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Looking Beyond the Promises, Pitfalls, and Exaggerated Expectations on NGOs’ Roles in Development

May 24, 2015

Widespread criticisms in the 1980s regarding conventional top-down approaches in delivering social services paved the way to the rapid growth and expansion of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Putting emphasis on the expanded role of the civil society — with NGOs as its main actors — was largely seen as a response to the inefficiency of governments and markets in driving development. As part of the shift towards the so-called new policy agenda, significant amount of multilateral and bilateral aid poured in to developing countries, with non-state actors serving as a magic bullet in alleviating poverty and promoting social welfare (Edwards & Hulme, 1996).

NGOs were seen as a potent force due to its strong linkages with communities and its people-centered approaches to development, initially seen as more efficient and cost-effective in providing basic social services. Aside from filling in these gaps, NGOs also played a vital role in promoting strengthened community participation, empowerment, and democratization at the grassroots level (Willis, 2011).

However, many now question the effectiveness and legitimacy of NGOs as providers of development alternatives. Banks, Hulme, and Edwards (2015) tried to take a closer look on the impact of the NGOization of development and described how NGOs have seemingly lost their touch in recent years. Broadly, Banks et al. argued that inflated views on the role of NGOs in eliciting social change still remain. After an extensive review of recent literature, the authors identified key NGO weaknesses including (a) its heavy reliance on foreign donors; (b) the professionalization of the development industry; and (c) the failure to promote community ownership of development initiatives at the local level.


Donor dilemma
Most development initiatives — especially in Third World countries — are fueled by foreign donors. Due to very stiff competition for funding, Banks et al. (2015) emphasized that NGOs are oftentimes forced to tailor policies and programs that would fit the donor requirements and not necessarily those that fit local needs.

As such, NGOs tend to focus on projects with quantifiable and tangible outcomes where donors can easily measure the “success” of these initiatives. Common quantitative measurements include number of children vaccinated, number of housewives who took part in livelihood workshops, number of food aid recipients, number of latrines built, etc.

Most NGO projects are seen to be mere band-aid solutions rather than targeting the underlying causes of poverty and other social inequalities. The authors explained that this narrow focus on “short-term results and value for money” can offset long-term — albeit “soft” — development goals, such as promoting equality and empowerment. There is also the risk of benefit fraud, where the impact of “successful” achievements are overemphasized, while failures are underreported or oversimplified.

The “business” of doing good
The pouring in of foreign funding to developing countries, as well as the increased influence of globalization, led to an increase in high-paying jobs offered to the educated middle class, which Robert Chambers notably called the uppers. Several empirical studies have described how these development tourists can influence local communities’ decision-making process and manipulate — or more aptly facipulate — initiatives based on preconceived biases or notions. To Chambers, true development will only be achieved once uppers start “handing over the stick” to the lowers.

Cronyism between development organizations and local elites can also put the community into a disadvantage since it can effectively ignore the voices of community members who are more marginalized (i.e., poor, less educated, staying far from village centers, etc.) or may share opposing views.

The emergence of the so-called super rich, an elite few who hold a majority of global wealth, also propelled the rise of new philanthropy, where there recently has been an observed increase in their influence in the global socio-political and development agenda. These individuals, mostly heads of multinational profit-earning companies, invest in NGO projects and other charity-related initiatives. Many of these individuals have sustained their wealth by lobbying for government policies or programs aimed at protecting their interests. To some extent, this can also influence NGOs’ policy and program direction, making a case for some to argue that NGOs continue to be “agents of imperialism” and “maintain the dominance of free market capitalism” (Petras, 1999; Banks et al., 2015).

Helping people help themselves
Banks et al. (2015) suggested that NGOs, operating on the good governance dogma, need to “return to their roots” and, at the same time, adopt innovative approaches in addressing inequality and poverty. NGOs, at the very least, can act as intermediaries in “building bridges” between communities and decision makers and in setting up the conditions within which communities can empower themselves. At its most basic, community empowerment is both the process and outcome of enabling communities to make informed decisions. A key determinant of empowerment is that has to inherently come from within the community.

Recent evidences have also emphasized the positive impact of NGOs in promoting collective action and participatory governance. However, as emphasized by Suleiman (2012), one must be careful in equating community empowerment with NGOs’ assumed role in fostering democracy.

Repressive government regulations and the increasing bureaucracy in NGOs also remain to be a challenge, highlighting the prevailing mistrust among governments, civil society, and local communities. Banks et al. (2015) underscored the need for a better understanding on the inter-linkages between these key sectors. Stronger partnerships should be established and each sector should be given enough public space and autonomy.

