Abstract Across the globe, governments continue to seek ways to enhance the provision of public services. Shifts toward decentralization to empower local governments have also been met by an increased engagement of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in service delivery. As a result, there are more venues for interaction between these two sets of actors at the local level. Existing literature is nascent when it comes to examining the relationships between NGOs and local government in the developing world. In this article, we identify and discuss five features that can condition these relationships: origin of the relationships, boundaries of the relationships, policy authority, structural arrangements, and the local context. These five features are interconnected and should help researchers structure subsequent scholarly studies of NGO-local government interactions as well as guide practitioners working in development. INTRODUCTION Nations around the globe are experimenting with an array of structures, institutions, and rules intended to reform public sector governance. Regardless of the impetus, one of the persistent themes in these reform efforts is the decentralization of governmental responsibilities which is said to improve service provision, enhance accountability, and promote citizen participation (Hooghe and Marks 2009). Concomitant with the growing emphasis on decentralization is the increased presence of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in nations—large and small (Banks, Hulme, and Edwards 2015). As a result of these twin trends, the administration of public programs that was previously the purview of government is now carried out through a complex network of public and private actors (Emerson and Nabatchi 2015; Emerson, Nabatchi, and Balogh 2012). Working through these networks is the reality of contemporary governance (Kettl 2006), where government is not the only player or the sole provider of public services. As private and nonprofit organizations have entered the arena and become heavily involved in delivering services and in some instances, shaping public policies, the boundaries that once separated the sectors have become fuzzy (Kettl 2006). This collaborative governance, as modeled by Emerson, Nabatchi, and Balogh (2012), is characterized by multiple layers of complex networks of interactions or arrangements among government agencies, nonprofits, and private actors within and across various spheres. Scholars continue to study these interactions within and across public, private, and civic spheres; however, the bulk of the scholarship on developing countries has focused primarily on central governments; local governments have been studied far less. In general, in terms of expectations and results, collaborative governance is influenced by the degree of connectedness within and across existing spheres, as the actors within these spheres strive to enhance their roles, secure resources, develop capacity, and limit risks (Emerson, Nabatchi, and Balogh 2012). These actions raise questions of coordination and implementation. Consequently, public policy decision making and management that depends on the involvement of these multiple actors will be impacted by the formation, evolvement, and saturation of networks of interactions in different or across spheres (Emerson and Nabatchi 2015). We focus our attention at the very local level where we take a look at interactions between local or indigenous NGOs and local governments in developing countries. This article intends to fill a gap created by a dearth of theory and data on relationships between local governments and NGOs in developing countries, thereby setting the stage for future research. The main contribution is to identify a set of features that, individually and collectively, condition NGO-local government relationships in developing countries. These features may exacerbate the tension and confusion between the two sides, or ameliorate it. The set of features is developed by examining how overarching themes in the existing literature can be applied to NGOs’ relations with local governments in developing countries. A series of basic propositions is derived from the features and then explored in the case of Lebanon, drawing on interviews with representatives of NGOs and local governments (municipalities). Lebanon is a valuable study, being a developing country where decentralization is being considered as a policy option to address many of the country’s economic, political, and administrative problems and where NGOs play an active role in the public sphere. This case is useful but not unique as these conditions are shared with other developing countries. We conclude the article with general observations and suggestions for future research. DECENTRALIZATION AND NGOS-GOVERNMENT RELATIONSHIPS Over the last few decades, two significant trends have been observed globally: (1) local governments have become increasingly important in developing countries and (2) NGOs have experienced substantial upsurge and growth in role and number worldwide (Banks, Hulme, and Edwards 2015). The first of these trends is decentralizing government which in its most comprehensive form has three core dimensions: administrative, fiscal, and political (Rondinelli 2006; Schneider 2003). Many scholars studying the distribution of authority in various countries have concluded that, unless compelling reasons for centralization exist, “local decisions are best made by locals” (Hooghe and Marks 2009, 232). Two different drivers are at work. The first driver has to do with local government, in theory, being more efficient than a central government in the provision of pure public goods since local governments have an informational advantage over a distant central government regarding local preferences and needs (Oates 1972). Consequently, the promise of decentralization is an improvement in the public sector’s ability to match the delivery of goods and services with the demands of the local populace (Hooghe and Marks 2009). For example, in Bolivia, several types of subnational jurisdictions have been created and empowered in an effort to achieve efficiency and responsiveness (Faguet 2014a). The second driver tends to be more explicitly political in nature: recognizing diversity, empowering local communities, and easing tension and conflict (AbouAssi and Bowman 2017). Local government empowerment was also advocated as part of rebuilding Iraq’s governance system (Brinkerhoff and Johnson 2009); however, in a small country like Lebanon, the decentralization trend was limited due to concerns of threats to national unity and integration (Haase and Antoun 2015). In certain places, some of the claims made for decentralization have been realized. For instance, decentralization reforms in Pakistani villages produced real—albeit uneven—improvement in the provision of four public services (Aslam and Yimaz 2011). That is why many scholars caution against assuming uniformly positive outcomes for decentralization (Awortwi and Helmsing 2014; Kakumba 2010; Sezen 2011). For example, in Saudi Arabia, where local governments function primarily as implementers and local elections are largely ceremonial, decentralization has fallen far short of its promise (Alkadry 2015). In South Africa, inadequate administrative structures and easily subverted accountability systems have stalled decentralization efforts there (Koelble and Siddle 2013). NGOs, the second trend, are often extolled for their understanding of community needs, their staff expertise, and their efficiency in delivering public goods and services (Brinkerhoff and Brinkerhoff 2002; Feiock and Jang 2009; Kettl 2006). In addition, NGOs are often the preferred channel for the flow of foreign aid to developing countries (Banks, Hulme, and Edwards 2015; Mitlin, Hickey, and Bebbington 2007). As such, the expectations for NGOs have risen. They serve citizens, build local ownership, strengthen civic engagement, and work for the public interest/good. They operate in the public domain, and at the local level, they can complement and supplement the work of local governments. The multifaceted role NGOs play positions them at the center of cross-sectoral connections. Government agencies and nonprofit organizations’ interactions take various forms. However, scholars studying government-NGO interactions have concentrated their efforts at the central government level (e.g., Brinkerhoff 2002a; Gidron, Kramer, and Salamon 1992; Najam 2000; Ramanath and Ebrahim 2010; Young 2000). Less attention has been given to relations between local governments, which often are perceived to lack resources but perform vital functions, and the growing number of NGOs that operate in their midst. Where local government-nonprofit relations have been studied, the setting has been developed countries (e.g., De Corte and Verschuere 2014; Feiock and Jang 2009; Gazley and Brudney 2007; Gazley 2010a; Kuhnle and Per Selle 1990). As a result, interactions between NGOs and local governments in developing countries are still not fully understood. Under the right conditions, NGOs and governments develop symbiotic relationships that amplify the impact of one on the other. NGOs can enhance the capacities of local governments as these capacities may be limited due to size or other constraints (Krishna 2003). At the same time, local governments benefit NGOs by providing with space, opportunities, and resources to operate at the local level. In principle, these modes of interactions are shaped by the drivers of decentralization discussed above. Decentralization aimed at efficient delivery of services holds the promise of more fruitful interactions between the two sectors than does decentralization driven by political ideology (Faguet 2014b). The following discussion on the distinguishing features of NGO-local government relationships in developing countries is informed by literature on NGO-central government relations and NGO-local government in industrialized countries. We do not attempt to conduct a meta-analysis of the literature but rather a brief examination of the utility of themes from this literature for the study of NGO-local government interactions in developing countries. DISTINGUISHING FEATURES OF NGO-LOCAL GOVERNMENT RELATIONSHIPS IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES We identify five broad features that help provide a more comprehensive picture of the nature of NGOs’ interactions with local government in developing countries. These features, individually and collectively, condition these interactions. (The features and their potential significance are summarized in table 1). A set of basic propositions about the nature of NGO-local government relationships is derived from the features. Table 1. Critical Features of NGO-LG Relationships in Developing Countries and Potential Significance Features Potential Significance Origin of the relationship Origins affect the distribution of authority and power in a relationship. a. Who initiates? Local government or NGO a. Initiator has first-mover advantage. b. What is the direction? Top-down or bottom-up b. The directional flow of resources and power is not uniform. Boundaries of the relationships Boundaries are blurred. a. What is public/private? a. The roles and responsibilities of various sectoral actors are not fixed, producing ambiguity, uncertainty, and instability. b. What is central/local? b. Decentralization may be more limited in practice than in theory, as a result innovation is blunted. Policy authority The monopoly of policymaking a. Domination by the central government constrains local government-NGO relations a. The inability to make policy weakens local government vis-à-vis NGOs, but it also leads to more harmonious interactions between them. Structural arrangement Local government-NGO relationships are fluid but less complex. a. Fewer and less varying relationships at local level a. There may be more opportunity for positive lock-in at the local level. b. Relationships consume scarce resources b. There is less slack, therefore less opportunity for trial and error. c. Relationships evolve and transform c. Progress may occur in fits and starts. Context Context can lead to sui generis relationships a. Pre-existing funding schemes a. NGOs have an agenda determined in part by financing; local governments typically have limited fiscal authority. b. Relational deficits and legitimacy b. Past practices influence the present; path dependency and over/ underinvestment in programs can occur. c. Local and professional knowledge c. Local and professional knowledge has direct implications for value sharing, trust building, and relations Features Potential Significance Origin of the relationship Origins affect the distribution of authority and power in a relationship. a. Who initiates? Local government or NGO a. Initiator has first-mover advantage. b. What is the direction? Top-down or bottom-up b. The directional flow of resources and power is not uniform. Boundaries of the relationships Boundaries are blurred. a. What is public/private? a. The roles and responsibilities of various sectoral actors are not fixed, producing ambiguity, uncertainty, and instability. b. What is central/local? b. Decentralization may be more limited in practice than in theory, as a result innovation is blunted. Policy authority The monopoly of policymaking a. Domination by the central government constrains local government-NGO relations a. The inability to make policy weakens local government vis-à-vis NGOs, but it also leads to more harmonious interactions between them. Structural arrangement Local government-NGO relationships are fluid but less complex. a. Fewer and less varying relationships at local level a. There may be more opportunity for positive lock-in at the local level. b. Relationships consume scarce resources b. There is less slack, therefore less opportunity for trial and error. c. Relationships evolve and transform c. Progress may occur in fits and starts. Context Context can lead to sui generis relationships a. Pre-existing funding schemes a. NGOs have an agenda determined in part by financing; local governments typically have limited fiscal authority. b. Relational deficits and legitimacy b. Past practices influence the present; path dependency and over/ underinvestment in programs can occur. c. Local and professional knowledge c. Local and professional knowledge has direct implications for value sharing, trust building, and relations View Large Table 1. Critical Features of NGO-LG Relationships in Developing Countries and Potential Significance Features Potential Significance Origin of the relationship Origins affect the distribution of authority and power in a relationship. a. Who initiates? Local government or NGO a. Initiator has first-mover advantage. b. What is the direction? Top-down or bottom-up b. The directional flow of resources and power is not uniform. Boundaries of the relationships Boundaries are blurred. a. What is public/private? a. The roles and responsibilities of various sectoral actors are not fixed, producing ambiguity, uncertainty, and instability. b. What is central/local? b. Decentralization may be more limited in practice than in theory, as a