It is now commonplace to talk of the professionalization of Northern nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) active in international development and relief work. Yet the term “professionalization” means different things to different commentators. For many, it is simply equated with professionalism (Ryfman 2004, p. 41). For others, it involves a more business-like orientation with “the application of managerial practices and structures adopted from the commercial sphere” (Haddad 2002, p. 51). For others still, it refers to a process that brings NGOs closer into line with the systems and workings of the state. This type of professionalization is referred to by Wallace et al. (1997) as “the standardisation of development” and by Fowler (2000, p. 105) as the creation of a bureaucratic “development monoculture.” For Korten (1991, p. 36), it means “enhancing technical and managerial capabilities and installing improved control systems so that NGOs can function more like the technical agencies of government.”

It is this latter understanding of “professionalization” which will underpin this survey.Footnote 1 This shift towards what Chambers (1994) calls “normal professionalism” has been widely remarked upon in the writings on Northern NGOs (Smillie and Helmich 1993; Lewis 2001) and, above all, in the literature on Anglo-American NGOs. To illustrate, Froelich (1999, p. 256) has affirmed that “Overwhelming evidence points to government-driven professionalization, bureaucratization, and loss of administrative autonomy” across the American nonprofit sector. Similarly, Wallace et al. (1997, p. 58) have noted, with reference to British NGOs, how development techniques are being standardized, with “undoubted moves towards more formalised project planning… a growing use of strategic planning tools; and a rise in evaluation work.”

Yet how extensive is this trend? Does it apply equally to Northern NGOs which have not been raised in a liberal Anglo-American tradition? Can it, more specifically, be said to hold true in the case of French NGOs, which have emerged in a context that is indelibly marked by “the ideological weakness of liberalism” (Hazareesingh 1994, p. 23) and the power of a “quintessentially strong state” (Hayward 2003, p. 35)? The question of whether French NGOs have fallen into line with Northern NGO moves towards “technical professionalism” (Murphy 2000, p. 330) will be central to this article. This survey will begin by outlining the militant profile of French NGOs in the early post-colonial decades. Next, it will set out what the French state has done to encourage professionalization over the global era, taken here to have begun in the late 1980s, as the Cold War was ending. Drawing extensively on the primary literature and on over 30 semi-structured interviews conducted in Paris between 2003 and 2006, this study will then evaluate the extent to which French NGOs have responded to these overtures by the state.Footnote 2 Finally, it will seek to explain any evolution in the workings of French NGOs in terms of resource dependence theory.

The Risk of Over-Generalization

Before undertaking this analysis, it is worth laying down a few caveats. The first is that it is hard to identify any single view of professionalization across the French state system. Indeed, even within the Foreign Ministry, which has done most to advance thinking on this issue, there are differences of emphasis. Thus, the Délégation Humanitaire, which deals with emergency NGOs, prefers short, in-house and informal evaluations of performance (interview with Bader 2004); whereas the Mission d’Appui à l’Action Internationale des ONG (MAAIONG), which provides funding mainly to developmental NGOs, stresses lengthier and more formal procedures, often involving independent consultants.

The second proviso is that it is difficult to generalize about professionalization taking place across the 400 or so French organizations listed in the semi-official three-yearly NGO directory (Commission Coopération Développement or CCD 2007). The problems surrounding generalization are compounded by the fact that there are two broad types of French NGO: emergency NGOs (urgenciers) and developmental NGOs (henceforth NGDOs). While the distinctions are beginning to blur, notably in terms of the nature and duration of their field work (Ryfman 2004, p. 39), the fact is that these two categories of organization do still have separate identities, enjoy funding from different units of the French government and European Commission, and, in many cases, belong to different NGO federations.Footnote 3 As regards urgenciers, these include the largest and best known French NGOs, notably Médecins du Monde, Action Contre la Faim (ACF) and two Nobel Peace Prize winners: Handicap International and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). While these emergency NGOs are internationally renowned for their professionalism, they will not be the main focus of this analysis since their progress towards professionalization cannot obviously be traced back to any incentives from the French state. Indeed, urgenciers have generally been reluctant to rely on state funding and some, such as MSF or “Doctors Without Borders,” have refused it altogether.

As for NGDOs, these have traditionally been associated with longer term development work. They include: développementalistes, such as the Comité Catholique Contre la Faim et pour le Développement (CCFD) and Secours Catholique-Caritas France (SC-CF), which operate through indigenous partners in developing countries; volunteer associations, such as the Association Française des Volontaires du Progrès and the Délégation Catholique pour la Coopération, which expatriate volunteers (volontaires) for 1–6 years to partner organizations overseas; and technical NGOs, such as the Groupe de Recherche et d’Échanges Technologiques (GRET) and the Institut de Recherches et d’Applications des Méthodes de Développement (IRAM), which provide financial and technical advice through expert consultants. These NGDOs are generally small, cash-strapped, and lacking in robust structures. They will, however, be the main focus of this survey since they make up, numerically, a preponderant share of the NGO sector and since any steps they have taken towards bureaucratic professionalization can be at least partly attributed to incentives from the French state, on which many of these NGDOs are heavily dependent.Footnote 4

The final caveat is that it is hard to draw a correlation between overtures from the French state and any professionalization by French NGDOs. The question of causality is complicated by two factors. The first is that the state’s demands for professionalization can themselves be traced back to the world of business and theories of “new public management.”Footnote 5 The same is true of many innovations in French NGDO fund-raising and marketing, which have also come directly, rather than through the intermediary of official pressures, from the commercial sector. The second is that, while the French government has exerted influence, it has not been the only actor pushing for professionalization and it has had to compete with “rival” conceptions of professionalism propounded by other actors, such as far-sighted NGDO managers and international organizations. It follows that the French state has held greater sway over NGDOs in relation to some aspects of their professionalization than others. The areas where government influence would appear least likely include: private fund-raising; internal management processes; and approaches to advocacy work. These elements of NGDO operations need only a brief mention at the start of this survey.

