New Works in the Field

NGOs and International Development: What have we learned, how did we learn it, and where should NGO research go next?

Editors’ Note: Collecting and analyzing three decades of NGO research, Allison Schnable, Jennifer N. Brass, and Rachel S. Robinson have asked: “what have we learned, and how have we learned it?  Where should NGO scholarship go next?” Recently published in World Development, the authors share their findings. 

The 1980s were dubbed “the NGO decade.”  In fact, however, these organizations’ numbers and legitimacy have expanded every decade since.  When they gained public recognition in the 1970s, NGOs in the global South were seen as radical alternatives to existing ways of doing development. Advocates of the “new policy agenda” in the 1980s soon embraced NGOs in their search for more flexible and efficient alternatives to state-provided services. NGOs’ allure grew after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, when they were imagined to be the key to building democracy in former satellite countries. By the new millennium, major development agencies had integrated NGOs into their ways of doing business. More than 20% of OECD aid now flows through NGOs, and 88% of World Bank-funded projects include the participation of an NGO. Yet criticism has attended NGOs’ growth: the fact that NGOs can be idealized as efficient private alternatives to government and as grassroots challengers to entrenched power structures also means they are apt to be viewed as failures from one perspective even if they succeed in the other.

The scholarly literature also reflects these different views of NGOs.  One large body of work is interested in the ability of NGOs to deliver services and hold governments accountable, and examines the consequences of these NGO activities on the state. Another body of work operates in the critical development studies perspective, and asks whether NGOs have fulfilled their early promises as people-driven development alternatives. Perhaps because of such conflicting views of NGOs among scholars, there has been little effort to systematically aggregate findings from the more than three decades of research. Our research team spent the past three years addressing the lack of synthesis by collecting and analyzing more than 3,300 peer-reviewed, English-language articles on NGOs and international development published between 1980 and 2014. In a review article just published in World Development, we asked, after three decades of NGO research, what have we learned, and how have we learned it?  Where should NGO scholarship go next?

One part of our article used content analysis of a random sample of 300 articles to closely examine the authors, research questions, and methods of the NGO literature. We found that like many scholarly fields, NGO studies are dominated by academics working in developed countries. Only 16% of articles included an author based at a university in Asia, Africa, or Latin America. Certainly, limiting our analysis to articles in English accounts in part for this unevenness, but we noted that only two articles in the 300-article sample were written by scholars at Indian universities. This is despite India being the most commonly studied country in this literature, and one that uses English as the primary language in higher education. This unequal representation of authors provides some evidence for the North-South knowledge gap that political scientists and other social scientists have discussed. We also found that about one-third of articles had at least one nonacademic author; more than half of such authors were employees of NGOs, suggesting both possible subject matter expertise as well as potential bias in reporting organizational effects or outcomes.

Within the scholarly literature we reviewed, the topics studied have evolved over time. Today governance and health are the most studied development sectors. Research on HIV/AIDS predictably rose in the 1990s, while attention given to agriculture has plummeted since the 1980s, from a high of 33% of articles in 1990 to less than 3% in 2014.  Early work on NGOs tended to focus on understanding their nature and role in development.  Articles today tend to be highly specialized and to focus either on NGOs’ roles in providing services or in advocacy or social mobilization—articles rarely depict NGOs doing both.  Despite changes over time, nearly all of the articles we analyzed addressed one of six broad research questions:

  1. What is the nature of NGOs?
  2. What factors lead to the emergence, development or evolution of NGOs or the NGO sector?
  3. How do NGOs carry out their work?
  4. What effect, if any, do NGOs have on specific development outcomes?
  5. How do NGOs interact with other actors in their environments?
  6. In what ways do NGOs contribute to the production or reproduction of cultural categories or power dynamics?

