NGOs – Non-Government or Government Actors?

The photos tug at the heartstrings. A little boy, thirstily drinking from a cup as a grateful mother looks on. A child’s soulful eyes peeking out from her mother’s arms. A group of girls in ragged clothing studying in a small rural classroom. The photos and the stories that go with them make us want to help. Right next to the photos is a prominent button to click: “Donate Now.”

To whom are we donating? Non-profits, charities, and non-governmental organizations. The names all make them sound so kind-hearted. They aren’t after money. Surely not, they are non-profit. They can be trusted to be non-partisan and without any political agenda because they are non-governmental. And they want no more than to be charitable and giving. If only that were always the case.

Last year, Uganda’s Parliament passed the Uganda Non-Governmental Organizations Bill 2015, a bill aimed at simply regulating NGOs, as any government has the right to do. Many human rights organizations have been up in arms over the bill. Before getting to their issues, a few interesting notes on NGOs and their regulation.

NGOs are often anything but non-governmental. Organizations like Save the Children, Catholic Relief Services, CARE, and World Vision, get their funding from government sources, including the European Union, USAID and DFID. Others are funded by multi-lateral institutions, like the United Nations and its various agencies, all of which exist through dues from member governments.

As USAID notes on their website: “NGOs are crucial implementing partners for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which funds their field work via grants, cooperative agreements and contracts.”

Partners with a government institution? Sounds a lot like working hand-in-glove with the government. If non-governmental organizations are funded by governments, how far can they stray from their funders? To many, NGOs are government agencies, only without government control and scrutiny.

It is interesting to note that many of the NGOs that have been the most vocal about Uganda’s recent elections are the very ones that are funded by governments that were also quite vocal.

A closer look also shows that while NGOs are forbidden by law to make a profit, they can hardly be called frugal. Salaries for CEOs of top non-profits often exceed $400,000. Fundraising is a major department in many non-profits, which is understandable since every organization needs money in order to exist. However, if these organizations get money because they solve problems, what happens when problems are solved?

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