When international NGOs try to “help” local ones and fail
From assuming superiority to stealing ideas, international NGOs can do more harm than good when partnering with local ones. But there are fixes.
In the field of international development, there is a particular form of collaboration whereby international NGOs partner with local civil society organisations to give them funding and technical support. The idea behind it is that local organisations should be getting international donor support, but are unable to manage these funds themselves. International partners are therefore drafted in to build local partners’ capacity.
In principle, there is great potential for this kind of arrangement. But unfortunately, the current structures and systems through which these partnerships are conducted tend to benefit international NGOs while letting down local ones. How else could we explain how decades of these capacity-strengthening projects have had little or no results?
From counterproductive attitudes to the outright stealing of ideas, here are four particular challenges in the existing ways in which international NGOs partner with local ones in order to “help” them.
Firstly, many staff in INGOs have damaging negative attitudes towards their local partners and believe they are superior because they hold the funding. It is difficult to find partnerships between international and local organisations that demonstrate the equal respect that is warranted. International partners are always quick to take credit for the successes of their local partners, yet ready to put all the blame on those same partners when there are failures.
Secondly, INGOs frequently focus on donor compliance – i.e. conforming to all the relevant standards and policies – over actual impact. Compliance is important, of course, but not more important than the positive intended impact of the work in the first place.
If an international partner is receiving funding from a donor, which it then awards as a sub-grant to a local organisation, it should understand that some of the value it adds is on taking on some responsibility and mitigating risk. Otherwise, what is the role of the intermediary NGO? Why wouldn’t the donor directly fund the local civil society organisation? Yet I have seen INGOs make their partners go through levels of financial scrutiny such as monthly audits that they wouldn’t be able to handle themselves. It often looks to me as if some international staff impose burdensome requirements on local organisations in order to reinforce their own sense of value in the funding chain rather than to ensure a positive impact.
Thirdly, INGOs often presume that all their partners should look like them – i.e. follow a Western model or structure. But civil society organisations should look and sound different! A social movement, youth association, union, women’s cooperative or coalition won’t all look the same and may not be structured like a Western NGO, but that doesn’t devalue their impact. At its foundation, civil society is supposed to be a way of organising people in society. This means that many groups aren’t and perhaps shouldn’t be formal organisations with the associated structures. Yet many INGOs continue to want to “NGOise civil society” without understanding the harm they are doing in the process.
Finally, the blunder that is perhaps most frustrating is when INGOs end up competing with their local counterparts. Instead of building up civil society, they intrude on their space. I have witnessed INGOs shamelessly copy the ideas of local organisations and use their own considerable resources to duplicate and upstage others’ efforts. They usually miss the mark, however, because they lack the local connection and understanding.
The good news is that it is not difficult to start remedying some of these ills.
To begin with, 360-degree feedback surveys can allow both international and local partners to evaluate their relationship and suggest ways to improve. This can help check that INGOs’ policies are actually being implemented and ensure their staff have positive supportive attitudes. Additionally, holding regular dialogues between the partners can build understanding and help INGOs support their local partners in their journey to influence change.
International donors also have a role to play. They should ensure they are working with INGOs that are fully implementing good policies and approaches to their local partnerships. Donors should have their own policies on supporting civil society such as Norad’s Support to Civil Society Guiding Principles. There should also be an increased effort to support more local civil society organisations directly.
Finally, local organisations must try to stand firm to their mission and principles and avoid being confused by those allocating funding. It is important they move away from over-dependence on donor funding, which is not sustainable and can distort their identity over time. Local civil society organisations shouldn’t rush to share their ideas with INGOs unless they have a long-term partnership and good relationship based on mutual trust and respect. Their ideas and contextual knowledge are a big part of their value and they shouldn’t always give them away for free.
In recent years, we have seen a global awakening as citizens push back against the shrinking of civic space. International donors and NGOs have attempted to empower these efforts with their support to local organisations, but there needs to be an urgent rethink from all three of these actors on how this important work is being conducted. Above are just a few suggestions for how we can work with genuine solidarity and correct some of the bad practices that are currently holding us all back from a more just and peaceful world.
