Research Findings: Governments do not trust NGOs

A story on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) recently caught my attention and set off my reflective mind. The story was titled: “How the NGO crackdown has spread to some democratic nations” (The Guardian Weekly 2015). The ‘democratic’ nations that were mentioned in the story were Israel, Ecuador and Hungary.

According to the story, in Israel “NGOs critical of the government – in particular the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories are facing new restrictions”; in Ecuador “an organisation that supports indigenous groups and campaigns for the conservation of biodiversity, was one of the first to feel the force of the (government’s) clampdown on NGOs; and in Hungary there is increased monitoring of certain “foreign-funded civil society organisations.”

The actions of these nations, as described in the story, are inconsistent with democracy and so I wonder why The Guardian Weekly felt it was important to describe these particular nations as ‘democratic’.

In comparison, similar actions by Sub-Saharan African (SSA) nations – in the case of Uganda and Kenya, for example – when reported by the media, often do not earn our governments sugar coated descriptions such as ‘democratic’. Kenya and Uganda indeed continue to receive media attention (Analo 2014) for cracking down on NGOs.

The excuse used by the governments of Uganda and Kenya to crack down on NGOs is that they need greater control and restrictions on NGOs in order to fight terrorism. NGOs (local and international) and their supporters think different – accusing the governments Uganda and Kenya of repressing civic activism. Indeed the two governments of Uganda and Kenya are portrayed by the media and civil societies as fearing civil society activism for it may trigger regime change.

No doubt, there is currently a worldwide crackdown on NGOs – since 2012, more than 60 countries have passed or drafted laws that curtail activities of NGOs (Sherwood 2015). Quoted by The Guardian Weekly (Sherwood 2015), James Savage, of Amnesty International, says: “This global wave of restrictions has a rapidity and breadth to its spread we’ve not seen before, that arguably represents a seismic shift and closing down of human rights space not seen in a generation.”

So, what changed? Why has the perception of NGOs as the more trusted development and charitable agents changed to NGOs being perceived as institutions with wanting accountability practices and which pose security threats?

Traditionally, in the context of Uganda for example, international NGOs (INGOs), mostly of the global west, have normally not fully accounted to their host governments in the same depth and breadth to which they account to their home governments. In Uganda this status quo has rubbed off onto the local partner NGOs – UNGOs, who do not account fully to the Government of Uganda (GoU) in the same depth and breadth with which they account to their international partner organisations – INGOs; particularly so in terms of providing financial accountability. Is this perhaps the reason for the change in perceptions of NGOs as more accountable and more trusted than governments of SSA?

Even then, assumptions are made that within INGO-UNGO partnerships there is total transparency and mutual accountability between the partners. However, when it comes to financial management and financial reporting, experts (Owaraga 2003) are of the view that trust may not be an applicable mechanism of mutual control within INGO-UNGO partnerships, but rather it is professionalism and obligation. That is why conditionalities are set on financial management and financial reporting that form part of INGO-UNGO partnership agreements.

In 2003, Prof. Kwesiga, at the time the Executive Director of Development Network of Indigenous Voluntary Associations (DENIVA), a UNGO (Owaraga 2003) assessed that one of the major dilemmas that was facing UNGOs at the time was how to professionalise without losing their values – particularly, in the context of the general understanding of the concept of professionalism as is often associated with bureaucratic efficiency.

INGO experts validated Prof. Kwesiga’s assessment of UNGOs – INGO officers working in Uganda at the time noted that some of the requirements for financial management and financial reporting that INGOs set for UNGOs are determined by the source of the funding that the INGOs in turn grant to UNGOs. “The funds which come from the government (global-western) we (INGOs) have to adhere to their reporting requirements and so we cannot be flexible about them” (Owaraga 2003), clarified an INGO officer.

Prof. Kwesiga (Owaraga 2003) observed that a lot of UNGOs were in the past (1980s and 1990s) set up based on earlier philosophies of volunteerism that do not necessarily have a perfect fit with the new ideas of ‘professional NGOs’. For this reason, he assessed that UNGOs sometimes suffer from an inferiority complex which makes them view financial management and financial reporting requirements as a punishment.

This is because, unlike the activities of ‘volunteer NGOs’ the activities of ‘professional NGOs’ – such as preparation of accounts, audits, fundraising, negotiation and use of computers –  need specialised skills; and those with such specialised skills are very expensive. Highly paid NGO executives, moreover, do not seem to sit well with the public who donate funds and pay taxes which are used to fund NGO activities (BBC 2013).

UNGO executives, especially those with a non-finance background, often express absolute grief in dealing with conditionalities that are attached to grant funding that they receive to do development or charity work. It is no longer the case that UNGOs are trusted on the basis of the beliefs and values that they claim to hold, they are tasked to demonstrate their ‘professionalism’.  This can be deduced from job adverts for UNGO positions these days – there is no difference with those of the private sector. The emphasis is no longer on values, such as trust, but on the professional skills required.

