Non-Governmental Organisations: An attempt at clarity.

For an academic trying to write with clarity on development and non-governmental organisations, acronyms are the enemy. Or rather, as many in the sector would no doubt have it, FAATTWWCODANGO, AATE.

It is vital that academic work is as accessible as possible to those who haven’t had the fortune or privilege to dedicate several years of their life to esoteric study… after all, if academics can’t make their point to those who haven’t studied their subjects, what indeed is the point of ‘experts’ in political science, sociology or philosophy? What recourse can we have to complain about, for example, the sidelining of political economy experts in the Brexit debate if those same experts struggle to hold a normal and useful conversation on the subject with someone who simply wants to understand their options?

Similarly, it is vital that the processes of aid, development and charity are made as accessible as possible to the private donors and taxpayers who fund these projects that save and improve lives. Often, though, academic work on aid and development hits the casual reader with a double whammy: The over-complicated language of academia coupled with the industry-specific acronyms of the aid industry.

“…this is a deficiency on the part of the writer who can’t make their point clearly, or the organisation deliberately obfuscating their mandatory public reports.”

In my line of work and in studying for a PhD focusing on aid/development, I hear a lot of people talking about aid, development and charity. The most common thing I hear is ‘There’s no point giving money to these organisations, they just spend it all on wages and parties’. The second most common is ‘I tried to find out where my money was being spent, I found an end of year report or academic article, and I didn’t understand what it was on about’. This isn’t a deficiency on the part of the reader who finds they can’t access the work; rather, this is a deficiency on the part of the writer who can’t make their point clearly, or the organisation deliberately obfuscating their mandatory public reports.

This article is my attempt to try to address this by creating a guideline to the typologies of aid and development… hopefully this will provide some small solution to the access issue so many have when trying to figure out what happens in the aid/development sector.

What actually is an NGO?

There are some acronyms we’re not going to be able to get away from using. NGO is one of them. An NGO is an organisation that isn’t tied to a government, and as such is a ‘private’ organisation. This covers a huge and varied architecture of organisations, from massive global entities like Oxfam and ActionAid to a tiny group of three staff looking to fund the building of a well in a remote village. Essentially, the key attributes of a non governmental organisation are that it must be:

1) Not part of a government.
2) Not for profit (this doesn’t mean it can’t hold a turnover higher than its expenditure, but rather that this excess shouldn’t be used to line the pockets of owners and shareholders).
3) Not a criminal organisation.

Both public and private donors employ non-governmental organisations to deliver projects*, as well as to promote specific causes and raise awareness of certain issues. Foundations such as the Gates Foundation, and government agencies such as UK’s development agency (the Department for International Development), for example, rely upon the NGO sector to deliver projects. This takes the form of either direct solicitation, discussion, or requests for proposals.

Direct solicitation is used when the donor already knows which NGO they believe is best suited to the required work. For example, the donor may have an existing relationship with an NGO. This is an intuitive process: Emma is a well-priced and reliable carpenter who built your shed, so you contact Emma directly when you want a new kitchen installed.

Discussion involves multiple NGOs discussing the work in terms of interest and capacity, followed up by invitations to submit proposals. You ask Emma, Raj, Maryam and Steve how much work and for what price a new kitchen should go for, and then you ask them to submit their bids.

Finally, requests for proposals are issued either publicly for open bids or privately for targeted bids- you post on a local Facebook community discussion page asking for quotes and references from local carpenters, or you target it more specifically and post on a local Facebook carpentry page.

*these projects can range from aid projects such as humanitarian responses to natural disasters to development projects such as installing and maintaining a wireless internet network in a rural community… You should always be able to find out what kind of projects a specific organisation is doing, usually by looking at their reports or requesting the information directly.