Quite spot on; having worked for an international organisation and thereafter a Kenyan incorporated non-profit, the relationship between a locally incorporated (meaning established in Africa) and INGOs can at best be described as extractive. In earlier days, we would naively share ideas with representatives of INGOs who were positioning themselves to bid for some big contract/award by a major donor. Many times, we have participated in drafting applications including contributing to whole sections but once awards are made, the INGOs proceeds to implement the project/activity to the exclusion of the local partner with whom they had a pre-teaming agreement. Where complaints would be made about the exclusion of local civil society group, the INGO would merely treat this as minor embarrassment to their public relations rather breach of trust and unethical practices; complaints to donors have helped much as they state they are not party to the agreement and have no relationship with the local civil society and as such, they are “unable to interfere”. This is a tacit endorsement of unethical behaviour/fraud
Mandating that a percentage of resources to be disbursed by donor be allocated for local civil society (such as USAID Forward) would be a bold step towards building capacity of local institutions (since capacity is best built by doing) and addressing the unequal playing field between INGOs/big boys and local civil society groups
(Foreign) Aid Reform—An Epistemological Approach
The West cannot design a comprehensive (external-imposed) reform for a poor country that creates benevolent laws and good institutions to make the economic markets work. Experience demonstrates that the rules that make markets work reflect a complex bottom-up search for social norms, networks of relationships, and formal laws and institutions that have the most payoff. To make things worse, these norms, networks and institutions change in response to changed circumstances and their own past history. Political philosophers such as Burke, Popper and Hayek had the key insight that this social interplay was so complex that a top-down reform that tried to change all the rules at once could make things worse rather than better.
Piecemeal reformers, foreign and domestic, can try to move toward better systems that are sensitive to local conditions and that unshackle the dynamism of individuals everywhere. The dynamism of the poor at the bottom has much more potential than planners at the top.
“No one’s life, liberty, or property is safe
While the legislature is in session.”
The one gut instinct that many people have about the poverty of nations in Africa is probably close to the target: it is all politics!
In the course of my work in developing countries, I have encountered outstanding government officials whom I admire greatly. These government officials with insight complain more knowledgeably about bad politics and corruption in their own countries than outsiders can ever hope to articulate.
We must face reality—decades of research by social scientists, not to mention everyday observation, illustrate how dysfunctional government can get in many countries. We do not do the poor any favours by tenderly respecting the sensitivities of ‘bad’ rulers who oppress their own people.
Democracy can function, but imposing democracy from the outside does not. Democracy features feedback and accountability, while foreign aid does not. Government institutions such as courts, judges and police could solve some of the problems plaguing emerging market economies. Impartial courts and police help make the market function in affluent countries by enforcing contracts, protecting property rights, providing security against predators and punishing lawbreakers.
The Achilles’ heel is that any government that is powerful enough to protect against predators is also powerful enough to be a predator itself. The other great invention of human society besides the free market economy is political freedom. According to the simplest view of democracy, an open society with a free press, free speech, freedom of assembly, and political rights for dissidents is a way to ensure good government. Free individuals will expose any predatory behaviour by ‘bad’ governments and vote them out of office. Voters will reward with longer terms of office those politicians who find ways to deliver more honest courts, judges and police. Political parties will compete to please the voters, just as capitalistic firms compete to please their customers. The next generation of politicians will do better at delivering these services. Of course, no real democracy functions close to this ideal. Democracy is not a quick prescriptive fix for poor countries. The path to a stable democracy is tortuous and fraught with peril. Democracy depends on the slow and bottom-up evolution of rules of fair play.
Aside from numerous examples of electoral cheating/fraud, democracy is an intricate set of arrangements that is far more nuanced than just holding elections. Another problem with democracy is that of the tyranny of the majority. If a majority hates some minority viewpoint, they may vote to censor the dissidents. This would limit the free speech and debate that is one of the virtues of democracy. These points are far from hypothetical in poor-country democracies, which are often polarized along ethnic and class lines and where the winners sometimes abuse the losers. This is why a complete definition of democracy involves some protection for individual rights and freedom of dissent as well as majority rule.
Another problem with the ideal vision of democracy is corruption. Competitive elections are no guarantee against corruption. Politicians can buy votes instead of earning them with good government. They can steal from state coffers to fund payoffs for their supporters. Corrupt politics merge with ethnic politics as parties compete to win resources for their own ethnic group.
This superficial sketch of democracy and its vulnerabilities has uncovered several reasons why good government may not take hold—elite manipulation of the rules of the political game, weak social norms, landed wealth, natural resources, high inequality, corruption and ethnic nationalism and hatreds.
