Insights and Analysis

Asian NGOs Expand Global Influence

May 4, 2016

By Anthea Mulakala, Zeng Lu

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have long played a crucial role in development cooperation, both in delivery of services and in policy advocacy. According to the OECD DAC, in 2013, DAC members allocated $19.6 billion in official development assistance (ODA) to NGOs. The majority of this (almost $13 billion) was channeled through NGOs based in donor countries. And, these NGOS are increasingly resourceful – in 2013, NGOs in DAC member countries fundraised over $29.7 billion private sources.

However, these statistics do not capture the full picture of the shifting role of NGOs in development cooperation. The growth of south-south cooperation (SSC) and the increasing heft of non traditional providers like China and India have dramatically transformed the development cooperation landscape in the 21st century. These countries are also home to NGOs that are now extending their work outside their own countries. Yet, despite their growing influence, there is little known about their contribution to development cooperation.

Last month, government officials, NGO leaders, and development experts from more than 10 countries gathered in Beijing for the 14th meeting of the Asian Approaches to Development Cooperation (AADC). Jointly convened by the Korea Development Institute (KDI) and The Asia Foundation, AADC is an ongoing series that addresses how Asian countries’ engagement in development and south-south cooperation is changing the global aid landscape and the development prospects for the region. Here are key takeaways from the discussion.

Last month, government officials, NGO leaders, and development experts from more than 10 countries gathered in Beijing for the 14th meeting of the Asian Approaches to Development Cooperation (AADC).

Last month, government officials, NGO leaders, and development experts from more than 10 countries gathered in Beijing for the 14th meeting of the Asian Approaches to Development Cooperation (AADC).

In his opening address, Xiao Fenghuai, deputy director general of China International Center for Economic and Technical Exchanges under the Ministry of Commerce, recognized the growing impact NGOs have in tackling global issues. Xiao welcomed the role of NGOs in China’s overseas development cooperation efforts, noting that China is diversifying from a government-led approach to include more partnerships with NGOs.

Civil society and government participants shared their experiences on the role of NGOs in development cooperation in Asia. Participants agreed that the most valuable areas of focus for NGOs is on poverty alleviation, humanitarian efforts, and their work with marginalized communities and local partners.

The Australian and Korean government speakers explained that NGOs in their respective countries are considered independent and effective development partners. Both countries have well-established policy frameworks for engaging NGOs in development cooperation. The Korean government has funded 183 Korean NGOs with ODA since 1995. In 2015, 7 percent of KOICA’s budget was channeled through NGOs. Australia channeled 12.6 percent of its ODA through NGOS in 2014/15 and released a new policy for working with NGOs in December 2015.

Partnership with NGOs is a newer concept in China, where there are currently 662,000 NGOs but only 516 participating in international affairs. Indian NGOs have been involved in SSC for decades often through their own independent efforts. BRAC, the world’s largest NGO with origins in Bangladesh, works in 11 countries, reaching 18.84 million people. Japan has nearly 500 NGOs working in international development, 70 percent of which work in Asia.

Given that civil society’s role is often seen as holding governments accountable, NGO advocacy work was a hot topic among participants. In Korea, for example, the Korean NGO Council for International Development Cooperation (KCOC), monitors government policy as well as represents Korean NGOs in global and regional policy forums, such as the Asia Development Alliance (ADA).

Kaustuv Bandyopadhyay, director of Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), noted that India’s development cooperation is generally considered as an extension of foreign policy; and all governments, India included, tend to be less open to dialogue with CSOs when it comes to foreign policy priorities. India has made some movement in this area by establishing the Forum for International Development Cooperation which engages the government, universities, and NGOs in dialogue on India’s SSC priorities.

Katsuji Imata, board chair of CSO Network Japan, cautioned that as governments increasingly put their national economic and strategic interests ahead of development cooperation objectives, that the space for CSO engagement is undermined. Hesaid that the response by many governments when NGOs lobby is to increase regulation.

The discussions revealed that while on the one hand Asian provider governments are valuing the role of NGOs in development cooperation and demonstrating more openness toward them, on the other hand the space for policy advocacy in provider countries is closing. In many countries the legal and policy environment for NGOs is either becoming more restrictive or frequently changing, making it challenging for NGOs to operate.

Asian NGO participants took note as Pansy Tun Thein of Myanmar’s Local Resource Centre and Dil Bhusan Patak of Interface Nepal gave their observations of foreign NGO efforts in their countries. Both emphasized that the general perception was that these NGOs are directly contributing to development of communities. At the same time, they reminded Asian NGOs about the importance of accountability, as well as coordination with other local state and non-state actors.

The meeting wrapped up with a roundtable dialogue on opportunities for collaboration and capacity building among Asian NGOs. Hannah Ryder, head of Policy and Partnerships at UNDP, remarked that capacity building needs to recognize the unique needs of different NGOs and support them to adapt their roles to different country contexts. Kyungshin Lee from KCOC, said that many Korean NGOs are often viewed as “amateur with a good heart” due to their relatively new engagement in development cooperation. In response, KCOC focuses on enhancing understanding of international development cooperation, improving knowledge, skills and ability in project cycle management, ensuring quality and accountability in NGO approaches and services, and working in partnership and solidarity with various partners in the sector. In partnership with China’s leading NGO in international expansion, the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, The Asia Foundation has recently supported the development of an NGO operational manual that provides guidelines for Chinese NGOs on feasibility study, working with foreign stakeholders, daily operation, fundraising, and project management.

Asia is a dynamic and diverse region, where NGOs and development cooperation both follow different trajectories in different countries. As Asian development cooperation expands and grows, Asian NGOs have an increasingly vital role to play both in the implementation of programs for those in need, and influencing global and national development policy.

The AADC in Beijing was jointly hosted by the China Association for NGO Cooperation (CANGO) and The Asia Foundation, in partnership with Korea Development Institute (KDI) School and with support from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

Zeng Lu is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in China and Anthea Mulakala is director of the Foundation’s International Development Cooperation program, based in Malaysia. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


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