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Towards Accountability: Narrowing the Gap between NGO Priorities and Local Realities in Thailand

Working papers

Reflecting the negative ways in which international donors perceived the role of government in the 1980s, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) became something of a favoured partner for multi- and bi-lateral donors in the 1990s and beyond. Underlying this transformation was a belief that flexibility, small size and the (relatively) altruistic motivations of NGOs enabled them to meet and articulate the needs of individuals whose preferences had been traditionally underrepresented in the realm of the market and the state. However, the features that make for greater flexibility and reach can also have a detrimental effect on those for whom aid is designed to assist. Lacking a formal means for ensuring that policies, schemes and programmes are in fact meeting their stated objectives, poor people can be highly disadvantaged when dealing with foreign or non-local NGOs. Exacerbating these factors, NGOs are often highly dependent on international donors whose programme priorities may overlook or misunderstand the needs and aspirations of their intended beneficiaries. Under such conditions the relationship between NGOs and beneficiaries can be far from accountable. Drawing upon 13 months of field research, this paper shows how villagers in southern Thailand were able to influence the terms on which an internationally funded NGO prioritised and allocated aid within their community. This, in turn, reflects a number of factors: (1) the organisational ability of the recipient community; (2) the limited resources of the NGO; and (3) donor stipulations regarding group formation and public participation. Such findings suggest that poor people can influence development policy and more importantly, that stipulations aimed at encouraging and demonstrating participation can improve accountability between NGOs and their intended beneficiaries.

Craig Johnson