Unfortunately, the aid agencies have had little idea how to fix these problems from the outside when they have tried to change ‘bad’ governments into ‘good’ governments—the foreign aid Planners in the West have never figured out how to deal with ‘bad’ governments. ‘Bad’ governments can sabotage even the most well-intentioned aid programs. Another critical government input for development is good public services. Governments in poor countries often fail at delivering basic health and education services.
Since donors understandably do not want to admit they are dealing with ‘bad’ governments, diplomatic language in aid agencies becomes an art form. A war is a “conflict-related reallocation of resources”. Aid efforts to deal with homicidal warlords are “difficult partnerships”. Countries whose presidents loot the treasury experience “governance issues”. When government officials want to steal while the aid agency wants development, there are “differences in priorities and approaches that need to be reconciled”. The “weak but improving” line is popular among aid agencies in Africa.
Some blame the perception of ‘bad’ government in Africa on racism—an insult to the many courageous Africans who have resisted tyrannical rulers at risk of their lives and safety. It is a mistake to go to either extreme—overlooking ‘bad’ government in Africa or embracing a stereotype of African government as always bad or ineffective.
To aid agencies, participation is an apolitical technical process of consulting the poor. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said about a similar participation idea in the 1960’s: “The socially concerned intellectuals seemed repeatedly to assume that those who had power would let it be taken away a lot easier than could possibly be the case if what was involved was power”. Often society and politics fracture along regional or ethnic lines, and foreign aid maintains neutrality with difficulty.
This is not to automatically canonize democratically elected governments. They, too, can make terrible choices—this reinforces the fact that it is awfully hard to get democracy to function in a prescriptively beneficial fashion. Outside interference does not have a great record on improving matters, on making governments do the “right” thing.
Another device by which donors try to get “local ownership” of ‘good’ government reforms is “peer review” of some African rulers by others. This is part of what is called the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), which is supposed to have African rulers enforcing standards of ‘good’ governance on one another. It is a little mysterious why the donors embrace a mechanism of accountability for African governments that they would never apply to their own countries. (Would the American government submit to peer review by the Canadians?) “Peer review” misses the whole point of democracy, which is government accountability to its own citizens—not to some other government.
In his book The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs emphasizes that many African countries do not have unusually ‘bad’ governments compared with other countries at their level of income. Unfortunately, what counts for the population’s well-being is not how good the government is for its level of income; it is just how good the government is, period. Aid agencies have to face reality: Is money given to a ‘bad’ government going to reach those in need—the poor? Perhaps the reason the country is poor has something to do with ‘bad’ government?
Unfortunately, the official aid agencies do not know how to change ‘bad’ governments into ‘good’ governments with the apparatus of foreign aid. ‘Bad’ government has far deeper roots than anything the West can affect.
Sadly, foreign aid can be a patronising process that undermines the role of local government, however bad or non existent that government function might be. INGOs and UN-type agencies have superior purchasing power that out-competes local entities in terms of facilities access and employment of local personnel. They attract local professionals away from local organisations that probably need them more. I have seen the per-diem inducement to attend their workshops emptying government offices and causing those officials to neglect their official duties. The same negatives noted in the article apply equally to foreign academia teaming with local academia. Too often foreign academia are capacity building themselves and adding to their paper portfolio with more interesting topics than exist in their own sanitised work spheres. The local partner often serves little more than as a data conduit and facilitator for the foreign partner. And whereas local academia may be seen to benefit through scholarships offered by those foreign institutions, this process may well serve as a brain drain, as many of those students may never come back.
Exactly! The lack of genuinely supportive attitude from the INGOs side, but also solid, defensive and professional attitude from the locals.. It goes hand-in-hand!
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I agree with Michael’s four key challenges. However, I would add that there is one major issue that is often hidden and not known from many. The selection of local organization for partnership, is an entire mafia in itself. Most of the local organizations benefiting from partnership with international NGOs constitute a cohesive network of friends with key players that are well connected within those international NGOs. Consequently, you find the same organizations involved in many projects, sometimes overloaded with work. Also, given that those so-called local partners have their headquarters in big cities (often in capital cities), they are seen as intruders by the local communities where the work is intended to be done. Hence, beyond the project’s cycle there is no appropriation of the concept/model by the local communities.
Working with local people selected from within the communities is better than spending money on buying expensive 4X4 that would stay in the headquarters and paying diesel or gas for field trips.
The price for a Toyota 4×4 could build 2 brand new schools in rural areas of Africa or provide clean water to many villages.
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