As a follow-up to the authors’ earlier work in 1996, the article provided an up-to-date review of current discourses on NGOs’ efficacy and efficiency. In a nutshell, it revealed that the challenges faced by NGOs two decades ago continue to exist — although in a more complex manner. This complexity is much more apparent especially in summarizing the wealth of knowledge and experience in NGOs’ work in the last few years and in differentiating the role of NGOs with other civil society actors.

A minor weakness of the article is it works on the assumption that all NGOs operate in the same manner. It failed to recognize the diverse approaches and contexts wherein NGOs work. From a practical standpoint, the article might also be seen to be a little too prescriptive, portraying the perceived divide between development academics and practitioners.

Ahmad, M. M. (2015). The Rise and Growth of NGOs [Powerpoint slides]. Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok, Thailand. 

Banks, N., Hulme, D., and Edwards, M. (2015). NGOs, States, and Donors Revisited: Still Too Close for Comfort? World Development, 66, 707–718. Accessed 8 March 2015, from

Edwards, M., and Hulme, D. (1996). Too Close for Comfort? The Impact of Official Aid on Nongovernmental Organizations. World Development, 24 (6), 961–973. Accessed 8 March 2015, from 

Petras, J. (1999). NGOs: In the Service of Imperialism. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 29 (4), 429–440. Accessed 11 March 2015, from

Suleiman, L. (2012). The NGOs and the Grand Illusions of Development and Democracy. Voluntas, 21 (1), 241–261. Accessed 11 March 2015, from

Willis, K. (2011). Theories and Practices of Development (2nd ed.).  New York: Routledge.

Faces and Phases of Hanoi

May 19, 2015

Visiting Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, was a feast for the senses. The dizzying streets filled with hundreds of motorbikes and the tasty street food treats make it one of the most fascinating cities in Southeast Asia. Never miss sipping the city’s famous coffee and enjoying the rich umami flavor of beef pho.

About four hours east of the Hanoi are the awe-inspiring limestone islands of Halong Bay. Rent a boat and visit some of the islands’ caves, including the impressive Hang Sung Sot.

Nhat Tan Bridge

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

The setting sun and the gleaming limestone islands of Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Sung Song Cave

More photos here.

Faces and Phases of Lopburi

March 14, 2015

Lopburi is one of Thailand’s oldest cities and has once served as a hub for key kingdoms in region, including the Angkor and Ayutthaya regimes. Located in the central plains of Thailand, it is also known for the impressive Pa Sak Cholasit Dam and the sea of yellow and green from the large sunflower fields.

Pa Sak Cholasit Dam
Pa Sak Cholasit Dam

Wat Tham Promsawat
Wat Tham Promsawat

Sea of yellow and green
Sea of yellow and green

With AIT's RRDP Class of 2014
With AIT’s RRDP Class of 2014

With AIT's RRDP Class of 2014
With AIT’s RRDP Class of 2014

More photos here.

Moving towards an Ocean-based Blue Economy

January 14, 2015

An Analysis on National Policies and Programs for Sustainable Fisheries in the Philippines

As a country made up of more than 7,000 islands, the crucial role of the oceans and coasts to the lives of more than 93 million Filipinos cannot be overemphasized. An overwhelming majority of the country’s total population directly rely on the vital resources and ecosystem services provided by the surrounding bodies of water.

Aside from being an everyday source of food and livelihood, the Philippine seas remain to be a major contributor to the country’s national economy. Latest estimates from the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) indicated that the country’s 36,289-km coastline employs around 11.8 million Filipinos or one-third of the national labor force (NEDA, 2011a).

The country’s Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (BAS) reported that the fisheries sector contributed 1.8 percent to the 2012 national gross domestic product. Furthermore, an estimated 2.32 million metric ton of fisheries products, valued at PHP 145.42 billion (around USD 3.24 billion), were produced in 2012. In the same year, PHP 42.37 billion-worth of fisheries commodities (around USD 944 million) were exported (BAS, 2013).

The Philippines is also located in the so-called Coral Triangle, the global center for marine biodiversity. Considered as one of the most biodiverse waters in the world, the Philippine seas host a wide array of coastal and marine resources including coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangrove forests, and various fish and marine species.

Due to rapid coastal development and the increasing demand for marine resources brought by the exponential population growth, unsustainable fisheries practices became rampant in recent years. Aside from this, the country’s vulnerability to natural disasters and the looming threat of climate change have put the Philippines — especially poor coastal communities — under serious threat.

Realizing the need to address these emerging threats, the Philippine government has adopted several policies and programs promoting sustainable fisheries in the country. This policy analysis primarily focused on the relevant provisions of the Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2011–2016 and Executive Order (EO) 533.

