Working with NGOs: Focusing on Development Is the Key to Partnership between Trade Agencies and Non-Governmental Organizations

By Domeisen, Natalie; Towe, Brian | International Trade Forum, April-June 2006 | Go to article overview

Working with NGOs: Focusing on Development Is the Key to Partnership between Trade Agencies and Non-Governmental Organizations


Domeisen, Natalie, Towe, Brian, International Trade Forum


If the governments, donors and development agencies that drive trade development activities are to increase the development impact of their efforts, they must bring nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) into the mainstream of trade development.

Development is a complex process, not measurable in per capita GDP (gross domestic product) alone. Economic, social and political institutions are tied to development and efforts to transform them should reflect this relationship.

Most "official" trade development efforts, however, tend to define their goals only in economic--trade and business--terms. NGOs, experienced in the many sides of development, can help address these limitations.

It seems obvious for these partners with complementary strengths to work together. Why doesn't this happen more? Often, the block is ideological. NGOs' independence means they will not take part in programmes in which they do not believe. At the same time, governments and donors do not want to be coerced by unelected "special interests" into activities that are not consistent with their own philosophies.

The answer may be to focus on development as a common ground for cooperation. Following are a few recommendations to improve trade development through donor and NGO cooperation.

Donors can broaden their trade development objectives. They can reorient trade development goals to include environmental, social and political aspects of development of concern to developing countries. This will help integrate trade development activities with other development efforts and increase their likelihood of success by more accurately reflecting the process of development.

Given their experience in coordinating development activities and working with many sides of development, NGOs are ideal partners to help incorporate these issues into trade development programmes. NGOs with reservations about trade would also be more inclined to participate in efforts whose goals are closely aligned to their own.

NGOs can contribute to planning and evaluation. International NGOs could give new perspectives on how trade fits into the overall development picture and how the environment, health and other issues are affected by trade development activities. They can suggest ways to include the poorest groups in trade development strategies. Grass-roots NGOs, often staffed by community members, can ensure a participatory dialogue in project design and implementation and contribute to sustainability.

NGOs can be partners in projects. NGOs bring expertise in a range of areas. Business-interest NGOs, such as industry associations, chambers of commerce and trade cooperatives, are among the foremost technical experts in their fields. Grass-roots and international NGOs are often oriented towards issues such as women, education or the environment.

Their local presence can allow them to reach remote and undeveloped areas.

Revise target populations. NGOs, government and international agencies can compromise on whom to target in trade development programmes. Some projects focus on those most able to compete in global markets--most often, larger firms and relatively richer business people. This approach ignores the entrepreneurial abilities that poor and marginalized populations offer.

On the other side, NGOs need to be able to pick winners among poor entrepreneurs. Humanitarian considerations often lead NGOs to help the most needy. But helping inefficient or unproductive business initiatives will not lead to development progress if firms cannot eventually become self-sufficient and competitive in international markets.

Recognize non-traditional trade development activities. NGOs may not always label activities that promote trade as such, especially if they fall within broader development initiatives. For example, NGOs may not recognize their business development services or microcredit activities as specifically encouraging trade and exports. …

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