NGOs that do nothing and other absurdities

“Anyone working in international development for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) over the past few years has likely had the following experience:

Working for or interacting with NGOs (such a broad category that it encompasses all manner of organizations) that serve no apparent purpose”. (

The introductory sentences are from an article featuring a new TV-series about an “NGO that does nothing”. In an interview, published on the blog “Africa is a country”, whose philosophy is about empowering the continent from within[1], the director announces the subject of the first season being about the NGO applying for a huge grant. In episode 2 they are looking for an acronym before having decided about the project’s topic.

Since this is a comedy series, it is of course highly exaggerated, but nevertheless the abovementioned quote is picking on some weak points, rubbing salt in the wounds, (or whatever you want to call it) of the critique on NGOs and foreign (humanitarian) intervention(s).

What the hell is she doing in Kyrgyzstan – again?

As attentive readers you might have noticed (considering the awkward silence on my blog) that I was busy during the last months. In fact, after my short stay in Germany I dropped out of the NGO sector and went back to student life, doing research from March to June this year. And where? Yes, you’re damn right: in Kyrgyzstan! Although I’m no longer working in the sector itself, the abovementioned critiques on the work of NGOs were one of my major concerns during the last months.
The interesting point is that it was not my initial point of inquiry but simply became more and more important throughout the research and especially through the interviews. As I think this is a very interesting observation, although it doesn’t have anything to do with squirrels, I thought I’d share some of the points with you. No worries, I will try keep it short and avoid to bore you with theory too much (although Political Theory can be sooo much fun :)).

NGO-growth in Kyrgyzstan – an “active” business?

« Si la Hollande est le pays où fleurissent les tulipes, le Kirghizstan est le pays où prolifèrent les ONG » (Edil Baisalov, président de Koalitsia for Civil Society and Democracy)

“If the Netherlands are the country where the tulips flourish, Kyrgyzstan is the country where NGOs proliferate(Edil Baysalov, president of the Coalition for Civil Society and Democracy)

This quote is from a book by Boris Petric who criticizes foreign interventions in Kyrgyzstan. In the quote he refers to the radical growth of the NGO sector in Kyrgyzstan since its independence in 1991. Here an extract of my paper, which got published in 2014. [2]

“ While other newly independent Central Asian states were equipped with substantial natural resources and larger internal markets and attracted foreign investment, Kyrgyzstan lacks resource wealth and the only branch that flourished in the country was international loans and aid, which led to an increase in the formation of new NGOs. By the early 2000s there were more than 3000 NGOs registered in Kyrgyzstan. Following the revolutions in 2005 and 2010, aid to Kyrgyzstan and the number of registered NGOs continued to increase up to 10.000. It does appear that donor aid may have peaked after the 2010 revolution and has now started to decline”.

A lot of the NGOs that popped up during the 90s were encouraged by international players or built up with their help. During my research I conducted four qualitative, semi-structured interviews with different NGOs in two locations in Kyrgyzstan. The organizations I interviewed were without exception started on the initiative of international organizations (IOs) or International NGOs (INGOs).

interview with a NGO representative (chairwoman) in Talas

interview with a NGO representative (chairwoman) in Talas

And this engagement in the building up of an NGO sector was welcomed by the population. While my respondents stated that there are a lot of organizations who do not necessarily believe in their cause, change their focus randomly, have jobs at the side, etc. it has also to be noticed, that a lot of people do profit even from projects that did not work out or have no notable long-term effects. How so? The NGO-sector is simply a huge business. It is one of the main income sources for the country. A whole ton of employment is created there. And there’s an additional advantage to the government because the salaries in projects are provided from outside sources of money, which means that these jobs do not have to be funded by the state;

So, really, everyone should be fine with the situation, right? Employment for the local population, good working conditions for IOs and INGOs, a good project rate for the donors, and a democratic outfit for the government, since a large number of NGOs is often equaled with a functioning civil society and democratic practices.

Only: noone is really happy with the situation. I’ll try to explain the worries of the different actors with the current state of the NGO sector in Kyrgyzstan shortly. However, please note, that this is not an overall picture of the NGO sector. I picked some problems that as a result of my research seemed important to me. Also this article highlights mainly the problems while there are of course many positive effects of NGO work in Kyrgyzstan that should not be neglected. I chose to write it in this manner to highlight some important concerns which were mentioned to me from within the NGO sector and which will lead us back very quickly to the introductory quote: NGOs that do nothing.

1. Inactivity

I told you above, that there are today more than 10.000 registered NGOs in Kyrgyzstan. However, they are still solely financed from abroad. My respondents told me that there is almost no funding available from inside the country. International donors usually publish calls for project proposals when they are planning on giving out grants. While in the past, development was done mostly by people “from outside” there is now a tendency to include more local approaches, which is why the calls are usually bound to the condition that if the applicant is not itself a local NGO, they should at least have one local partner organization. But of course, foreign aid cannot finance the projects of 10.000 NGOs in just one single country. This means that they either have to find ways to sustain their projects after funding ends or they end up inactive.

