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,"
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
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