result innovation is blunted. Policy authority The monopoly of policymaking a. Domination by the central government constrains local government-NGO relations a. The inability to make policy weakens local government vis-à-vis NGOs, but it also leads to more harmonious interactions between them. Structural arrangement Local government-NGO relationships are fluid but less complex. a. Fewer and less varying relationships at local level a. There may be more opportunity for positive lock-in at the local level. b. Relationships consume scarce resources b. There is less slack, therefore less opportunity for trial and error. c. Relationships evolve and transform c. Progress may occur in fits and starts. Context Context can lead to sui generis relationships a. Pre-existing funding schemes a. NGOs have an agenda determined in part by financing; local governments typically have limited fiscal authority. b. Relational deficits and legitimacy b. Past practices influence the present; path dependency and over/ underinvestment in programs can occur. c. Local and professional knowledge c. Local and professional knowledge has direct implications for value sharing, trust building, and relations Features Potential Significance Origin of the relationship Origins affect the distribution of authority and power in a relationship. a. Who initiates? Local government or NGO a. Initiator has first-mover advantage. b. What is the direction? Top-down or bottom-up b. The directional flow of resources and power is not uniform. Boundaries of the relationships Boundaries are blurred. a. What is public/private? a. The roles and responsibilities of various sectoral actors are not fixed, producing ambiguity, uncertainty, and instability. b. What is central/local? b. Decentralization may be more limited in practice than in theory, as a result innovation is blunted. Policy authority The monopoly of policymaking a. Domination by the central government constrains local government-NGO relations a. The inability to make policy weakens local government vis-à-vis NGOs, but it also leads to more harmonious interactions between them. Structural arrangement Local government-NGO relationships are fluid but less complex. a. Fewer and less varying relationships at local level a. There may be more opportunity for positive lock-in at the local level. b. Relationships consume scarce resources b. There is less slack, therefore less opportunity for trial and error. c. Relationships evolve and transform c. Progress may occur in fits and starts. Context Context can lead to sui generis relationships a. Pre-existing funding schemes a. NGOs have an agenda determined in part by financing; local governments typically have limited fiscal authority. b. Relational deficits and legitimacy b. Past practices influence the present; path dependency and over/ underinvestment in programs can occur. c. Local and professional knowledge c. Local and professional knowledge has direct implications for value sharing, trust building, and relations View Large Feature 1. The Origin of the Relationship Generally, when governments initiate relations with NGOs, the interaction patterns tend to be top-down and focus on the role of NGOs as service providers or contractors (Girth et al. 2012; Van Slyke 2007). As possessors of legal authority within a territory, governments have a distinct advantage here, placing NGOs at risk of displacing their goals and possibly losing legitimacy (Coston 1998; Gidron, Kramer, and Salamon 1992). A more balanced approach occurs when the interaction is “initiated from below, voluntary, organized, direct, continuous, broad in scope and empowering” (Brinkerhoff 2002a, 22). NGOs may initiate the interaction and serve as the dominant service and financing provider, especially in the case of significant opposition to government involvement for ideological or other reasons. In some instances, NGOs may commence negotiations and discussions pertaining to specific nuances of the relationship (e.g., performance measures, incentives, etc.). Their feedback and preferences may be incorporated fully or partially but negotiations with the government are required to achieve high levels of efficiency (Amirkhanyan 2009; Feiock and Jang 2009). As initiators, NGOs can shape the direction taken, but government’s legal authority—that is, “the institutional, legal, and political provisions for governance” (Rainey and Jung 2014, 79)—and resources are paramount considerations. That is especially likely in developing countries where a top-down approach is common particularly in places in which decentralization has yet to take firm hold. Deconcentration, a limited form of decentralization in which the central government continues to call the shots, simply regionalizes central government authority. As a result, local governments’ often have limited authorities, restricted financial capacities, and constrained resources that do not allow them to contract out services to NGOs as might be the case in developed countries (Feiock and Jang 2009). Therefore, in the developing country context, it is not either NGOs or local government initiating or driving the relationship; it can also be the central government. It is also not uncommon for donors to be the impetus behind an NGO’s effort to engage local governments. Although the initiator typically has a first-mover advantage, working across sectors requires building and sustaining relations based on trust and greater clarification of roles and responsibilities which typically take time and require understanding (Emerson, Nabatchi, and Balogh 2012; Gazley 2010a, b). To a certain extent, there is a process of evolving responsibilities from one level to another, or from one sector to another; in contrast to situations of “cooperative contracts,” where organizations across sectors tend to work jointly on overcoming societal problems, using common rhetoric, and sustaining relationships (Amirkhanyan 2009; Gidron, Kramer, and Salamon 1992). Therefore, different origins may produce different configurations of interaction in the developing country setting; in other words, the types of initiator, be it NGO, local government, central government, or donor, affect the nature of the relationship. A top-down approach in which the central government or a donor mandates the interactions puts NGOs and local governments at a disadvantage; this is likely most common in developing countries (AbouAssi 2013; Banks, Hulme, and Edwards 2015). Proposition 1: A top-down initiation is likely to result in discordant relations between NGOs and local governments. Feature 2. Boundaries Due to mounting public demands for increasingly complicated and diversified services, “the dominant, controlling state [gave] way to the facilitator, partner state” (Brinkerhoff and Brinkerhoff 2002, 5). Governments partner with both the private and nonprofit sectors, and boundaries differentiating the three sectors have become blurred, making responsibility difficult to determine (Kettl 2006). These imperatives shaped the role of other actors in development and service delivery and significantly enhanced cross-sectoral interactions (Brinkerhoff and Brinkerhoff 2002). Effective NGO-government relationships are often said to require the sharing of mutual goals (Brinkerhoff 2002b; De Corte and Verschuere 2014; Najam 2000; Ramanath and Ebrahim 2010; Shaw 2003). For example, in Philadelphia, local government and NGOs work together to deliver language access services to immigrants; nonprofits provide public support and community outreach while the local government prepares the political climate and municipal directives needed for successful