term. In an article (in Portuguese, with a Spanish translation) by M. Prates Coelho and E. Diniz the authors propose keeping the (Spanish-speaking) concept of “gobernabilidad” in the sense of the capacity or ability of political leaders to achieve sufficient support and legitimacy for implementing a set of government measures while accepting a new concept, called “gobernancia” in Spanish, to take account of the new means of intersectoral management and coordination between various policies and interests and various tiers locally, nationally and internationally. (Coelho and Diniz, 1997). In this study the latter concept will be used since it expresses more accurately the original meaning of the English term “governance”, even though the word “gobernancia” has not been accepted as such in the Spanish language.

[4] The studies consulted contain many diverse examples from past and present situations: “Central American NGOs seem to be closely linked with peace agreements such as those in Colombia related to the war and drug trafficking. Chilean and Argentine NGOs are forced to turn into consultancies while Brazilian NGOs, grouped in ABONG (Associação Brasileira de Organizações Não Governamentais), try to play a political role. Others, such as Nicaraguan NGOs, receive most of their resources from international cooperation whereas in Argentina, Chile and Mexico, public funding is on the increase”. (Valderrama (ed.) et al., 2000, p. 15).

[5] Some authors (quoted by Bombarolo, Pérez Coscio, 1992) always refer to NGOs as, for example, “Asociaciones Privadas de Desarrollo (Private Development Associations)” (Padrón, 1982, in Peru); “Asociaciones Privadas de Gestión Colectiva (Private Associations with Collective Management”(Bidart, 1988, in Uruguay), or “Instituciones Privadas de Interés Social (Private Institutions of Private Interest)” (Cedois, 1989, in the Dominican Republic). We shall dwell further on this matter when analysing the topic of NGOs.

[6] The main reasons for this growth have been mentioned: for example, the perceived inability of official cooperation agencies, whether bilateral or multilateral, and of national governments to promote development effectively to raise the living standards of the world’s peoples; the enormous, unprecedented contributions by NGOs during the famines in Africa in that period (which drew attention to the effectiveness with which these organizations handled emergencies and distributed humanitarian aid); the ideological preference of the governments of donor countries for development of the private sector and for promoting “pluralistic political systems” that an increase in the numbers of these organizations could encourage, and so on. (Dawson, 1993).

[7] The term “governance” began to be used in literature on development towards the late 1980s, particularly with reference to Africa, as “a broader, more inclusive notion than government” and “the general manner in which a people is governed. It (...) can apply to the formal structures of government as well as to the myriad institutions and groups which compose civil society in any nation”. See Report of the Governance in Africa, Programme of the Carter Centre, Emory University, Atlanta (quoted by Stren, 2000).

[8] “Currently, and above all in the developing countries, what differs is the extent to which governments and donor agencies hope that NGDOs will succeed in providing social services, either independently or in conjunction with the State. This is part of a more widespread trend to reduce government obligations and to offload responsibility for social welfare onto the private sector that wishes to make a profit, and onto those organizations that do not necessarily have the same interest. In the mid-1990s NGDO development aid amounted to 15% of the total amount spent by States.” (UNRISD, 2000)

[9] The author believes that these propositions on “governance” are complementary rather than contradictory or paradoxical, in that each poses a dilemma or critical question. There is a divorce between the complex reality of adopting decisions connected with “good government” and the regulatory codes employed to explain and justify government; the loss of clarity of responsibilities could leave people to avoid reproach or seek scapegoats; the dependency of power aggravates the problem of unexpected consequences befalling the government; the appearance of networks interlinking leads to problems of settling accounts and although governments work flexibly to run collective activity, this could weaken “good government” (Stoker, 1998).

[10] At the beginning of the 1990s G. O’Donnell speculated on the formation in Latin America of a “subtype” of democracy maturing alongside the political transition taking place at the time. “Delegable democracy” as opposed to representative democracy meant that whoever won elections was authorized “by the majority” to govern without the restriction and requirements of “accountability”. Its launch pad was based on movements rather than parties, though once in power the government offered itself to citizenship “above all else”. O’Donnell also asserted that “delegable” democracies were inherently hostile to the normal representative models in restored democracies, the creation and strengthening of political institutions and, above all, to what is known as “horizontal responsibility” or the daily oversight of the validity and legality of actions of the Executive Authority by other public bodies that ought rightfully to be independent of them.

