At Large

Thoughts on NGOs/CSOs

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Someone once described the Philippines as the “NGO Capital of the World.” This was because, on a per capita basis, the country supposedly counted more nongovernment organizations, or civil society organizations, than any other place on earth.

I don’t know if this assertion still holds true now, as the number of NGOs, always a nebulous figure because a great many were unregistered with private or public groups, is supposed to have gone down in recent years. There are many reasons for this, among them an “aging” leadership that wasn’t able to nurture a new generation of members and leaders, and the drying up of funds to continue operations.

Still, civil society—the newer, trendier and inclusive term for private organizations engaged in development work—remains a vital presence in our country. And none more so than CODE-NGO, or the Coalition of Development NGOs, that culminates its 20th anniversary this year. Established in 1991, CODE-NGO is the largest “network of networks” in the country, composed of 12 national and regional CSO networks, representing 1,600 NGOs, people’s organizations and cooperatives nationwide.

On Nov. 20-22, CODE-NGO convenes its National Congress which takes place every five years, “to review its work for the past years and set its directions for the next five years.” Some 1,000 delegates are expected to attend the meeting.

The theme for the gathering is a mouthful: “Breaking Barriers in Civil Society’s Constructive Engagement for Development.” The plenary session will be held on Nov. 22 at the Skydome, SM North Edsa.

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A survey done for the Civil Society Index (CSI), cited in a forthcoming book, found that 46 percent of the population “considered themselves active members of at least one CSO, and only 17 percent said that they do not belong to any CSO.”

The survey findings indicate a people who are immensely aware of social issues and willing to invest time, effort and thought to engage these issues.

In addition, “CSOs have also proven themselves to be excellent alternative providers of services to the poor, particularly to those underserved by government,” the book says. “They are known to be flexible, adaptable, capable of innovative approaches to development challenges. Further, CSOs have typically incurred lower costs under less bureaucratic project implementation measures than the government.” Indeed, many government projects and programs started out as “pilot” NGO operations tested on a small scale. Which is no mystery, really, since many NGO leaders and personnel often “graduate” into doing development work as government officials.

Local CSOs are “widely seen as among the most vibrant and advanced in the world,” an assessment that CODE-NGO says “can be traced to the extensive networking within the sector and with other sectors, the experience and skills of many CSO leaders and staff, their dedication and creativity, and the flexibility of CSOs, which is related to the small size of and camaraderie within most CSOs.”

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But some of these features may also explain the weaknesses that bedevil many such groups. Many CSOs depend on external funding, for instance, leading to what some have called “donor-driven” priorities that may lead to divergence from the organization’s original intent and mandate. There is also a diminishing number of staff and leaders belonging to the younger generation, which has telling implications on the viability and future of many CSOs. Then there is the thorny issue of “weak internal governance” of many of these groups, as attested by recent news items.

“While it is true that most CSOs operate based on volunteerism, the more stable and capable CSOs are those with paid full-time staff to deliver their programs and services,” note the book’s writers. But, “lack of funds has prevented many CSOs from keeping their staff. Local CSOs have also lost many of their staff to better paying and more stable institutions, including the government and the business sector, but also to corporate foundations, international NGOs and donor agencies.”

Addressing the problem of funding, say the writers, will require that CSOs develop not only more internal sources of funds but also broad-based local philanthropy, especially for CSOs not linked to churches and schools (where most local philanthropy currently goes).

Another problem is that “CSOs, particularly NGOs, have not been able to attract as many of the young graduates and talented youth as it used to.” Unlike in the 1970s up to the 1990s, when roiling social and political issues provided the impetus for young people to go for low-paying but immensely satisfying social development work, the atmosphere today seems to have created young people more bent on personal fulfillment rather than social transformation.

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Even CODE-NGO, no stranger to controversy arising from the “Peace Bonds,” acknowledges that “many CSOs…need to strengthen their internal governance,” noting that “there have been some reported cases of mismanagement of CSO funds.”

The book cites a survey of 120 CSOs conducted for the CSI that showed that “36 percent of the CSOs perceive that corruption happens frequently (24 percent) or very frequently (12 percent) within civil society.” The writers suggest that “improving the internal governance of CSOs will include, among others, having more involved and active trustees, developing broadly accepted good governance standards, and promoting self- and peer-assessment [as against] these standards.”

CSOs, given their role as gadflies and critics, had better hew to the highest standards of ethics and responsibility.

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