implementation (Wilson 2013). These relationships maximize benefits for each party, particularly when various sectors converge around a call for cooperation and complementarity as a means of ensuring economic efficiency and maximizing results for society (Amirkhanyan 2009; Feiock and Jang 2009; Najam 2000). However, these relations are “subject to limits posed by the expediency of meeting objectives” (Brinkerhoff 2002a, 22). The success of these relationships is contingent on similarities in the ends determined by government and NGOs, the means they use to meet these ends, as well as the intensity of these similar ends and the level of investment and commitment from both sides in achieving them (Gazley 2010b; Najam 2000). More important, these relations are challenged by fundamental boundary issues. What is public, what is private? What is central, what is local? NGO-government relations both address and further complicate what is already a disputed territory of public versus private (Kettl 2006). This is important because the NGO sector includes a wide range of entities, some of which serve a public good while others serve private interests. Especially in developing countries, the recent emphasis on decentralization has muddied what had been a fairly bright line in the past: the set of responsibilities in the purview of the central government and those few belonging to local jurisdictions. Now however, as central governments deconcentrate and delegate, the distinction is less clear-cut (Haase and Antoun 2015). Local governments have been given new functions; the boundary designating where the central government’s responsibility ends and that of local government begins has become more difficult to discern. Even when the central government allows other actors to deliver public services, it retains a strong influence through regulations and control (Anheier and Kendall 2012; Suda 2006). The situation can create ambiguity and confusion in terms of roles and expectations, which, in turn, affect the productive interactions between NGOs and local authorities, leading to uncertainty and some tension. Proposition 2: Blurred boundaries between central and local governments create ambiguity in governmental roles and responsibilities which likely thwarts the development of productive NGO-local government relationships. Feature 3. Policy Authority The nature of government-NGO relationships can be explained through a complex lens of strategic institutional interests of both government and NGOs (Najam 2000; Ramanath and Ebrahim 2010). Relational patterns involving governments and NGOs may be multidimensional rather than a simple one-dimensional form of interaction (Emerson and Nabatchi 2015). More significant is how much the initiation and evolution of collaborative relations within one sphere can be affected by the degree of connectedness within and across the other spheres (Emerson, Nabatchi, and Balogh 2012). In other words, the relations with one sphere are shaped and can shape the degree and practice of authority within that sphere but can also influence the relations and the application of authorities between actors across and within other spheres. One consideration is the power dynamics, that is, whether NGOs and government possess similar abilities to get the others do something they would not otherwise do through socially structured behaviors (Dahl 1957; Lister 2000; Lukes 1974). If asymmetrical, the likelihood of collaborative relationships is lessened (Coston 1998; Najam 2000). Some NGOs are interested in and keep a keen watch on government’s policy formulation and adoption (Najam 2000). In a developing country, advocating for policy change usually takes place at the central level, where NGO leaders are integrated into government, participate in the decision-making processes, or lobby the government on certain issues as Brass’s (2012b) study on Kenya reveals. Given the circumscribed policy authority possessed by local governments in most developing countries, the relationship with NGOs could be potentially different. As noted above, decentralization can take many different forms as central governments relinquish some authority and assign certain functions to local governments. Adding NGOs to the mix can affect existing power dynamics as many public services once considered to be strictly government responsibilities are opened to involvement from the nonprofit sector. Although decentralization could eventually open additional venues for engagement, the reality is that local jurisdictions in most developing counties lack policy authority. As a result, their interactions with NGOs tend to be much more focused on service delivery rather than policymaking. Hence, the prospects for constructive relations between NGOs and local government are potentially greater. They are likely to be less contentious or adversarial than those between NGOs and central governments because policy formation, and consequently advocacy and lobbying, happen at the higher levels. Even with a relationship more focused on service delivery, the possibility of tension does exist especially when NGOs serve as watchdogs over the work and spending of these local governments (Brass 2012b). Finally, these relationship patterns may also be influenced by government’s acceptance of institutional pluralism, that is, the existence of other actors in the policy field. When government resists institutional pluralism, the political and policy space where NGOs could function shrinks significantly thereby hindering the development of cross-sectoral linkages (Coston 1998). In developing countries, the central government retains influence over NGOs through its regulatory authority, notably the issuance of laws and rules that govern and regulate the NGO sector in a country (Phillips and Smith 2011; Rutzen 2011). They also practice control and supervision over NGOs through administrative and legal requirements (Gidron, Kramer, and Salamon 1992). As such, the central government determines the restrictiveness of the regulatory milieu in which these organizations operate (Bloodgood and Tremblay-Boire 2014). Herein lies a possible cause of confrontational and adversarial relations between NGOs and governments that both Najam (2000) and Young (2000) address in their work. As a result, organizations may develop advocacy strategies at local government levels to compensate for the limited or controlled space available at the national level (AbouAssi 2014; Fu 2017). Proposition 3: The lack of policy authority possessed by local governments is likely to result in harmonious relationships with NGOs. Feature 4. Structural Arrangement Government-NGO relationships are structured based on resources and capacities. Among the reasons NGOs partner with governments is to fill the gap in providing public services and supplement the often-limited capacities of the public sector (Furneaux and Ryan 2014; Young 2000). The assumption here is that NGOs have the organizational capacity, that is, the resources, skills, and functions enabling it to fulfill goals, perform effectively, and fulfill its mission (Christensen and Gazley 2008). Greater capacity “assures more effective actions and impacts” (Emerson, Nabatchi, and Balogh 2012, 14). Nevertheless, NGO relationships with governments require and consume resources. Organizational readiness is an antecedent for engaging in any kind of relationship; readiness is reflected in both culture and resources (Coston 1998). This applies to relations with both the central and local government; progress may occur in fits and starts. Relationships with central governments are larger in