[11] The expression “Washington Consensus” was coined by J. Williamson in “What Washington D.C. means by policy reform”, in J. WILLIAMSON (ed.) (1990). Formulated by a wide range of international forces (including the IMF and WB) this “Consensus” is a programme of structural adjustment and economic reforms of a liberal nature, designed in the immediate future to solve the problem of the Latin American foreign debt crisis but which, in the longer term, would entail an attempt to reformulate radically the current accumulation model in the region. This would be achieved through three main axes of reform: external openness; deregulation and more flexible markets; and State reform (meaning less intervention in the economy, rigorous public spending, the elimination of consumption subsidies, the privatization of public companies, etc.).

[12] Whereas between 1970 and 1980 poverty diminished from 40% to 35% of the continent’s population, it had risen again to 43% by 1986 and in 1990 affected, according to estimates, some 44% of inhabitants. The numbers rose from 113 million in 1970 to 200 million during the “lost decade” of the 1980s, mainly affecting the urban population since, according to ECLAC figures, 64 million of these “new” poor lived in LAC cities in that decade. In the 1990s, coinciding with the economic growth registered in the first half of the decade, poverty figures also dropped slightly, falling back by 1997 to levels registered at the beginning of the 1980s. During the coming century this organization believes that “the level of inequality in the region will remain the world’s highest” and it acknowledges the existence of “some 220 million persons living in poverty”, or around 45% of the LAC population, a figure made worse by the fact that 117 million of them are children or adolescents aged 19 or under. (ECLAC, 2000, a).

[13] In the region, studies of citizens’ perceptions reveal levels of growing disconformities, disenchantment with the democratic system and an “acute perception of injustice that might in the near future become highly disruptive” (Ottone, 2000).

[14] As a former Latin American president once pointed out “when democracy is able to produce concrete and tangible results in the economic and social fields and not only guarantee freedom and human rights and promote citizens’ participation, its institutions will be consolidated in the collective conscience and its values will form part of Latin American culture. From then on its survival will be guaranteed” (Hurtado, 1998). The fact that democratic governments have been exercised by parties has led public opinion to identify them with the economic crisis and see them as guilty of the lower levels of living standards. There are of course other reasons for the erosion of political parties’ popularity such as the corruption of some of their leaders, the cult of personality rather than party structures, the predominance of party interests, or their leaders’ interests, over the public interest, etc.

[15] Another gloomy view of the situation in LAC was presented in Social Panorama 1999-2000 by ECLAC. This report confirmed that the new strata of employment profiled in the 1990s favoured neither social mobility nor the distribution of incomes. At the same time precarious employment had become more widespread and had increased awareness of a growing social vulnerability, backed up by objective statistics. ECLAC added that growing percentages of the region’s population told surveys that they felt at risk, unsafe or unprotected (ECLAC, 2000, a).

[16] The use of this term has of course been popularized in recent times but the concept of Civil Society is not a new one. Nor did it arise only in the 1990s when many international organizations began to include specialized departments and units on their agendas and in their bureaucratic structures and even incorporate it as a condition for funding. Back in the 5th century St Augustine defined CS as those “associated by a common recognition of justice and a community of interests”. In the 18th century John Locke studied and reflected upon the difference between CS and Political Society, and a century later Alexis de Tocqueville recognized the value of freedom at community level and citizens’ participation in the transformation responsible for the common good (Cruz; Barreiro (dir.), 2000).

[17] Numerous initiatives have been promoted and developed in recent years with a view to finding answers to the definition of CS and its place in the configuration of contemporary society and its dynamics. Among the most recent and relevant English-language studies, the establishment of the aforementioned International Society for Third Sector Research (ISTR), at the Johns Hopkins University, is an example to be borne in mind. The ISTR is an international multidisciplinary association dedicated to the promotion of research and learning in the voluntary non-profit-making sector, or “Third Sector”, as separate from the State, and the other private entities linked to the market (or Second Sector). Operatively the introduction of the concept of CS has opened up new prospects for reflecting on the complex world of the relations between public entities with public aims (governments), private entities with public aims (CSOs) and private entities with private aims (the private business sector), in the quest for a model of interactions that might ensure economic and social effectiveness in a democratic context, where progress is the product of a process of growing association, consultation and complementarities among the different sectors, as is suggested by the analytical conception of “governance”.

[18] Just as there is physical capital, the product of changing matter into tools and machines, and human capital, derived from the development of skills and knowledge enabling the productivity of human action to be increased, so social capital arises from exchanges between people, facilitating joint action and increasing social confidence. The existence of norms of co-responsibility, an ability to act together, putting the collective interest above the individual interest, are part of this capital and act as the basis for creating what is public (unofficial translation),” (UNDP-IDB, 1998, p. 22).

[19] Bruce Schearer, John Tomlinson: “The Emerging Nature of Civil Society in Latin America and Caribbean”, New York, The Synergos Institute, mimeo, 1997, quoted in UNDP-IDB, 1998.