Professionalization along “Non-Bureaucratic” Lines

To begin with private fund-raising, this is an area where French NGDOs have made great strides towards professionalization, whether through their more extensive use of websites, direct debits, and facilities for accepting funds via text messages or through their increasing use of “house-to-house canvassing,” “street fund-raising,” and public relations agencies (e.g., TBWA). These innovations will not be explored further here since they have come about in spite of, rather than as a result of, any positive or direct encouragement from the state.

As regards internal management issues, here French NGDOs have taken active steps to professionalize their approach to recruitment, target-setting, and strategic planning (e.g., Deler et al. 1998). These reforms will not, however, be the focus of this article, which is concerned with broad trends in the French NGDO sub-sector rather than with the myriad of internal procedures employed by hundreds of different NGOs.

Turning finally to their approach to lobbying, this is an area where French NGDOs have become much more sophisticated. They have, for example, created their own advocacy departments (e.g., the CCFD and SC-CF) and built up effective coalitions with trades unions and other actors within European and World Social Forums. However, the professionalization of lobbying activity will not be central to this discussion for two reasons. First, advocacy work, particularly of a critical nature, is something, which NGDOs themselves want to do, rather than something, which the state necessarily wants to encourage. Second, it is hard to know what constitutes professionalization in the context of advocacy campaigns. Indeed, as Hudson has observed, “NGOs are hard-pressed to know what they have achieved in their advocacy work, and hence what they should be accountable for… or, for that matter, whom they should be accountable to.”Footnote 6

Turning to the areas where the French state has had more scope for direct influence over NGDOs, these fall into three broad categories: staffing and structures; financial management; and operational approaches. These will be discussed below in more detail, with the focus being initially on the early post-colonial decades and, subsequently, on the global era.

Early Militancy and Amateurism

It is commonly accepted that French NGDOs were characterized by militancy and amateurism in the early post-colonial decades. Generally, they did their “own thing” and were given little encouragement by the state to professionalize their operations. On the staffing front, French NGDOs were marked by a relative absence of permanent personnel, including at the managerial level, as well as by an excessive emphasis on voluntary staff (Woods 2000). This reliance on volunteers was incompatible with, or at least “no guarantee” of, “professionalism or continuity,” given the “episodic availability” of these actors, many of whom were young and engaged in their first work experience (Beigbeder 1992, p. 23). The priority of these NGDOs lay less with the qualifications of their recruits and more with their levels of commitment—be they religious, ideological, or simply altruistic (Dauvin et al. 2002).

French NGDOs were, equally, marked by weak structures. They were overwhelmingly small: some 76% of the 158 NGOs in the first financial survey by the CCD (1987, p. 34) had an annual income of less than 3 million French Francs. They also had little scope for specialization of staff or departments and displayed a classic nonprofit structure, with no clear management hierarchy or division of labour (Haddad 2002, p. 51). While a few NGDOs were organically tied in to wider international networks (e.g., Terre des Hommes), most were not and were only just adjusting to the idea of federations, the largest of which, the Intercollectif and the Comité de Liaison des Organisations de Solidarité Internationale (CLOSI), never attracted the full backing of the French NGO sector.Footnote 7

As regards financial management, here French NGOs—with few exceptions—had no “specific obligations in terms of accounting practices” (Rubio 2004, p. 102).Footnote 8 This absence of rigorous external controls no doubt contributed to financial and other scandals. These included, in the 1970s and 1980s, the alleged funding by the CCFD of Marxist liberation movements in Latin America (Algrin 1988).

A similar lack of professionalism marked the approach of French NGDOs to operational work. This was true, for instance of their development education efforts in France. While dozens of NGDOs engaged in such activities, few specialized in them, and their awareness-raising work tendedwith notable exceptions such as the annual telethon by the Association Française contre les Myopathies—to be highly localized, often involving small-scale walks and talks. This amateurish tinge was equally evident in NGDO projects and programmes in the Southern hemisphere, where commitment to the cause took precedence over developmental effectiveness. Considering themselves to be on a mission to help their “fellow man” materially and, often, spiritually, French NGDOs were usually reluctant to engage in self-criticism or evaluation. Indeed, evaluation was seen as a form of “neo-colonial control” (interview with the CRID, 2003) and was “considered both to be a type of interference and a useless, costly practice externally imposed by donors” (Ryfman 2004, p. 42). There was, moreover, no clear commitment to learning or feedback mechanisms, prompting one expert commentator to note that “French NGOs make little effort to draw lessons from their experience.”Footnote 9

There were many reasons for this lack of professionalism. It was partly a consequence of the lateness with which freedom of association emerged in France, as well as the fact that there were (thanks to the inclusive nature of 1901 law on associations) so many nongovernmental actors chasing after such a limited supply of French state resources. It was also partly a function of the anti-conformist, anti-capitalist leanings of many early NGDO leaders. It was, moreover, partly the result of an ideological mindset within French government circles, which baulked at the idea of encouraging unelected intermediaries between France’s highly centralized state and its citizenry.