number and variety than with local governments; moreover, they often possess greater complexity (Furneaux and Ryan 2014). Despite outward appearances, a central government is not a single unified entity but rather a collective of different institutions with multiple, and sometimes competing, policies, jurisdictions, and interests; thus, the center of authority is often diffused. While a local government carries out different functions, its structure is less fragmented; and the authority, while limited, is more concentrated. Because NGOs vary in their organizational capacity and resources, cooperating with the central government in developing countries might actually consume the capacity of some NGOs at the expense of collaboration with local government (Coston 1998; Gidron, Kramer, and Salamon 1992). Relations that have long existed between the central government and other entities before the introduction of decentralization or devolution will have implications for what comes next, mainly by reinforcing the institutional environment historically dominated by the central government (Suda 2006). As such, relations with central government tend to take precedence to the disadvantage of local governments. Proposition 4: A complicated relationship with the central government is likely to negatively affect NGO’s relationship with local government. Feature 5. Context Gazley (2010b, 72) stresses that “expressed reasons behind managerial attitudes about collaboration are not monolithic: They reflect underlying political and social dynamics that should be understood as distinct constructs.” As such, context matters, a point emphasized by O’Toole and Meier (2015) in their development of a general theory of the role of context in management and organizational performance. The developing country setting is different from the developed world in that the operating environment regularly experiences social, political, and economic upheaval (Ramanath 2005). These often-turbulent environments complicate the development of productive cross-sectoral relations. Three interacting components produce the context for local government-NGO relationships: (1) pre-existing funding schemes, (2) relational deficits and legitimacy, and (3) local and professional knowledge. The first component of context involves pre-existing funding schemes within a country. NGOs, in general, rely on donor funding; they are not self-financed (Aldaba et al. 2000). In most cases, the trend is toward “designation” of the funding: a funder specifies where the contribution is to be spent and which beneficiaries are to be targeted instead of allocating an unrestricted grant (Barman 2008; Grønbjerg et al. 2000). Such a practice is increasingly the norm in international development assistance, evidenced through the conditionality and requirements of grants (Wallace, Bornstein, and Chapman 2007). To NGOs, survival and financial security are primary goals (AbouAssi 2013). Accordingly, this drives the organizations to build relations with sources of funding in a supplementary or complementary fashion (Young 2000). When an international donor is not the main or sole source of funding, more often than not, the source is the central government and not local governments. In addition, donors are shaping the national policies of recipient countries directly and indirectly by negotiating priorities, establishing partnerships and networks, and advocating for certain policies (AbouAssi 2013; Banks, Hulme, and Edwards 2015; Edwards 2008; Stiles 2002). In developing countries, the funding scheme may be coupled with a push toward decentralization as part of the policy agenda of international donors. As indicated previously, true government decentralization has three components—financial, administrative, and political (Rondinelli 2006; Schneider 2003)—and provides “more space and resources for local government and local action” (Aldaba et al. 2000, 680). Such a push could either promote collaboration or engender competition between NGOs and local governments. Collaboration requires that local governments have financial resources at their disposal and that they have the discretion to spend these resources on local needs. The financial resources of local governments in developing countries come through intergovernmental transfers and not from locally levied taxes and fees. Intergovernmental transfers are at the discretion of the central government; local governments do not determine their release and accounts. One obstacle is that decentralization in developing countries is limited—often to the administrative dimension—and not often coupled with fiscal decentralization (Haase and Antoun 2015; Rondinelli 2006; Schneider 2003); even as the central government devolves some authority to local governments it retains the authority over collecting taxes and fees. This not only undermines decentralization and the autonomy of local governments but also weakens these governments’ capacity to work with NGOs at the local level. A related obstacle is that the negative stigma of corruption often associated with local governments in developing counties may be extended to NGOs themselves. In this particular context, the stigma works against the NGOs being perceived as not-for-profit seekers (Aldaba et al. 2000). As such, (1) how NGOs acknowledge and participate in alternative funding schemes in the face of funding constraints and (2) the context of government decentralization and attitude toward businesses will determine the strategies and goals with which NGO-government relationships unfold. Many NGOs choose not to engage with local governments because of corruption concerns or their own emphasis on being value-based organizations (AbouAssi 2013; Edwards 2008). Proposition 5(a): Inadequate funding schemes will likely result in strained NGO-local government rela- tionships. The second component of context involves existing relational deficits and legitimacy at the local level. The history and past necessity for NGO-government interactions will determine their respective strategies and goals (Gazley 2010b). Two considerations are important here. First, if NGOs have never been incentivized to work with governments, engagement with government actors will be limited. NGOs’ interaction with domestic actors can be limited due to their dependence on donor funding, thereby risking distrust and disconnect with constituents and local needs (AbouAssi 2013; Aldaba et al. 2000; Edwards 2008). However, the ability of NGOs to operate independently at the local level is only temporary without these domestic support systems. As aid frameworks and dynamics evolve (Banks, Hulme, and Edwards 2015), NGOs are less able to depend on the traditional external funding channels and will need to “demonstrate their worth” (Aldaba et al. 2000, 682). The demonstration of worth involves the legitimacy of the organization in the society and with constituents at the very local level (Garilao 1987; Edwards 2008). As a consequence, government managers often use the relationship to generate efficiency while nonprofit managers use it to gain credibility and further develop resources (Amirkhanyan 2009; Feiock and Jang 2009; Gazley and Brudney 2007). Second, in the context of developing countries, particular attention should be paid to existing patronage systems and the local power structure (Murtazashvili 2016). Service patronage and clientelism are forms of benign corruption that people actually accept and expect in some developing countries (Brinkerhoff and Goldsmith 1992). Even elected officials at the national level partake in this system, which functions as an important