Perspectives from Organizational Theory

In contrast to theories of civil society, which frequently rest on excessively hopeful assumptions about the contributions NGOs can make to civil society, and to social movement literature that describes a confrontational “environmentalism of the poor” as the norm for developing countries, our inquiry was guided by theories of organizations and the closely related theory of resource mobilization from the social movements literature. The theories we draw on consider environmental NGOs as organizations and undertake to explain their choices of goals, strategies, and activities in terms of (1) their efforts to adapt to external circumstances in ways that let them move toward their goals and continue their operations and (2) the constraints posed by the institutionalization of their established goals, structures, and strategies. We believe that this is a more productive approach for explaining what the NGOs actually do. The discussion below is not intended to be an exhaustive application of organization theory, but to illustrate the kinds of insights it can generate.

A key characteristic of the open systems and resource dependence theories is their emphasis on organizations’ need to acquire resources of money, respect, legitimacy, and influence that they can then use to obtain the labor, supplies, assistance, and information they need to survive, conduct their work, and move toward their goals. While organizations with high prestige and influence, such as the Red Cross in the United States, can sometimes “redeem” these resources for volunteer labor and donated materials on a large scale, neither the international nor the Cameroonian- based environmental NGOs have enough prestige and influence in Cameroon to do so. In addition, the newness of environmental issues and the low attention paid to them by government and media mean that many people are poorly informed about environmental issues and the NGOs that try to solve them. Constraints on volunteer activity resulting from role conflicts and the free rider problem, along with an ongoing economic crisis that has plunged many people into an existential crisis, also mitigate against volunteering. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that the NGOs require money to purchase the labor and materials needed to undertake larger-scale projects and that shortages of funds were reported as their greatest weakness and the greatest hindrance to reaching their goals.

The goals and activities of the three types of NGOs proved to be relatively easy to understand using organization theory. International

NGOs tend to emphasize goals related to responsible natural resource management and nature protection—and pay little attention to other serious environmental problems—because their home offices and the donors who provide most of their funds them would probably discontinue their financial support if they did otherwise. International NGOs are viewed in Cameroon as well-funded outsiders, which places them in a poor position to try to solicit funds from the Cameroonian public or the government, making support from their donors abroad crucial. Moreover, as organizations with long histories of focus on nature protection, there has been ample time for their existing goals to become institutionalized and highly valued by their staff and donors. Because they also need the cooperation of the communities where they work and of the Cameroonian government, which must grant them the right to operate, they must take the priorities of these groups into account as well. Consequently, they sometimes adopt secondary goals, such as influencing government policy—a goal they pursue much more often than the Cameroonian groups—or providing alternative sources of livelihood for local residents whose economic activities or communities are disrupted by nature protection efforts. In terms of activities, the international NGOs were more likely than Cameroonian-based NGOs to take on projects that required substantial expertise, which they are able to acquire with their superior financial resources. Cameroonian- based NGOs generally have much less access to financial resources than their international counterparts. Many Cameroonians face pressing, even existential, financial problems, and only a small fraction have obtained the education and incomes that are characteristic of the “new class” donors that are the mainstay of environmental organizations in developed nations. The state is also strapped for funds and makes few resources available to environmental NGOs, and the foundation sector is very small. Most Cameroonian NGOs thus rely primarily on money from grants and contracts from abroad or on the small amounts that can be gleaned from donations from their governing boards or local citizens or from sales of services. In general, of course, Type I NGOs are more often recipients of financial support from external donors. NGOs that lack financial resources can attempt to compensate by using volunteer labor and various kinds of in-kind assistance, but, for reasons described above, it has not proven easy for them to do so.

In this situation, both Type I and Type II Cameroonian NGOs are often unable to mount the kinds of programs needed to make a dent in many of the country’s environmental problems. The constraints bear especially heavily on Type II NGOs, which typically adapt by emphasizing goals toward which at least some progress can be made with minimal financial resources, expertise, and equipment and modest amounts of volunteer labor and in-kind assistance. Environmental education is the most prominent of these, but the NGOs may take on small-scale projects such as tree planting or recycling.