Types of Non-Governmental Organisations

Lewis (2009) states that “NGOs are a diverse groups of organisations that defy generalisation, ranging from small informal groups to large formal agencies”. The term ‘NGO’ describes private organisations that operate outside of direct government control, although they can operate under the aegis of public direction. The World Bank defines NGOs as ‘private organizations that pursue activities to relieve suffering, promote the interests of the poor, protect the environment, provide basic social services or undertake community development’ (World Bank 1994). When we are talking NGOs in development, aid and the charity sector then, we are discussing groups that work to support, protect and/or promote the welfare and rights of individuals and communities.

There are definitions of NGO that demand an NGO must be secular, or that they must be specifically working towards the empowerment of marginalised groups. I disagree with these restrictions as NGOs can, for example, be religious in nature but operate in the same manner as their secular equivalents. It is essential, however, to establish clear categories of NGO, as the work that the NGO sector undertakes is so varied and wide-ranging.

There is a seemingly inexhaustible trove of categories and acronyms used to describe various types of NGO. NGOs can, for example, be divided by category according to orientation (eg charitable, service, participatory, empowerment) and/or scope (local, community based, national, international). Similarly, NGOs can be defined by various acronyms, for example BINGO (business friendly international NGO), DONGO (donor organised NGO), ENGO (environmental NGO), GONGO (government-operated NGO), INGO (international NGO), MANGO (market advocacy NGO) and QUANGO (quasi-autonomous NGO).

It should be clear that this is confusing, irritating, and, when used in academic and/or policy papers, massively off-putting to the reader.

It should be clear that this is confusing, irritating, and, when used in academic and/or policy papers, massively off-putting to the reader… and it cannot be stressed enough that these readers constitute once of the primary potential sources of funding for aid and development projects.

For the purposes of my work, I categorise NGOs in general discussion according to scale and primary purpose, with more specific categorisation when discussing an individual NGO or when it is necessary to provide clarity for a specific section.

Primary Purpose

In terms of primary purpose, I use World Bank typology, which divides NGOs into two distinct categories: Operational NGOs and Advocacy NGOs.

Operational NGOs ‘design and implement the development-related projects.’ These are the NGOs involved in service delivery, response, infrastructure development, and so on. The nature of this work can be extremely diverse; for example, NGOs can deliver services directly with their own staff, or by working with local community based organisations by delivering resources, training and supervision. However, the link that categorises operational NGOs is that they implement projects, through whatever means.

The main purpose of Advocacy NGOs, in contrast, is to ‘promote a specific cause… [they] make efforts to raise awareness and knowledge by doing various activities like lobbying, press work and activist events’ (World Bank 1994). This ‘promotion’ of causes involves three main foci: Research, mobilisation and advocacy. Typically, Advocacy NGOs will work with communities to raise awareness of their chosen issue, and to identify where advocacy is required, as well as conducting research into the issue in order to enhance understanding. Advocacy NGOs will then seek to raise public awareness of the issue, and provide members and partners with the tools to conduct advocacy; this provision of tools is often characterised as the strengthening of ‘grassroots’ organisations. Finally, the Advocacy NGO will bring the issue to the attention of policymakers, nationally or internationally depending on the scope and reach of the organisation, and seek to enact change.

Summary: Operational NGOs work in service delivery and response, whereas Advocacy NGOs work in awareness, research and activism.

It is by no means the case that these primary purposes are mutually exclusive; in fact, it often the crossover between activities which leads to the incompatibility between NGO work and state sovereignty that is an increasing point of discussion for policy makers. NGOs will often work in both operations (implementation) and advocacy. However, the stark definitions are certainly useful for the characterisation and categorisation of NGOs in the first instance.


My second category is that of scale; whether the NGO works on a local, national or international level. Different states have a different way of categorising NGOs working in their territory. I have chosen to use the example of NGO categories required when registering to work in Uganda, as Uganda is so often cited as the poster state for NGO work.

District-based NGOs ‘operate in areas not exceeding one district’ (Uganda National NGO Forum 2018) and represent what are often categorised as ‘local NGOs’.

The NGO world is full of these inconsistencies and gaps in database auditing, which poses a clear danger to the ability of the sector to market itself with any efficiency and clarity.