“The most recent study of the Association of Civil Society Support Centres in Kyrgyzstan (ACSSC) counted 10.627 registered NGOs in the Kyrgyz Republic in 2013, of which 33% are rated as “active””

This study measured being “active” as replying to requests via the contacts that are given in the registration. That means, they only have to maintain an office or even just one phone connection to be rated “active”. Less generous measures rate an even higher inactivity: at the first annual conference on Non-Profit Management in Kyrgyzstan, in which I participated, speakers even said that only a fifth of all registered NGOs were actually “active”, meaning that they were actually conducting projects.

Aditionally, the formation of local NGOs by international players in the 90s has led to a lot of groups only created for a certain project and with a very limited set of skills. And often enough the NGO workers are not very commited to the cause because they are already worried about what happens afterwards. For the donors this leads to the observation that NGOs become more and more “donor-driven”, and they often blame the failure of projects on the inactivity and unsufficient commitment of the local participants.


2. (Un-)sustainability

This donor-driven NGO work is the side-effect of development as business. My respondents said that there’s a lot of groups for which money is the main motivation – and that in the non-profit sector, which is supposed to result in sustainable programs rather than short-term profits! A lot of my friends, who work in the NGO sector stated that they do not think that the projects really change a lot for the life of their target groups (and of course this attitude limits the commitment to the project’s cause). And even if the project does good, then the effect often ends after the project is done, thereby limiting its sustainability.
However, to understand this attitude, it is necessary to look at the different meanings of sustainability. For the local NGOs with a project ending also their income security stops. Shifting the focus of the NGO in order to attract new grants often means surviving. They do not get rich through the donor money, it just helps them to maintain their life – it is normal employment (although very precarious). And so, after a project is done they shift their attention away to something more promising for the nearer future in order to avoid just falling into the group of inactive NGOs – thereby securing the sustainability of the local NGOs but not necessarily the sustainability of the projects, that INGOs and/or NGOs have to report to the donors.
But I am painting a rather dark picture of the NGO sector here, by only listing the problems, because: of course there are also counter-examples that have to be mentioned. For example one NGO I interviewed (picture) was built up and supported by a British organization, but when the financial crisis hit Europe in 2009, this organization stopped all its activities in Kyrgyzstan and withdrew from the project, leaving several community centers and kindergartens for children with disabilities unfinished. The local NGO leaders however, decided to stay with the cause and found ways to continue working with their target group. Of course the motivation was most probably a combination of the dawning loss of their jobs and the well-being of the children and they say openly that they are afraid of the day when the international interest in rights for people with disability declines, but wherever it came from, the motivation was strong enough to sustain the projects until today.

3.Political hostility

At the conference of Non-Profit Management I visited, a huge part of the discussions was about partnership with the government to make NGO actions more sustainable. A big obstacle to that is the growing perception of NGOs as foreign agents. This idea is understandable yet counterproductive. On the one hand it is true that the NGO sector is totally sustained only by outside foreign actors who are in Kyrgyzstan relatively free to do whatever they want with the help of their local partners. A lot of actors, not only politicians but also researchsers, have identified a lack of accountability in the actions of development agencies – especially in countries that are not ruled by a strong, controling government – countries like Kyrgyzstan. Understandably, some forces, factions and individuals in the Kyrgyz government are not super-fond of the fact, that international players are meddling in the country’s affairs, but on the other hand, there is no alternative plan. Now, instead of trying to reform the sector the parliament has a bill in the pipeline that is copied after the Russian model: to register NGOs that receive funding from abroad as foreign agents to be able to place more restrictions on them.
During the conference and the interviews the participants expressed their worry about the future, seeing that this hostility of the government further limits cooperation possibilities and thus the hope for more independence from foreign funding.

4. Insecurity

All of my respondents put huge emphasis on the financial insecurity in the sector. Like indicated above, a lot of NGOs are bouncing from project to project, changing their organizational focus due to the interest of the international donors. Two of my respondents said that while their organization is relatively safe right now (Human Rights, children), who knows what the international community will decide to be most important in the next years. And so, for local NGOs the system in its current state is both an opportunity and a threat. The sector is still a strong provider of employment but it is precarious because it is constantly changing due to international ruptures (crises, catastrophes, that shift the attention) and international preferences (e.g. MDGs).

