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    Working with NGOs


    International Trade Forum - Issue 2/2006, © International Trade Centre

    © Reuters/B. Yip
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    Focusing on development is the key to partnership between trade agencies and non-governmental organizations.

    If the governments, donors and development agencies that drive trade development activities are to increase the development impact of their efforts, they must bring non-governmental 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. Recognizing this contribution towards trade development can help to bridge the philosophical divide between NGOs and other trade development partners and facilitate greater cooperation and integration.

    Trade development can help NGOs

    We have looked at some of the advantages that NGOs bring to trade development. What some NGOs are also saying is that trade development can be a central means for them to accomplish their objectives. Governments, development agencies and NGOs alike increasingly agree on the links between trade, poverty and development. InterAction, the largest alliance of United States-based international development and humanitarian NGOs, said in a March 2005 report, "We believe that poverty can be reduced and broad-based growth can be advanced . . . Trade Capacity Building Assistance presents an opportunity to promote this highly desirable outcome."

    With NGOs putting these issues in the forefront, to ignore the benefits of cooperation would be a lost opportunity.

    Increasing NGO impact. Large advocacy campaigns raise awareness, generating public support and influencing policy-makers. Advocacy for trade development could help to dispel myths surrounding trade and stimulate greater support and resources for trade development efforts.

    Incorporating market sustainability. Inexperience and lack of confidence in markets can lead towards economically unsustainable activities. Project sustainability is also at risk when NGOs provide key services free of charge, so that they are not reflected in production costs. Such programmes may catalyse development of successful businesses and exporters, but businesses need a well-developed, timely exit plan to keep from creating dependence. The best model provides services for a fee, reflecting forces of supply and demand.

    Partnering with NGOs offers governments, donors and even the private sector the opportunity to harness specialized knowledge and to increase capacity on a range of issues.

    Trends: Why NGOs are in trade?
    NGOs in trade are the result of several trends:

    • The share of official development assistance channelled to NGOs has been growing for several decades. Government donors now direct 15-20% of aid to NGOs (OECD, 2004 Development Cooperation Report). Much of this is humanitarian aid, but increasingly NGOs are working on trade projects.
    • Trade development funding has been growing over the past five years, under the banners "TRTA" (trade-related technical assistance), "TCB" (trade capacity building) or "Aid for Trade". For example, donors committed $2.99 billion to trade in 2004, up 49% from 2001 (OECD-WTO data).
    • WTO members have risen from 128 in 1995 to 149 today. The Doha Development Agenda, a consequence of this growing world membership, has raised aspirations to use trade as a force for development and poverty reduction.
    • WTO's creation in 1995 has made it a magnet for NGOs. Its summits have become a symbol for NGOs to react to the pace of global change and some of its downsides. NGOs numbered 108 at the WTO's Singapore conference in Singapore in 1996. Nearly ten years later, at WTO's Hong Kong conference in December 2005, there were over 1,000. NGO presence in developing country delegations grew steadily between the Cancún and Hong Kong meetings, both business associations and more traditional NGOs, such as ActionAid. WTO, too, has found new ways to bring NGOs into the debates, such as organizing events where they can have their say, providing good space for them at ministerial gatherings and improving their web outreach to them.