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Development NGOs in Ghana: perceptions of the ‘do-gooders’ struggling to reduce economic inequality
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Abstract

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have long held major roles in aiding economic development in regions experiencing high rates of economic inequality and poverty, such as Ghana. NGOs have shifted from detached top-down development approaches to community-centered bottom-up approaches that utilize participatory development (PD) strategies. Despite this shift, economic inequality has persisted in Ghana. To investigate why NGO-led development work and PD projects have not succeeded in significantly reducing inequality, this paper uses perception studies: an underutilized methodology that reveals the benefits and shortcomings of NGO approaches. Consequently, this paper analyzes the perceptions of NGOs’ development work in Ghana across three studies from 2004, 2012, and 2022. This canvasses the limitations and benefits of NGO’s development work and their use of PD strategies. Therefore, this paper argues that this methodology is crucial in addressing the development gap, so should be systematically conducted across regions where development needs are not met.

Introduction

Given that Ghana is home to over 34 million people, with 24.2% living under the poverty line, understanding the economic development issue in the region is critical to reduce future economic inequality (Oxfam International, 2023). Thus, Ghana is a significant case study for research on the role of NGOs in stimulating economic development. Key economic development strategies currently employed by NGOs to improve standards of living are projects that work directly with communities. The development approaches favored by NGOs have drastically evolved, moving away from detached top-down approaches that do not focus on the involvement of individuals or communities in the decision-making, planning, or implementation of projects. Rather, top-down approaches focus on “lobbying and bargaining with the decision-making authorities such as government agencies, [and the] building up of pressures through various campaign mechanisms, advocacy activities…” (Panda, 2007, 1). Contrary to this, NGOs have recently favored bottom-up development approaches which emphasize the role of prioritizing the needs of local communities. These approaches align with participatory development (PD), which seeks to engage local people in development projects and directly counters top-down approaches (Bäckström and Hermansson, 2014, 5).

While Ghana hosts over approximately 6520 NGOs, it continues to suffer from socioeconomic inequality. This begs the question of: What approaches are Ghanaian NGOs using? (Fuseini et al., 2022; Kwao and Amoak, 2022). Moreover, how and why are they failing, and what can be done to improve the development situation? This paper investigates these questions by focusing on perception studies which unveil the benefits and shortcomings of NGO approaches, as well as future research opportunities, including how NGOs can become more effective. Consequently, this paper argues that perception studies can serve as an effective methodology to illuminate the limitations and benefits of NGO-led development work, so should be systematically conducted across regions where development needs are not met.

Background and Literature Review

Ghana is in dire need of development because of the drastic inequality between its North and South regions, its scarcity of resources, and its high rates of unemployment. The economic disparity between northern and southern Ghana stems from the exploitation of the North by the South through the pre-colonial slave trade and, later, the greater infrastructural developments in the South by colonial British leaders (Kwao and Amoak, 2022). Additionally, the North has less fertile ground due to its terrain and the impacts of climate change, such as reductions in average rainfall. This has negatively impacted food crop yields, causing increased internal migration from the North to the South (Kwao and Amoak, 2022). The 2019 edition of the Ghana Living Standards Survey depicted poverty increases in the Northern region (55.7% to 61.1%), despite falling poverty rates in the Upper East Region (72.9% to 54.8%) (Ghana Statistical Services, 2019). To counter this inequality and fulfill development needs, NGOs proliferated in Ghana, centered mostly in the Northern capital, Tamale, which has been dubbed the ‘NGO capital’ of Ghana (Arhin et al., 2018; Amofah et al., 2022; Kumi et al., 2022; Fuseini et al., 2022).

