Aid worker views regarding MONGOs (My Own NGO)

Posted on: February 24, 2016 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Aid Worker Voices book

“I think that if every overly bright, well-dressed 20something would just get together and co-run the skinny jeans appreciation society in their respective countries, the rest of us could put all that money and press to actual use.”
-20 something female, HQ aid worker w/5+ experience

“Deep breaths.    Too many.”
-41-45 yo female HQ worker [extra spaces for emphasis in the original]

“They are petty indulgences normally of middle class white people who want to help someone and feel better about their privilege.”

Aid worker views regarding MONGOs (My Own NGO):  mostly negative

The 2014 kidnapping of two young Italian women in Syria (see here) underscores the fact that being an aid worker comes with risks. ThereUnknown may be something specifically about this particular episode that merits a deeper understanding, and a start might be to examine aid worker voices about the kind of organization to which these young women were associated, namely a very small, new, self-started NGO.

What kinds of organizations are best suited to doing aid work?  Does size matter? How do our survey respondents feel about smaller humanitarian aid entities and what are some of the positives and negatives from their perspective?  These are some questions that I examine below using our survey respondents views to illustrate and, hopefully, provide a deeper perspective.

Aid worker’s views on MONGOs are out there, but there is very little data that I have been able to find on this question.  Let’s turn over this rock and see what we find.

We had 479 (of 1010) people respond to our open-ended question regarding MONGO’s.  Here is the prompt for Q58:  “What is your general view of so-called MONGOs (My Own NGO) or other smaller humanitarian aid work entities?”

I went though every response and tagged each as  “positive” , “neutral” or “negative,” and the results indicate clearly that MONGO’s have a mixed and mostly negative image among aid workers.  Here are the results of my tagging:

  • Overall positive:  11%
  • Neutral/mixed:   46%
  • Negative:              43%

The short of it
The vast majority of respondents had a very negative view of MONGO’s, with “negatives” outnumbering “positives” by almost four to one and most of the responses that I tagged “neutral” pointing out that there were both positives and negatives to be argued, stressing the negatives of those organizations which are not “done right.”

As many of the “neutral” responses correctly pointed out, MONGO’s are not a monolithic whole.  An attempt to list and categorize types of MONGOs even within one country would be extraordinarily difficult, and doing a comprehensive listing internationally would be even more difficult certainly by an order of magnitude. The numbers of MONGOs is on the rise every year internationally and thus any list established would be out of date immediately.

Certainly one of the beginning points of any typology would be differentiating between those that have their origins in one country and have a focus in some other part of the world (a NGO based in the US dealing with homeless boys in a specific region in Honduras, for example), and those that are originate in the country where they function (e.g., a micro-finance scheme organized and run by locals in rural Zambia).

From the narrative survey responses I gleaned a number of differentiating characteristics.  Some of the most important appear to be:

  • Type and motivation of leadership
  • Western primarily (e.g., US and UK) originated and based vs locally/community organizations
  • Degree of focus or lack thereof on mission
  • Breadth and clarity of and fidelity to mission statement
  • Level of overall professionalism
  • Whether or not aid or development focused
  • Ability to make sustainable change/scalability
  • Ability and/or willingness to communicate and work with others in the sector
  • The length of time that they have been established
  • The existence of an active governing board overseeing activities

Many of the “neutral” responses leaned negative but qualified their answer, tending to say, in short, some MONGO’s can be great/effective if the leadership is good, there is a narrow, defined focus and they are run professionally.  MONGO’s that score high on all the variables above can have many positives:

  • Flexible; can change and modify very quickly
  • Have generally low overhead
  • Can have very creative responses to niche conditions

Perhaps one of the more astute observations made by one respondent was that, after all, this is the way all aid organizations started (see Red Cross, MSF, etc.).

The list of negatives that appear in both “negative” and “neutral” responses is long and damning, and I invite you to read the sections below for some great examples.

  • Lack of professionalism
  • Lack of standardization
  • “White savior complex” underlying motivations
  • Just adding to noise and confusion for beneficiaries, donors and the aid industry

    Screenshot 2014-08-17 12.42.47

    Word cloud of all responses

  • Poor/misguided mission
  • Ego-driven leadership
  • Just reinventing the wheel
  • Inefficient
  • Do harm in some cases
  • Self-serving
  • No accountability
  • Prone to corruption
  • Thinly disguised proselytization
  • Overall give aid section a bad reputation

Many respondents touched on a current debate voiced succinctly in the comment made by an experienced female aid worker, namely:  “Humanitarian aid is a profession not a hobby.”

