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Advancing the Research and Practice Agenda on Local Government-Nonprofit Relationships in Developing Countries

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Khaldoun AbouAssi
February 5, 2018

Policymakers, practitioners and scholars are interested in examining the effective and efficient ways to improve service provision, enhance accountability and promote citizen participation in developing countries. Decentralization has been prompted as one institutional arrangement towards that end, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working at the local level have been favored as agents of change. These trends have led to an increase in the number and complexity of cross-sectoral connections.

Yet, the work of scholars and practitioners has not thoroughly examined the relationships between local governments and NGOs in developing countries. For most part, the focus primarily is on developed countries or on relations with central governments. The lack of attention may be due to stigma, both in the literature and in practice, about weak authorities, lack of resources and monopolization of efforts. We need to examine such stigma to better understand interactions between institutions, roles and agendas at the local level in developing countries; additional exploratory and empirical research is needed. Such research could be guided by five broad questions.

  1. Where does the authority lie?

It is important to study the allocation of authority across levels of governments. Governments operate at multiple levels. Thus, intergovernmental relations have to be carefully planned and managed. Although decentralization could eventually shift decisionmaking authority downward towards local communities, the reality is that local jurisdictions in most developing counties still lack policy authority; policy formation occurs at higher levels of government. Therefore, future inquiry may focus on where the boundaries of central government’s responsibility end and that of local government begin.

Another consideration here is the role NGOs can play. Relationship patterns may be influenced by the space and autonomy government allows NGOs to have; that is why it is important to examine the domains in which NGOs can operate, the degree of autonomy in their operations, and the asymmetrical they have in their relations with different levels of government.

  1. What is local and public?

The way authority is perceived is as, if not more, important than its allocation. Perceptions are important in shaping the willingness of other organizations to develop collaborative relations. These perceptions should be examined especially since decentralization muddies the lines between the responsibilities of central and local governments. The attempts of central governments to retain control further muddy these lines, creating both tension and confusion.

A related aspect to consider is the boundaries between the public, nonprofit and private sectors; their roles and their interactions are in a state of confusion. It is not always clear which services are considered strictly governmental responsibilities and whether some activities carried out by the private or nonprofit sectors are necessarily to be coordinated with or regulated by government. In some developing countries, both the private and nonprofit sectors are coopted by the government.

  1. Why do these relations develop?

Another question to be addressed in future research is why relations between NGOs and local governments develop; the way they originate influences the nature and sustainability of interactions. When local governments or NGOs initiate these relations based on interests or societal needs, the interaction patterns tend to be balanced and mutually beneficial. However, if the relations are initiated by a third party, the patterns become more cumbersome. And here, the elephant in this room is international donors.

In many developing countries, donors are a critical source of funding and key players in shaping policies and agendas; the donor factor is one of the key differences to consider in comparative research between developing and developed countries. In recent years, and as a result of growing concerns about aid effectiveness, donors are interested in fostering NGO-local government relations and have launched initiatives, provided support and conditioned funding on partnerships between local governments and NGOs. How this trend will play out and what results to expect remain to be seen.

  1. How are these relations structured or managed?

Future research should focus on organizational and institutional capacities, beyond resources. Attention is needed to how much existing capacities are consumed in the relations with central governments; resources are not infinite and should be invested thoroughly to generate better results. Additionally, the nature of the resources utilized, level of professionalism, the local knowledge and shared values that contribute to organizational identity can significantly shape NGOs-local government relations and their effectiveness.

  1. When are these relations challenged?

In setting up a future research agenda, we should be very vigilant of the local context. We need to be attentive to local traditions and norms and how these could shape and feed into a culture of collaboration, or lack thereof.

We also need to examine the possibility of having multiple centers of power at the local level. Local authority does not always translate into local power in many developing countries; sometimes clans, tribes, local elites and families dominate local communities, sometimes at the expense of local authorities. Overlooking these realities increases the chances of failure both in the interactions between NGOs and local governments, and in our study of these relations.

The abovementioned questions are for both scholars and practitioners to consider. By understanding the nature of relationships between local governments and NGOs within varying sociopolitical and economic context, we will be able to determine the conditions conducive to supporting good governance and democracy and expand on and test the theoretical foundations of existing body of knowledge.

Author: Khaldoun AbouAssi is an assistant professor at the Department of Public Administration and Policy, School of Public Affairs at American University. His current research interests focus on organizational capacity, resources, and management of inter-organizational relations. He can be reached at [email protected]

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