National NGOs operate in more than one district; note that a national NGO does not need to be present in the whole state. For example, an NGO may be regional, working in advocacy for issues pertaining to a particular reason (such as on behalf of the Acholi in the North) or in refugee camps spread around the state. An example of a national NGO in Uganda is InterAid Uganda: InterAid works with support from United Nations Refugee Agency and the Ugandan state to support and protect urban refugees in Uganda. InterAid is registered with the Ugandan NGO Board, is based in Kampala, and works exclusively within Uganda. It’s also worth noting that InterAid’s website is no longer active, although it is still listed as an United Nations Refugee Agency partner. The NGO world is full of these inconsistencies and gaps in database auditing, which poses a clear danger to the ability of the sector to market itself with any efficiency and clarity.

Networks and umbrellas: These are composed as registered associations, in which multiple NGOs are registered as members. This gives donors or INGOs (see below…) seeking local partners more opportunity to connect with the right NGO, and gives the NGOs a degree of legitimacy and profile. An example of this is the Uganda NGO Forum.

International NGOs (INGOs) are NGOs which operate in multiple states, regionally and/or globally. INGOs such as World Vision, CARE and Oxfam have operating budgets of over a billion US dollars a year and a presence in 120, 87 and 95 states respectively. INGOs form partnerships with national and district NGOs in which the national and district NGOs are given access to INGO resources and capital in order to carry out operations and advocacy.

INGOs are characterised by a number of attributes aside from where they operate that set them apart from other NGOs, although these attributes are of course linked to their size and scope. INGOs often have multiple autonomous branches in multiple states, but these autonomous branches work together under the same aegis: for example, while Oxfam GB and Oxfam NOVIB are autonomous organisations with their own operations and governance, they also operate as part of a ‘confederation’ as Oxfam International.

As long as the INGO maintains a positive relationship with donors, then, they are able to operate in a sphere essentially above that in which other NGOs are able to operate.

The size and scope of INGOs also means that they have relatively large budgets and staff numbers, essentially meaning that they have the capacity to achieve more than national or local NGOs. By virtue of having more capacity, INGOs are therefore able to garner more funding as donors regard them as having more legitimacy. As such, INGOs are likely to be solicited by donors, thus giving them more funding, more capacity, and more legitimacy. As long as the INGO maintains a positive relationship with donors, then, they are able to operate in a sphere essentially above that in which other NGOs are able to operate.

The budgets and staff that INGOs are able to sustain also allows for greater organisational capacity, which means that they are able to sustain dedicated operations staff. This further enhances the capacity and legitimacy of INGOs to donors, especially when one considers that the national branches of INGOs are able to access staff from other branches of the international confederation.

The upshot of this increased capacity and legitimacy is that INGOs have more voice and power in terms of having genuine impact on decision makers and, therefore, policy.

Summary: INGOs are bigger, with more staff, more money and more connections.

They have more power, so they’re able to be more cost-effective when run ‘properly’. When they’re not run properly, the huge power that an individual can have due to having the name of the global organisation behind them can lead to exploitation and abuse. I recommend Deborah Doane’s recent article as an accessible explanation of this, summarised by the statement “The rich donors of the north have all the money and all the power. Those who are beholden to their services have neither.”

The intricacies, both public/obvious and private/nuanced of the aid and development sector are part of a different conversation, albeit one intrinsically interwoven into the lack of clarity and accessibility that so often marks the sector.

But I digress… The intricacies, both public/obvious and private/nuanced of the aid and development sector are part of a different conversation, albeit one intrinsically interwoven into the lack of clarity and accessibility that so often marks the sector.

Community Based Organisations

There is one last set of actors to add to this typology: Community based organisations.

Community based organisations, also known as grassroots organisations, are fundamentally distinct from other NGOs. Whereas NGOs are set up to help others, through operations or advocacy, CBOs are set up within communities by local resident, and can be both formal and informal organisations. Examples of CBOs include, but are not limited to, farmer associations, youth clubs, cooperatives and women’s groups. The binding characteristic which ties CBOs together is their nature as grassroots, local organisations set up to serve a specific community .

