Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been engaged in multi-dimensional development initiatives. Their engagement in development areas like education, health, poverty reduction, environment, etc., have proved quite rewarding in many poor and developing countries. With time, there has been a paradigm shift in development strategy but still NGOs can put substantial contribution to a country in achieving its targets of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), as set by the United Nations.
Under the changed circumstances there is every chance of a misconception about the future role of NGOs in developing countries, particularly when a country like Bangladesh is poised to achieve the status of a middle-income country. Development professionals and donors have already started to think that the NGOs' traditional role is coming to an end in Bangladesh, or other countries of the world which are gaining faster economic growth in a significant number of development sectors.
Accordingly, the development patterns in many NGOs of Bangladesh have recently been changed, or are about to change with an eye on the operational advantage in the near future. NGOs have credibly operated in the country, but more can be expected of them in the future, especially in the era of SDGs when achieving targets will be more challenging, more dynamic and more ambitious than the past. NGOs' activities should now be more strategic and pragmatic with their campaign concerning some new areas of development thought to be key drivers in achieving SDGs. The focus should be shifted in favour of some common indicators such as inter-governmental negotiations, partnerships, pollution prevention, protecting human rights or, any other country-specific demands.
Towards achieving the sustainable development goals, the transformation of NGO role can be conceptualised in the following manner:
1. Expecting the future development indicators with NGOs' participation, the focus should be on their power and capacity in forming some new partnerships and collaboration, specifically on intra-government and inter-governmental or public-private collaboration. While the state organisations and NGOs can move forward together, the latter can begin to concentrate on building individual institutional resources, capacity and influence.
2. Foreign aid can be negotiated by innovating such areas for future development where the country does not reach up to the international standards. Apart from this, working for particular SDG-related indicators certainly helps in case of new funding or investment in the country. At the same time, government priorities for development may be considered in the fund-seeking process since the administration has a great influence over societal changes. For example, the digitalisation process of Bangladesh government may create different working opportunities in the field of information and communications technology. NGOs may focus on those issues together with other environmental and social externalities. Business activities of NGOs may be integrated into those attempts. Lessons learned from the SDGs should guide NGOs to think in that direction - achieving the present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
3. The multinational brands have now been extremely vulnerable to pressure from donors and activists eager to challenge a company's labour rights, environmental or human rights, social security, gender sensitivity, etc. So, NGO businesses should aim at becoming specialised in world standard 'brand services'. Not only this, NGOs' goods must overcome external pressure with the help of NGOs' capacity in developing their own tools and techniques and negotiate an irritated attitude of customers and stakeholders. In additional responses, development professionals should care about a value in favour of a broader stakeholder approach, which not only ensures an increased share value, but thinks about how this value can be sustained.
4. NGOs have better infrastructures and strategic paths to reach the grassroots for empowering the poor towards achieving sustainable development. A modification of development paths, though, is presently a new challenge in the area of many social and environmental affairs. So, the new role of NGOs should be an integrated approach, taking responsibility of many externalities and reporting on the outcome of NGO activities on a range of stakeholder groups.
The transformation of diverse NGOs is now geared to attaining long-term financial objectives rather than holding up their non-profit status only. Long-term financial goals may prompt them to work with issues which take place over longer time periods such as climate change, pollution prevention, non-communicable disease prevention or some SDGs where the progress is slow or just at a preliminary stage. The new and long-term strategic actions might be undertaken in some major areas like ensuring sustainable cities, sustainable consumption, industrial innovation, water harvesting, clean energy, decent work place, inequalities, quality of life, peaceful life requirements or many other cross-cutting issues relating to those major areas.
The writer is senior research associate and sustainability professional at BRAC Research and Evaluation Division