As we consider the causes that matter to us around Giving Tuesday, author Megan Hershey discusses the value in supporting local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
We all want to help. We want to aid displaced Syrians in finding refuge, support Venezuelans in the face of hyperinflation, and assist Mozambican families rebuilding in the wake of Cyclone Idai’s devastation. We want to prevent these catastrophes by promoting democratization processes and supporting development efforts—to see health systems strengthened and disaster response teams trained and funded.
Yet, for most of us, figuring out how best to give to these efforts poses a challenge. Which organizations are trustworthy? What about overhead costs? Who is positioned to do the most good?
Then there are the debates over whether foreign aid is a life-saving good or a broken system that requires a drastic overhaul. Should we take a market-based approach or work to better weave political freedom into our understanding of development? It’s enough to exasperate even the most dedicated household philanthropist.
Yet, there is good news. While we’ve been asking how best to give, spirited, locally established, and deeply embedded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have sprung up around the world and quietly gone to work on their communities’ toughest problems. Research on these NGOs spanning the last thirty-five years shows that they have had positive effects on development issues. These are the players that have embodied the injunction to “think globally, act locally.”
My recently published book, Whose Agency: The Politics and Practice of Kenya’s HIV-Prevention NGOs, offers a close look at the inner workings of these small, local organizations. Though they typically lack large advertising budgets and name recognition, they manage to achieve a great deal thanks to their local knowledge, community connections, and inherent adaptability.
When looking for an organization to support—whether in response to a humanitarian crisis or with an eye toward development—here’s why you should consider supporting a locally founded organization:
- Access: Local NGOs operate in the areas where they were founded and often hire employees from their communities. They also usually do not need special permission to access an area in crisis. This means donations go directly to the people who need it most.
- Embeddedness: They have relationships with local leaders and powerbrokers. While there can be tensions between NGOs and the people they reach, they are well placed to build trust, which facilitates service effectiveness.
- Flexibility: This is a local NGO’s secret weapon. They may be constrained by donor requirements on how they can spend money; yet, when individuals give to these organizations directly, the NGOs can use those funds quickly, for the greatest needs, without dealing with too many restrictions.
You may have to do a bit more legwork to find these organizations. Read news stories and international NGO publications carefully to see what local NGOs are mentioned or ask friends who have traveled to those regions. Many governments also have NGO coordinating bodies that make NGO registries available. Do your due diligence, read up on the organizations you plan to support, ask questions, and build a relationship with someone at the organization if possible. But don’t be afraid to support local NGOs; you can be confident that your gifts will have a bigger impact, and you might even feel happier, too.
Megan Hershey is an associate professor of political science at Whitworth University.