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Untitled Document
NGOs and Local Government: The Strategic Issues
Dr. Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: The Daily Times
Dated: Thursday, 7th August 2003

A significant feature of Pakistan’s economic landscape during the last two decades has been the emergence of development NGOs. Many of them have used the participatory development approach to enable a sustainable improvement of skills, productivity, incomes and infrastructure at the local level. Recently, the government has initiated a process of decentralization through the local government structure, ostensibly to enable a more participative democracy.

These parallel phenomena of the emergence of development NGOs on the one hand and decentralization reforms of the government on the other, indicate a number of strategic issues for development policy. For example: (i) Can development NGOs achieve sufficient coverage of the poor population and cost effectiveness for a significant impact on the overall poverty problem of the country? (ii) What are the institutional dynamics and management systems involved in achieving rapid coverage and efficacy of NGOs? (iii) In view of the emergence of local government structures, is it feasible to facilitate up-scaling of community based NGOs only upto the district level, rather than having cross district, national level, centralized NGOs vying for power and resources with elected local government structures? (iv) How can institutionalized linkages be established between autonomous community based organizations of the poor and different tiers of local government (village, union council, tehsil and district)? These questions will be addressed in the ensuing series of articles based on my recent and ongoing research.


The defining feature of a program for empowering the poor, is the passion, which impels those who work in it and those for whom they work. It is not just an emotion but a form of consciousness. It comes from transcending the ego and relating with the community through love. Thus, passionate consciousness is both a cohering force of the community and also the synergy through which the NGO team can engage in a process of action and reflection. This principle can be the basis of its management culture and work procedures. It would be manifested in the quality of dialogues that occur between NGO personnel and rural communities, on the one hand and between members of the NGO team on the other. The dialogues are designed to identify and actualize the creative potential of individuals.

This form of learning and creative growth if pursued by an NGO through its dialogues may be called Faqiraana as, opposed to Messianic. The messianic leader/teacher/manager is one who claims to embody the truth and if his followers want to become something they can only be his shadows. By contrast, the faqiraana leader/teacher/manager is one who abnegates his own exceptionality and recognizes each individual as the unique origin of change. The participants in the dialogues whether between the NGO and a community or within the NGO itself, are essentially co-equals in a journey of actualizing each other’s creative potential in the context of social change.

The organizational structure reflecting the Messianic approach is hierarchic and restricts the space for independent thinking. Its work procedures involve issuing instructions or blindly implementing them. By contrast the organizational structure associated with the Faqiraana approach is non-hierarchic, designed to provide space for thought and action by autonomous individuals in collegial interaction. Its work procedures instead of being a simple dichotomy between instructions and compliance, are designed for mutually fertilizing dialogues, action and collective reflection.


Having examined the management approaches of small NGOs, let us examine the factors involved in up scaling. The aim of up scaling small NGOs would be to reach the district level only, but with coverage of all union councils within it. This is in view of the fact that: (i) the government is decentralizing key governmental development functions to the district level. So if NGOs fostering community organisations of the poor, could go up to a district scale, they could institutionally link up with local governments. This would enable organisations of the poor to participate in government funded development projects and also in other areas of local governance. (ii) The NGO (or RSPs) which are currently operating in a number of different districts simultaneously, have very low intensity of coverage within any one district. There may therefore be a case for having district level NGOs that have full coverage of the poor population within it.

Of the large number of NGOs with small beginnings, a few have grown to a significant size and achieved national prominence. These include OPP/OCT, Sungi and Thardeep Rural Development Programme. Three questions arise in the context of their growth: (a) What are the common factors in their success? (b) At this stage of their growth, what are the constraints they face to further up-scaling and/or rapid replication? (c) What are the elements of an enabling environment at the national level which could let a “hundred flowers bloom”, in the sense of nurturing the rapid growth/replication of a variety of development NGOs, enable mutually catalyzing interaction and yet maintain the unique character of each of them?

Perhaps the single most important factor in their success is the quality of leadership. Specifically, it is the ability to relate with humility and love with the poor. It is to build a team which while being internally coordinated, at the same time, enables each member to become a centre of thought and action. The successful NGO leader creates the team synergy to develop innovative responses to each new problem on the ground. Yet, he/she ensures that each action by the team contributes to reinforcing the process of the poor taking charge of their own development. The effective leader focuses the team to experience the potential of the poor and to grasp the specific dynamics of how they can organize, take responsibilities and initiate change. Thus the challenge for the NGO leadership is to so relate with the poor and the team, that every act, every word, every moment of silence, contributes to fertilizing the other, rather than establishing control: Liberating rather than inducing dependency.

The second factor in the success of those small NGOs which engage in social mobilisation, is the identification, training and fostering of village level activists who gradually begin to manage existing COs, thereby, enabling NGO staff to give more time to develop new COs. This process of devolution of management responsibility from NGO staff to village level activists is a crucial factor in the enlargement of NGO coverage in a situation where funds are limited and rapid expansion of staff financially infeasible. The converse of this dynamic is that if too much money becomes available too early, it undermines discipline, initiative and energy of the NGO.

The third factor in the success of small NGOs which have reached significant scale is the development of second level management and the ability of top level leadership to devolve responsibility, acknowledge their achievements and to learn from them just as much as it is necessary for the leadership to learn from the poor. An inner wakefulness that comes from transcending the ego is necessary to be always open to learning from the poor, and from each member of one’s team. It is this openness to learning from others that constitutes the basis of the organization’s dynamism, its innovation and its sense of being a community.

The fourth factor in the success of small NGOs in reaching significant scale is the development of credible accounting procedures, and a regular monitoring and evaluation exercise on the basis of which donor funding can be sought when it is required. In each case the successful NGO, apart from devising efficacious modes of reflection and action with the village communities, also develops formalized recording and reporting systems.
In this article we have examined the organizational and management issues involved in up-scaling NGOs and empowering the poor. In next week’s article we will examine the issues involved in the transition from small sized NGOs to district level NGOs.

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