Resource dependence theory suggests that the Cameroonian NGOs’ strong need for financial support might give their international funders great influence over their goals. We found significant support for this hypothesis, as funders’ preferences ranked at the top of the list of factors that influence their goal choices. On the other hand, claims that the environmental NGOs are mere puppets of the international funding establishment appear to be exaggerated. Organization theory points to two reasons for this. First, a good many Cameroonian-based NGOs receive no funds from abroad and operate on very limited budgets. They depend not on international funders, but on volunteers, donors, and sources of in-kind contributions from within Cameroon, so it is not too surprising that they were especially likely to say that they set their own goals without responding to external factors. Second, there is evidence that the influence of funding organizations is muted by the resistance to change in established goals and procedures described by institutional theory. Almost half of the organizations had not changed their goals since their founding, and the great majority of changes involved adding new goals, sometimes in response to funder preferences, rather than dropping old ones. A few interviewees indicated that, regardless of outside pressures, they intended to remain true to their original goals or the goals of a charismatic social movement entrepreneur who founded the NGO, and a good many of those who said that they were influenced by the preferences of funders qualified this by saying that they were willing to make some changes, but were unwilling to make fundamental modifications in their goals.

The importance of environmental NGOs having at least a baseline level of legitimacy and influence is illustrated well by the NGOs’ relationships with local communities where they work. To be successful, they need enough legitimacy and influence to be able to persuade these communities to accept their projects and cooperate with them. Ideally, communities would also provide material resources, such as volunteer labor, lodging and meals, and financial support—though the last is in short supply in most communities. If an NGO lacks adequate legitimacy or influence, citizens in the communities where it works might seek to undermine its efforts by, for example, hunting in nature reserves it sponsors or declining to cooperate with or assist it.

Many of the Cameroonian-based NGOs are funded from abroad, run by individuals from the upper portion of the class spectrum without much democratic input, and lack a strong support base in the community. These characteristics, which are common elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, tend to undermine their legitimacy. Research from Cameroon and elsewhere on the continent also indicates that NGOs are likely to lose legitimacy and influence when they appear weak and inconsequential, take on projects that threaten local communities or influential groups within them, and fail to provide visible benefits. Becoming embroiled in community power struggles can also strongly undercut their influence with at least some community factions. Strategies to buttress their influence might include attempting to enlist the authority of government on their side, providing various benefits to the communities where they work, trying to build legitimacy through inviting community participation in their decision making, and educating the public about the advantages of environmental protection (see chapter 9).

Our study did reveal instances of sharp conflicts similar to those seen elsewhere in Africa between international NGOs and local communities over nature reserves that exclude local people from their homelands or deprive them of their livelihoods. Nevertheless, our results suggest that most of the Cameroonian-based NGOs have achieved at least a minimum degree of legitimacy and influence. The great majority reported good working relationships with their communities, and only a few instances of active conflict or efforts to undermine NGO projects were reported. On the other hand, the amount of material assistance flowing from citizens or organized groups within communities was, in general, modest or nonexistent, suggesting that the NGOs had not earned enough respect or influence to garner many resources. Evidently, their efforts to increase their credibility and influence by developing programs to benefit the communities, attempting to involve citizens, and conducting environmental education programs had not been fully successful. The complaints about communities and community groups voiced by some of our interviewees were quite consistent with this interpretation. We heard about communities that were unwilling to help, especially with monetary assistance, about being caught up in local power struggles, and about communities and community groups that viewed the NGOs mainly as a source of material benefits.

