Will the sky fall when big NGOs move south?

INGOs moving their HQs to the Global South will not alter the management problems with international development and human rights work, manifest in elitist decision-making and unequal resource distribution.

Valerie Bah
1 March 2016

In November 2015, the Guardian ran a story about how international NGOs (INGOs), such as Amnesty International and Oxfam are relocating their headquarters to the global south. This comes across as a novelty, in an age where most international development organizations, including the United Nations, are headquartered in Europe and North America, with the notable exception of Action Aid, which moved its head office to South Africa roughly a decade ago. In the piece, several INGOs discuss their impending relocation southward in a self-congratulatory tone.

The article begins poetically: “A hurricane is blowing through the world of international development and when the dust settles, the landscape is going to look entirely different.”

Will it? These shifts are described in revolutionary terms, but we fear that they will not alter the management problems within international development and human rights work, manifest in elitist decision-making and unequal resource-distribution. For the fact that organizations are often microcosms of larger-scale inequality, we would urge INGOs to ask themselves tough management questions as they move to tropical locales.

Specifically, these questions include determining the impact of their presence on a given location, how their access to resources (including human resources) in that location (e.g. brain drain and “poaching” of talent from local civil society), as well as the extent to which staff composition affect their perspectives and assumptions.

Will the resources follow?

The Association for Women’s in Development (AWID)’s 2006 report “Where is the Money for Women’s Rights” paints a vivid pictures of how finances are dwindling for smaller women’s rights organisations and grassroots groups, in favour of funding fewer, larger organizations. The money seems to have dried up for social justice and development, particularly when it comes to women’s human rights. According to AWID’s report, about half of women’s rights organisations that were surveyed reported that they receive less funding than they did five years prior. More than half of these organizations reported that it is harder to fundraise than it was ten years before.

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South African feminists attending AWID. Credit: laurieadamsflickr. All Rights Reserved.

This leads us to question to what extent funding larger INGOs s benefits local groups and organizations, particularly as these groups ‘go local’ establishing relatively independent local offices, a phenomenon that has been underway for some time. More importantly, will having more HQs based in the global south affect funding proportions? Often, larger organizations absorb funding at the expense of the very organisations that they purport to nurture and capacitate. Moreover as they relocate to the South they bring salary scales that attract skilled workers out of the local non-profit sector, as has been ubiquitous in the health sector in which health care professionals are drawn away from national health care systems and into the arms of INGOs. They also often also bid for funding from their local base, in competition with local groups. As long as the resources flow in the same direction, the question of physical location remains irrelevant.

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Women re-foresting the Itombwe rainforest in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: Neema Namadamu.

So much has shifted since the era during which Oxfam, Amnesty International, and others were established. Everything has changed, including power dynamics between the Global North and South, development approaches, and economic growth, the third wave of democratisation in Africa, and an educated population that can challenge dominant narratives. We cannot continue business as usual. We need voices from the underground.

Replicating seats of power

Also, we have burning questions about the human resource implications of this move southward. Will the hiring be local and equitable? Will the pay scales persist along the dual salary scale model, applied according to who is a “local” or “international” staff member? Will the move encourage the sort of privileged expatriation that confers authority to a northern expert (a position strangely reminiscent of colonial emissary)? Will the top echelons of these organizations’ hierarchies continue to be occupied mostly by westerners who carry out the knowledge-based and decision-making functions? Will support roles (administrative, ICT, etc.) consist mostly of “local” staff?

Will these INGOs recognize the irony of trading one capital for another? Will it be apparent that within this same Nairobi or Johannesburg, one can sip a latte as nonchalantly as they would in Islington, divorced from local interests?  

Toward alternative models

Decentralization has already been a lively experiment across the global women’s rights movement. Several women’s rights organizations, including the Young Feminist Fund (FRIDA), the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), and Urgent Action Fund-Africa (UAF-Africa) have adopted the virtual organisational model, the practice of hiring staff based in various geographic locations. This virtualisation represented a radical revamp for the latter two organizations, both of which were originally founded and based in North America. Decades after their founding, these organisations could have settled into an expression of “white feminism,” a loaded term used to describe a women’s rights movement ruled unilaterally by elite, northern women.

At UAF-Africa, a pan-African feminist Fund (and autonomous offshoot of its sister Fund Urgent Action Fund - Global) we have spread our staff across the African continent, from Cairo to Harare, and have observed the benefits and challenges of going virtual. This model, though complicated by time zone differences, connectivity issues, and organisational registration questions, encourages a more inclusive spread of voices and communities rather than privileging a single location and culture.  

For instance, in our recent experience, the inclusion of a staff member originating from and based in the Middle East has drawn us closer to the Arab Feminist movement, resulting in exciting connections and support to feminist activists based in the Middle East and North Africa.

Through our wide reach, we linked to Fondation YTTO in 2012, a Moroccan women’s rights organization that organized a caravan of women for equality and against child marriage, when they and other feminist organizations lost government funding at the same moment that the government prepared a bill to lower the legal marrying age. The caravan moved through very isolated rural areas, sounded the alarm on the situation of girls who are victimized by child marriage, and allowed them to make a documentary using the testimonies of girls and families. They were able to conduct a large national and international advocacy campaign, which denied all arguments presented by the government to legitimate a child marriage bill. This was a significant connection.

Of course, the virtual model is neither the only or best model for women’s rights and international development work. There are myriad unexplored ways in which advocates, campaigners, researchers, and funders could plug their agendas into diverse realities. Ultimately, there must be a more radical re-evaluation and decentralization of the geography of social justice, beyond maintaining unipolar power centres.

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