Formulated by NEDA, the PDP 2011–2016 outlines the government’s national development targets, as well as its priority policies and programs, set to be achieved by 2016. For this analysis, two chapters were extensively reviewed, specifically Chapter 4: Competitive and Sustainable Agriculture and Fisheries Sector and Chapter 10: Conservation, Protection, and Rehabilitation of the Environment and Natural Resources. Chapter 4 primary aims to improve food security, increase rural incomes, and build up the sector’s capacity to respond to climate change. On the other hand, Chapter 10 focuses on the sustainable management of the country’s natural resources.

In 2006, EO 533 was also adopted to promote integrated coastal management (ICM) as a national sustainable ocean and coastal development strategy. EO 533 targets to strengthen the capacity of local governments to sustainably manage its coastal and marine resources, with the help of relevant national agencies, nongovernment organizations, the academe and private sector. Ultimately, EO 533 aims to fully implement a comprehensive national ICM program led by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

This analysis seeks to review existing national policies and programs on promoting sustainable fisheries in the Philippines. Indicators were identified to cover the three major sustainable development dimensions, including the environmental, economic, and social aspects.

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Shaping the Future We Want

January 14, 2015

Lessons from the MDGs and How It Can Shape the Post-2015 Development Agenda

The year 2015 marks a crucial milestone in the world’s continuous pursuit for sustainable development. With key targets set to be achieved this year by major international policy instruments, most notably the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), it is an opportune time to assess countries’ progress in achieving these goals. This also provides a chance for policymakers and experts to initiate dialogue and lay a solid foundation in outlining post-2015 targets.

The adoption of the MDGs almost a decade and a half ago galvanized strong commitments by governments to improve the quality of life of its citizens. The unprecedented support received by the MDGs reflected countries’ recognition that extreme poverty is unacceptable and that there is an imperative need to immediately address it. Alongside eliminating extreme poverty and hunger, the MDGs advocated for universal education, gender equality, improved health care, and environmental protection, among others. This set of specific and time-bound goals have guided almost all development initiatives in the last few years.

'High Goals' by Victor Ndula

Breaking the vicious cycle of poverty
Perhaps, MDGs’ most successful contribution to the global development agenda is putting considerable focus in combatting global poverty and other major social ills. As Indian development economist Gita Sen pointed out (as cited by Manning et al., 2013), “the MDGs successfully focused the global policy spotlight on some key development issues in the past decade.” Outlined in eight major targets, the MDGs provided simple and quantifiable indicators by which progress of countries can easily be measured and monitored.

However, critics argue that the goals set in the MDGs are overly simplistic and undermine the multidimensional aspects of sustainable development. Manning et al. (2013) described this causal oversimplification of the root causes of poverty as being “broken down into silos in a way that detracts from the holistic nature of the challenges that poor people face.”

There is also a general consensus that the MDGs fail to recognize equally important drivers of development, including efficient governance and accountability, protection of human rights, addressing income inequality and regional disparity, and securing long and lasting peace among nations.

China’s remarkable progress in reducing poverty in the last few decades would be a good case study. As thoroughly explained by Wang (2004), China’s sustained agricultural and rural economic growth in the 1980s — and not directly due to MDG-related policies — greatly contributed in reducing poverty in the country. Without China, the first MDG of reducing worldwide poverty by half would not be successfully achieved (Chen and Ravallion, 2008). Wang claimed (as cited by Manning et al., 2013) that, “the MDGs needed China more than China needed the MDGs.”

Conversely, although an estimated 500 million people has risen out of poverty, the widening rich-poor gap in China still remains to be a major challenge. This reflects the limitation of the quantitative targets set by the MDGs.

Perks and perils of providing aid
The implementation of the MDGs also paved the way for the increased flow of foreign aid to developing countries, most notably in Africa and Asia-Pacific. Highlighted in the eighth MDG, developed countries and international finance institutions were encouraged to scale up investments to assist developing countries in achieving the MDGs.

Although several low-income countries have benefitted — to some extent — from strengthened investments, an increasing number of studies show that this too have perpetuated a culture of dependence towards foreign aid. Manning et al. (2013) pointed out that this top-down approach to development remains to be one of the weaknesses of the MDGs.

While the MDGs may have been conceptually robust in setting specific development benchmarks, it was not fully embraced by Third World countries primarily because they did not have the capacity and appropriate resources to support sustained implementation. Instead of increasing aid, more emphasis should be given in strengthening the institutional capacities of governments and in making markets work for sustained local economic growth.

Going glo(c)al
Weighing in on how the post-2015 sustainable development agenda should take form, experts have now called for a more inclusive set of feasible global targets that are also sensitive to country-specific conditions and priorities.

