Thousands of Private Organizations, Many of Them Tiny Grass-Roots Groups, Are Revolutionizing Approaches to Third-World Development Issues

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WHEN George Zeidenstein, president of the New York-based Population Council, asked to address the plenary session of the 1984 United Nations population conference in Mexico City, he was told he would have to wait until all 151 national delegations had spoken. He finally began his speech after midnight "to a largely empty room," he recalls. Ten years later, as evidenced at the UN's International Conference on Population and Development now under way in Cairo, respect for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like the Population Council has increased dramatically. These groups have helped to increase food production, improve public health, expand educational opportunities, and upgrade the status of women. In the run-up to the conference, NGOs seized the initiative in shaping the agenda. "The situation in the intervening 10 years has changed the circumstances regarding NGOs a great deal," says Mr. Zeidenstein, now a fellow at Harvard University's Center for Demography. Unconstricted by bureaucratic red tape, NGOs fill the gap left by larger, more rigid institutions like the World Bank. For example, the Orangi Pilot Program, which originated in the slums of Karachi, Pakistan, helped communities design, build, and manage their own sewer systems. The local government was unable to provide this service, and local banks were unwilling to finance the project. Today, more than 600,000 people have access to sewage systems. NGOs specialize in a wide variety of tasks. The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, organized 20 years ago, empowers women by providing them with small business loans. NGOs purchased discounted national debt in Bolivia in exchange for environmental protection guarantees. In Botswana, World Conservation Union experts advised the government on the environmental impact of public works projects. The first NGOs appeared in the 1970s in developing countries and began performing specialized services such as teaching farmers how to use more-efficient irrigation techniques. They spread worldwide in the 1980s in response to the perceived failure of governments and the private, for-profit sector to meet the needs of the developing world. Half of all NGOs devoted to economic and social development are less than 10 years old; 70 percent are less than 15 years old. Today, hundreds of thousands of NGOs help poor nations achieve sustainable development. "NGOs have an amazingly powerful role in calling attention to the world's neglected areas," says Joseph Speidel, president of Population Action International. This activity has not gone unnoticed by governments and international aid organizations, which now routinely contract out development work to NGOs because they are more efficient and less costly. …