In line with this thinking and with a predilection to rely on official aid channels, the French state did little to push NGDOs to professionalize. It made only token gestures to promote higher levels of expertise among NGDO staff. To illustrate, it covered the bulk of the cost of courses offered by bodies, such as BIOFORCE, which was created in 1983 to provide training to NGO logisticians, administrators, and programme managers. The state also did little to help NGOs build up their structures. While it provided some financial support to federations, such as the Centre de Recherche et d’Information sur le Développement (CRID), established in 1976, it was far from wholehearted in its commitment and generally left NGDOs to their own devices, sometimes with unhappy consequences: for instance, the first overarching NGO federation, the CLOSI, imploded only a few years after its creation.Footnote 10

The French government was equally lacklustre in its approach to NGDO financial management. In particular, it did not require most nongovernmental organizations to submit detailed financial information to any regulatory authority. It also offered one of the lowest levels of support for development education work in Western Europe (OECD 2000). Finally, the French state was far from proactive in pushing NGDOs to evaluate or enhance the impact of their fieldwork. Its reticence is perhaps not surprising, given that the French administration itself was widely criticized for the lack of effectiveness of its aid programme (Lancaster 1999, pp. 120–123) and was not, as such, well placed to insist that NGDOs formalize their lesson-learning procedures.

Promoting “Bureaucratic” Professionalization

The French state has become more proactive in promoting NGDO professionalization over the global era. It has felt compelled to be so, partly to assuage the concerns of a donor public shaken by NGO corruption scandals and partly to reassure its own critics that official assistance to NGDOs was being used towards agreed ends. This latter concern has heightened over the last two decades, as the French government has had to contend with high levels of domestic unemployment; the budgetary constraints imposed by the European Stability Pact and by its own Loi Organique relative aux Lois de Finances; not to mention allegations by the public accounts watchdog, the Cour des Comptes (2005), that official funding of NGOs was inadequately controlled by the French Foreign Ministry.Footnote 11

Faced with these pressures, the French government has encouraged NGDOs to raise the level of expertise of their staff. To this end, it introduced, in January 2002, a system for validating the work experience of volunteers based in France (or bénévoles) who have devoted over 2,400 hours to an international cause (Rubio 2004, p. 49). It has, moreover, helped NGDOs to enjoy more stable forms of management by authorizing them, under the 2002 Finance Law, to remunerate directors who are working full-time.

Significantly too, the French Foreign Ministry has stepped up its efforts to strengthen NGDO structures. In this context, the MAAIONG has offered technical support and guidance for the formation and development of NGO federations and other coalitions. It has, in particular, contributed €610,000 a year towards the total operational cost of the main federations, with around a third of this sum being channelled to what is now the overarching NGO federation, Coordination SUD (Potevin 2000, p. 20).

At the same time, the French authorities have become more rigorous in their demands for greater financial accountability. Whereas in the past, it was only resource-rich NGOs and those with “public utility status” that were subject to financial checks, the French state has now tightened up these controls. On 10 August 1991, it passed a law requiring all NGOs which make nationwide funding appeals to the donor public to prepare financial accounts for inspection by the Cour des Comptes (Rubio 2004, p. 102). More recently, on 1 August 2003, a law was voted that gave the Cour des Comptes the right to check the accounts of any NGO benefiting from tax relief (Blum 2005, p. 26).

Finally, the French government has provided NGDOs with greater incentives to professionalize their development education activities and their operational practices in the field. It has encouraged NGDOs to have their awareness-raising activities properly evaluated via the Fonds pour la Promotion des Études préalables, Études transversales et Évaluations or F3E (discussed below). It has also pushed NGDOs to place greater emphasis on evaluation, feedback, and learning in relation to their projects and programmes in the developing world. With these goals in mind, the French Foreign Ministry was instrumental in the creation, in 1994, of the independent evaluative and training unit, the F3E. It even agreed to provide €400,000 a year or 80% of the total funding of the F3E, enabling the latter to grant NGDOs a 70% state subsidy on most evaluations and feasibility reports.

Towards a “Development Monoculture”?

Largely in response to these overtures, French NGDOs have undertaken some “bureaucratic” forms of professionalization. But they have stopped short of becoming “development monocultures” (Fowler 2000, p. 105) and have made considerable efforts to hold on to their earlier militancy, whether in terms of their approach to staffing, financial management or operational issues.

Staffing and Structures: Professionalization “With Borders”

On the staffing front, French NGDOs have recognised that “good will, the desire to help is no longer enough in itself” and that “nowadays it is essential to have real skills in order to work for a NGO” (Haddad 2002, p. 50). One way in which they have addressed this perceived shortcoming has been through recruiting better qualified personnel, where necessary with the aid of more attractive salaries. This trend is clear from Table 1, which shows how the qualifications of volunteers for overseas placements have risen over the global era. In effect, in 1989, 43% of recruits did not have degrees (BAC+3) and only 17% had a postgraduate qualification higher than a Master’s. By 1999, however, only 27% of volunteers did not have degrees and 28% had doctoral qualifications. More recent statistics confirm this trend. Thus, a 2003 IPSOS survey noted that the overwhelming majority of those volunteering to work overseas (76%) are now graduates compared to only 19% of the French population as a whole (Gouraud 2003). Furthermore, 39% of NGDO recruits “have come from one of France’s top business schools or studies at the doctoral or Master’s level” (ibid), whilst almost half of the overseas programme managers working for the largest développementaliste, the CCFD, now have a level of BAC+5 (or 5 years of study after “A-levels”) (interview with the CCFD, 2003).