INGO executives (Owaraga 2003) contextualise the challenges faced by UNGO executives noting that it is often the case that the comments and questioning of financial management and financial reporting of UNGOs by INGOs is usually about the management information systems in use; the qualifications of the accounts officers and whether they hold professional (academic) qualifications; clarification on particular expenditures and coding; the accounting system used; competence of the audit firms used; existence of financial policies; and how UNGOs use the money not put to use under a particular budget line.

The ‘professional’ questioning of UNGOs by INGOs, according to UNGO executives  (Owaraga 2003), has sadly had the consequence of some UNGOs adopting a similar culture that is usually associated with GoU departments – the attitude that ‘we-cannot-survive-without-money-from outsiders’ and thus allowing the emergence of a relationship based more on power difference than on trust. The givers of aid, the INGOs, are considered the more powerful, in which case power becomes the control mechanism within INGO and UNGO partnerships and not necessarily trust.

Because INGO executives are often persons with citizenship of the global-west and in most cases they are non-black, the power relationships between INGOs and UNGOs sometimes take up a race dimension (Owaraga 2003) – in the eyes of UNGOs, a white INGO executive or officer has to be revered, whilst a black UNGO executive or INGO executive or officer is just one of us.

The power relations within INGO-UNGO relationships consequently impact the determination of what the content of ‘professionalism’ is. As manifested in the conditionalities attached to financial management and financial reporting by INGOs for UNGOs, the giver’s culture dominates. NGO executives interviewed – 12 working with INGOs and nine with UNGOs (Owaraga 2003) – confirmed that it is INGOs who set conditionalities and that UNGOs are expected to comply. None of them indicated the reverse happening UNGOs setting conditionalities for INGOs.

In setting conditionalities for accountability INGOs often do not bother about the varied Ugandan traditions and they totally ignore the indigenous methods of decision making and exercising power. An assumption is made that when it comes to ‘professionalism’ the western cultures are better. A UNGO executive shared an example as follows:

A Ugandan Foundation disagreed with an officer of their partner INGO who wanted to dictate even the venue of the meeting to resolve their disagreement. The Chairperson of the Ugandan Foundation asked the INGO officer where the meeting would be – in Kampala or in the home city of the INGO because, as the Chairperson, he felt he should meet with his global-western counterpart as opposed to meeting with the officer.  The INGO officer was not pleased and he informed the Chairperson of the Ugandan Foundation that the Chairperson of the INGO was a very important person whom a small person like a Chairperson of a Ugandan Foundation cannot meet with. The two parties were irreconcilable and the ‘partnership’ ended with the Ugandan foundation loosing a considerable amount of funding and the INGO officer surprised that a UNGO can say no!

Study Participant (Owaraga 2003)

Trust as the control mechanism within INGO-UNGO partnerships is also questioned by INGOs and it is often the case that corruption within UNGOs comes up. An example shared by and INGO executive is a good illustration of the reason why and which also highlights the ineffectiveness of some of the conditionalities that INGOs set for UNGOs:

The INGO agreed to provide funding to a UNGO to purchase a brand new vehicle for the UNGO’s project work. The INGO received reports and copies of the vouchers (tenders, payment vouchers, etc.) showing that the UNGO had followed all the right procedures and had purchased the vehicle in accordance with the INGO’s guidelines. 

On paper everything looked good and the INGO was pleased. The UNGO went a step further and invited the INGO officer, during his visit to Ugandan, to an official vehicle handover ceremony. The INGO officer was delighted and he accepted the invitation. During the handover ceremony the INGO officer was required to make a speech and he made one in which he praised the management of the UNGO.

Reality for the INGO officer struck when, as part of the handover of the vehicle, the INGO officer had to take the vehicle for a short ride and then hand it over. As the INGO officer drove the vehicle he noticed that the body of the vehicle had recently been painted and it did not seem like a brand new vehicle.

He checked the mileage and it showed that the vehicle had already covered 51,000 kilometres. That was impossible for a new vehicle to have covered in such a short period, the INGO officer observed. When the INGO officer queried this, the UNGO executive tried to convince him that he, the INGO officer, was taking a wrong reading off the meter, because it was only 5,100 kilometres!

Study Participant (Owaraga 2003)

Situations such as these likely breed mistrust in INGO-UNGO relationships and are likely responsible for some of the conditionalities attached by INGOs on their funding to UNGOs.  When it is clear that on paper all the conditionalities have been fulfilled but the accountability is false, the mistrust sometimes transcends the INGO-UNGO partnership into the public domain – governments and citizens of the beneficiary countries and of donor countries sometimes will get to know and there will be a public outcry.

It would appear that public outcries against NGOs are on the increase and in some cases the alleged corruption and/or financial mismanagement in NGOs is indeed mind blowing. Take for example, the one of the Red Cross in Haiti (Elliott and Sullivan 2015) “how the Red Cross raised half a billion dollars and built six homes – even when the group has publicly celebrated its work, insider accounts detail a string of failures.” 

