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Horizontalising international NGOs: can it be done?

Alternative structures are available—if we have the courage to adopt them.

OXFAM-GB Offices in Cowley, UK. Credit: Flickr/ BY-NC-SA 2.0

For over 20 years I was employed in the London office of one of Britain’s larger, Charity Commission-registered aid organisations that funded ‘development’ across Africa, Asia and Latin America. It was always more geared toward long-term assistance but developed a short-term emergency section.

Each country programme had a mandate to respond to emergencies within their own country, but the agency as a whole never had the huge warehousing capacity of Oxfam or Save the Children. Rather, it found niches that others missed, such as nurse training for patients’ mental trauma, which were as valued by their recipients as the tents, food, medicine and water systems that were delivered by the big guys. 

This meant that we didn’t take part in the piranha-like feeding frenzies that were seen in Haiti, Rwanda and other emergencies when aid organisations flooded in. Some of them were opportunists who had the financial backing and arrogance to go with it. Others had dubious ulterior motives such as those with an evangelical religious zeal. How any country could govern or control them all was beyond me, especially when its population had recently suffered huge trauma on the back of a longer history of imposed boundaries, colonialism and the destruction of indigenous institutions. 

For many years my employer, like most similar organisations, lacked trust in any but their own. They appointed only Europeans to senior positions like country directors, accountants and specialists in education and agriculture. The appointment of the first non-European as a country director in The Gambia caused much in-house consternation and comment from peers, including over his remuneration.

The job had been advertised with full expatriate salary along with free housing and other perks. As the person selected as most-qualified he should have received all these things, but because he was a national of the country it was decided that he should be on local wages. A negotiated settlement was reached. A European continued as his senior accountant for several more years. 

By the time I left the agency much had changed, but an orthodox understanding of how such organisations should operate continued. That orthodox model required an organisational and corporate in-country presence, which meant having a large office in the capital city complete with communications and office equipment far superior to anything in government.

This infrastructure included stand-by generators, a fleet of vehicles (each with the organisation’s logo and/or that of the funding agency for projects), and a large staff to service and support the whole behemoth. Housing markets were affected by the inflated prices foreigners were able to pay. Despite the rhetoric of ‘participation’ and ‘bottom up’ development, this model was based on a hierarchical management structure wedded to ‘Logframe Analysis,’ which came out of military strategising.

When I (as the London based liaison person) joined the team in Somaliland, a country recovering from the trauma of civil war, there were three foreign staff and about 15 locals. Some sensible adjustments to the orthodox model had already been made including a taxi rental system using local owners instead of importing new vehicles, and stronger links with long-established local and national institutions for managing common resources and conflict resolution. We broadened our terms of reference to focus on assisting partner organizations in social survey techniques, improved soil and water resource infrastructure, governance, accounting and reporting skills.

Within our partner organisations were former civil servants, teachers and accountants from institutions that had collapsed in the civil war, and I’d like to think we helped them to strengthen their ability to set objectives, develop practical strategies approved by their members, and convert plans into project proposals to submit for financial assistance.

Our head office defined a spending ratio that required at least 80 per cent of each budget to be spent in the beneficiary community, and the remaining 20 per cent on administration, research and other in-country activities, but there was always scope for some ‘creative accounting’ to disguise how much was really spent at the center. When our finance manager questioned this it started a year-long discussion about the costs and benefits of orthodox approaches and we decided to replace the existing system with a minimal, horizontal structure.

All the support staff like drivers, guards and office personnel agreed to take alternative livelihoods (like 100 sheep and goats) instead of cash-based redundancy. The notion of ‘being made redundant’ had no linguistic translation in the society we were living in because no one is ever truly ‘redundant.’ One dispute was taken to arbitration and settled by community elders. Foreign staff contracts were not renewed. The director reduced his contract to half-time and mine fell to one-third.

After this reorganisation our team was comprised of three national staff who lived in their own houses, were paid mileage when they used their own vehicles for work (as is common in the UK and US), and were supplied with high-quality laptops for work. It was cheaper for the director to live at home in Bangalore, India, with his family and make quarterly visits to the Horn of Africa to review and approve budgets than to draw on expatriate housing and other benefits.

He conducted discussions and seminars with staff and partners as a ‘director of ideas’ instead of the ‘director of people and things,’ and built a network of academic contacts known for their expertise on managing the commons (such as Elinor Ostrom, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics), systems thinking, participation, and Soft Systems Methodology.

Partners and staff became increasingly skilled at researching the needs and wants of their communities and translating them into funding proposals. In the process, the orthodox, hierarchical  model of a large external presence with all of its many implications in terms of power and money was replaced by a smaller horizontal model that, I believe, got far closer to translating the rhetoric of ‘participation’ and ‘sustainability’ into practical action. By developing new relationships and strengthening the independent capacities of other organisations, the core team of three was able to expand its geographic reach and impact.

On their visits to our head office in London, country directors would ask me about the unorthodox model we were crafting in Somaliland. I described it as best I could, but usually to glazed expressions of incomprehension on their faces. ‘How can you operate without offices, vehicles, drivers and so forth,’ they asked?

Each of them had the authority to travel to join our ‘director of ideas’ during one of his quarterly visits, but none did so, though some were only a one-hour flight away. Nor did the International Director of Organisational Development show any interest. Multiply this obtuse, unquestioning attitude across other organisations and it’s clear where some of the weaknesses come from that are being shown up in the current furor around NGOs like Oxfam and Save the Children, glued as they are to outdated approaches to their work.

The model our team had initiated was eventually wrecked by our in-house superiors. All but one of us was replaced, and a big house was chosen for a new office complete with a big new notice board to indicate our presence. Shiny white, new vehicles appeared in the driveway. It was ‘back to square one.’ However, the model we’d crafted made its way to Rwanda, where our director of ideas was asked to assist in translating the rhetoric of the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers into practice.

The result became known as “Ubudehe,” a term that describes the long-standing Rwandan practice of collective action and mutual support to solve problems within a community. Its core team was deliberately small, and was designed to be held accountable to several actors at once who all needed to collaborate if there was to be success. The experiment was recognized with the United Nations Public Service Award in 2008.

Unfortunately, ten years on this approach remains little known and little practiced in the development industry, which continues to eschew the kind of horizontal, participatory, ‘bottom-up’ philosophy that we developed. This is not because such approaches are impossible or ineffective—that has been proven to be false by our experience and the experiences of others. It’s because international NGOs don’t want to reduce their size and status as deliverers of foreign aid.


About the author

Robin le Mare is a retired international development worker who spent seven years in Kenya “harambee” schools and over 20 years in middle management as a Desk Officer for countries including Gambia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Somaliland and Malawi in the London offices of an international NGO.

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