NGOs: Blessing or curse?

By Mark Anderson in Nairobi
Posted on Wednesday, 29 November 2017 10:50

When Ethiopia’s parliament passed a law in January 2009 aimed at raising the transparency and accountability of civil society organisations, the backlash from international human rights groups started immediately. “The government is conducting an all-out assault on any kind of independent criticism,” said Georgette Gagnon, Human Rights Watch’s Africa director at the time.

The law passed in Addis Ababa stipulates that non-­governmental organisations (NGOs) can only receive a maximum of 10% of their funding from abroad. The government, which is extremely suspicious of foreign influence, said the law would ensure greater openness. In a stroke, Ethiopia became one of the harshest environments for NGOs on the continent. Today, Egypt is following suit and the Nigerian government is considering strict new restrictions on NGOs.

The world’s biggest charities have taken notice of this onslaught against their work. “Many governments out there maybe have seen and are trying to avoid developments that happened a couple of years ago in the Arab Spring,” Wolfgang Jamann, chief exec­utive officer of CARE International, tells The Africa Report. “Civil society, of course, played a crucial role in overthrowing lots of democratic governments, so I assume that could be part of the general perception.”

Meanwhile, in Kenya an entirely different stance can be found. Kenya is one of the continent’s most active hubs for foreign aid money. The number of aid organisations based in the country grew by more than 400% between 1997 and 2006. Kenya is now home to more than 12,000 NGOs that work in healthcare, education, human rights and civic engagement.

In November, Oxfam International, one of the largest aid agencies in the world, will complete the relocation of its global headquarters from Oxford, UK, to Nairobi. “I’ve championed the move to Nairobi in some small part for the powerful symbolism of Oxfam’s global headquarters being situated in Africa,” Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, tells The Africa Report. “But in a much larger part [it is] in recognition that the world is changing, power is shifting, and we are making an active organisational change ourselves in that. Oxfam is doing the right thing in becoming ever closer to African people and standing in solidarity with us in our struggle to overcome poverty.”

Pressure on elites

One of the biggest criticisms of NGOs is that they break the transmission line that historically has driven progress the world over: popular pressure on national leaders. In many African countries, people look to NGOs rather than governments to provide services. Firoze Manji, an academic and former Africa director for Amnesty International, says: “I worked for a number of development agencies […]. I realised that what we were doing, whatever our intentions were, was taking away agency.” Worse, he adds, is the business model, which perpetually frames Africans as victims in order to gain funding.

Critics argue that cutting the popular pressure on elites makes leaders less engaged with the fundamental uplifting of Africa’s economies. Ethiopia, with its opposition to NGOs, appears closer to providing jobs for the huge demographic wave that is about to hit the continent than Kenya is.

According to the Center for Global Development (CGD) think tank, Ethiopia is the most likely African country to lure manufacturers away from Asian countries. “Fashion brands like H&M, Guess, J. Crew and Naturalizer are now finding potential in Ethiopia, one of the few African countries being proclaimed for having cheap labour,” says a recent CGD study. The country’s political elite have – for all their faults – provided the cheap power and logistics to poach low-wage manufacturing work.

As the poorest region in the world, sub-Saharan Africa is a natural target for aid agencies. For decades these organisations have been using foreign money to boost access to education and healthcare, try to prevent famines and natural disasters and promote human rights and democratic engagement.

Kenya and South Africa have embraced the work of NGOs and made their governments available for partnerships. For example, Nairobi is working with One Acre Fund to educate and finance smallholder farmers. South Africa has worked closely with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Washington says, Africa does

Jeffrey Sachs, a professor at Columbia University and author of The End of Poverty, is perhaps the most prominent proponent of NGOs. Sachs points to huge success in China and India in eradicating poverty over the past two decades as evidence that NGOs can play an effective role in boosting livelihoods.

‘The issue is not “yes” or “no” to aid,’ Sachs wrote in Foreign Policy in 2014. ‘Aid is needed, and can be highly successful. The issue is how to deliver high-quality aid to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.’

After independence, many European governments established bilateral aid agencies responsible for improving lives and eradicating poverty in former colonies. The role of these groups was heightened during the 1980s and 1990s, when structural adjustment programmes were being imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund across the continent. These multilateral finance institutions urged African governments to implement austerity measures and turn to foreign NGOs to mitigate the socio­economic damages resulting from lower public spending on key areas such as healthcare and education.

One of the most vocal African critics of this approach was Ethiopia’s former prime minister Meles Zenawi. After the country’s parliament approved restrictions on NGO funding, Meles lauded the move.

