International non-state actors and social development policy

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Paul Stubbs

Associate Senior Researcher
Globalism and Social Policy Programme (GASPP)
University of Sheffield, UK
Address: S. Draganica 1, 10090 Zagreb, Croatia

Tel and Fax: +385 1 3701 301




This article focuses on two broad groups of actors, international NGOs (INGOs) and international consultancy companies (ICCs), and situates them within wider trends in aid and development policies. In the context of a neo-liberal policy agenda, many leading INGOs reorganised so that they became closer to emerging ICCs, as consulting, outsourcing, and sub-contracting became key features of aid and development policy. Throughout the 1990s, in the context of declining ODA, and increasing spending on emergencies, trends towards concentration and oligopolisation amongst private development actors grew apace, fuelling short-termism, projectisation, and intense competition within the aid market. The article discusses a new aid and development regime which is focused on co-ordinated poverty reduction. It suggests that, notwithstanding its progressive elements, the regime will provide added impetus to existing tendencies towards concentration, oligopolisation, mergers and consortia amongst non-state actors, given that it is being implemented within the core principles of the new public management.
Key Words

Non-state actors, povery reduction, new public management

Biographical Note

PAUL STUBBS is a sociologist and an Associate Senior Researcher in the Globalism and Social Policy programme (GASPP) at the University of Sheffield, UK. He is currently based in Zagreb, Croatia where he combines research on international organisations with activism work with civil initiatives and social development consultancy work. His interests include: children’s rights; forced migration and work with refugees and displaced persons; diasporas and computer-mediated communication; civil society and social movements; and welfare governance in post-Yugoslav countries. His recent academic work has focused on the making of social policy in South-Eastern Europe and, in particular, on the relationship between global advice regimes and local memories.


This article discusses the role of international non-state actors in the complex multi-lateralism of social and development policy marked as it is by a high, and sometimes seemingly unfathomable, degree of institutional fragmentation and competition. It focuses on two broad groups of actors, international Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) and international consultancy companies (ICCs), who are key players in the global politics of aid and development but whose activities are rarely scrutinised with analytical precision and, indeed, rarely studied together.

The text is informed by ongoing research and policy advice work by colleagues (Deacon, 2000; de la Porte and Deacon, 2002), as well as the author’s own work in South-Eastern Europe, which utlises an ethnographic perspective (Stubbs, 2002), studying aid relationships, or “how aid happens” (Wedel, 2001: 6) within particular societies at particular times. Here, the intention is to ‘scale up’ the analysis from the micro- to the macro- level, tying specific causes for concern to more general issues raised by a number of commentators in the wider development literature. In the process, I seek to illuminate a series of important policy issues in social development. The policy conclusions at the end of this paper build on existing work and seek to complement other recommendations in striving to work towards “a rules-based and equitable world order” (Deacon, 2002: 11) that ensures the social welfare of all the world’s citizens.


The concepts used in this article are informed by and, in turn, contribute to, a particular theoretical and value position derived from recent attempts to merge social policy analysis with insights from development studies. Thus social policy itself may be defined as “… any policy developed at supranational, state, local or community level which is underpinned by a social vision of society and which, when operationalised, affects the rights or abilities of citizens to meet their livelihood needs” (Overseas Development Administration, 1995: 26). The study of ‘global social policy’, therefore, is concerned with an analysis of “which supranational and global agencies are actors in the emerging processes of influencing national policy and engaging in transnational redistribution, supranational regulation and supranational and global provision.” (Deacon, Hulse and Stubbs, 1997: 22). In essence, this is what is meant in the text by ‘social development policy’, although, often, indices of official development assistance (ODA), as a particular form of transnational transfer, is taken as a proxy for this, albeit a poor one.
Recent work undertaken by social policy and development studies scholars at the University of Bath, UK, is particularly useful in helping to define the terms of the debate here. In a recent article, Ian Gough (2001) has outlined eight elements of what he terms ‘the extended welfare mix’, based on Geof Wood’s earlier notion of the ‘institutional responsibility matrix’ (Wood, 2000). The table below extends welfare regime analysis, with its traditional focus on social policy within one country, which sees welfare as produced and allocated in and through the inter-relationships of the state, the market, community and households, to encompass the role of global, supra-national, transnational or international actors alongside that of domestic actors.
TABLE 1: The Extended Welfare Mix1




1. Domestic governance

5. International org’s, national donors


4. Households

8. International household strategies

The model draws attention to the role of these eight different broad actors in the production of welfare and security, and its converse, insecurity. Secondly, it suggests that social policy must be understood in power terms, not as a technical issue, by embedding these actors in the deep structures of social reproduction through a political economy approach. Thirdly, it focuses on the interactions between global pressures and local forces in producing welfare regimes. Fourthly, I would suggest that it introduces a greater degree of indeterminancy and flexibility in terms of an understanding of why certain policy outcomes develop. Indeed, the mode of analysis which looks at disagreements over policies within as well as between supra-national actors is a particularly important one (Deacon et al, 1997).