Table 1 Percentage of volunteers qualified at various levels

Not only have French NGDOs effected major changes to their staffing profile, but they have also done so seamlessly. They have been helped by a number of factors. The first was the high level of unemployment in France, particularly among young graduates in the 1990s. The second was the end of French national service on 1 January 1997. This allowed volunteer agencies to move away from the practice of accepting applicants whose main motivation was often the avoidance of military service. It also paved the way for more applications from female candidates, as well as for a more competitive selection process, based explicitly on qualifications (interview with the CLONG-V, 2004). The third factor involved a change in NGDO attitudes towards recruitment and training. This can be discerned in the recent raft of NGDO guides to encourage better qualified young people to engage in volunteer work; in the new-found readiness of French NGDOs to provide specialist qualifications to young people interested in international development work; and in their greater commitment to on-the-job training, whether in the form of accounting, strategic, and personnel management courses offered by the prestigious École des Mines or of courses provided by NGDO federations, such as the CRID, which coordinates the annual “summer university.”Footnote 12

Alongside this “up-skilling” process, French NGDOs have shored up their institutional structures. They have done so by forming NGO “platforms,” specialized units, consortiums, networks, and federations, not to mention the first cohesive national federation, Coordination SUD, established in 1994. They have, equally, achieved this goal by recognizing “the emergence of specific career paths within their organisations” (Ryfman 2004, p. 72) and developing new areas of expertise, such as civil society building. They have, lastly, built up their capacity by taking on more permanent staff. To illustrate, the CCFD and GRET have increased their number of employees based in France from 90 and 17 in 1988 to 184 and 56 respectively in 2004 (CCD 1988 and 2004).

It would, however, be misleading to suggest that French NGDOs have remodelled their staff profile and structure simply to cater for the demands of the state. Most NGDOs have, in fact, viewed the rapid rise in the qualifications of recruits “with circumspection” (Blum 2005, p. 12). For some, this phenomenon may deny opportunities to enthusiastic young applicants with no formal qualifications (interview with the CLONG-V, 2004). For others, particularly senior managers, it may lead to a loss of NGDO identity and may even fuel a trend towards higher salaries.

Low pay levels have long been a feature of French NGDOs. They can be attributed “to the small scale of the organizations, to the lack or weakness of trade unionism in the non-profit sector and to the fact that many workers accept over-exploitation because they share the ideals” of the association (Archambault 1997, p. 210). Equally, they are “due to a structural effect, as the labour force in associations is mostly female and more part-time than in any other sector” (ibid). They are, moreover, the result of a deliberate strategy on the part of French NGDOs, which unlike their Anglo-American counterparts, have “moral qualms about recruiting professionals and paying them in line with market rates” (Blum 2005, p. 12). Many feel the need to keep salaries low to maintain their links to the poorest people in developing countries; to distinguish themselves from private companies; and to underscore the fact that they are not simply making a career out of other people’s misfortune.

In line with this thinking, French NGDOs have, despite considerable changes within the profession, maintained average pay 30–50% below market rates (Ryfman 2004, p. 73). They have also been quick to criticize any nongovernmental actors that are paying comparatively high salaries. In this context, Sylvie Brunel, former ACF President, publicly complained about alleged “freewheeling lifestyles” in this organization where “the salary level is incompatible with the act of appealing to the generosity of the public.”Footnote 13 There have also been criticisms of NGDOs which pay their directors, not by following the restrictive terms laid down by the 2002 law, but through alternative channels (e.g., through another association with a legal link to the NGDO). In such instances, the NGDO is condemned by its peers for engaging in “hypocrisy… a sort of device for getting round the law” (Blum 2005, p. 14).

It has been partly out of fear of this type of criticism that many nongovernmental actors have been reluctant to take on the type of technocratic structures favoured by the state. Thus, while the top ten or so French NGDOs have grown and become more bureaucratic over the global era, the vast majority (89%) of all NGOs have remained small to medium-sized, with an annual income below €10 million (CCD 2008, p. 52). They have, as such, had little scope to create specialized units, to employ additional salaried employees, or to reduce the proportion of volunteers on their staff. Woods (2000, p. 19) found that France had the highest percentage of voluntary personnel in Europe, whilst Coordination SUD (2004, p. 64) estimated that some 150,000 bénévoles offer their services to French NGOs. Needless to say, this over-reliance on volunteers “results… in an image of French NGOs as being still largely artisanal and amateurish or at least non-professional compared, in particular, to Anglo-Saxon organisations” (ibid).

This impression of amateurism is particularly clear in the case of the most cash-strapped NGDOs, whose “lack of means leads them to recruit poorly trained and badly paid staff, on short term contracts and/or within the framework of the French youth employment scheme” (ibid, p. 36). It is also true of some of the smallest NGDOs, which “boast that they can do without the process of professionalisation” (Ryfman 2004, p. 41) or refuse to accept the state’s “right to take a critical look” at them (CCD 1999, p. 83). It is, equally, a feature of some French volunteer agencies, which do not “see themselves as having a part to play in this vast movement towards professionalisation” (Ryfman 2004, p. 41). While this amateurism has been tempered by the emergence of new NGO federations, which have served as a catalyst for professionalization, there are still many small and medium-sized NGDOs which have been too preoccupied by a culture of immediate action and too constrained by staff shortages to participate in the work of these collective groupings.

Financial Accountability versus Bad Habits

French NGDOs have generally recognized the need for tighter financial management, especially in the wake of the recent financial scandals surrounding the cancer charity ARC (1993) and the leprosy foundation, Fondation Raoul-Follereau (2002).Footnote 14 To allay donor fears, 18 leading NGOs formed, in 1989, the Comité de la Charte de Déontologie, a best practice charter on the duties and rights of NGO. This promised to provide the donor public with the information it needed if it was to “give with confidence” and it required signatory NGOs to undergo an annual inspection (Blum 2005, p. 28). A parallel development has been the emergence of a new system of NGO certification, based on the Anglo-American scheme, Charity Navigator ( The French version is run by the Bureau Veritas Quality International (BVQI) and involves a full on-site audit of procedures and other tests of NGDO financial practices before a certificate is awarded for a three year period.Footnote 15

Some French NGDOs have, however, rejected state-led demands for greater financial accountability. They have done so out of a continuing belief in the unquestionable rightness of their cause and an unwavering dislike of external scrutiny. As the CCD (1999, p. 83) makes clear, French NGDOs, “having laid out their stall on the side of the critics, have long thought that they could not themselves be subjected to criticism… Who had the right to criticise the critic?” Other NGDOs have been more receptive to the idea of financial accountability but they have been careful to keep their involvement in any charters or certification schemes strictly voluntary (Blum 2005, p. 28).