“These NGOs were initially seen as an antidote to what was seen as the main problem in Africa – the bloated state,” he said at the time. “This was supposed to be an alternative. You reduce the role of the state, including your social services, and you encourage NGOs to provide as much of the public services as possible. In the end we argue that the NGOs have turned out to be alternative networks of patronage. NGOs have not provided an alternative good governance network.”

Much of the funding from these state-run agencies – such as the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) – is now channelled into multinational NGOs. For example, Oxfam Great Britain chief executive Mark Goldring said in 2016 that DfID provided as much as 15% of the organisation’s budget.

The foreign aid landscape in Africa is made up of national development agencies, multilateral funders and NGOs. The former are by far the largest source of funding for the world’s biggest NGOs. In 2015, the 30 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Development Assistance Committee – including the European Union, UK, US, Canada, Japan and Australia – spent a combined $31.5bn on development programmes.

But it is hard to know exactly how much money has been spent by NGOs and where it goes. One of the biggest criticisms of these organisations is that their funding is opaque and their impact is hard to measure.

Co-opting aid

Linda Polman, a Dutch journalist and author of The Crisis Caravan, has said that the overarching goal of the world’s largest NGOs is to secure funding. “Aid organisations are businesses dressed up like Mother Theresa,” says Polman. As a result, she contends that aid ­organisations have unwittingly drawn out conflicts in Ethiopia and Rwanda by providing humanitarian assistance that is captured by combatants.

Meles knows something that most do not.

Ethiopia’s famine from 1983-1985 turned the East African country into a symbol of foreign aid.

Meles, at the helm of a rebel movement trying to topple the government, intercepted foreign aid destined for the central government at the time. The media frenzy surrounding the famine, which left more than one million people dead of starvation or malnutrition, turned Oxfam and CARE into household names. But, at the same time, it taught Meles a valuable lesson: aid can be used to topple governments.

Opponents of the Ethiopian government say Meles’s campaign to eliminate foreign funding to local organisations has put the country on a dangerous path. While the government still happily accepts aid from foreign governments, the narrowing of civil space in the country continues to cause problems. Independent media and pro-­democracy organisations have long been vanquished. As a result, many groups feel locked out of power. Protests by the Oromo community, the country’s most populous group, have deepened ethnic divisions to near breaking point.

Another criticism is that foreign NGOs often seek to represent marginalised people without their consent. Sally Matthews, a professor at South Africa’s Rhodes University, tells The Africa Report: “NGOs are playing an increasingly prominent role in many sectors and are often seen to speak for particular groups – the poor, rural women and so on. But what mandate do they have to play this role?”

Local partners

CARE International’s Wolfgang Jamann says that foreign aid agencies have been grappling with this question for decades, but the answer lies in ceding power to local actors. “The work of international NGOs has changed significantly over the last decade or so in that we are seeking much more engagement with local partners, community-based organisations,” he tells The Africa Report. “Of course all those entities will have a legitimacy that we need in the operational environments […] where we want to make an impact.”

But how to protect these local groups from hostile governments who often see them as proxies for foreign agendas? The answer is not easy to come by. “At times an international umbrella like CARE International is able to help to protect the space that our local entities require,” Jamann says. “But we also need to be careful that we don’t delegate the risk of our partners, because political engagement and speaking up of course does come with risks, and, depending on the context, there needs to be a very smart and a very collective approach to trying to maintain or broaden the space for our partners.”

NGOs have a valuable role to play on the continent. Healthcare, education, civic engagement are all areas where they can contribute. But they must be more accountable to the people they purport to help.

Development agencies and NGOs frame Africa in terms of being underdeveloped or in need of modernisation, says Manji, the former Amnesty director. “The whole experience of colonialism and its continuity after independence has been one of the dehumanisation of people,” he says. The only way Africa can fight back – and learn to depend on its own institutions – “is to actually invent what it means to be human. For me that’s the big task that we face,” he says.

Manji points to Shack Dwellers International as an example of the ideal NGO because it is controlled from the bottom up. Founded in South Africa and India with grassroots funding, it now works in 32 countries across the world with the aim of helping the urban poor. In Africa, the bulk of the funding poured into NGOs comes from foreign government donors. If more NGOs were set up with grassroots funding, Manji believes they would better serve grassroots interests.

But without funding, NGOs will struggle to scale up to the size needed to have impact. Critics say this leaves local NGOs reliant on funding from international and national NGOs, which play out old colonial-era relationships. In order for NGOs to retain their relevance in the years ahead, a new funding model is needed.

This article came from the November 2017 print issue of The Africa Report

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