source of service provision (Brass 2012a; El-Zein and Sims 2004). It is difficult for local governments or NGOs to penetrate this entrenched system unless they are acting as extended arms within it. The less democratic the institutions of government and civil society, the more difficult it is to rearrange or share power between elites in and out of government and the local citizenry (Brett 2003). In addition, the nature of a relationship between governments and NGOs can be significantly affected by the presence of other centers of power. Local government officials, elected to represent the people, are entrusted with the legal authority to govern local affairs. However, local traditions and culture also prevail. Local elites—who might not be elected—can continue to hold power in their communities, expressing either some resistance to power rearrangement that favors local government or reaching informal agreements with local governments to practice that power. Ignoring local traditions and cultures increases the chances of failure in the work of NGOs even more so than bypassing the bearer of the legal authority (i.e., the local government). Scholars of participatory approaches in development management (Brett 2003; Chopra and Hohe 2004; Mansuri and Rao 2004) have urged NGOs to involve local elites throughout the process so as to avoid disturbing the local power structure. It is important to recognize that collaboration involves active formal and informal relations of the type described here, in addition to an exchange of resources, to implement a policy and deliver services (Brinkerhoff 2002a; Gazley and Brudney 2007). Proposition 5(b). The presence of other local leaders and power centers will likely result in weaker NGO-local government relationships. The third component of the contextual relationship between NGOs and governments is local and professional knowledge. “[Knowledge] is the currency of collaboration,” as Emerson, Nabatchi, and Balogh (2012, 16) state. One of the greatest determinants of NGO-government relationships is the personnel who work within these two sectors; their perceptions and values, local knowledge, and relations are critical (Brass 2012b). Informal relations and prior experiences accumulate and matter (Brinkerhoff 2002b; Gazley 2008). These experiences help managers and organizations learn and plan for the future, building on them or breaking away from them as appropriate; prior relations can also generate a perception of success that can boost future relations (Brass 2012b; Gazley 2010a). In many countries, the NGO and public sectors might overlap and critical personnel issues may emerge. These issues “may include kinship relations within elite families, age sets or alumni groups which connect NGO staff with colleagues in other spheres, the social embeddedness of employees within wider communities… allegiances and identities among ‘non-governmental actors’” (Lewis 2008, 126). At the local level, people know each other personally; this might open or close doors for further relationships. Although personal relations matter, personal professional experiences and core values also factor into how managers lead their organizations and how they engage with other entities. The more managers of organizations possess shared values and experiences, the more likely they will form bonds between their respective organizations (Gazley 2010a, b; Ramanath 2005). Given the presence of either a “consecutive” employee, one who leaves one sector for complete independence in another sector, or an “extensive” employee, one who simultaneously works in both sectors, the personnel culture greatly determines NGO-government relations. This is particularly true in many developing countries where local government serves as an entry point to run for public office—and might be the only opportunity due to sociopolitical constraints. Local government officials and NGOs’ staff might find themselves in the same circle. Another dimension relates back to the donor effects. Stiles (2002) refers to the emerging closed circles of a donor with local governments and NGOs. Certain values, practices, and culture are accumulated in these circles, strengthen relations within these circles and shape the behaviors of the actors involved vis-à-vis each other and other organizations. Proposition 5(c): Professional interactions between NGO personnel and local government officials are likely to lead to a constructive NGO-local government relationship. THE FEATURES IN APPLICATION In looking at NGO and local government interactions in a development setting, a standard of comparison is difficult to formulate as each country fosters its own approach to economic development and the conduct of international and local NGO operations. However, we consider here the possible applicability of the proposed features using a series of semi-structured interviews conducted in 2015 with representatives of 15 NGOs and local governments in Lebanon as an illustrative case. The propositions are not formally tested, but we offer some assessment of their potential viability in the Lebanese case. Lebanon has a fragile democracy and a developing economy and relies on external sources of revenue, for example, foreign assistance, loans, treasury bonds, and grants (AbouAssi 2013). The country follows a modest decentralized system of government emulating the French system, with regional government officers and municipalities that enjoy limited degrees of autonomy (AbouAssi and Bowman 2017; Haase and Antoun 2015). Lebanon has pondered greater decentralization cyclically as a possible solution for the country’s problems. During the country’s civil war, it was presented as a political manifesto; after the war, decentralization became an alternative to a weak central administration (AbouAssi and Bowman 2017). While local municipalities are the only form of decentralized authority in the country, these entities are relatively weak, focused on service delivery, and typically constrained by the central government (Haase and Antoun 2015). This has been coupled with a strong presence of NGOs that are heavily involved in service delivery or public affairs in general. The NGO sector relies greatly on international funding, raising questions of donor dependency (AbouAssi 2013). In recent years, Lebanon has considered increasing the level of decentralization in the country to promote democracy and participation, give more voice to the people at local levels, and foster good governance (AbouAssi and Bowman 2017). Championed by international organizations and donor agencies, there is a push to further empower and build the capacities of municipalities and develop constructive relations with other actors working on the ground, including NGOs. Despite the expanded discussion, the extent of decentralization remains rather limited (Haase and Antoun 2015). Origin of Relationships As suggested in the discussion of initiation, a different pattern of relationship can emerge at the local level; it is not necessary a top-down relationship or a bilateral relationship. When asked about the origin and initiation of a project, one Lebanese NGO staff member commented, “We work with the local communities and then submit their demands and priorities to municipalities, which in turn will follow up on them with the members of parliaments and the central government.” A leader in one municipality put it this way: “It is vital for the central government to put a national development plan in place and share it with the local authorities and communities and NGOs, and donors.” In effect, the central government acts as an important third