In light of the above, it is hardly surprising that French NGDOs have fallen short of government expectations in two recent official reports. The first was written by the Cour des Comptes (2005) and found that French NGDOs were marked by serious dysfunctionings and inadequate budgetary controls. It noted that, for projects co-funded by the state, travel and other receipts were often not produced on time, if at all; and that the cost of NGDO expertise was frequently overvalued. The second study was a Parliamentary report (Blum 2007), which examined the use by French NGOs of funds donated in the wake of the December 2004 South Asian tsunami. Though focused essentially on emergency NGOs, this survey also looked at the CCFD and the SC-CF, which were present before, during, and after this crisis. It corroborated many of the findings of an earlier study by Blum (2005, p. 34), which had pointed to “make-shift management” and “a certain lack of professionalism” across the French NGO sector. The 2007 Blum report regretted that French NGOs had refused to follow the advice of their own Comité de la Charte, namely to provide maximum transparency and to use a common “grid” (developed in January 2005) for presenting financial data. Instead, “NGO accounts were only submitted after several reminders and were produced in formats which were often hard to understand and impossible to compare from one institution to the next” (Blum 2007, p. 10). Furthermore, questions from the mission of enquiry were often not answered or were answered erroneously, with mistakes amounting to €50,000 in the case of the CCFD (ibid).

Operational Approach: Pursuing Quality or Preserving Militancy?

Turning finally to their operational approach, this is an area where French NGDOs have taken significant steps towards professionalization. In the case of their development education work, one innovation has been the drafting of a charter on awareness-raising activities. This document, prepared by the CRID in the late 1990s stressed the need for all campaigns to convey to the public a positive image of the developing world and of the interdependent nature of North–South relations.Footnote 16 A second method has revolved around the use of quality benchmarks or “labels.” Among the pioneers of this technique has been the Federation for Ethical Labelling (Collectif de l’Éthique sur l’Étiquette), which was formed in 1995 to raise awareness about fair trade and establish an ethical kitemark for fair trade goods produced and sold in France. The concept has also been used by the CRID, which introduced, in 1996, an initiative known as Acteurs Solidaires or “Actors Working Together.” This latter scheme has involved the awarding of “labels” to high quality campaign work undertaken by NGDOs, often at a regional level.

A third technique has been to offer training to NGDOs involved in awareness-raising activities. This approach is central to the work of the NGO coalition, the Plateforme d’Éducation au Développement et à la Solidarité Internationale (EDUCASOL), which was created in March 2004 at the initiative of 22 French associations. A fourth approach has involved using new technologies to improve the dissemination of information to the general public. This has been achieved, for example, through the setting up of informative Internet sites, such as those of the CRID and Coordination SUD. It has also been accomplished through the creation, in 1988, of a vast electronic database, which lists all of the resources available at the 80 or so RITIMO documentation centres located throughout France.

The fifth method has involved “scaling up” awareness-raising activities. NGDOs have, for instance, sought to have development education activities integrated into the French school syllabus, whether through Third World School Days (Journées Tiers Monde à l’École); their development of pedagogical tools for particular age groups; or their endeavours to identify the training required for teachers in this domain. They have, equally, engaged in larger-scale awareness-raising campaigns, such as “Future Planet” or Terre d’Avenir, a three-day event launched by the CCFD in 1992, and the “International Development Awareness Week,” initiated by the CRID in 1997. These events are complemented by more targeted initiatives, which focus on specific groups (e.g., the “Student Solidarity Programme” or Programme Solidarités Étudiantes, launched in 1993) or themes, such as water and hunger (e.g., “The World of Tomorrow,” Demain Le Monde, formed in 1994).

Alongside these innovations, French NGDOs have also taken steps to professionalize their overseas fieldwork. They have gone along, to some extent, with the “template” for professionalization laid down by the French state. They have, for example, integrated into the project proposals they submit to the Foreign Ministry strategic management tools, such as feasability studies (which are a form of pre-evaluation of the impact of a programme) and the logical framework (which is a mechanism for agreeing, at the outset of a project, measurable targets). French NGDOs have, moreover, started to conduct their own limited, internal evaluations. They have also been strongly supportive of the F3E. Indeed, 55 NGDOs have signed up to this mechanism, paying their membership fee (initially 3,000 Francs) and investing their energies in the running of this body.Footnote 17 They have formed their own “general assembly”; elected, on an annual basis, a seven strong bureau, which examines requests for co-funding; and created a technical secretariat to implement the evaluation programme. NGDOs seeking to have their project evaluated have willingly incurred the costs of putting together a bid and have even covered 20% of the cost of the actual study. Indeed, in total between April 1994 and 2002, some 33 feasibility studies, 50 evaluations, and seven cross-cutting studies were carried out by this body.Footnote 18

French NGDOs have, moreover, begun to formalize their learning processes through their involvement in the F3E. They have also sought to guard against loss of institutional memory, and the problems associated with high staff turnover, by forming specialized coalitions, such as Plateforme Dette et Développement (the French civil society grouping on overseas debt) and by developing closer links with independent research bodies. Indeed, over half of all French NGOs now claim to collaborate with French or foreign research centres and universities (Commissariat Général 2002).

In parallel with these actions, French NGDOs have also taken greater care to store lessons, whether in the form of electronic archives on the Internet or in NGO documentation centres, such as those managed by the Département Évangélique Français d’Action Apostolique (DEFAP) and the CCFD. The lessons learned are also disseminated across the French NGDO sub-sector by way of: best practice guidelines (e.g., the Foreign Ministry Vade Mecum on funding bids); electronic updates on advocacy campaigns (e.g., CRID Échos); manuals (e.g., F3E handbooks on evaluation); newsletters; and even blogs.