[20] For example: In Brazil there are 200,000 entities registered as non-profit-making, a diversified universe ranging from associations for the defence of specific interests to social welfare groups, civil rights defence groups and “advocacy” associations. Traditionally CSOs turned towards the provision of social services with heavy State dependency; currently there seems to be a tendency among NGOs to concentrate instead on working in conjunction with the Government and strengthening co-management. In Colombia, a census of communal action associations in 1993, by the Government Ministry, accounted for 42,582 so-called “juntas” with more than 2.5 million affiliates. These juntas or associations now represent the most widespread form of popular organization and were promoted by the Government in the 1960s in its attempt to find a reliable basis for developing its programmes and to act as intermediaries when dealing with demands for social infrastructure, education, culture and recreation from the different communities. There are 5437 NGOs employing around 50,000 people and benefiting from the participation of some 700,000 voluntary workers. The Family Compensation Funds have more than 3 million members in Colombia; there are 2700 sports clubs and over 600 voluntary organizations with specific interests: recycling, community mothers, youth clubs, health, housing, and so forth. In addition there are communal federations and confederations of NGOs, cooperatives, family compensation funds and sports clubs, etc.

In Mexico the latest data suggests that there are some 10,000 organizations, many of them dating back a very long time, involved in a wide variety of different areas of work, interests and orientations, ranging from the fight for democracy and the defence of human rights to the promotion of the arts and culture. Recently there have been agreements and fronts among NGOs, enabling a large number of institutional networks to flourish and expand.

[21] D. Westendorff also points out that in urban areas there is a difference between NGDOs and other organizations that are closer to “local” community-based organizations (CBOs) or “urban grassroots organizations” which often survive in “symbiosis” with the former. “The NGDOs – Non-Governmental Development Organizations – however, tend to be the more formally structured, highly-skilled and typically externally financed of the two kinds of entities; they also form the most visible tip of the civil society iceberg” (Westendorff, 2001).

[22] Along with the Indian NGOs which came into being as a result of a combination of Gandhism and Buddhism, southern Latin American NGOs are probably the oldest in the Third World” (F. Wils “NGOs in Latin America: where are they heading?”, The Hague, unpublished, 1993, quoted by Corsino, 1994).

[23] In recent times a new type of NGO has been developing, defined by a new kind of beneficiary, namely the NGOs themselves: “NGOs support Organizations, organizations whose primary function is to work at local, national and regional level in a non-funding role to support the development of NGOs and the NGO sector. NGOSOs are a relatively recent phenomena on the development scene and interest in them is growing, along with a desire to better understand their role and function.”(James, 2001).

[24] Albrecht Koschützcke: “Die Lösung auf der Suche nach dem Problem: NGOs Diesseits und Jenseits des Staates”, in Jahrbuch Lateinamerika, 18, Berlin, 1994, quoted by Valderrama León in Valderrama León and Pérez Coscio (comp.), 1998, p. 372. The overall number of NGOs given by this study is not far from 11000, the figure determined at the end of the 1990s during a compilation of directories of this type of organization by the Inter-American Foundation (Bombarolo; Pérez Coscio; Stein, 1992).

[25] For example, in the case of Mexico, the State Secretariat has registered more than five thousand civil organizations but this figure includes welfare and development organizations along with cultural and sports associations. The Directory of the Mexican Philanthropic Centre has registered 4521 organizations, also highly heterogeneous. A census carried out in Guatemala in 1998 identified 259 NGOs dedicated to development. In El Salvador the Ministry of the Interior keeps a registry where 1236 non-governmental organizations are registered. However the number of consolidated development entities is far smaller: a UNDP directory updated in 1997 registered 167 Salvadorian NGDOs. In Nicaragua there are currently some 500 active NGOs working in productive or social development in a field of around 2000 civil non-profit-making associations. In Colombia, a directory produced by the United Nations in the late 1980s registered around 5000 organizations, of all kinds. According to estimates, about 1500 of those are strictly development-related. In Ecuador, the System of Information on Social Organizations accounts for about 600 NGOs officially registered by 1995. However if we restrict this to NGOs active in development management the real number comes to one quarter (150) of that figure. In Peru the register of NGOs officially registered with the Ministry of the Presidency (currently being reclassified) came to more than 2000 NGOs, many of which exist in name only or irregularly. On the other hand, the more reliable DESCO register estimates the number of regular NGOs in the field of development in the country at around 800. In Bolivia, the Directorate of Coordination with NGOs includes in its register 550 NGOs, to which another 100 non-registered organizations could be added. In Argentina, estimates by the CENOC (National Centre for Non-Community Organizations), which includes cooperatives, mutual assistance funds, community groups and civil associations of all kinds, comes to over 40,000; however this number can easily be whittled down to 300-500 NGDOs, taking into account the diversity of the organizations registered and the lack of any updating. In Uruguay there are anything from 100 to 160 NGOs, depending on the definition criteria used. (Valderrama León and Pérez Coscio (Comp.),1998).

