Creating and sustaining democracy remains an elusive quest for many nations. Across the globe, countries are experimenting with an array of structures, institutions, and rules intended to democratize their governmental systems. Many of these efforts involve decentralization. Much of the decentralization is a top-down process, that is, it is driven by central governments seeking to push responsibility out of the capital and into lower level governments. Some of it is bottom-up promoted by local governments intent upon expanding their operational sphere and discretionary authority or incentivized by civil society organizations and nonprofits acting as partners in public service delivery at the local level. Regardless of the impetus, decentralization is considered by most to be the sine qua non for democratization.
In developing countries, the quest to create and sustain democracy is even more compelling. Governments search for the optimal administrative system that suits the country’s conditions, social culture and political system, and at the same time, comports with the urgency of development.
Successful decentralization, however, involves more than governments. Here, we are talking about non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are supposed to serve citizens, build local ownership, strengthen civic engagement, and work for the public interest/good. Mounting public demands for increasingly-complicated and diversified services favor a facilitator, partner state rather than a controlling state. The boundaries that once separated the public sector from that of the private and nonprofit sectors have become so fuzzy that no one sector is solely seen as being responsible for local public services.
While government and civil society work together and, due to their limited organizational capacities, these collaborations tend to focus on partnerships to provide certain goods and services. These local partnerships or exchanges are thought to deliver more effective and innovative services at lower costs to government, to be more representative of community preferences, and promote broader civic engagement and are often tools of democratization.
Clearly, the local level is increasingly one of numerous and complex cross-sectoral interactions that need to be understood better. While decentralization entails a devolution of the nation state’s authority and the NGOs are playing a central role in the development process, there has been growing concern in the international donor community and development circles about the effectiveness of aid, sustainability of development, and results management. International donors have come to realize that, at the local level in developing countries, NGOs should complement or supplement the work of local governments in arrangements more akin to partnerships. This realization is now reflected in several donor-funded initiatives that encourage or incentivize collaboration between local governments and NGOs.
The results of two recent surveys conducted in Lebanon talk to these issues and can be relevant for policy makers and practitioners in other developing countries. The two surveys were completed by a total of 248 local government officials and 223 NGO executives, respectively, and investigated respondents’ perceptions on issues ranging from how they are collaborating with one another to how decisions are made.
Based on perceptions of these officials in NGOs and local governments in Lebanon, it appears that significant cross-sectoral interaction is taking place at the local level. Yet, the underlying reasons for working together—or not, thereof—vary. While both agree on improving the quality of local services, building a stronger sense of community is an important reason for local government officials; NGOs are more motivated by gaining additional resources or funding. Lack of opportunities and interest from NGOs as the most common barriers to engagement according to local government officials while NGO leaders cite the absence of perceived benefits in working with local governments as the main barrier.
Other observations from the studies on relations between NGOs and local governments in Lebanon are noteworthy. First, women are not necessarily more likely to lead their own organizations to work with others; as a matter of fact, male leaders of local governments are more encouraged to work with NGOs than their female counterparts. This observation needs some attention especially in the presence of several programs and initiatives that focus on women empowerment and representation in public office.
Another interesting finding is that some aspects of NGO relationships are vertical rather than horizontal, with NGOs overwhelmingly considering their relations with international organizations better than those with local governments; that is why international organizations are called upon to motivate NGOs’ relations with local governments to ensure effectiveness of implementation and sustainability of results.
Finally, ‘social services’ remains to be the service area in which local governments and NGOs are most likely to work together. Delivering services to populations in need is the essence of development, but local governments and NGOs should also be working on other areas in order to ensure a more comprehensive approach and sustainability of results. This is where donors and international organizations can play a role, especially since relations with the latter are more favorably perceived by NGOs in comparison to those with local governments.
As such, in line with their long-term development objectives, donors and international organizations would be well-served to stimulate relationships between NGOs and local government, but need to do so in a way that does not necessarily divert those interactions toward donors’ immediate priorities and agendas. Development agencies can empower the two sides to work together, not just by providing the seed money for collaboration, but, first, by increasing their own tolerance of failure and second by investing in the organizational capacity of the collaborators. In other words, give local governments and NGOs the space and tools to work together. Then possibly, NGOs and local governments could be encouraged to explore working together—and possibly fail and, then learn from their failure, how and when they can collaborate. Hopefully by doing so they can consider working together beyond just delivering services, since the potential benefits from collaboration between local governments and NGOs extend beyond the immediate benefits brought about service delivery partnerships.
This post was written by Khaldoun AbouAssi, Assistant Professor of Public Administration and Policy at the Department of Public Administration and Policy, School of Public Affairs, American University.