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What Do Nongovernmental Organizations Do?


  • Eric Werker
  • Faisal Z. Ahmed


Nongovernmental organizations are one group of players who are active in the efforts of international development and increasing the welfare of poor people in poor countries. Nongovernmental organizations are largely staffed by altruistic employees and volunteers working towards ideological, rather than financial, ends. Their founders are often intense, creative individuals who sometimes come up with a new product to deliver or a better way to deliver existing goods and services. They are funded by donors, many of them poor or anonymous. Yet these attributes should not be unfamiliar to economists. Development NGOs, like domestic nonprofits, can be understood in the framework of not-for-profit contracting. It is easy to conjure up a glowing vision of how the efforts of NGOs could focus on problem solving without getting bogged down in corruption or bureaucracy. But the strengths of the NGO model have some corresponding weaknesses -- in agenda setting, decision making, and resource allocation. We highlight three factors in explaining the increased presence of NGOs in the last few decades: a trend towards more outsourcing of government services; new ventures by would-be not-for-profit "entrepreneurs"; and the increasing professionalization of existing NGOs.

Suggested Citation

  • Eric Werker & Faisal Z. Ahmed, 2008. "What Do Nongovernmental Organizations Do?," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 22(2), pages 73-92, Spring.
  • Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:22:y:2008:i:2:p:73-92 Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.22.2.73

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Abhijit V. Banerjee & Shawn Cole & Esther Duflo & Leigh Linden, 2007. "Remedying Education: Evidence from Two Randomized Experiments in India," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 122(3), pages 1235-1264.
    2. Barrett, Christopher B., 2002. "Food security and food assistance programs," Handbook of Agricultural Economics,in: B. L. Gardner & G. C. Rausser (ed.), Handbook of Agricultural Economics, edition 1, volume 2, chapter 40, pages 2103-2190 Elsevier.
    3. Anna Fruttero & Varun Gauri, 2005. "The Strategic Choices of NGOs: Location Decisions in Rural Bangladesh," Journal of Development Studies, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 41(5), pages 759-787.
    4. Patrick Francois, 2003. "Not-For-Profit Provision of Public Services," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 113(486), pages 53-61, March.
    5. Stiles, Kendall, 2002. "International Support for NGOs in Bangladesh: Some Unintended Consequences," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 30(5), pages 835-846, May.
    6. Barr, Abigail & Fafchamps, Marcel & Owens, Trudy, 2005. "The governance of non-governmental organizations in Uganda," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 33(4), pages 657-679, April.
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    JEL classification:

    • F35 - International Economics - - International Finance - - - Foreign Aid
    • L31 - Industrial Organization - - Nonprofit Organizations and Public Enterprise - - - Nonprofit Institutions; NGOs; Social Entrepreneurship


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