This paper analyses the roles that local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can play in agricultural development in Sub-Saharan Africa. Two fundamental roles are commonly discerned: service delivery and advocacy as civil society organisation. Based on empirical research in Benin, the paper analyses and compares the requirements of different roles and typical activities in agricultural development on the one hand with motivations and characteristics of local NGOs on the other hand. This includes the analysis of the social and political environment as the decisive factor for NGO emergence and activity selection. Findings suggest that due to internal factors such as motivation, skills and capacity, and to external conditions such as donors’ special interests and funding, local NGOs have problems in delivering on both of their roles. It is concluded that the potential of local NGOs can be best put into practice in pluralistic institutional arrangements. Here, they are best suited to carry out activities at the interface between the rural population and other actors in rural development, while more professional services are feasible if specialisation is supported. This support must include appropriate framework conditions, a long-term and adapted commitment by donors, and adequate preparation of staff.