[26] By “Northern NGOs” we mean those civil associations that receive public and private funds to promote development programmes in countries of the South (Valderrama, 1998).

[27] Worldwide foreign aid and resources channelled into NGDOs have steadily fallen over the past ten years to reach their historic low (0.23%) in relation to funds earmarked for cooperation as part of the donor countries’ GDP (Valderrama and Pérez Coscio, 1998).

[28] In the international context there are various fund-creating initiatives. The United Nations Programme for Latin America has carried out a study and held a number of meetings to propose the formation of a fund to strengthen the institutional development of NGDOs and to facilitate the adaptation to new contexts with resources from debt conversion. Certain US institutions such as Synergos and the Ford Foundation have also a similar strategy for creating funds or foundations to increase the sustainability of NGDOs’ actions. From another perspective, the European Union and entities such as SOS FAIM are supporting processes of the institutional consolidation of Southern NGDOs. The “State and Civil Society Reform” Unit of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has since 1995 been urging the creation of a permanent fund of “direct assistance to NGOs” which, despite generating a considerable consensus, has yet to be approved. In LAC, efforts have also been made to develop sustainable funds. The Latin American Development Fund (FOLADE) is trying to create investment and guarantee funds to supply resources to microfinance NGDOs. In other cases various NGOs have been developing strategic alliances, with a view to setting up foundations to support their functioning. On the basis of similar accords, resources are being merged and projects and sources of funding are being shared, but each NGDO maintains its identity. These alliances, in the long term, seek to give the institutions more power and give them a public position, increasing their powers of negotiation with the State, the world of business and within the NGDO group itself. In Colombia, CINEP is involved in setting up an Endowment Fund to increase the sustainability of the institution. In ABONG-Brasil a proposal is being developed for a Collective NGDO Fund resorting to national assistance. In Mexico, local foundations have been set up to receive national and foreign resources to fund development projects (DEMOS, Ba Asolay and Vamos).

[29] A long-term World Bank relationship in LAC has been established on the basis of an open discussion on the perspectives and work agendas for fighting poverty, investment in human resources, State reforms and CS participation and sustainable development. According to the World Bank there are important reasons why cooperation must be stepped up between governments, NGOs and the Bank itself (ALOP, 1995).

[30] The strength of ALOP is founded on various factors: a selective affiliation of institutions ensuring a profile of associates that demonstrates institutional solidity and a trajectory of working to help popular organizations; a democratic rotation of the executive posts; a decentralization of activities into sub-regions (Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean; Andes and Cono Sur – southern South America) and working groups; the ability to work with multilateral and bilateral cooperation entities and with Northern NGDOs and funding agencies. ALOP has already held the presidency of the NGDO Liaison Committee at the World Bank, developed wide-ranging dialogue initiatives with international and regional networks around the world, takes part in dialogue with CS at the Davos Forum, and has just taken on the overall coordination of the International Forum on Capacity Building (IFCB), etc.

[31] An equally negative assessment of the situation in Latin America is set out in Panorama Social 1999-2000, also published by CEPAL. It confirms that the new strata of employment outlined in the 1990s favoured neither social mobility nor income distribution. Precarious jobs are now more widespread and people are now more acutely aware of social vulnerability, on the basis of objective facts. CEPAL adds that growing percentages of the region’s population replied to opinion polls that they felt themselves to at risk, unsafe or defenceless (CEPAL, 2000, a).

[32] Joint Declaration at IInd meeting of National Associations and Networks of NGOs in Latin America, Cartagena de Indias, Colombia – 18-20 April 1999.

[33] Ibidem.

About the Author

Jorge Balbis, researcher at the Centro Latinoamericano de Economía Humana (CLAEH), Montevideo, Uruguay, holds a doctorate in Labour Sciences from the Catholic University of Louvain. For over twenty years he has been working in the field of Latin American NGOs, planning, executing and assessing promotion and social research projects. As a member of CLAEH he has worked on a number of projects of the Asociación Latinoamericana de Organizaciones de Promoción (ALOP), in particular those concerning participation by civil society in the processes of regional integration and the institutional strengthening of Latin American NGOs. He is also the representative of the National Association of NGOs of Uruguay at the Mercosur Economic and Social Consultative Forum. He teaches at various universities in Uruguay and in other countries and has published a number of works on subjects related to his specialization.

© UNESCO 2001

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO.


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