The emerging sector – a flawed landmark

Michael Edwards

For people like me, who have written about NGOs for years using sketchy statistics, personal impressions and guestimates at best, the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project is a landmark. The detailed information it provides on non-profit numbers, revenue and employment is a godsend. Why, then, does it tend to raise as many eyebrows as plaudits among the international development community?

A quick straw pole I conducted for this article found grudging acceptance of the study along with a string of criticisms, three of which seem to be common themes:

  • the supposed Western bias of the conceptual frameworks used;
  • a lack of attention to what non-profits actually achieve in their work;
  • a failure to engage with action research on the ground.

Taken together, these problems reduce the usefulness of the findings to policy and practice, and may lead to some very undesirable side-effects.

Who counts?

The obvious starting point is the theoretical framework which informs the Johns Hopkins study. All researchers carry some ideological baggage in their toolkits, derived from their culture, training, and experience. There is always a danger that criteria drawn up in one context will be transferred uncritically to another, excluding by definition important elements of other people’s realities. Hence, if non-profits have to be ‘formally constituted’ to qualify for inclusion, informal associations will obviously not be registered. Yet across the developing world it is often these informal associations that constitute the bedrock of a nascent civil society – think of self-help groups in India, clan associations in Africa and social networks in China.

Northern academics dismiss such groups – they are not ‘proper’ members of civil society because they are not really ‘civil’ (ie democratic and delinked from primordial affections). But this disguises the diversity of real civil societies around the world and the extent to which the public, private and civic realms are always locally negotiated. Southern countries are characterized by fuzzy institutional borders, continuous overlaps and evolving hybrids – like the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which is part social movement, part non-profit service provider, and part local government in waiting. The messiness of real civil societies sits uncomfortably with the librarian’s approach to cataloguing.

Third sector or civil society?

The emphasis on formal organizations (which tend to be service providers) leads the Johns Hopkins study to focus on non-profits as deliverers of welfare, downgrading the political significance of broader civic action. The privatization of welfare is ideologically popular in these days of weakened states and unwilling taxpayers, but there is no evidence that private provision is the best option at low levels of income, even in its milder – non-profit – form. Yet the study dismisses the reluctance of East European civic groups to substitute for state functions as retrograde – ‘paradoxical in view of the abuses of state power under Communist regimes’ (p15). Try telling that to Russians exposed to mafia-style rule by the collapse of their former structures of authority.

In any case, third-sector service provision may be less important in development terms than the social energy civic groups can channel into markets, political systems and the world of ideas. In this broader sense, civil society has a creative function that exists independently of the third-sector emphasis on state and market failure.

Forget the boxes – focus on achievements

One of the consequences of the Johns Hopkins analytical framework is a focus on counting the numbers of organizations that fit into different boxes, taking their size, staffing and revenue characteristics as key explanatory variables. Far less attention is paid to what these groups actually achieve in the fields of poverty eradication, human rights and social progress. We have to wait until the very last paragraph of the Phase 2 Summary findings to read anything at all about impact, and even then it is only to promise that the subject will be treated in a future publication.

To scholars and practitioners of international development, this seems very strange indeed. It is almost as though the two worlds exist in a mirror image of each other. Third-sector researchers in industrialized countries tend to focus on the organizational characteristics of the landscape they study, while broader issues of political economy are almost an afterthought, especially the links between the changing shape of the third sector and issues of poverty and power, conflicts of interest within society, and the proper role of states. Conversely, development researchers are fixated on outcomes – like reductions in poverty, inequality and violence – and often gloss over the way institutional arrangements contribute to these ends.

Two literatures

This fracture is obvious from a glance at the two literatures. Writers on development NGOs and Southern civil society cannot match the scale, depth and quality of third-sector material on governance and board relations, volunteers and human resource policies, fundraising and other crucial aspects of internal organization. We are neophytes in this debate, and have much to learn from our third-sector colleagues, especially Lester Salamon and his co-researchers at Johns Hopkins. At the Third International NGO Conference in Birmingham this year, only a fraction of papers made any connection at all with these rich resources.

At the same time, the assumption made by the Johns Hopkins study that more third-sector organizations will ‘produce’ a vibrant civil society, a healthy state-society relationship, and low levels of social and economic exclusion would not be tolerated in the development community. At the ARNOVA (Association for Research on Non-Profit Organizations and Voluntary Action) conference in Seattle last year, there were over 280 papers on organizational experiences in the industrialized world, and a mere 17 with some sort of international development dimension. Almost none asked the ‘big questions’ about impact.

Moving forward together

Do these differences matter? Academic turf aside, yes they do, since the approach we adopt to problems obviously affects our ability to understand what is happening and help those involved to change their world for the better. The Johns Hopkins study is dominated by academic researchers. This injects an essential dose of intellectual rigour into the often confused and self-interested world of the practitioner, but can starve analysis of the real-life connections it needs to be effective. By contrast, the cutting edge in international civil society work is located outside of academia, in a motley array of consultants, ‘reflective practitioners’, part-time researchers and full-time staff in NGOs and other civic groups, who act as a bridge between the worlds of action and understanding. Although it sometimes leads to mediocre work, this gives them a much more accurate view of what is happening in different contexts, and plenty of opportunities to test out and refine their ideas.

It seems clear to me that we need a systematic attempt to bridge the gulf between non-profit studies and international development thinking. This is the only way of avoiding the undesirable side-effects I hinted at above – the distortion of civil society through foreign intervention and the backlash this creates; the promotion of unsustainable non-profits with weak local roots; and the retrenchment of states at a time when accountable central authority is a vital defence against unaccountable market forces in a globalizing economy.

The way forward cannot be for one school to ‘overtake’ the other – to extend third-sector approaches uncritically to other contexts, or to pretend that development research has all the answers. We must be open to learning from each other, taking the best from both approaches – like the Johns Hopkins study – and synthesizing the results.

There are already moves afoot to do this – in the pages of academic journals like Voluntas and Non-Profit Management and Leadership; in seminars and conferences, like the one that produced David Lewis’s edited volume (reviewed on p32); and in the growing number of collaborations that are springing up around the world at centres of excellence like the London School of Economics, Manchester University and Johns Hopkins itself. What remains is to push these pioneering efforts into the mainstream and make co-working the norm. There is surely a challenge here – and an opportunity – for CIVICUS, CAF, ISTR and the rest to take a lead. Is anyone out there listening?

Michael Edwards is Senior Civil Society Specialist in the NGO Unit of the World Bank, Washington DC. His most recent book is Future Positive: International cooperation in the 21st century (Earthscan, 1999). He can be reached by e-mail at

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