24 Bless­ing or curse? The de­bate over the role of non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions in devel­op­ment, hu­man­i­tar­ian and civil so­ci­ety is rag­ing across the con­ti­nent

Ev­ery­one agrees that the way NGOS work in Africa is out­dated and it is time to shift funds to lo­cal ac­tors. In the face of re­stric­tive mea­sures by some gov­ern­ments, how can NGOS main­tain their free­dom to hold power to ac­count?

The Africa Report - - CONTENTS - By Mark An­der­son in Nairobi

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 (see box page 29). 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.”


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 De v e l o p ment ( CGD) t h i n k t a n k , 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.


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 s t a t e - r un a g e nc i e s – s uc h a s t he 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.


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?”


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

The bulk of the fund­ing poured into NGOS comes from for­eign gov­ern­ments

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 nat ional 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.

Ox­fam hand­outs in Zim­babwe: colo­nial­ism in another form

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