For our purposes here, the fifth and sixth categories in the matrix, those of Supra-National Markets (Global Markets and MNCs), and Supra-National Community (INGOs), are of greatest interest. These two components could be aggregated as a kind of Global Intermediate Category between the Global Public (IGOs and donors), and the Global Household or Global Private (international household strategies, including remittances home by diaspora). At the global level they are the correlates of those national actors which are neither fully public (as is the state) nor fully private (as is the household).
Having aggregated the two categories there is the need for a new disaggregation which is more like a continuum, with Multi-National Corporations, for profit, at one end, and International or Global Civil Society, not for profit, at the other end. In between are a growing group of Service Contractors, oriented to providing services in international aid and development markets. This group can be discussed as a whole since they, essentially, compete for many of the same contracts, whether or not they are, technically, not-for profit (INGOs) or for-profit (ICCs). Income derived from providing these services, running programmes and projects and so on, is income whether or not a part of it is distributed as a dividend to owners and shareholders. In a sense, it is these ‘hybrid’ organisations, with a strong market-orientation but also a public purpose, which are the main focus of this study. The notion of Service Contractors derives from David Korten’s (1990) earlier notion of Public Service Contractors who “sell their services to aid donors and government agencies to implement projects and programmes” (Robinson, 1997: 59).
A similar focus is developed by Kees Biekhart in his pioneering study of democratic transitions in Central America where he refers to ‘private aid agencies’, although interestingly, he equates these with INGOs or Northern NGOs precisely on the basis of their value orientation, being, he argues “primarily driven by humanitarian values instead of profits … originating in compassion and altruism” (Biekhart, 1999: 60). This insistence on focussing exclusively on INGOs rather than ICCs allows Biekhart to examine “how (and why) many private aid agencies committed to social change in the 1990s have shifted away from solidarity aid and appear to have surrendered to a market-driven culture in which solidarity has been replaced by the safer route of simple charity provision” (ibid: 18). Nevertheless, by not referring at all to ICCs, the approach poses some problems for an understanding of the range of actors active in the aid and develoment market.
In contrast, Janine Wedel’s highly influential study of Western Aid to Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, notes the role of the ‘Big Six’ Western accountancy firms who “with contracts from USAID, the EU PHARE program, the British Know How Fund, the World Bank, the EBRD, and others, … began to establish offices in Central and Eastern Europe and to launch commercial activities” (Wedel, 2001: 51). The value base of this group differs substantially from those studied by Biekhart, of course, but they are also Service Contractors and, as such, need to be studied as international non-state actors in social development. The fact that Price Waterhouse Coopers, a major accountancy firm, itself formed from the merger of two of the ‘Big Six’ companies, has recently advertised for a social policy co-ordinator in view of its increasing work in this field, should alert us to the increasing importance, massively under-researched, of this group in global social development policy.
At the other end of the continuum, are solidaristic social movements who do not engage in service activities, ‘transnational advocacy networks’ (Keck and Sikkink, 1998) who form a kind of, more or less loose and fluid, ‘transnational public sphere’ (Guidry et al, 2000: 5), promoting “models of human rights, consumer rights, environmental regulation, social and economic development, and human equality and justice” (Meyer et al, 1997: 165). Interestingly from the perspective of the argument presented here, Duffield’s concern that, in the Balkans crisis, solidaristic Western peace and women’s groups, also began to become service contractors, receiving donor funds to stimulate particular local constituencies, shows the complexity of the typology and continuum (Duffield, 1996). Often, in the literature, structural forms are confused with questions of motivations and values, as in the idea of a clear-cut three-fold distinction between ‘instrumentalist goals’, ‘shared causal ideas’, and ‘shared principled ideas or values’ (Keck and Sikkink, 1998: 30). Certainly, seeing Service-oriented INGOs and ICCs as an intermediate category does not preclude them seeking to maximise their income and/or engaging in value-led activities, although the legal status of, say the ‘trading’ and ‘campaigning’ arms of registered NGOs or non-profits can be complex in certain national contexts.
In a sense, the whole focus has to be historically specific, tracing shifts over time in the development of what might best be termed the supranational intermediate sphere. In addition, the typology must be built on a recognition that many important new initiatives in global social governance further erode the ‘public/private’ dichotomy such as notions of ‘corporate social responsibility’ and of ‘public-private partnerships’ (cf. Ollila, 2003). In addition, the definition needs to address the inter-relationships between local and supra-national players. Nevertheless, the rest of this text is based on an expansion of Wood and Gough’s matrix to include a new category, that of the intermediate sphere, between the market and the community sphere, albeit with very permeable borders with both. Whilst the emphasis in this text is on group 8 below, this cannot be undertaken in isolation from interactions with all other parts of the matrix nor, within a broad political economy approach, from changing historical and structural processes and contexts .
TABLE 2: The Extended Welfare Mix: the intermediate sphere




1. Domestic governance

6. International org’s, national donors


2.Domestic Markets

7. Global Markets, MNCs


3. National Service NGOs and Consultancy Companies

8. INGOs and ICCs


4. Local Social Movements

9. Global Social Movements


5. Households

10. International household strategies

A related definitional problem concerns exactly what is meant by ‘international’ when discussing INGOs and ICCs. The literal sense of linking more than one nation could apply to registration, membership, staffing and/or operations. Much of the literature is vague on this point although definitions of INGOs as operating in three or more countries are sometimes taken as the benchmark (Weiss, 1999: 5). In addition, because most of the data derive from OECD member states, the notion of ‘international’ actually becomes a strange and somewhat inadequate synonym for bodies with their origins, membership, and ownership, in ‘Western’, ‘Northern’ or developed countries but who work outside these countries. This practice is continued here despite its problems, to distinguish these non-state actors from emerging non-state actors with their origins in the developing and transitional worlds which may also be ‘international’. Obviously, the relation between these two sets of actors is, itself, complex and changing.

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