RPN 19 published May 1995

5. The role of voluntary agencies in development: a recipient's perspective by Richard Laing

Coordination with governments

NGOs undertake a wide range of activities and whatever they do they will need to relate to each other and to the government. In my experience, coordination between NGOs is a rare event occurring only in times of crisis. How well do NGOs coordinate with governments? This is more difficult as frequently NGOs relate to various ministries and operate at different levels of society; this can be both a problem and an opportunity. A tension also exists between a government's and an NGO's objectives. Frequently the aim of an NGO is to develop the poor and the disadvantaged groups. A government's primary aim is to remain in power and this frequently means looking after powerful `better off' groups such as urban elites.

NGOs should publish their aid policy, defining the areas they would wish to work in. They should also publish their method of selecting projects. Guidelines for applications and details of their appraisal methods should be available in the country and any appraisal committee should include locals. I have frequently noted that NGOs are keen to fund already successful projects frequently to a point when the project becomes unsustainable. It is extremely difficult to start a new project covering new ideas, for example, training people in AIDS counselling. NGOs should take risks and should look for innovative and progressive projects.

Dependency versus self-development

The issue of dependency is often discussed and it seems to me that the key factor is how the NGO operates. Is it supportive or oppressive? How the NGO plans is crucial. If a blueprint approach is used, rigid targets are set and everybody is forced to fulfil the plan. When a learning process approach is used, however, the implementors participate in developing the plan and so develop themselves.

With planning comes the question of evaluation. Frequently evaluation is used as a means of control by external forces and it is the worst form of control. It controls through blaming, through criticism and after the event. How should evaluation be done? It should be structured to be sure that there is at least equal insider participation. Evaluation should be rapid so that immediate feedback can be given to those implementing the project in order that this may be acted upon. This question of feedback and dialogue in the field is critical. Frequently there will be disagreement but the evaluators should have the honesty to present their opinions to those whom they are criticising.

The role of expatriates

The role of expatriates in developing countries is extremely controversial. What should expatriates do? The simple answer is that they should provide skills that are not available in the country. But the answer is not that simple. Frequently the skills are available in the country but are concentrated in the private sector in the cities; this is particularly true within the medical profession. Yet expatriates have an even more important role than skills transfer and that is in attitudinal example. Expatriates who are committed to ideals and are willing to live and work for these ideals have a powerful development effect. We had unskilled volunteers from the agency Development Aid from People to People (DAPP) who came in the post Independence era and lived and worked in rural areas to rebuild the country; many of their projects were not very successful but the effect these Scandinavians had on the embittered young black people returning from Mozambique was remarkable. The fact that these white people would live and work as equals was invaluable in changing racial stereotypes. So I believe there may be a place for young volunteers to go out and work in rural areas as part of a programme.

The selection of expatriates is crucial. As I have said, the basic attitude of the person to politics, to development and to people is crucial. The skilled expatriate should also be able to transfer his or her skills so teaching and training abilities are as important as the basic skill.

May I make a plea that the recipients should be involved in the process of selection at the shortlist stage. The system of sending the CVs (resumés) of selected individuals is pointless. If the recipients reject the selected individual, the project is set back by six months or a year. What I suggest is that, when the candidates are shortlisted, a national representative should be flown over to participate in the interviews. This would give the national a chance to brief all the candidates and be party to the selection. Furthermore once the expatriates are in the country there should be a mutual three months `trial period'. This is important because at the end of this trial period the nationals should formally say `Yes, we want you!' and the expatriates can say `Yes, I want to stay'. This mutual commitment is important for the dynamic of the project.

The living standard of the expatriate is a subject guaranteed to excite controversy. My advice is that expatriates should live at the same level as their local government or NGO equivalents. No more, no less! I do not mind if they are paid extra in their home countries but let their in-country disposable income be the same. This would go a long way to reducing the tension and jealousies that exist.


The role of consultants in development is controversial. In this area more than any other the importance of mutual cooperation is essential. Local consultants should always be requested to work with the external consultant. I accept that the local consultants may not be the `same' but what they lack in polish they make up for in local knowledge. Also, by having expatriate and local consultants working together, methods and experiences can be shared and the skills of local consultants improved.


Voluntary agencies have a great opportunity to develop human resources. Skills training, participation in decision making and representing the agency can all combine to create an independent confident person who can take his or her place in the local society.

This process starts with respect for the recipient. There is a need to listen, to communicate and to support. These all take time but time invested in these three activities is always time well spent.

Return to Top of Page

October 1996