Non-governmental organization (NGO) movements to alleviate poverty, protect the environment, or advocate for human rights are widespread throughout the developing world, and, as of 2002, are estimated to account for over 30% of international development aid. While many of the smaller NGOs in this group are seen as providing positive, uplifting services to local communities, larger multi-national examples of social organizations are prone to the same types of endemic corruption as other corporate entities. As well, NGOs often promote ideologies such as equal rights for women that are in direct conflict with a local government's political aims.
Another specific limitation of many NGOs that gives them both a unique strength and weakness is their focus on one key aspect of an overarching problem within a society. For example, working to provide access to clean water for the poor while not being able to tackle regulation issues like industrial pollution that led to the contamination in the first place can lead to self-defeating efforts at long-term change. This leads to the conclusion in development aid circles that the success of NGOs over the last 50 years has had mixed results, often due to poor oversight and management of their stated goals.
By neglecting to examine the effects of humanitarian actions in a larger context, some NGOs have acquired a negative image in the eyes of governments in the nations in which they work. A prominent example of this is a food crisis that occurred in Niger in 2005. Niger's president, Mamadou Tandja, accused international food agencies of exaggerating his country's problems and painting them in a simplistic way that was not reflective of true conditions and needs. The international media portrayed Niger's crisis as a sudden, acute one to drum up support and funding for NGO services, when, in fact, Niger's population was experiencing chronic malnutrition that had resulted from years of scarcity and rising prices. Such mismatches in aid and the true needs that they attempt to fill often result in excessive short-term giving and little attention paid to the chronic conditions that created the crisis in the first place.
The image of not-for-profit aid agencies in the developing world is often one of the agencies overstating their effectiveness and underestimating the harm that they can do by causing disruptions in natural coping mechanisms within societies. Food aid to Zambia in 2002 to avert a perceived oncoming famine predicted by the United Nations was banned from the donor nation of the United States due to the fact that the donated corn came from genetically modified maize crops. US donor NGOs at the time thought that such a Zambian policy was absurd and would lead to the death of millions, but Zambia did not experience famine conditions in part because of non-genetically modified food aid that came from Europe.
Where NGOs are effective at alleviating a crisis or where they work in concert with government policies, their presence is often welcomed, but lasting effects can be minimal. More effort on dealing with the root causes of problems is seen as necessary. Independent organizations have been providing aid to the Sahel region of the southern Sahara desert in Africa covering the territory of six nations since 1972 for instance, yet the same famines and emergencies have continued to occur there into 2011.
Among the key advantages that NGOs offer are the fact that they engender more trust in local populations if they are small and intimately involved in day-to-day affairs than the intervention of foreign governments and multi-national corporations does. They also can have more of a grass roots focus that builds sustainability from the ground up if they are managed and administered properly. Key to their effectiveness is the ability to represent civil society organizations that can operate without larger racial or ethnic agendas. NGOs that have grand visions of change often set a meddling tone at the local level by promoting their religious and political agendas, but distinguishing which organizations are welcomed and which are frowned upon must be done on a unique case-by-case basis.