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NGOs and the transfer of global maternal health policies – NGOMA (completed)

The primary aim of this study is to investigate the transfer of global maternal health policies approached through the actions of international NGOs.

About the project

NGOMA: Analyzing the rise of non-state actors

One of the clearest trends in recent history of global health is the stronger role for non-state actors, whether corporations, philanthropic foundations, public-private partnerships or non-governmental organisations and civil society groups.

The NGOMA project addresses this trend by examining the role of health-related NGOs in ‘transferring’ or diffusing global norms, policies and programmes targeting women’s and adolescent’s health to the national health and education system and local communities in Malawi.

The project has developed a unique research focus on the role of such actors, applying critical ethnographic methods to understand their impact on policy, governance and practice. Through a multi-sited ethnographic study, the project examines how policies and programmes made by global communities of practice work themselves out, and to what effect, within national policy circles and local practice.

Maternal Health: a field increasingly relying on NGOs

The maternal health field has recently been going through a rapid policy shift. At the end of the MDG era, the focus in maternal health was primarily on skilled birth attendance. At the end of 2014, the policy discourse had narrowed down to teenage pregnancies and how to prevent them – through keeping girls in school. The influx of NGOs in health development enabled this profound rapid shift, by bypassing the time consuming and bureaucratic process of going through national policy channels.

NGOs, on the other hand, as channels for these global norms are faced with the reality of competing for short-term funding, within an increasingly competitive environment. NGOs find themselves under constant pressure to produce success, which hinders a more critical view of learning and the fault lines in the implementation process.

This was further intensified when the newly elected President Trump reinstated and expanded the Mexico City Policy, or the global gag rule, banning foreign NGOs from providing abortion services, lobbying for abortion or even informing women about abortion.

This lead to a further shrinking of the political space for civil society that heavily affects the ability of civil society to have a distinct political voice. In local communities, the vast number of NGOs implementing all kinds of small-scale projects is met with distrust and resistance. 

The changing role of NGOs

NGOs are at present unable to voice needs of communities, but are instruments for the implementation of global policies. As such, they have lost the profound role of civil society as intermediaries between policy makers, be they governmental or global, and local communities.

The fact that donors bypass governmental structures, favoring NGOs as implementing actors, further weakens already fragile national health and education systems.

Research outcomes

The NGOMA project has clear policy relevance, given that bilateral donors, including Norway, direct substantial funding to non-governmental organisations, primarily international NGOs. Today, the information of these implementing practices is produced by NGOs themselves that is heavily limited by a strict reporting system and the pressure to produce success. The NGOMA project is very timely as we are at the forefront in describing and analyzing these profound changes in the health development field.

The NGOMA project takes note of this timeliness by publishing in leading social science and public health journals in order to engage both the social sciences as applied to health, and public health research, policy and practice.

In addition, the project is committed to knowledge exchange beyond the academic sphere, by providing scientific input at policy-related conferences, panels of donors and nongovernmental organisations and popular press.  


The project is funded by the Research Council of Norway’s GLOBVAC Programme (2014-2018).


The project is a collaboration between the Centre for Development and the Environment at the University of Oslo and Chancellor College at University of Malawi.

Tags: Global South, Malawi
Published Mar. 27, 2015 11:02 AM - Last modified June 22, 2020 1:57 PM