By Francesca Regalado
Whoever coined the phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” foresaw the rise of startup NGOs in the age of millennials, individually driven by a mission to save the world. Since my freshman year, I have heard Diplomacy majors, whether or not in jest, saying, “If all else fails, I’ll just start my own NGO.”
But there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. Name one cause that does not have at least one civil society group already working on it. There are plenty of mainstream, established organizations that continue to make invaluable contributions to the international community, as well as having the resources and knowhow for successful services programming.
Would-be social entrepreneurs complain that mainstream organizations have turned into unproductive bureaucracies. The appeal of NGOs originally lies in the lack of bureaucracy, relative to the hoops that have to be jumped through for any government response. Civil society groups have tremendous potential for on-the-ground, targeted responses. Nowadays, as Harvard University researchers Werker and Ahmed point out, governments treat nonprofits as contractors, outsourcing some services (i.e., the dirty work) such as aid delivery for conflict zones.
Of course, there is a rigorous, competitive vetting process for anything that receives government funding, especially when it concerns chronic international quandaries such as the Syrian civil war, or even the rehabilitation of Haiti. According to Werker and Ahmed, the average annual growth rate of NGOs registered with USAID is 7 percent, increasing to 531 in 2004 from only 57 in 1961.
But as the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) notes, competition is good in markets, not in the not-for-profit sector. Social entrepreneurs must convince donors that their ideas are different and more valuable than other organizations, that their solutions will have better success. According to the Guardian, the crowded field increases pressure on established NGOs, who have to redirect their focus away from the causes in which they are experts onto buzzword causes and aid innovations that are more attractive to donors.
The crowded field also proves the adage that too many cooks spoil the soup. In 2011, there were 196 relief organizations in Haiti, according to a Disaster Accountability Project (DAP) report on relief responses to the 2010 earthquake. A 2011 Oxfam report reveals that competition and finger-pointing among NGOs has hindered Haiti’s recovery, with indecision stemming from the inability of the NGOs to cooperate not only with each other, but also with the Haitian government.
Aside from aggravating competition and undermining coordination, nascent NGOs face the challenge of accountability. DAP reports that out of the 196 NGOs in Haiti, only eight have full or partial situation and activity reports available.
The lack of accountability is not surprising when you consider that small NGOs barely raise enough funds to cover administrative costs such as salaries, especially with the professionalization of nonprofits. Werker and Ahmed note that in 2004, 31 percent of graduates from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Masters in Public Policy program entered the nonprofit sector. Such data currently does not exist, but it would be interesting to see how many startup NGOs have been launched by bright-eyed college graduates only to close up shop within a year.
The Guardian quotes a community leader in Nairobi, Kenya as saying that aid money should “not fund a western dream, but a local dream.” Real-world problems should not be reduced to a line on a résumé, or to the personal satisfaction of saying, “I started my own NGO.” Before you decide that you are unsatisfied with the bureaucracy of mainstream organizations, first volunteer for them and experience the good work they do instead of adding to the noise. After all, saving the world will take a collective effort.