The NGO Programme in Portugal is to operate in a context of serious financial, economic and social crisis. Two opposing dynamics arose in recent years: on the one hand, greater social needs, and, on the other, a reduction in social benefits, which have been the State's responsibility until now, threatening the Welfare State and instigating debate about the need for repositioning the role of the State.
Against this backdrop of crisis, with its medium and long-term effects, civil society organisations have increasingly been called upon, not only to cooperate with the State (particularly with local authorities) to meet social needs, but also to question the way they themselves are organised and work in the field, in order to maximise human, technical and financial resources and infrastructure and guarantee quality and efficient intervention. In addition to this, organisations and society in general are being asked to respond creatively to the crisis through greater involvement and accountability in the design and implementation of new initiatives and solutions.
However, in Portugal, NGOs lack the right skills in terms of management and leadership, partnership work, empowerment of their target groups, as well as their staff and volunteers. By placing major emphasis on capacity building for NGOs, by demanding or giving priority to projects developed in partnership (with other NGOs, local authorities, public bodies), as well as projects which incorporate the empowerment of target groups in its activities, the Programme represents a major opportunity in Portugal's current situation, meeting urgent needs.
The NGO landscape in Portugal is not particularly innovative, and most organizations are heavily dependent on the State. Furthermore, people and organisations in Portugal have yet to take on board the notion of active citizenship in their daily lives as something to be achieved and practised, which is why the Programme should make an important contribution in this sense. On the other hand, further stress should be put on anti-discrimination, minority rights and tolerance in a responsible civil society.
Empowerment encourages the autonomy and accountability of beneficiaries and leads to new competencies and new ways of learning, particularly, in this case, in those in responsibility for the NGOs. Empowerment strengthens citizenship and the quality of democracy to the extent that it focuses on people's active participation in the processes of change (their own or their community), on the rights and obligations of citizens and their contribution to the collective management of resources.
According to the findings of a research project, part of the John Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project, the workforce involved with Portuguese civil society organisations included around 29% of the economically active population in 2005, compared to a 37% average for developed countries. The share of volunteers in the civil society organisation workforce was around 4.0%, compared to a 7.4% average for developed countries. Portuguese NGOs are heavily concentrated in social services, compared to developed countries in general, and have little intervention in health and education services – two areas strongly dominated by the State today.
The overall objective of the NGO Programme in Portugal is "Strengthened civil society development and enhanced contribution to social justice, democracy and sustainable development."