The main problem for them is to find funding. The NGO I worked with last year had a period where they did not have international funding at all and only sustained the organization with the money they got from their side-jobs. This is a huge commitment and not everyone can master this, especially in the countryside where there is a family to provide for, no money to fall back on and not many opportunities for additional half-time jobs. Really, every NGO would need one person only dealing with fundraising but with an average size of 4 to 10 people in the staff that is not realistic. Additionally, smaller NGOs do often not have the capacity to apply for funds since they (1) do not have the necessary skills to react to calls for proposal (language skills in English, knowledge about the necessary key words etc) and (2) cannot meet the standards required by the donor (registered, certain size, at best: successful projects etc.). While this is of course inteded by the donors, who only want to attribute their money to someone who can help them achieve their goals, it means that the funds are often attributed to the bigger, more experienced NGOs and leave smaller NGOs to die after they have been build up for the purpose of one or two projects. However, there are some bigger local NGOs that spend part of their work in teaching smaller NGOs how to apply for grants so that they become more competitive and can be acknowledged by donors as actors who want to help their community. Nevertheless, in my research I found that it is not only the capacity of a respective NGO but also if they share the core “Western”* values about general goals but also ways to achieve these goals. This, in turn, means that often local approaches that might sometimes be better suited to respond to the local context, are excluded to the benefit of applicant NGOs who either really share the values of the donor or have successfully adapted to the wording of “Western” INGOs and IOs in order to attain funds (hybrid NGOs).

NGOs that do nothing? – Yes but there’s more to that

So, yes: there are a lot of NGOs that do nothing – in general all over the world and also in Kyrgyzstan. But before judging this single fact it is worthwhile to look at the background and the current practice to get a more inclusive picture.
In my opinion, the main problem is insecurity, which leads to unsustainability and inactivity and, in turn, to a bad image of the sector vocalized by donors and politicians. But considering the worries of people within the sector and the difficult situation they have to deal with, I think the “inactivity” rate and the “greed for grants” that is often criticized by donors and INGOs becomes quite understanding. If you always have to run after the next grant it goes on the expense of the cause and sustainability of the projects.

I am pretty sure the practices in Kyrgyzstan will change, especially since in the last years for the first time in the country, donor grant money started to decline. In the long term this means that NGOs have to find other sources of money and they are already actively looking for them. All of my respondents had already started to look for alternative funding sources, which often included shifting into the profit-sector. This sector is not perceived as being so far off – like I said: development is a business. But I think it is important to observe this without judging, because I think development has always been a business for all the involved. In my opinion, it is healthier to see this side of the sector too, rather than to assume that we are dealing with some sort of altruist sector that is excluded from the general capitalist mechanisms.

To sum up, I think that while there’s a lot of problems in the sector that have to be addressed, the openness of all my respondents to talk about their problems are a first step in the right direction. Also, like I said above: of course there are not only problems, there are a lot of success stories of NGOs in Kyrgyzstan and there is an amazing number of highly motivated, mostly young and female professionals who want to change different aspects of the life in their country that they consider important. It is more about the constraints that the current system of grants, conditions and project proposals puts on to them that some lose their motivation and energy. But still, in my experience for every NGO that does nothing there are numerous individuals who do a lot!


[1] „So, yes, the blog announces that Africa is indeed a “country,” an imagined community whose “citizens” must reinvent the narrative and visual economy of Africa.” (see:

[2] Sources I used for this part of the paper include:

Buxton, Charles (2009): NGO networks in Central Asia and global civil society: potentials and limitation, in: Central Asian Survey, 28:1, pp. 42-58.

Connery, Joyce (2000): Caught Between a Dictatorship and a Democracy: Civil Society, Religion and Development in Kyrgyzstan, in: The Fletcher Journal of Development Studies, XVI, URL: (retrieved: May 15, 2014).

Giffen, Janice/Earle, Lucy/Buxton, Charles (2005): The development of Civil Society in Central Asia, in: INTRAC NGO Management and Policy Series, 17, Oxford: INTRAC.

Jailobaeva, Kanykey (2012): Zusammenarbeit zwischen internationalen Entwicklungsorganisationen und Zivilgesellschaft in Kirgistan seit April 2010: Perspektiven, Risiken und Beschränkungen, in: Zentralasien-Analysen, 60, p. 2-10.

Kasybekov, Erkinbek (1999): Government and Nonprofit Sector Relations in the Kyrgyz Republic, in: Ruffin, M. Holt/Waugh, Daniel C. (eds.): Civil Society in Central Asia, Seattle: Universit of Washington Press/Center of Civil Society International, pp. 71-84.

* West: I do not really like the distinction that is often made between “the West” and “the rest” that is often used in the context of development. I still included it here to facilitate understanding. It could also be “the North” and “the South” and in this context: “giving” and “receiving”. All of these bear problems in the wording, all of these are more or less discriminating which is why I can never really decide. Just put, whichever solution you like best.


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