It would, however, be wrong to suggest that French NGDOs have routinely adapted their operational approaches to conform to the “model” of professionalization laid down by the French state. Thus, their development education activities can still be uncoordinated, localized, and lacking in expertise. In some ways, this is an inevitable consequence of the sheer number of French NGOs involved in development education work—some 146 in total (CCD 2007). In other ways, it is a reflection of a more deliberate strategy on the part of many NGDOs, which continue to see awareness-raising as a militant activity. These organizations have questioned the value of “labels,” neglected to have the bulk of their development education work evaluated, and doubted whether awareness-raising techniques can be learnt, given that this activity is all about conviction and an activist spirit. They have even, in some cases, been wary of relying on new technologies. Indeed, many small NGDOs and even some medium-sized ones, such as the DEFAP, which sees itself as a “service of the Church,” have been slow to set up their own website.

Turning to NGDO operations overseas, here, too, there have been limits to the professionalizing process. Thus, while some NGDOs have integrated strategic planning and logical frameworks into their co-funding proposals, many others have refused to do so, considering these tools to be too time-consuming, too mechanical, and too ill-adapted to the kind of holistic approaches favoured by French NGDOs. Many have also questioned whether the Anglo-American style of evaluation, with its emphasis on measurable targets and standardized criteria, can truly capture the participatory and sometimes “spiritual” nature of their social development work, let alone their wider efforts to promote empowerment and self-reliance.Footnote 19 The reflections of these NGDOs have been strengthened by the work of “militant” experts based in French consultancy bodies, such as the GRET and IRAM. These specialist organizations have formed a federation, Groupe Initiatives, which has militated in favour of a holistic conception of effectiveness, based less on concrete results and more on levels of participation and the quality of relationships forged between civil society actors (interview with Coordination SUD, 2003).

Where French NGDOs have had to undergo formal evaluations, they have often continued to see this as an imposition. As Blum (2005, p. 31) has observed: “In reality, it is often the Foreign Ministry which pushes NGOs to engage in evaluation, particularly before renewing its funding or agreeing the next tranche of monies.” The same author has remarked upon how few NGDOs have included in their project proposals a budgetary allocation specifically for evaluation and how many of these organizations have been keen to bury or denigrate critical evaluation reports. For its part, the Cour des Comptes (2005, p. 10) has noted how self-evaluations by NGDOs have been quite self-gratulatory and how these organizations have eschewed truly independent evaluators and opted for more sympathetic consultants, who are known to them or already familiar with the project. This watchdog body has, equally, observed how “NGOs, such as the GRET… are, at one and the same time, given funding to carry out projects and employed as evaluators of other projects” (ibid). These actors may not be objective, since they are bound to be affected by the “links which exist between evaluators and operations on the ground.” They are also likely to be influenced by the “prospect of themselves being judged in turn in the future” (ibid).

Needless to say this lukewarm attitude of French NGDOs towards evaluation has had a negative impact on their ability to learn, store, and disseminate formal lessons. They have, in effect, viewed evaluations less as a means of learning from past mistakes and more as a mechanism for providing donors with a string of apparent success stories. The F3E is, in part, an attempt to get round this reluctance to learn, but its evaluations are only accessible to member organizations and its activities are premised upon the questionable assumption that those organizations are genuinely prepared to have the full extent of their shortcomings revealed to the rest of the membership.

All in all, French NGDOs have tended not to draw lessons from past evaluations, establish formal feedback loops, or build up institutional memory. Their efforts in these areas have been constrained by a number of factors. These have included the action-oriented culture of NGDOs, which tends to assume that lessons are constantly changing and that there is, as such, a need to operate exclusively in the “here and now” (Mowjee 2001, p. 174). A second obstacle has been staff shortages and the lack of capacity of NGDOs to maintain up-to-date archives. A third impediment has been the high proportion of voluntary personnel. The rapid turnover of these staff has militated against lesson-learning. As Blum (2005, p. 31) has noted: “Young people… tend to use NGOs as a kind of on-the-job apprenticeship… Undertaking only one NGO mission, they cannot… build on their experience and draw lessons from past failures.”

A Resource Dependence Perspective

It follows from the above that French NGOs have travelled only a limited distance down the road towards “technical professionalism.” How is their reticence with regard to this wider trend in Northern NGOs to be explained? Can it be understood in theoretical terms or, more specifically, with reference to resource dependence (RD) theory? The RD perspective was originally conceived by Pfeffer and Salancik (1978) and has since been used successfully to account for recent developments in Northern and Southern NGOs (Fowler 2000; Hudock 1999). It explains organizational change in terms of the propensity of organizations to alter their structures and goals with a view to obtaining the resources they need. Resource dependence theory uses an open systems framework and, at its core, is the view that organizations will (and should) act rationally in their own self interest; and that they should respond to the demands of those groups in the environment which control critical resources. They should, as Pfeffer and Salancik put it (1978, p. 260), “seek stability and certainty in their own resource exchanges” in order to “ensure the organization’s survival.”

There is insufficient space here to elaborate a RD model with which to explain the complex interactions between French NGDOs and their resource environment. There is also no room for a detailed account of the various revenue diversification and dependence minimization strategies undertaken by NGDOs in their quest to stabilize their resource exchanges. Instead, the aim here will simply be to examine whether French NGDOs have been acting broadly in line with RD theory and undertaking the type of structural and procedural reforms that will generate a stable flow of resources and ensure organizational survival.