Historically, NGOs have struggled to choose between two approaches: the top-down or the bottom-up approach. The top-down approach to development arguably failed because it ultimately did not achieve sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction, despite its success in reducing mortality rates, increasing vaccination campaigns, and combating disease (Kaiser, 2012). Traditional top-down approaches utilized states or large institutions to deliver development initiatives, but critics argue that these institutions were “too far from the populations… as they were planned and implemented by bureaucrats” (Kaiser, 2020, 92). The failure of the top-down approach allowed for bottom-up approaches to gain traction. Bottom-up approaches to development center participation at the local level, which is also known as participatory development (PD). PD was outlined by the World Bank in 1990, which stated that “participation can, in many circumstances improve the quality, effectiveness and sustainability of projects, and strengthen ownership and commitment of government and stakeholders. Community participation strategies are found to be particularly important in reaching the poor” (Keare, 2001, 162). In practice, bottom-up PD approaches value development programs being accepted by local people and their willingness to participate, which is not a priority of the top-down development approach (Kaiser, 2012).

Over time, it has been widely accepted in Ghana that the bottom-up PD approach is much more effective than top-down approaches. Thus, many NGOs have adopted this practice, including NORSAAC, HopInAcademy, World Vision Ghana, and Star of Hope Ghana (Bäckström and Hermansson, 2014, 15). For example, major development NGO NORSAAC based in northern Ghana lists “participation and a voice for all” as its core value (NORSAAC, 2023). However, inequality and poverty persist, despite NGOs like NORSAAC utilizing PD methods. This discrepancy is understudied and rigorous methodologies to understand why PD is not significantly reducing economic inequality are not abundant in development literature.

Perception studies are the most successful methodology thus far to address this research gap. Perception studies canvass the opinions of a selected group of participants through the collection, processing, and interpretation of data (Shestopal, 2014, 7). In the studies discussed in this paper, the perceptions were collected primarily through interviews or questionnaires, and then processed by transcribing the interviews (Hurley, 2004; Donyong et al., 2012; Kwao and Amoak, 2022). Finally, interpretation occurred through an analysis of trends and patterns in participants’ answers.

Although perception studies seem to be an effective tool for assessing the benefits and shortcomings of NGO-led PD work, they are scarce and understudied in the region of Ghana. The three studies utilized in this paper were conducted in isolation of one other without collaboration between researchers. This paper aims to consolidate such research conclusions in perception studies to shed light on the shortcomings of NGO-led PD work to gain an enhanced understanding of how NGOs like NORSAAC and HopInAcademy can improve their PD strategies. Moreover, this paper will assess the methodological quality of perception studies and assert that they should be applied widely in assessing development work.

Methodology and Data

This paper utilized three separate studies to garner perceptions from 2004 to 2022. The first study, completed in 2004 by researcher Caitlin Hurley, focused on the perceptions of Ghanaians on development, including the successes and failures of NGOs. Hurley’s perception study used interviews in Cape Coast and Accra with Ghanaians from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and professions, although further details were not disclosed in the paper (Hurley, 2004). While the vagueness of Hurley’s methodology is a limitation of her paper, she provides an insightful perception study that highlights the limitations and advantages of NGO-led development work.

 The second study was completed by development researchers KK. Donyong, Samuel Donkoh and Hamidyah Alhawork, and focuses on the perceptions of local people in the Northern region of Ghana on development work and highlights the proliferation of NGOs as a critical issue (Donyong et al., 2012). The study utilized a multi-stage sampling technique on participants from urban, peri-urban, and rural areas in the Northern region. To produce their results, researchers used focus group discussions and questionnaires. Participants rated the effectiveness of the development project both on their qualities and development indicators. For example, indicators for successful or high development included good health, obtaining a high level of formal education, peace, as well as sufficient food, income, and clothing. Respondents were stratified by their age and sex, with 80 people representing each region (Donyong et al., 2012).

The third study was conducted by economist Benjamin Kwao and development geographer Daniel Amoak in 2022 which used semi-structured interviews to garner the perceptions of frontline development NGO workers on the effectiveness of their work in northern Ghana (Kwao and Amoak, 2022). Interviews were conducted with 12 program managers and project coordinators affiliated with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Adventist Development & Relief Agency (ADRA), and ActionAid Ghana (AAG) (Kwao and Amoak, 2022, 155). These NGOs were selected due to their financial sustainability and long-term operations in northern Ghana focused on development (Kwao and Amoak, 2022, 155). This focus on frontline workers is noteworthy since their experiences working in development NGOs may differ to beneficiaries, resulting in trends that differ from previous research. However, frontline workers provide an alternative perspective on development work which ultimately complements insights from beneficiaries.