These global targets should consider communities-in-need as main actors and not just mere receivers in the whole development process. These goals should also be firmly integrated in local development plans and policies to promote a stronger sense of community ownership. Policymakers and planners should capitalize on existing local knowledge and practices, as well as scale up and replicate best practices at the local level.

The post-2015 sustainable development agenda should shy away from directly “spoon-feeding” a one-size-fits-all formula for development, but instead build countries’ capacities and provide an enabling environment for development. In essence, this new set of commitments should put more emphasis on how to help people help themselves.

Chen, S. and Ravallion, M. (2008). The Developing World Is Poorer than We Thought, but No Less Successful in the Fight against Poverty. Policy Research Working Paper No. 4703. Washington, D.C.: World Bank. Accessed 8 October 2014, from

Guardian Interactive team, Harris, C., and Provost, C. (2013). Millennium Development Goals: Big Ideas, Broken Promises? The Guardian. Accessed 8 October 2014, from

Manning, R., Harland Scott, C., and Haddad, L. (2013). Whose Goals Count? Lessons for Setting the Next Development Goals. IDS Bulletin 44 (5-6), 1–9. Accessed 5 October 2014, from

Wang, S. (2004). Poverty Targeting in the People’s Republic of China. ADB Institute Discussion Paper No. 4. Tokyo: Asian Development Bank Institute. Accessed 8 October 2014, from


December 31, 2014

Looking back at the year that was with some of my favorite photos and tweets in 2014.

Among this year’s highlights include my high school batch’s reunion last April marking the 10th year since we finished high school. Last May, I also had my wisdom tooth removed, which is still worth mentioning since I still can remember how painful the operation was.

Earlier this year, my mom and I traveled to Taipei to celebrate her 50th birthday. A few weeks after, I finally had the chance to visit friends in Yangon, after a quick stop in Kuala Lumpur. Also this year, I moved to Bangkok to pursue further studies. It was nice going back to school but I never thought grad school would be as demanding.

Sadly last September, Lolo passed away. The night sky definitely shines brighter with his presence up there.

After a hectic first term in grad school, I also visited Vientiane to take a breather before flying back to Manila for the Christmas break.

With these, may our 2015 be filled with new adventures, good health, and 365 days full of love and happiness. Here’s to a fruitful year ahead!



Word to live by in 2014: Relevance.

Tomorrow’s forecast: Cloudy with a chance of a cold Valentine’s.

Do you know what’s more painful than heartbreak? An impacted wisdom tooth. #torture

Sometimes, an unexpected pat in the back is all the push you’ll need to carry on.

No clue what it says but sharing it anyway since it’s not often that you have someone profile your work in Norwegian.

Good morning, Taipei! Let the #funtaiwan adventure begin. #tlcasia

Some of life’s best memories are stored not in photos, but in familiar laughter, warm hugs, or the smell of freshly brewed coffee.

First day high! #gradschool

Sometimes, courage is really just cowardice in disguise. Sometimes, the bravest thing is to let go someone you hold dear to your heart. Maraming salamat at paalam, Lolo.

You know you’re getting old when you find Halloween parties lame but you end going anyway still yearning for that same old youthful zest. Then, you end up being that old creepy guy with a beer bottle in hand standing near the bartender swearing “I’m too old for this shit.”

Sometimes, we have to remind ourselves that no one has it all figured out. We spend too much time thinking about the what-ifs and planning out our lives that we forget to be present in the present.

Sunset over the Mekong. #thailaoborder

Faces and Phases of Vientiane

December 10, 2014

Vientiane is arguably one of the most charming cities in Southeast Asia. Its refreshingly laid back atmosphere — as well as the picturesque Mekong sunset and skyscraper-free cityline — is perfect for those wanting to unwind and relax.

Laos has always been in my must-visit countries for years and I’m just glad I’ve finally ticked it off my bucket list after a hectic term in grad school. From Bangkok, I took the overnight sleeper train going to Thanaleng, which only costs around THB 750 (PHP 1,000). The train left around 8 PM and when I woke up the next morning (which, by the way, was the best sleep I’ve had in weeks) the train was just about to reach Nong Khai, the last stop before crossing the Lao border. In Vientiane, I was hosted by one of the coolest Couchsurfers I’ve ever met, inspire-and-perspire lifestyle coach Chris Bachmann. I was also able to catch up with former colleagues and other friends based in the city.

When in the city, make sure to check out Pha That Luang, one of the best Buddhist temples in the region, and Patuxai, which offers a great panoramic view of the city. Never leave Vientiane without grabbing a bottle of Beerlao by the mighty Mekong or trying the sweet treats from the small Parisian cafés and bakeries.

001Pha That Luang


003Wat Sisaket

004Sunset over the mighty Mekong

005Fredskopset alumni dinner, three years after our fellowship assignments

More pictures here.


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