Misreading their Resource Environment

On the face of it, French NGDOs have been refusing the logic of RD and misreading their resource environment. By eschewing “technical professionalism” and preserving some of their original militancy, they would appear to have been passing up the opportunity for greater support from the state. While there may be perfectly rational reasons for not undertaking structural changes that will bring additional resources, this approach does nonetheless appear, a priori, counter-intuitive from a RD perspective, particularly when the advantages of French state funding are considered. These include its stability, its predictability and, in the case of larger programmes, its pluriannual nature. Other benefits include: the fact that it allows for a fairly high level of overheads (around 10% of project costs); that it can cover 75% of the price-tag of programmes co-funded under “the new contractual arrangements”; and that it can, albeit in breach of government regulations, finance an even higher percentage of the cost of some projects “under convention” (that is to say, contracted out by the Foreign Ministry). Another advantage of French government assistance is that it offers NGDOs the chance to develop a closer relationship with, and to exert “reverse influence” on, one of the world’s leading donor states.

As a corollary of this reluctance to undertake bureaucratic forms of professionalization favoured by the state, French NGDOs have found themselves quite dependent on private sources of revenue (see Table 2). They have, more particularly, become heavily reliant on the donor public and their militant supporters, which, together, make up their critical resource. While there may be good reasons for prioritizing funds from the general public, the bottom line is that this is a potentially volatile source of income, with donations often being seasonal in nature or one-off payments—in cash, through the Internet, or via text messaging. The donor public is, moreover, prone to compassion fatigue, especially whenever NGDOs have become embroiled in scandals, such as the recent Arche de Zoé affair.Footnote 20 The French donor public is also typically less generous than private donors in Anglo-American countries, with one estimate suggesting that the average American gives 9.5 times more to the nonprofit sector than the average French citizen (Archambault 1997, p. 208).Footnote 21 Significantly too, the French public is reluctant to finance anything other than NGO operational activities. Indeed, as Blum (2005, p. 20) has pointed out, NGOs “encounter some difficulty in obtaining funds aimed at financing their structures. The citizen, who is quite prepared to make a donation in support of children in refugee camps, is much less so when it comes to paying the salaries of NGO practitioners.”

Table 2 Overview of official and private resources of French NGOs

As regards their militant activists, these have also represented a problematic source of support for NGDOs. For a start, these grassroots volunteers are often only available for short periods, which militates against learning and forward planning. Furthermore, this resource is not necessarily compatible with professionalization since, as Brown and Korten (1991, p. 54) make clear: “voluntary energies are not easily controlled… difficult if not impossible to buy and… largely inaccessible to development planners, bureaucrats, and technicians.” At the same time, these volunteers are generally more militant than permanent head office staff. They tend, as such, to tie the hands of managers and to push them to undertake more radical advocacy work than might be consistent with a resource-oriented strategy aimed at maximizing assistance from the state.

On the face of it, this prioritization of volatile private over more stable official resources might be deemed “irrational” from a RD perspective and possibly even symptomatic of historico-cultural, ideological, and institutional constraints at the heart of French NGDOs. Taking the first two constraints together, these involve an excessive attachment to the past and to the ideology of the early post-colonial decades, when radical tiersmondiste and anti-capitalist ideas came to predominate. This ideology was underpinned by “romanticised views of poverty” (Whaites 2002, p. 11) and the idealistic notion that selfless acts by NGDO activists should not be sullied by contact with the state or the adoption of managerial techniques.

This exaggerated fear of co-optation by the state has remained a deep-seated concern of militant activists within the French NGDO movement. This hard core includes: “Veterans of the anti-colonial struggle seeking to carry on the fight on behalf of the Third World, orphans of the post May 1968 era… ex-communists” and disaffected activists on the Left and Right (Ryfman 2004, p. 75). These “anti-conformist addicts” (Ponsignon 2002) have been joined by younger activists from social movements and groups, such as the Association pour la Taxation des Transactions Financières et l’Aide aux Citoyens (ATTAC). This new generation has defined itself in opposition to the Establishment; demonstrated a visceral dislike of the American, free-market model of development; and forged links with more radical elements of the “alter” or “anti-globalization” movement.

Turning finally to institutional constraints, these include entrenched practices, bureaucratic inertia, and a general lack of capacity of NGDOs to glean resources from their wider environment. These structural and procedural shortcomings are an indirect consequence of chronic underfunding by the French state and a direct function of the small size, disparate nature, and sheer proliferation of French NGDOs. They are also the result of irrational fears on the part of nongovernmental actors, some of which are stubbornly determined to “stay small” at all costs (Bossuyt and Develtere 1995, p. 77) and others of which display a nostalgic, even superstitious attachment to practices that have worked in the past.

Reading their Environment

It would, however, be wrong to suggest that French NGDOs have been misreading their environment or failing to act “rationally” in pursuit of resources that are critical to organizational survival. The fact is that these nongovernmental actors have actively sought to overcome many of the historico-cultural and ideological constraints on their capacity to make strategic decisions and to pursue their resource interests. They have, in particular, begun replacing the old guard, notably the unreconstructed cold warriors and second generation soixante-huitards, with a new breed of managers and career-minded recruits, who are explicitly interested in results and professionalism and who are not scarred by any of the ideological battles of the past. French NGDOs have also addressed their institutional shortcomings. Thus, for example, they have substantially increased their participation in federations. They have also demonstrated a growing readiness to adopt a specialist focus (e.g., the emergence of “briefcase” NGDOs focusing exclusively on issues, such as AIDS or micro-credit). Furthermore, some NGDOs have become polyvalent (e.g., the Guilde Européenne du Raid) and a few have even dabbled in emergency-related work (e.g., Secours Catholique-Caritas France). Finally, many NGDOs have pooled their expertise and submitted collaborative funding bids under “the new contractual arrangements.”

