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NGOs and the Legitimacy of International Development

70 Pages Posted: 14 Aug 2012 Last revised: 6 Nov 2012

Sophie E. Smyth

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law

Date Written: 2012


The influence of NGOs in international development policy and practice has grown exponentially since the end of the Cold War. These NGOs’ agendas now compete with donor states’ in setting the priorities for international development assistance. Indeed, many NGOs now claim that the legitimacy of international development institutions depends on their inclusion in institutional governance. Several prominent policymakers have expressed a similar view. This article challenges that position.

I maintain that legitimacy is the wrong basis on which to stake out a claim for greater NGO involvement in international development institutions. I show that the legitimacy of an international development institution, like the legitimacy of a government bureaucracy, derives from the legitimacy of the states that created it and depends on its due and efficacious discharge of the mandate such states confer on it. Therefore, if the member states of a development institution mandate that NGOs be included in governance, NGO inclusion is critical to that institution’s legitimacy. Absent such a mandate, however, an international development institution’s legitimacy depends on its carrying out the pre-determined tasks and goals of the states that create it. As international bureaucracies, development institutions’ legitimacy equates with efficacy. NGO participation independent of, and unrelated to efficacy, has no bearing on an international development institution’s legitimacy.

Whether NGO participation in governances contributes to a development institution’s efficacy is a matter for empirical research. General principles suggest that NGO participation contributes to a development institution’s credibility both within developing and developed countries. Lessons gleaned from the recent experience of development institutions further support that view. If efficacy depends on credibility and credibility depends on NGO involvement, several conclusions follow; the design of new development institutions should include a space for NGOs, existing institutions that exclude NGOs should change. Paradoxically, NGO participation as a contributor to increased institutional credibility could also contribute to an institution’s legitimacy. How and why we get to that result, however, matters.

Keywords: Legitimacy, Bureaucracy, NGOs, Civil Society, International Governance, International Development, World Bank, Efficacy, Global Health, Global Environment, Institutional Credibility, Global Justice

JEL Classification: K23, K00, K33, K32, K30

Suggested Citation

Smyth, Sophie E., NGOs and the Legitimacy of International Development (2012). Kansas Law Review, Vol. 61, No. 2, 2013; Temple University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2012-43. Available at SSRN:

Sophie E. Smyth (Contact Author)

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law ( email )

1719 N. Broad St.
Philadelphia, PA 19122
United States
215 204 5008 (Phone)
215 204 1185 (Fax)

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