leg in the relationship between NGOs and local government, either as a possible motivator or a potential target. These comments, highlighting the pivotal role played by the central government, speak indirectly to Proposition 1 and the potentially acrimonious effects of top-down initiation. Boundaries The conundrum with boundaries is exacerbated at the local level in Lebanon. The tension between what is public and what is private persists, as reflected in local elected officials’ comments: “[…] we are in a competition, but the role of each entity group—and not one group—should be emphasized. It is not always clear who is doing what; you can notice the major duplication in efforts.” This tension takes another dimension as the separation between what is local and what is not is often imprecise. Expressed in the words of a frustrated NGO leader, “It is not clear when the municipality has the authority over a certain matter or when it is the central government or governor. There is a thin line that is often crossed both in the law and in practice. We go to them [the central government or governor] instead of the municipality.” The perspectives of various NGO personnel and local officials suggest that sectoral and governmental boundaries are indeed blurred and that significant ambiguity results. Moreover, in line with Proposition 2, the comments imply some degree of tension in the interactions which would likely hinder the development of productive relationships. Policy Authority Lebanese local governments’ lack of policy authority is readily apparent to most NGOs working in the country. Although these local governments are relatively accessible to NGOs, they are not necessarily important to NGOs seeking to achieve a policy objective. The result is often a shift in organizational emphasis. In the words of one NGO leader, there is an “impression that the center of power is not at the local level.” When his organization that had sought “to lobby the local government and work with them on a solution but realized that they could not do anything,” the NGO “shifted our efforts to focus on the central government.” However, a local elected official commented that local governments are good entry points for NGOs as they attempt to work with the local communities and an NGO leader agreed commenting, “To provide services to the local communities and even to implement some of the policies we are interested in, you cannot but work with municipalities.” Working with local governments can be productive in that sense, indicating a potential focus exclusively on service delivery at the local level compared to a broader form of interaction with the central government. These differing perspectives suggest that the logic of Proposition 3 is valid: The lack of policy authority possessed by local governments seems likely to give rise to harmonious relationships with NGOs. Structural Arrangements The structural arrangement at the local level in developing countries manifests differently than in the developed country setting. Due to the proximity and nature of interactions, NGOs and local jurisdictions engage in more than one type of relationship depending on the time, issue, and capacity. The question, however, is whether an NGO engages in multiple relationships with the local government at a specific point in time, as is the situation with the central government agencies. The concern with capacity and readiness is evident in the comments of the interviewees. The remarks of an NGO staff member reflect this concern: “It is easy to deal with a municipality since you have one focal point to go to, but when we finish our work and leave, things fall apart because the municipality is not vested. There is no staff or capacity. You need this institutional apparatus.” Local officials also report dynamic relationships: “Regardless how weak our capacity is, we are ready to work with NGOs; it is precisely weak governments that most need their support.” However, while an NGO can build a clear relationship with a municipality, being a single unified entity, it still constructs multiple relationships with other municipalities and, more important, invests more in the relationship with the central government. This is exemplified in an elected official’s comment, “NGOs do not care much about us since their focus is on the central government. Their energy, efforts, and resources are consumed.” The patterns set out in Proposition 4 are reflected in the comments of NGO staff and local government officials. Relationships between NGOs and the central government are complicated, which in turn, can have a negative effect on interactions at the local level. We observed the complexity of the changing context in the reactions of the interviewees to the subjects of funding, legitimacy, and personal connections. It should be noted here that within any single national context, substantial variation exists especially in institutional and personal interests and learning as well as local powers and dynamics. Funding Schemes When it comes to funding, the situation is confounded by a weak fiscal decentralization system and strong donor funding, typical of many developing countries. To elaborate, an NGO leader stated, “As an NGO, we need funding for our projects. Municipalities do not have the budget to invest; they themselves complain about money. We need to look elsewhere.” A Lebanese local government official expressed a different frustration directed more toward donor funding: “When all the work depends on donor funding, NGOs work on their own with donor funding; they do not involve other partners, especially municipalities. When the donors ask the NGOs to work with us, we become their partners. This relationship is based more on funding criteria than on the needs of the NGOs.” However, we notice that frustration with funding can be reversed when the discussion shifts to the need for legitimacy at the local level. As an official in a Lebanese city succinctly stated: “These relationships do not always depend on resources. We cannot offer the material support to NGOs in our city but we can definitely offer the moral support—even the legitimacy. Both of us want to serve the community; they bring the money and capacity and we bring the legitimacy and support.” After all, these local governments are elected bodies and thus representative of local communities. An NGO executive agreed with this observation: “We understand the reality that municipalities are weak in terms of their authorities, resources and capacities. However, their status and existence by themselves are quite important; they are elected bodies and have the right contacts and channels with different ministries and agencies. We should tap into these.” Similar to Proposition 5(a), the weak financial position of Lebanese local governments appears to constrain the emergence of productive interactions with NGOs. However, it appears that local leaders have learned that they possess another type of currency sought by NGOs: legitimacy. Relational Deficits The challenge for municipalities, though, is that in many developing countries, the local power structure can be diffuse; while the legal authority resides with an elected municipality, key sources of power and influence are elsewhere. An NGO executive captured the essence of the argument here: “If you want to get things done, you do not go to the municipality. You will be wasting time and resources in meetings and paperwork. Instead you go to the local leaders and sell your idea or project to them. They have the power not only over the people but also over the elected local officials. Their buy-in is