It would, equally, be misleading to argue that French NGDOs, in eschewing “technical professionalism,” have simply been misreading their resource environment. The fact is that these organizations have been well aware of the risks associated with undertaking technocratic forms of professionalization. Such a course of action can, for example, require them to “follow highly formalized and standardized procedures” and to adopt a bureaucratic structure that is “cumbersome” (Fowler 2000, p. 57) and “similar to that of government agencies” (Froelich 1999, p. 260). It can, equally, lead nongovernmental actors to lose the sense of their original mission; become more accountable to donor states than local beneficiaries (Hulme and Edwards 1997); and become vulnerable to changes of government and delays in state funding cycles. A further reason for not embracing a “development monoculture” is that it may increase NGDO dependence on a French state, which has a poor reputation in terms of its foreign and development policy towards the developing world, particularly Africa.Footnote 22 An additional argument for avoiding “normal professionalism” is that the incentives offered by the French government to encourage NGDOs down this route have remained marginal. Thus, as Table 2 demonstrates, central state funding has only represented between 7 and 13% of total NGO revenue over recent years. Indeed, France has consistently channelled a lower percentage of its official aid budget to NGOs than other “Western” European states: less than 1%, compared to a European average of around 5%. In some years, the French government has provided as little as 0.6% of its overseas programme, which is ten times less than the percentage figure offered by Denmark and Holland.Footnote 23

Against such a backdrop, French NGDOs have been right, from a RD perspective, to concentrate less on state-led demands for professionalization and more on the priorities of their critical resource. They have clearly recognised that the donor public represents, collectively, the single largest proportion of their income, consistently making up between 60 and 70% of total private resources (CCD 2008, p. 12) and achieving even higher levels at times of highly mediated crises, such as the December 2004 tsunami (see notes to Table 2).Footnote 24 Equally, they have understood that these private donations bring autonomy and legitimacy; and that they are also free from explicit conditions. Thus, while the public is censorious wherever there is a whiff of scandal, it remains nonetheless a disparate group of actors who are essentially uninformed about what NGDOs are doing in France and in the field. It is simply not a cohesive unit with a single voice or set of demands. Rather, it is an ensemble of 30 million potential donors, who do not have the time or energy to monitor the level of professionalism of NGDO operations. More significantly still, insofar as the general public takes a view on professionalization, it equates this not with the creation of robust bureaucratic structures but with action, immediate results, and the avoidance of delays. This mindset is described by Lewis (2001, p. 9) as the “view… that NGOs should use almost all their funds for working with poor people and should not spend money on administrative overheads or waste too much time on administrative questions.”

As for grassroots supporters, the other element of the critical resource, these constitute a pool of human resources, without which NGOs could not perform at anywhere near their current levels. It includes an estimated 250,000 NGO members or adhérents; 2,000 “development volunteers,” who normally work overseas on stipends or local contracts; and tens of thousands of bénévoles based in France, who make their services available on a sporadic basis (CCD 1995, p. 49). This militant base provides its services either free of charge or at well below market rates. It represents a major source of dynamism, legitimacy, and “voluntary energies,” and constitutes the “lifeblood” of movements that “do not have access to much financial capital or political power” (Brown and Korten 1991, p. 54). It is a body of support whose views French NGDOs simply cannot ignore. It is also a grouping that has rejected “technical professionalism” outright, seeing it as a form of “homogenizing tyranny” (Edwards and Fowler 2002, p. 17) or private sector managerialism that will lead the NGO movement to lose touch with the poor, become indistinguishable from commercial companies and sacrifice its original mission.


This article has sought to establish whether French NGDOs have fallen into line with the wider trend towards professionalization that has marked the Northern nonprofit sector and, above all, Anglo-American NGOs over the last two decades. It has shown how French NGDOs have undertaken reforms to their staffing, structure, and modus operandi whilst stopping short of “technical professionalism.” It has argued that, whilst these NGDOs may appear to be missing out on resource opportunities by refusing to embrace bureaucratic forms of professionalization, they have in fact been acting in accordance with RD theory and correctly reading their environment. They have, in the words of Pfeffer and Salancik (1978, p. 27), been “faced with conflicting demands” and been forced to “decide which groups to attend to and which to ignore.” Confronted with this choice, French NGDOs have consistently given priority to the wishes of their militant base and donor public over the demands of actors which are of secondary importance in resource terms, notably the French state. They have, in other words, accorded precedence to the views of private donors, who are unenthusiastic about technical professionalization, over the exigencies of a state, which favours more robust NGO structures and reporting procedures.

It remains to be seen how far French NGDOs will be prepared to travel down the route of “normal professionalism.” Their readiness to go further will depend largely on the incentives on offer from the French state. The current French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has made some encouraging noises by engaging in regular direct consultations with NGDOs and by promising to honour an earlier pledge to double state aid to NGOs by 2009 (Cour des Comptes 2005). However, more conservative elements within the French political establishment have continued to harbour ideological reservations about NGDOs; have baulked at the “intrusion” of these nongovernmental actors into the field of foreign policy (Devin 1999, p. 75); and have even pointed to the lack of professionalism of these organizations as an excuse not to employ their services more fully in the delivery of the official assistance programme.Footnote 25 Unless more substantial state support is forthcoming, it is hard to see how French NGDOs can ever rival their Anglo-American counterparts in terms of size, structure or levels of professionalism. This will be a matter of regret to the more aid-dependent French nongovernmental organizations. But it will be less troubling to the majority of NGDOs, which are keen to maintain a respectable distance from the failures of official donors over recent decades and which are anxious to avoid being labelled as “unhappy agents of a foreign aid system in decline” (Pearce 2000, p. 24). It should, equally, help these NGDOs to preserve the militant attributes and core values, which they will need if they are to continue holding out for a “better” world.