In our article, we wanted to show how a systematic review of existing work could answer what is arguably the most debated of these questions, question 4—what effect do NGOs have on development outcomes? We did so using a sample of articles on health and governance, which represent the service provision and civil society functions of NGOs, respectively. We found that, on the whole, articles reported favorable effects of NGOs in these sectors—67% for health and 52% for governance.  But the evidence presented for these claims gave us pause. The health articles usually reported benefits to a health outcome or behavior, and 60% of those articles gave a clearly measurable indicator on which to measure NGOs’ success. But the articles on governance, which often discussed how NGOs affected more nebulous issues such as empowerment or accountability, gave a measurable indicator only 16% of the time.  Few of these articles included an explicit control group or counterfactual, so it is impossible to know whether the outcomes could have been achieved by other means, or even with no intervention at all.

Where should the next decade of NGO research go?  We hope that this initial meta-synthesis will lead to better research designs and additional systematic reviews of more specific research questions. Specifically, if we are to assess NGOs’ effectiveness as development actors, we must synthesize findings on these questions as they intersect, and as they cut across disciplines and time. For example, it is crucial to consider whether NGOs’ seemingly positive short-term development outcomes actually reinforce existing power dynamics and inequalities in the long term. Confronting the “wicked problem” of development requires research synthesis.  We suggest that clearer research design and presentation—scholars being explicit about which of these broad research questions they address and which they exclude from their studies—will make synthesis easier and encourage new work that fills in the gaps.

To facilitate the future of NGO research, our group will soon launch a website and data portal,, where we will publish topic models and keyword counts for the 3,300 articles we examined, and more detailed codes on a random sample of articles.  We will also make public a searchable dataset of bibliographic references for the corpus of articles. This will facilitate filling in the gaps in sectors and geographies on NGOs, so that research in the next decade will do more than “go where the action is.” Instead, it will allow researchers to identify where our knowledge of particular topics is over-reliant on particular cases (for instance, microfinance on South Asia) and to look for validation or variation in new sites.

Moving forward, we also call for more rigorous research. Our study reveals that NGO researchers often assert that NGOs had specific effects, but without reference categories or counterfactuals. Disciplinary standards for data vary, but all scholars can clearly define their concepts and explain the logic by which they selected and collected data. Comparison and synthesis will also become easier if scholars interested in the effects of NGOs build in the question, ‘‘compared to what?” Historically in NGO research, there has been an implied comparison of NGOs to government agencies or to private companies, but rarely is it explicit or measured.  New research will also need to compare traditional, staff- and time-intensive NGO programming with the sort of direct cash transfer programs now being piloted by U.S.A.I.D.

The literature on NGOs and international development is vast.  Our World Development article represents the first step of a larger research project by the NGO Knowledge Collective to aggregate knowledge in this field.  The time is ripe, and we hope others will join us in this endeavor.

-Allison Schnable, Jennifer N. Brass, and Rachel S. Robinson

Allison Schnable is an assistant professor at Indiana University. Her book project, Amateurs Without Borders: American Volunteers and the New NGOs examines the rise of volunteer-driven development NGOs. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal and holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton University.

Jennifer N. Brass, Associate Professor at Indiana University, studies service provision, governance, and state development, with a primary geographic focus on sub-Saharan Africa. She authored Allies or Adversaries? NGOs and the State in Africa (Cambridge University Press), as well as a range of articles and chapters focused on NGO provision of services and/or energy and electricity services. Brass has conducted field research in Senegal, Djibouti, Kenya and Uganda. She holds a PhD in Political Science.

Rachel Sullivan Robinson is an associate professor in the School of International Service at American University.  She holds a PhD in sociology and demography from the University of California at Berkeley and studies global health interventions in sub-Saharan Africa, including family planning, HIV/AIDS, and sexuality education.  Her book, Intimate Interventions in Global Health, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. 

End Notes

Brass, Jennifer N., Wesley Longhofer, Rachel S. Robinson, and Allison Schnable. (2018) “NGOs and International Development: A Review of Thirty-Five Years of Scholarship.” World Development 112: 136-149.



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