In short, MONGOs: not so good except in rare cases.

A thought from my sociological perspective:  I believe that it is human nature to have empathy toward others and to want to help somehow when one sees other’s in need.  Indeed, that is what prompted Henri Dunant to do what he did in response to the wounded at Solerfino and later help establish one of the very first humanitarian aid organizations, the Red Cross. The urge to create MONGOs is there.  What to do with individuals who act on it is the question we must explore in more detail at some point.

Below I present representative responses from each of the three groupings.



  • “Great! I love the small initiatives, but I’d qualify it since it depends a lot on the origins, agency of the organization and what they’re up to (since many depend on assumptions we give them that we say works, when it very well might be ivory-tower driven). We can’t work with them because of rules from up top, but generally, I think they do our work better than we do.”
  • “Have limited reach but have the potential to be better with adaptation, better at identifying nuances to local development, and may be better at small scale development.”
  • “Can be useful if service providers in niches. But no way to partner with at scale.”
  • “Some are quite nimble and do good local work and focus very effectively on social justice. However they can lead to too much Screenshot 2014-08-17 13.30.54fragmentation and some serve the egos of their founders too much.”
  • “Often the smaller ones achieve more with fewer overheads and admin costs.”
  • “Some can grow to be great organisations as long as they learn from their mistakes and have clear leadership which understands the complexities of the isssues they are dealing with.”
  • “There is plenty work to be done, problems, issues to be adressed. Plenty spaces for MONGOs. And it is good as well to have a variety of organization.”
  • “Some made the critical differentiation between local and Western/Us based organizations.”
  • “If they are local NGOs/CBOs, they can make very good work because they can understand and address the very local issues and problems. Creating an NGO in the US to do fantasy projects to rescue poor dying African children is ridiculous.”

Some respondents just had no opinion, some gave both sides, some qualify in very insightful ways:

  • “Can’t write all off with one brush. If they are filling an actual gap that can be a good thing. The big boy ngos are not necessarily flexible or nimble so small can be good. However the ones that show up without a clue are making things worse.”
  • “They can be frustrating in the sense that they rarely coordinate “with the big kids” – i.e. they tend to go off on their own and don’t connect or feed into the broader humanitarian system. However, if working in partnership, they can be helpful when working in isolated locations since they are sometimes the only ones willing to go and do work in tough places… especially National NGOs.”
  • “(chuckle… I think I’m running a sort of MONGO at present, but we try not to act like it!) It varies, some can do good work if they have a specific niche that they can fill, often as a sub to a larger organization. Others are of questionable competence and can have anScreenshot 2014-08-17 13.28.44 outsized regard of their own importance. If not well-focused (“I’m here and want to help!) they tend to be ineffective.”
  • “Specialized NGOs in particular sectors or communities or nations are only successful, effective and good when run by individuals who understand humanitarian principles and values and ways of working; those run by enterprising individuals or those who have money and “care” tend to make situations worse for everyone, including the people they are trying to help.”
  • “Impossible to generalize. Yes, I tend to roll my eyes. But there are some that are really good, a lot better at responding to local needs than the large INGOs. There are a lot that are bad. But even a bad MONGO is probably not going to do a lot of harm (in a global sense). I could say the same about large NGOs. Some are good, lots are bad. MONGOs have a similar track record.”
  • “Some are great and because they have very little resources they find innovative ways of delivering services. Others are terrible and completely undermine what the international aid community has aimed to achieved e.g. Standardisation, principles, good practices, do no harm, etc.”
  • “I think it depends on the experience and motivation of the person behind the NGO. If the person either has a background in development, or makes and effort to learn – and has the backing of the local community they seek to assist, then it can be a good thing. However, I think too many of these groups think ‘NGOs are doing it wrong, so I can’t learn anything from them’. Yes, there are many things wrong with the NGO system that can be improved. But the development system has also learned a lot of lessons the hard way that all NGOs can benefit from.”
  • “There is some truth to all sides of this debate.”
  • “Find it very interesting and thing there is definitely a place for them in the sector as the more established and larger INGOs start to move toward professionalisation and expansion processes that often make them more inefficient and less receptive to and understanding of needs on the ground. there is generally a fairly condescending and negative attitude of INGO and NGO to MONGO which is highly questionable given that none of us are exactly perfect…”
  • “Usually no harm, little large-scale impact but nice to see people trying to help people. I don’t feel the condescending outrage about this stuff that many of my peers do. If missionaries from Kansas want to hold AIDS babies for 8 weeks, as long as no one is interfering with treatment and care, and local communities don’t mind, why not?”
  • “This is extremely complex. People don’t give unconditionally, even if they think they do. Some people will only contribute if they can maximise their own opportunities for self actualisation. MONGOs are not generally the most efficient way to give aid. They also often result in aid that is sub-standard. However, some people will only contribute to a response when they do it largely themselves. This is, to a certain extent, their right, as long as they meet agreed standards. Small NGOs also have the capacity to be very nimble and innovative, this shouldn’t be stifled. Essentially there are both good and bad aspects and I don’t have the time or energy to write the thesis that one could on this topic!”
  • “Great in for small-scale community work in development settings. Horrible in large-scale relief/emergency settings.”
  • “I think MONGOs like small businesses begin when the larger NGOs or companies don’t listen to a good idea. Of course there is that bit of hubris in being able to say back home I have my own NGO. I think a more realistic term would be “my own short term project” like most start ups unless they are bought out (or funded) by a larger organization they won’t last long. I think any large INGO would be wise to create a space for ideas and innovation in programming to be heard from all members of staff not only the grants and program development people. This would help the INGO to grow and develop better programs while keeping their staff from quitting to start their MONGOs.”
  • “I feel they can still have a good impact if managers/staff are extremely talented and have a clear idea of their mission, vision and goals. Otherwise, funds would be better used within bigger orgs.”
  • “I don’t think it’s possible to clump them together. Some represent true citizen action and real empowerment within people’s own communities and within their own contexts. Others are purely ego trips that do more harm than good. The key is to understand the difference and support the potentially transformative ones that could potential become bigger players.”
  • “Get the skill set and capability to work for an NGO before going MONGO on us. And being 19 and reading Kristoff doesn’t count. Some small NGO’s are agile and well managed and if they have the resources they can help, but there is a challenge in coordination and doubling of efforts.”
  • “They’re like hipsters: super easy to mock. But maybe just maybe we should reserve our mockery for the enormous for-profit development firms that regularly generate batshit clusterfucks on a scale no MONGO –not even a celebrity-run MONGO– could ever match. That girl who runs a one-person NGO teaching yoga to ex-combatants? She’s fun at parties and has no money. Let’s talk about Chemonics. Snarking on MONGOs is fun, but let’s be honest with ourselves: it’s not serious.”
  • “I think if they want to work to address to a particular problem in a particular place where no one else is working then it can be a good thing. If it’s just ‘water in africa’ probably best to use people already doing that.”

It has been argued that the aid industry has three parts:  the beneficiaries, the donors and the aid workers (you!), and what the data shows is that MONGO’s create concerns about all three of these prongs.  Many of you felt that these smaller organizations harmed the entire industry for a variety of reasons. Other major issues included incompetence, corruption, ineffectiveness, poor preparation and questionable intent.  Here are some examples of what you said illustrating the many negative views, some of which are very critical and offer no reason for the reactions, but others offering a bit of depth in their critiques:

  • “Small NGO is a waste of financial and human resources. It also create confusion among the beneficiaries and the donors.”
  • “It is inline with the online age of personal world wide connection. MONGO’s are generally more efficient with their resources but lack the resources to demonstrate that they are effective. It is easy for a MONGO to fail which also brings down the reputation of the industry”.
  • “Most people I’ve met conducting this type of work are hardcore idealists who genuinely want to make a difference. However, they lack the realism and practical skills to further the organization from the backyard-project level. In fact, most of the time these are conducted by expats who are not always accepted by the local community, and they think good will is enough to make a change, but it evidently isn’t. It takes extraordinary beneficiaries to meet them halfway, but most of the beneficiaries just don’t care about that white person’s crazy idea, they’re too busy living their lives within their context, and the initiative will die out before it has any sort of measurable impact. The remaining MONGOs I’ve encountered are people stealing money and justifying it through creative financing.”
  • “More prone to corruption, less likely to have strong mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability, more likely to rely on unrestricted funding from private donors (which exacerbates the first two challenges), less likely to have any genuinely collaborative/democratic internal decision making processes.”
  • “In my experience, some are really fantastic, but others are at best laughable and at worst causing harm. Those I have seen that are most effective is when the organization is truly community-based and is founded and run locally with a specific focus. Those founded by well-intentioned white people who ‘just couldn’t stand to see the suffering’ are the worst.”
  • “When they originate from the West: hate them. I’m sorry, but we dont need another church group flying out to country X to build another goddamn orphanage. If it’s a local organization supporting their own community then I’m all for it.”
  • “MONGOs are wasteful because the majority of one’s I know are incapable of recognizing that they are reinventing the wheel. They don’t even know the next NGO down the road, and repeat efforts. Guatemala has tons of NGOs and many of them serve the same populations. There is a lot of serving the same populations over and over again with the same services. They often refuse to collaborate. The worst are international tiny NGOs that have no clue how things work in country. They execute things badly and are very often uninformed of government policies and interventions in the field they work in.”
  • “I would like to sponsor an anti-NGO proliferation treaty. There are too many NGOs, lacking coordination, going after less funding, and all claiming to have the best solution, so they’re less willing to learn.”
  • “Noise. Their mistakes are blown up into ‘sector problems.’ They ruin it for the larger entities. Charity is not humanitarian work.”
  • “Well, they are called MONGOs for a reason – b/c the focus is on “my own” and not the work they are doing. This is exactly the type of stuff aid organizations are training political parties about – to be about the stakholder articulated needs and not your cult of personality.”
  • “Can’t stop them as some people are impelled to do something when they see a disaster or crisis. However, they are sometimes symptomatic of the lack of trust people have in the larger humanitarian organisations. We need to be better at explaining and justifying our overheads, added value and the economy of scale we can provide particularly in the big disasters. We absolutely have to do this in conflict arenas to reduce the number of people risking their lives going off in a small van with bit of clothing and a few medicines.”mongo_1350076255_600x275
  • “In Nepal, there are more than 30,000 registered local NGOs. Many of these are MoNGOs set up by idealistic foreigners with little technical knowledge and who lack familiarity with the Nepal context. These agencies poorly coordinate with other actors and often work outside the government systems. They often provide donated goods which are of low quality (e.g. Expired meds) and are not purchased on the local markets, thereby undercutting local businesses.”
  • “Ugh. Don’t get me started. Unless they are LNGOs in which case, good on ya if you are making a small, clearly planned impact in your own community.”
  • “KILL THEM ALL. Seriously, can we start weeding out the stupid and ineffectual?”
  • “Generally, I am highly critical and skeptical of USA-based MONGOs (I like this term!) as they generally have little background, experience, or understanding of the communities they’re trying to assist. I also generally take issue with the “at least we’re doing something!” attitude that is rampant among smaller NGOs and their supporters. I have a more positive view of fledgling local NGOs, in general.”
  • “They are petty indulgences normally of middle class white people who want to help someone and feel better about there privilege.”
  • “They should be banned, typically unprofessional, often distort markets, mostly don’t know what they are doing, often doing harm.”

So, what is the take-home from all of the above?  One thing clear is that aid worker professionals have a generally negative view of MONGO’s, but I am assuming most of the people reading this post would say that’s not a new insight (though we do now have some data supporting this commonly held perspective).  That said, what does the general public know about these opinions? If they were more informed about much of the above listed downsides of MONGO’s would they be more cautious about their support and perhaps support the “big box” organizations more?

As for the two Italian young women kidnapped by al-Qaeda who were later released, I wish the best for them.  I harbor the thought that in a more well informed world–where aid worker voices are made more public and prominent–this situation might never have happened.  Their intentions were good, perhaps, but the money they likely earned for al-Qaeda for their return only adds to problems in the sector.

The fact is that there are many books and web sites that encourage and instruct how to create and run your own NGO, and there is a constant flow of those with big ideas and skinny jeans coming from the global north to ‘save the world.’  That is, MONGOs are here to stay and will, I feel, remain a factor to be reckoned with.  The question is how and by what body?  Perhaps the Core Humanitarian Standards could be stressed more and established as an industry standard for any aid related activity?  Perhaps there could be national or international laws established (or those established, enforced more aggressively) that monitor NGO activity for competence?  Perhaps the secret handshake at the entrance to cluster meetings should be more intricate?

In other words, I think the data indicate some very fundamental issues with MONGOs and that these issues should be first more clearly articulated and then addressed at the highest levels.  Get back to me later with specifics on that, K?


As always, please contact me with questions or comments or add your thoughts for discussion over at Aid Source forum which accompanies this project.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' will be out later in 2023.

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