Findings

Through the three studies, both the benefits and shortcomings of NGO-led development work were depicted. Beginning with the benefits, the studies showed that NGOs have had a substantial positive impact on the lives of some participants: in furthering the economic success of individuals, such as increasing access to education, industry, or providing infrastructure, they have aided development. This was revealed through direct interviews. In Hurley’s interviews, participants stated that the influence of NGOs is “quite strong” and have largely had an “enormous impact on Ghanaians”. Yet when questioned further, they were unable to determine what the impact entailed, or even provide a concrete outline (Hurley, 2004, 26). The 2012 study also highlighted that Ghanaians rated development projects – those led by NGOs and by the government – highly for their affordability, non-excludability, and environmental friendliness. Moreover, Kwao and Amoak’s (2022) interviews furthered this point as NGO workers confirmed that they have access to significant resources that can contribute to development. According to the participants, such resources have been successfully utilized in providing agricultural knowledge to farmers, developing their ability to work the land (Kwao and Amoak, 2022, 158).

Alongside these benefits, the limitations of development NGOs in Ghana were also evident through the interviews conducted by each study. Both Hurley (2004) and Donyong’s (2012) participants voiced criticism towards NGOs exacerbating Ghanaian reliance on the West. Specifically, Hurley’s interviewees focused on the fact that projects were often funded by Western donors, so they increased Ghanaian dependence on “outside support” (Hurley, 2004, 26). Moreover, Hurley’s participants held strong views that “instead of contributing to development… [NGOs] are hindering it by not allowing Ghanaians to take control of their future” (Hurley, 2004, 26). Similar perceptions were noted by Donyong’s participants, with just 2% stating that “only NGOs” should be providing development projects (Donyong et al., 2012, 176). The greatest percentage (38%) believed that the government alone should initiate development work (Donyong et al., 2012, 177).

Further limitations were evident in Kwao and Amoak’s (2022) study of NGO frontline workers’ perceptions of development. The first major limitation identified was the non-regulation of NGOs and the lack of adequate organization in the aid industry. NGO workers argued that “the three northern regions… have the biggest number of NGO operations… and there should be priority areas so that their work is more regulated and in sync with what the government is doing” (Kwao and Amoak, 2022, 156). The second major limitation consisted of project duplication and the misuse of resources. Participants perceived this as a major hindrance to effective development work since NGOs have “resources” yet allow for “a lot of wastage,” leading to confusion and frustration from their beneficiaries (Kwao and Amoak, 2022, 157-8). Additionally, NGO workers suggested that many NGOs worked with the same people, meaning resources were not adequately shared between a larger population.

The latter two studies highlighted the importance of ensuring that PD strategies are utilized. In Donyong’s study, 64% of participants indicated “involvement” in projects, although of this percentage, 61% were males and 39% were females. Moreover, involvement decreased as responsibility increased: 40% were involved in “planning” development projects, 56% in “implementation,” and only 4% in “handing over” (Donyong et al., 2012, 176). Involvement was highest for those from urban areas (60%), and lowest for those from rural regions (49%). The underutilization of ensuring active participation of beneficiaries was also noted in Kwao and Amoak’s study. NGO workers voiced that effective collaboration and participation from all stakeholders will be required in the decision-making and implementation process of NGO-led development projects to create robust projects that can significantly alleviate economic inequality (Kwao and Amoak, 2022, 158).

Discussion

The findings across all three studies illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of NGO-led development work and highlight the importance of canvassing opinions of both NGO workers and beneficiaries. Their perspectives shed light on future avenues for research and directly indicate how NGOs can improve their development strategies. This could be achieved through increasing participation at all levels of their projects; coordinating more efficiently between NGOs to reduce resource wastage through project duplication; and ensuring that beneficiaries actively perceive themselves as independent, rather than feeling reliant on Western funding. As such NGOs based in northern Ghana such as NORSAAC and HopInAcademy should ensure greater communication occurs across NGOs and initiatives that share goals. Moreover, NORSAAC and other NGOs need to coordinate to ensure they do not all serve the same communities.

