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THE WORM’S EYEVIEW: How useful are NGOs?

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/23 Feb) — Scratch any activist and you’ll find a frustrated idealist impatient for reforms. He wants to make a difference, and will act by himself if necessary. Quite often, he or she is what Eric Hoffer, philosopher of the 60s, called a true believer— whom he defined as “someone who’ll give his life for a cause, and yours too if you let him.”

Activists know they can achieve more if they seek out kindred spirits (other activists), combine forces and resources, and form associations. That’s how most non-government organizations are born.

They’re conceived and organized to fill a perceived gap or shortcoming in the formal structure or service delivery system of government, to reinforce a weakness or an inadequacy.

The weakness may spring from the absence of a program or project. Tabang Mindanaw, for instance, is meant to make up for the government’s inability to provide for all the needs of victims of armed conflicts in the region. Or, like Task Force Macajalar in Cagayan de Oro, it may seek to make up for what it perceives as the ineffective enforcement of environmental laws.

58,000+ Nationwide

Nationwide, there’s a staggering total of over 58,000 registered NGOs—an impressive number. To include unregistered ones, not counting groups with illegal objectives, there may well be over 100,000.

NGOs are defined as “private, non-profit voluntary organizations committed to socioeconomic development pursuits and established primarily for service.” Multiplied by their members, the total far exceeds the size of the civil service or the government bureaucracy.

Nowhere in Asia can one find such a large number of NGOs in a given country. Nowhere in Asia also are NGOs accorded a role in local governance as in the Philippines.

With all of them professing to work for development, aiming to complement government services, one would think there are more than enough initiatives to bring about progress and stability in the Philippines.

Yet our problems as a nation just keep on multiplying and eluding resolution.

Strengthening or Weakening Governance

Years ago a visiting group of social science researchers, having just surveyed various parts of the country, expressed consternation at finding that the Philippines had one of the weakest government structures in Asia.

Among others, they cited the country’s “inability to maintain order, implement decisions, and extract resources from society.” The latter assertion refers to the low tax compliance record, on one hand, and the high tax evasion rate, on the other.

Moreover, their findings suggested that instead of strengthening the republic, the existence of so many NGOs tended to weaken it—that even as they profess to complement government services, in fact they emasculate it.

This may be so because each one acts independently and in accordance to its own agenda and process. Each one is convinced it has the answer to society’s woes. And they compete with government in raising funds from non-tax sources, local and international.

Some even have technology and resources superior to the government’s—as is the case with some internationally assisted ones. Still others—mainly extremists, communists, and adventurists—are out to supplant or take over the government and control the country.

Thus, surrounded as it is by hordes of NGOs, many with aggressive lobbies pulling it every which way, motivated by agendas from far-left to far-right and in-between, they add tremendous pressures on government.

Need for Review

How does one cope with over 58,000 independent variables? And because they are an assertive and demanding lot, how does one please them all?

The point is, NGOs may be unwittingly emasculating the government’s capacity to focus on its vision-mission-objectives.

Even the role of party-list groups ought to be reviewed, since their presence tends to emasculate the role of mainstream political parties.

Every NGO should cogitate upon its proper role, keeping in mind that any diminution of the government’s role or authority is an invitation to anarchy—which strengthens the hand of destabilizers, insurgents, and iconoclasts who would like nothing better than to see government implode from its own weaknesses.

Every NGO pursuing an aspect of development is by definition a reflection of government’s inability to cope with that aspect. If every NGO seeks to reinforce a social or governmental weakness, then it follows that our government has at least 58,000 weaknesses that it is unable to address. An awesome thought.

The role of NGOs needs to be reviewed. Too many of them tugging at society in all directions or working at cross purposes with the government is courting anarchy!

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Manny is former UNESCO regional director for Asia-Pacific, secretary-general of Southeast Asian Publishers Association, director at Development Academy of the Philippines, vice chair of Local Government Academy, member of the Cory Government’s Peace Panel, and PPI-UNICEF awardee for outstanding columnist. For comments, please e-mail  valdehuesa@gmail.com)

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