The binding characteristic which ties CBOs together is their nature as grassroots, local organisations set up to serve a specific community.

There are certainly blurred lines when one seeks to make a clear distinction between local NGOs and CBOs; much of the work these organisations undertake will be similar in terms of mechanics and goals. CBOs are often employed as grassroots partners by operations and advocacy NGOs, and successful CBOs may become local or national NGOs as members realise their efforts could, and should, be monetised to further their capacity and exported to others to exact positive change. An example of this is Global Mamas, originally a women’s advocacy CBO in Accra, Ghana and now a network NGO bringing together 350 producers in Ghana, shipping fair trade products internationally and running a volunteer program for overseas volunteers.

The line between CBO and NGO, then, is a difference in capacity. CBOs are voluntary, grassroots organisations, lacking resources, and operating within the boundaries of their community.

CBOs perform a vital role in the aid chain, providing community knowledge and working with NGOs to develop an institutional framework for beneficiary participation. CBOs are also employed to implement sub-projects to strengthen or facilitate NGO projects.

As the registration process for CBOs tends to be very lax, however, there can be a real issue with capacity; an issue I experienced in Ghana when partnering as a research institute with a local CBO, only to find out down the line that they had registered as a CBO but had misrepresented their capacity, were unable to deliver on their promises and were entirely reliant upon our resources.

(The temptation to hyperlink to their website is huge, but I will resist.)

Donors seek to improve the lives of people in developing states, and use their capital and resources to do so. Some of this funding is sent directly to national and local governments as budget support, and some is deployed as project aid through the medium of the non-governmental sector. Donors seek to use the most effective and legitimate bodies to deliver the best support, be it advocacy or operations, to beneficiaries, and as such solicit bids from NGOs, awarding the majority of bids to INGOs due to their relative capacity and legitimacy.

Summary: Most donors prefer to use big organisations to get things done, as they represent a safer and more efficient investment of capital.

International INGOs with large budgets and organisational capacity undertake these projects on behalf of donors, but also act as intermediaries for the effective disbursement of resources, and so in turn deploy the capacity of NGOs to help deliver projects.

Development projects and advocacy are undertaken by INGOs and NGOs in the recipient state, and must be registered to work within the recipient state where it has this capacity.

Summary: The big organisations employ smaller organisations to do a lot of the work, but these organisations have to be officially registered… Compare this to a project management company using private contractors on a building site.

INGOs and NGOs work with CBOs in order to ensure their projects and advocacy are suitably tailored to the needs of the beneficiary; this knowledge is passed ‘up’ the aid chain from beneficiaries, through CBOs, the state, and NGOs, to donors, who can then make better and more effective choices on how to allocate their capital.

Summary: Usually it’s best to use local knowledge, and the more this is done, the more the big organisation learns about how to do things properly in that area.


I am a firm believer in the idea that most people will, if they can afford to do so, help those in need. I am also a firm believer in the idea that you can’t expect people to have any trust at all in a process that is confusing, jargon-filled and exclusionary. It is imperative that the aid and development sectors learn to better market their processes.

Rather than either providing too little information and excluding people entirely, or providing overly jargon-filled information in annual reports that no one can actual understand, there must be a middle way… not patronising, but also not expecting sector-specific knowledge of a range of acronyms and random esoteric terms.

I will certainly have used jargon in this article, without realising I am doing so… the more academic work one does on a subject, the more one seems to disappear up the rear end of that subject and forget how to speak about it in a useful manner. I have tried to demystify some of the processes and jargon, and hopefully this will be useful to some!

I invite and welcome any comments to help me improve this process… the role of academia should be to enhance and inform a subject, not to confuse it and remove it from normal discussion.

Follow the author (or bombard the author with criticisms & feedback) on Twitter: @GFBowden

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