Organizational theory also proved useful in understanding the complex relationships between environmental NGOs and government. According to the open systems and resource dependence theories, the Cameroonian state’s lack of the resources or the inclination to provide substantial assistance to the NGOs suggests that NGOs have little to gain from working with it and that government would have little influence over them. Government inefficiency, clientism, and corruption presumably make attempting to acquire resources from the state even less appealing, as great effort may be required to obtain the desired help, and bribes are sometimes requested in return for assistance. The situation is, however, considerably more complex. As the theoretical models suggest, the ability of the state to confer legitimacy and its power to sanction can provide it with significant influence. Visible recognition or approval by government is a source of prestige for NGOs, and government cooperation, certifications, or permissions may be necessary for some grant applications or to carry out some projects. Moreover, government’s skepticism of environmental NGOs and resistance to any challenges to its authority mean that the specter of denial of needed cooperation, or even active harassment, is always present.

Against this background, it is not surprising that the majority of the NGOs have evolved superficially cordial but “arms-length” relationships with the state. In such relationships, NGOs neither expect nor receive much from the state, and the government generally leaves them alone as long as they chose goals and activities it perceives as nonthreatening. Interviewees were thus relatively unlikely to cite their relationships with government as either a strength or a weakness, rarely reported receiving more than minimal assistance, and did not often describe government as interfering with their activities, causing their failures, or attempting to dictate their goals. In general, international NGOs reported the most contact with the government and were the most likely to attempt to influence it. While they usually had little to gain from the government in terms of financial support, their need for legitimation and cooperation is clearly quite strong. Yet like environmental NGOs elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, their power over the government is generally quite limited. Type II Cameroonian NGOs, on the other hand, were the least involved with government, receiving the least support but also reporting lower government influence. While they could no doubt have benefitted more from government assistance than the other two types, the small scale of their operations and lack of professional staff apparently made them all but invisible to the state.

In this situation, government’s preferences were considered directly by only a minority of the NGOs in choosing their goals and activities. Nevertheless, the potential of government to deny them needed certifications or cooperation—or even to harass or shut them down—is probably one part of the explanation for their low involvement in confrontational social movement activity (see above).

Theoretical models from organization theory also offer a useful approach to explaining the relationships among the NGOs. The open systems and resource dependence models suggest that our NGOs might view other environmental NGOs, whether in Cameroon or abroad, as a potential source of needed resources. These might include financial assistance or subcontracts, expertise and technical assistance, in-kind assistance, and the prestige or legitimacy of being associated with a prestigious NGO. In general, however, environmental NGOs are not formed to assist other NGOs, so an NGO’s willingness to significantly assist another is likely to depend on the ability of the other to offer something in return. Consequently, relationships among NGOs that extend beyond the superficial almost always involve exchange. Such relationships are, in principle, mutually beneficial; however, if one NGO badly needs resources that a second NGO can provide, but has only less valuable resources to offer in return, resource dependence theory predicts that the second is in a position to exert power over the first by demanding control over its actions (see chapter 2).

Other NGOs also figure in organization theory as potential competitors for resources, such as international funding, help and legitimacy from government, public recognition, and subcontracts from other NGOs, and there is much competition in the Cameroonian environmental NGO sector. Genuine concern about serious environmental problems, a poor economy that provides few alternative employment opportunities to many well-educated people, the potential for obtaining external funding, and changes in laws and the political climate that made founding NGOs easier have all combined to produce more new NGOs than can be adequately supported with the financial resources and volunteer labor available. Such situations can easily result in many weak and largely unsuccessful competitors. Organization theory indicates that NGOs might seek to solve this problem in various ways. They might develop recognized specialties, allowing them to compete better for resources from existing sources or appeal to new sources. Alternatively, they might reduce competition, become more effective competitors for funds, and realize economies of scale by merging with other NGOs. Still another possibility is to formulate joint projects to reduce competition and gain some of the advantages of specialization. Institutional theory, however, suggests that there will be resistance to joint projects—and even more to mergers—from NGO staff or supporters who have come to value their NGO, its goals, and its strategies. Staff may, of course, also be concerned about job security.

