The Value of NGOs to Democracy

By Dr Joan Staples

NGOs are under attack and their value to democracy should be defended.  NGOs are one of the main ways that individuals can communicate with government and business – especially when people are overwhelmed by the size and power of government and business in today’s society. 

NGOs mediate in a multitude of ways.  They use the media, the internet, public gatherings, official government enquiries, they lobby members of parliament and they take more confrontational means such as direct action.  NGO creativity in finding ways to talk to government and business is remarkable.  Their effective communication evolves and changes as new tools are found – note the evolving process of online campaigning.

What are the ways that NGOs contribute to our democracy?

  1. NGO comment on policy is vital to good policy-making by both government and business.  People on the ground can see and predict the effect of policies more effectively and so make improved outcomes possible for all.  The relationship need not be a confrontational one.
  2. NGOs are uniquely placed to support policy that looks to long term goals or policy that affects the future.  Governments react to the short electoral cycle, asking ‘how will it affect our chance of re-election?’.  Businesses have a legal responsibility to ask ‘how will it affect our bottom line’?.  It is a special quality of the NGO sector that it has the flexibility to include the long-term in its policy interests and in its desired outcomes.
  3. Another most important role is to provide a balance to the views of powerful, organised, economic interests.  There is a large imbalance between the power of vested interests and that of the community.  On the occasions when government and business work together, the power imbalance is even greater, and NGOs are vital.
  4. NGOs have an accountability function. They inform the community on the behaviour of governments and businesses and call them to account. NGOs can claim legitimacy for this role if their roots are in the community and they are informed by the practical impact of policy on themselves or their members. When this is the case, NGOs are uniquely placed to respond to (a) the impact of government and business policies, (b) the impact of lack of policy, (c) failure to implement promises, (d) the unintended consequences of policy and (e) the existence of unethical or corrupt behaviour.
  5. NGOs can show the amount of public support there is for any policy.
  6. NGOs are better than individuals trying to act on issues alone, because by pooling financial and intellectual resources they improve the quality of public debate.  ‘Two heads are better than one’ and ‘many hands make light work’.
  7. NGOs can improve equity in our society by providing a ‘voice’ for marginalised and disadvantaged individuals and groups.
  8. Regional and country NGOs are important for providing information to make policy specifically relevant to different geographical areas.  The same is true for special interest groups such as the disabled, farmers, women, etc. Policy affecting any regional or special interest group is improved with their input.  This makes it better policy for all.
  9. Unlike the public service or government or large businesses, the flexibility of the NGO sector means it can respond quickly to new political situations.  That response can be in service delivery or policy.  NGO flexibility can be seen as part of the variety, dynamism and vitality of the community from which NGOs come. The flexibility can also reflect different political and cultural ways of talking about the same issue and can tap into different parts of society.

At a time when NGOs are under attack from those who would silence their voices, it is important to value the contribution that they make in enriching our public debate.  NGOs are not infallible in their policy prescriptions, but their role is invaluable in keeping Australia a dynamic, equitable, innovative community.  NGOs should not be backward in defending the contribution they make.

August 2014