There are, of course, implications to perception studies. Perception study analysis of NGOs in Ghana showed that there are elements of PD that need to be studied, but this cannot be fully captured using the limited perception studies available. Thus, there is a need for a greater number of perception studies to be conducted with more detailed and robust methodologies, for example through a greater number of participants. Perception studies contribute to PD because accessing the opinions of the beneficiaries of NGO projects can actively involve them in shaping how future projects are conducted, especially in regions like northern Ghana where NGOs have proliferated. Consequently, perception studies involve people in the reform and improvement of PD strategies which already favor active involvement through bottom-up development work.

The perception studies do indicate that the mere use of PD is insufficient to guarantee the successful work of NGOs. The shortcomings suggest that there is a broader issue of anti-West sentiment, which forms an important policy area to tackle. Moreover, they indicate that NGOs struggle to adequately coordinate development strategies, leading to duplicate projects and only a narrow portion of the larger population being supported. Future research should investigate how this issue could be countered through an effective system or framework that ensures broad community outreach.

Conversely, the perception studies also revealed that development work led by NGOs can have a significant positive impact on individuals. NGOs have incorporated participation into all levels of work, albeit less in the implementation and handing over of projects. Thus, future research on this topic should establish strategies to incorporate stakeholders into all levels of project completion, including balanced gender participation.

While perception studies are incredibly useful in directly accessing the opinions of individuals or communities, it is important to acknowledge their limitations. Depending on how the perceptions are being obtained, participants may be less likely to answer truthfully or openly if being asked by a foreigner, a person of high-power status, or someone with unfair bias who uses leading questions. Thus, perception studies conducted through interviews can be improved by ensuring participants are interviewed by a researcher who will not produce bias, or greatly influence participants in their answers. For example, a western researcher like Hurley may have induced biased answers from Ghanaians, as participants may have felt more comfortable critiquing western NGOs to a Ghanaian or non-western researcher. Moreover, researchers must ensure questions should not be leading or biased towards certain answers to ensure reliable results.

While perception studies are insightful, future research can locate strategies to further improve them. The increased use of perception studies will help researchers form more reliable conclusions as they can draw on each other’s findings. The shortcomings and benefits of Ghanaian NGOs discussed suggest that they are somewhat effective in reducing economic inequality. However, it is crucial that more policy research is completed to explore any potential root causes of current shortcomings and methods to improve them. This will ensure that NGOs will better respond to the wishes of the communities that they are embedded within.

Conclusion

The case study of development NGOs in Ghana discussed illuminates the extent to which development work must be refined to successfully counter economic inequality. This paper provides an important consolidation of an understudied methodology and answers a key puzzle in development work: despite the proliferation of NGOs and the transition to PD, why have some NGOs experienced limited success? By analyzing three studies conducted in isolation of one other, this paper provided a new and nuanced analysis of the importance of both participatory development and perception studies, alongside the limitations and strengths of Ghanaian development projects led by NGOs. This paper’s findings should be translated into policy tools which will require further research because previous studies have already identified the difficulties of implementing a high degree of participation into the development framework (Bäckström and Hermansson, 2014, 13). As such, further research will need to incorporate Ghanaian perspectives at all levels, from research planning to forming analyses. Clear already, however, is that NGOs must also increase collaboration between organizations with similar goals, to ensure a wider group of people are supported through initiatives, and to ensure precious funds are not wasted. This could occur through joint projects, regular communication, and the sharing of project plans. Ultimately, this paper has demonstrated that NGOs engaging in participatory development practices need to increasingly utilize perception studies to grasp why they have historically struggled to counter economic inequality in countries like Ghana.

Fenja Tramsen is currently a Princeton in Africa fellow at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, where she works on agricultural development in East Africa. Tramsen graduated from Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania in 2023 with a double major in History and Political Science. Tramsen's work has previously been published in Georgetown University's Cura Terra Journal of the Environment.

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