Close to home in Uganda, in 2013, corruption among officers of the Uganda Red Cross Society URCS) raised public outcry (Anti Corruption Coalition Uganda 2013) – the Secretary General was caught smuggling construction material into Uganda for construction of his luxurious mansions; he did so under the name of the URCS and in pretext that the materials were for the construction of a youth centre.

Trust as a control mechanism of NGO partnership would be ideal, however, the nature of NGO project based work sometimes does not allow for building of trust and relationships. Trust and relationship building depends on personalities. The process of building trust in INGO-UNGO relationships is often made difficult by the tradition of rapid rotation of INGO officers. “At the time when you are catching up with a INGO officer they are rotated and then you have to start again with a new one, often one with a different development philosophy from the old one” (Owaraga 2003), surmised a UNGO executive.

The rapid rotation of INGO officers deters the development of a consistent development philosophy within INGO-UNGO partnerships.  A UNGO executive (Owaraga 2003) gave an example that at one time, in a period of less than three years, one of the INGOs funding his organisation rotated their officers four times and each time their inter-organisational relationship kept going downhill until the UNGO ended the partnership.

INGOs and UNGOs working in partnerships in which the control mechanism is trust has been one of the ways in which NGOs in Uganda have distinguished themselves as the most efficient development/charity delivery agents. If trust as a control mechanism within INGO-UNGO partnership is not happening as deep as it was thought to be, how then will NGOs survive the crackdown from governments?

Works Cited

Analo, Trevor. “East African governments to crack down on civil societies, NGOs.” The East African, 3 November 2014.

Anti Corruption Coalition Uganda. Red Cross boss probed over smuggling. 03 October 2013. (accessed September 21, 2015).

BBC. Charity Commission Chairman issues charity pay warning. 06 August 2013. (accessed September 22, 2015).

Elliott, Justine, and Laura Sullivan. How the Red Cross raised half a billion dollars for Haiti and built six homes. 03 June 2015. (accessed 09 21, 2015).

Owaraga, Norah. “Trust in partnership – a southern perspective on conditionalities attached to NGO funding.” Msc. accademic research, 2003.

Sherwood, Harriet. “Human rights groups feel global squeeze.” The Guardian Weekly, 04 September 2015: 12.

The Guardian Weekly. “How the NGO crackdown has spread to some democratic nations.” The Guardian Weekly, 04 September 2015: 12.

7 responses to “Research Findings: Governments do not trust NGOs”

  1. Norah – your article is very well done and deserves wide dissemination. I am teaching a graduate seminar called, “Ethics, Culture and Participatory Engagements in African Health Systems Research” and I’d very much like to use this piece and your Masters research in this course, if possible – is there any chance you could send me your MSc research?

    Many thanks,
    Michael Clarke

    Liked by 1 person

    • Michael Thank you. Yes, please go a head and use my piece. With regards to my Masters Thesis I would need to go hunting for the soft copy and perhaps revise it a little. Please share with me you email address and we can take it from there.


      • Norah – this is very kind of you – please don’t go to any lengths regarding your thesis – this post and other work you have blogged will be tremendously helpful in this seminar.

        My return email is

        Regards, Michael

        From: The humanist view Reply-To: The humanist view Date: Monday, September 28, 2015 at 7:28 AM To: Michael Clarke Subject: [New comment] NGOs Increasingly Not Trusted by Governments Norah Owaraga commented: “Michael Thank you. Yes, please go a head and use my piece. With regards to my Masters Thesis I would need to go hunting for the soft copy and perhaps revise it a little. Please share with me you email address and we can take it from there.”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. You touch upon on very complex issues that are all-too common in the developing world generally and in countries like Cambodia in particular. The country, like others you cite, now has a new NGO Law enacted for the same kind of reasons you describe. Ultimately trust, like respect, must be earned. Many in NGOland do so, but we all know of a minority who abuse their position and spoil it for the rest. NGOs should be capable of “putting their own house in order”, especially in countries where regulatory systems are incapable of acting to protect the interests of the intended beneficiaries of our interventions. Some NGOs, as they have professionalised, (invariably in response to donor requirements) have moved away from their origins, so much so that in Cambodia, community activist groups are emerging to act on their own. These new groupings are more informal; fleeting and single issue-driven, i.e. to address the problem affecting them. Some have proven to be more effective in getting their message across. They have also been harder to rein in than NGOs with static presences and leaderships, more easily captured by the new law and other controls. Donors are beginning to adjust to this new scene, allowing “partnerships” between NGOs and such groups. However there will always be an inherent mismatch between the conditionalities of bureaucracies and the flexibility/spontaneity needed by grassroots activists who lack the education and skills to comply with exacting requirements.

    Liked by 1 person

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