much more effective and important. You do not want to upset the head of a tribe or a large family; you can upset the mayor.” The comments of the NGO executive underscore the significance of local leaders, as noted in Proposition 5(b). Winning the support of these unelected power brokers is critical to the success of an NGO’s mission, a point that has been made in research on Afghanistan as well (Murtazashvili 2016). Although the NGO executive’s comments do not explicitly address the weakness of NGO-local government interactions, the recognition that the support of local power brokers is the key to successful projects suggests weak ties with local governments. Personal Knowledge and Connections The attenuated relationship with local governments is also why personal connections matter. On one hand, both social and professional personal interactions can cross into organizational relationships. One NGO executive commented, “Few NGOs have relations with the municipality. That is […] due to the personal relations; you need to be in the same circle: know someone, be relative of someone, or part of a donor clique.” On the other hand, productive relations require mutuality and time to develop and mature. “It is a history of building relations and trust,” according to an elected official; “the active NGOs are those in close contact with their local municipalities and community; they are not strangers. We know them by name.” The importance of the close connections between NGO personnel and local government officials is explicitly acknowledged in the comments of the interviewees quoted above. This captures the sentiment of Proposition 5(c). This is an illustrative case, we are not claiming any generalizability particularly because we are advocating for a more contextualized analysis that takes into account the features we are proposing. However, Lebanon shares with other developing countries some common characteristics: weak government, political instability, social heterogeneity, and scarce natural resources, opening the door for an increased role of NGOs, an ongoing push toward structural reform (through decentralization and otherwise), and expanded support from the international community (including donors) (AbouAssi 2013). CONCLUSION In this article, we expand on existing literature by identifying five key features that elucidate NGO-local government relationships in developing countries. These features are: the origin of the relations, their boundaries, policy authority, structural arrangements, and context that includes funding schemes, relational deficits, and personal knowledge and connections. From these features, we have generated a set of propositions that could be tested using cross-country data. Needless to say, relationships among the national and subnational levels of government and NGOs are not static; as with any form of collaboration they evolve with changes in power positions, resource bases, political orientations of ruling elite and parties, and sheer necessity. Moreover, in the case of NGOs-local government relationships in developing countries, the potential stigma of corruption and incompetence by both sides plays a confounding role (Najam 2000). Whether the relationship originates from the bottom-up or from the top-down affects the eventual distribution of power and influence and shapes the direction taken in NGO-local government collaborations. This can also influence the extent and direction of the flow of needed resources. The lines that demarcate the distribution of authority and responsibility between the central and local governments, particularly in smaller and developing countries, are often porous and indistinct. They may be subjected to different perceptions and conflicting interpretations of constitutional provisions. This reality sometimes results in greater central government intervention in local affairs. In addition, central governments may maintain a monopoly over policy-making decisions resulting in lessening the flexibility of local governments. In spite of these conditions, relationships between local governments and NGOs can grow and flourish. Serious efforts to complete initial projects and resolve financial flow issues early in the relationship can, particularly, help in building future trust and a common value system. Embedded in various contexts, every NGO-government relationship is dependent upon the strategic and institutional interests and goals of both the NGOs and the governments. As noted, a series of contextual factors, both internal and external, shape the interactions that occur (O’Toole and Meier 2015). Given the major trends in development today, we anticipate that the next large catalyst for social change and structural transformation in poorer nations will occur at the intersection of NGOs and local governments. We should underscore we do not claim though that these features are exclusive or applicable in the same way and shape across the developing world; rather we assert that there are substantial variations that should be explored and we encourage empirical studies of local government-NGO interactions to identify additional variables that might be important. We also focused our attention on local or indigenous NGOs; it is of interest to look into the relations between these NGOs and local governments on one side and transnational NGOs on the other side and how these relations could interplay with one another. To explore the viability of the propositions, we invite scholars to consider these features, individually or collectively, as they structure subsequent research. There are many aspects of NGO-local government interactions that could be explored. These include organizational capacities, management structures, nature and types of services, personal relations and perceptions, issues of legitimacy and credibility, and isomorphic pressures by government, donors, or peer organizations. In particular, the initiation of the relationship is important to examine in terms of the potential impact of third parties on these relations. The role and capacity of both NGOs and local governments should be studied in conjunction with the authorities of the central government, particularly its impact on the effectiveness of NGOs-local governments’ relationships. Examining institutional and professional ties between local governments and NGOs could also shed some light on the transfer of practices and values between the two which potentially influences organizational performance and outcomes. To conclude, as decentralization continues in developing countries, local governments constitute the widest gap in the NGO-government relational deficit. Depending on the extent and type of decentralization, local governments could offer untapped resources for financing, policy change, and access to beneficiaries. Additional grassroots research needs to be conducted to test the perceptions and knowledge of the various capabilities of local government by NGOs and beneficiaries—and vice versa. The limited number of specific analyses of local governments in the developing world suggests that local governments have been both under-emphasized and sidelined as less important actors or partners. These relations are the anchors for development and could therefore ensure better implementation, sustainability, and impact, or instead, they could undermine development efforts and investments. References AbouAssi , Khaldoun . 2013 . 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Perspectives on Public Management and Governance – Oxford University Press
Published: Sep 1, 2018
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