These theoretical insights go a long way toward explaining the pattern of relationships found in our research. Most of the relationships reported among NGOs in Cameroon appeared to be relatively superficial and shortlived. They involved exchanges of information, casual contact at meetings, belonging to the same network, and the like. Substantial flows of resources, especially money, occurred primarily in relationships between Cameroonian-based NGOs and international environmental NGOs abroad and, with much less frequency, in relationships between Type I and Type II NGOs. In both situations, money and other substantial help such as in-kind assistance flowed mainly from better funded to poorly funded organizations. The explanation for the infrequency of flows of significant financial or material assistance among Cameroonian-based NGOs lies in the fact that they are greatly under-resourced, have difficulties meeting their own objectives, and have few, if any, resources to provide to other NGOs, which in turn have little to offer them. Consequently, they often settle for relationships that benefit them mainly in terms of providing information, social support, and the prestige and legitimacy that flow from being part of a network of NGOs. These benefits can be exchanged among the NGOs at low cost.

International environmental NGOs operating in Cameroon preside over more resources that they could use to assist their Cameroonian counterparts, but unless providing such assistance is among their goals, they are likely to take into account how little most Cameroonian NGOs have to offer in return. It is thus predictable that many of the relationships between Cameroonian NGOs and their international partners remain superficial and that the international environmental NGOs develop more relationships, especially relationships that involve providing substantial assistance, with Type I than with Type II NGOs. Type I NGOs have at least some benefits—for instance, successful completion of subcontracts—to offer them in return. Also unsurprising is the complaint from some of the international NGOs operating in Cameroon that they have difficulty working with some Cameroonian NGOs because the latter lack the resources and skills to fulfill the obligations they have taken on. Relationships between Type I and Type II NGOs are even less likely to involve financial or material assistance because both partners generally have few resources to offer. Interestingly, Type II NGOs are more likely to report relationships with other Cameroonian NGOs than Type I NGOs, while the latter have more relationships abroad. This probably indicates that Type II NGOs are seeking whatever benefits are available from similarly positioned NGOs in Cameroon as a way of compensating for their less well-developed relationships with international and Type I NGOs.

The competition for resources among the NGOs that organization theory predicts did surface at times in our interviews, and a few interviewees whose NGOs had not been successful competitors voiced considerable bitterness about the low availability of funds, the advantages that better funded NGOs had in competing for funds, or their perception of unfair treatment. However, there is little to gain and much to lose from bringing these feeling to the fore in contacts with other NGOs, and most interviewees reported good relationships with other NGOs. We did find some examples of joint projects and cooperation among the NGOs, but most of these appeared to be short-lived and small scale, and there was no mention of mergers. This suggests that concerns by weaker NGOs that stronger ones might take advantage of them, the institutionalized value that supporters and staff place on their NGOs, and concerns about loss of identity, which might threaten legitimacy and fund-raising efforts, outweighed whatever advantages might have been derived from sustained, large-scale cooperation or mergers.

The examples above illustrate the utility of organizational theory for explaining goal and strategy choices made by the NGOs, including choices that remain unexplained by other theories. In contrast to overly optimistic theories of civil society, organization theory readily explains why environmental NGOs do not usually attempt to address some of Cameroon’s key environmental problems, have invested little effort in democratizing Cameroon’s political system, have devoted so much energy to nature protection and environmental education, have generally been unable to elicit deep support in the communities where they operate, and do not often develop cooperative relationships or joint projects that involve significant exchanges of material resources. By focusing on the sources of their key resources and the possibility of arousing strong opposition that could stamp them out, organization theory also at least partly explains why Cameroonian environmental NGOs have not sought to initiate or participate in confrontational social movements.

In short, we believe more insight is gained into how environmental NGOs choose their goals, strategies, and activities and the roles they play in society by starting from the bottom up, with theories designed to explain and predict how organizations behave, than with theories that start from the top down, with assumptions about their roles in society. This approach has already proved its utility in research in developed countries (Jordan and Maloney, 1997; Bosso, 2005; Markham, 2008) and has much potential for research in developing nations as well.

 
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