Five disempowering traits that international NGOs must drop

Only one per cent of foreign aid reaches Southern NGOs directly. How long can this continue?

Irũngũ Houghton
10 October 2016


Part of World Vision’s US headquarters in Washington DC. Credit: Wikipedia/By Bluerasberry - Own work, Public Domain.

“We are demanding change. Be prepared to be uncomfortable.” Degan Ali, African Development Solutions, 2015.

The global landscape of social action is changing in important ways, but international NGOs like Amnesty, Oxfam, World Vision and Actionaid are struggling to keep up with these changes—and that leads to growing questions about their role, impact and legitimacy. A collapsed North-South world order has generated new power centres within and across different countries. Political elites are imposing new legal and administrative restrictions on civil society action. And activists are demanding new models of cross-border organising based not on the hierarchies of foreign aid but on peer-to-peer learning and collaboration between equal partners.

The changing political context is particularly important. Over 60 governments across the world have enacted new and restrictive legislation to control the operations of national and international civil society organisations. In at least 96 countries they and their staff experience vilification, funding caps, administrative harassment, closure and expulsion. As James Savage of Amnesty International puts it, “This global wave of restrictions has arapidity and breadth to its spread we’ve not seen before that arguably represents a seismic shift and closing down of human rights space not seen in a generation.”

In Kenya where I live, there have been five attempts to introduce harmful amendments to the NGO law. On at least three separate occasions, 1,400 NGOs have been struck from the official register on grounds that ranged from a failure to report their financial accounts, to alleged complicity in terrorism, to support for gay rights. Most of these organizations were re-instated within days after uproar from officials and the public. However, many have been pressured to change constitutions, close bank accounts and justify staff appointments and work permits. The cumulative impact has been to infect the sector with a real dose of fear, particularly international organisations.

As the democratic space has shrunk, international NGOs (INGOs) have agonised over what they could say or do. Many found themselves without friends in high places. A few relocated their staff, and some contemplated moving elsewhere in the region. Most delegated their public voice to national organisations. But on September 9 2016, Devolution Ministry Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri announced the operationalisation of the ‘Public Benefits Organisations Act’ without any changes.

The hope is that the passive-aggressive attitude displayed by the government in the past will be replaced by an open and constructive partnership. But recent history in Kenya also offers an insight into the challenges being faced by international organizations which have weak roots in the societies in which they work—and why globally-networked but locally-embedded groups are so crucial for the future.

The African economist Charles Abugre and other commentators have argued that historically, INGOs have been content to be ‘primary citizens’ at home and ‘secondary citizens’ in the countries in which they operate. In the former, they can speak out publicly and challenge their own governments; in the latter they have to rely on others to exert the necessary influence—whether they are local or international institutions. Two power shifts are now challenging this model.

First, most African, Asian and Latin American governments no longer define their domestic policies on the basis of European and North American priorities. Second, a growing number of European and North American Governments are openly re-framing their development assistance in terms of trade facilitation, geo-politics and commercial interests. As more countries like Kenya achieve Middle Income status, foreign aid will be less influential in their relationships with donor governments. In turn, International NGOs will no longer be able to rely on ‘secondary citizenship’ as a point of effective leverage.

International NGOs are responding to these shifts in a number of ways, including mergers with Southern organisations, the ‘Southernisation’ of their global headquarters, the growth of national boards, adopting a narrower focus on ‘fragile states,’ and innovations around social enterprise. What’s missing are the deeper changes required to re-adjust the balance of power between North and South so that networks of local organisations can challenge the shrinking political space for civil society and the growing inequalities that plague both South and North much more effectively. To do this, INGOs will have to drop at least five disempowering traits.

The first is to reverse the concentration of financial resources in and from Europe and North America. At present, only one per cent of all foreign aid and 0.2 per cent of all humanitarian assistance reaches Southern-based civil society organisations directly. These are truly scandalous figures. The vast majority of aid to NGOs is given to international organisations who then pass on small amounts to their Southern partners. Exactly how much money we’re talking about is difficult to quantify, but the remaining resources serve to support an international bureaucratic quicksand of global processes, multiple layers of internal accountability and lifestyles of the one per cent. Until they are willing to re-balance this funding and the power that goes with it away from their own organizations and into the hands of local actors, no meaningful change is possible.

Second, most INGOs are politically risk-averse, in part because their expatriate identity makes them vulnerable to increasingly muscular local elites. This doesn’t translate into a simple argument for nationalising Oxfam and the rest, since national staff may be equally vulnerable to political pressures and the temptations of expatriate lifestyles. But national boards with full governance powers may be one way of deepening both legitimacy and the capacity to engage with local power structures.

The third negative trait is a disinterest in social movements. The insurrectionist uprisings in North Africa or protest movements like #FeesMustFall, #NoThirdTermism, #ThisFlag, #Oromoprotests and #UmbrellaRevolution offer sharp lessons for NGO executives who have been caught flat-footed by the rise of new forms of civil society action. Older and narrower traditions of NGO capacity building must give way to longer-term institutional strengthening, enhancing financial sustainability, cross-sector alliance building and how to generate a genuine supporter base that can be activated in roles other than simply raising money. Rather than parachuting in what has worked in London, New York or Paris, these constituencies must be rooted in local cultures of giving and action, alternative education, active citizenship and solidarity.

Fourth is what I call ‘governance apartheid.’ Despite widespread agreement that international boards must reflect the communities they serve, little has changed in the majority of INGOs. According to NGO Advisor, 64 per cent of Board Members and 63 per cent of Chief Executive Officers across the 500 largest NGOs are still drawn from the western world. Only four per cent of CEOs are of African origin, and most of those are drawn from the ranks of the wealthy in their societies.

The fifth and final trait is closed bureaucracy. INGO governance systems mainly rest on the lie that they can control the world around them—that future predictions and short-term programmes give them the power to act effectively; that segmenting their work into silos that mirror the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals will generate transformative outcomes; and that financial flows from North to South are capable of creating a sustainable resource base for equality, social justice and democracy. None of this is true.

These five traits pose a fundamental challenge for INGOs in an increasingly differentiated, globalised and networked world. Can they transform themselves by working with independent social movements, devolving governance and resources, and freeing their organizations from so much internal bureaucracy?

Their work will have power, impact and sustainability only if they can deploy tools, tactics and spaces that create a mass constituency for change; interrupt the predictable future of neglect and inaction by states and most members of the public; keep the state as the primary duty-bearer for guaranteeing rights and freedoms; and remain agile enough to exercise the constant capability to reinvent themselves as the context around them shifts.

As Degan Ali from African Development Solutions puts it, “be prepared to be uncomfortable.”

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