Foreign NGOs map new route to African legitimacy
By William Maclean
NAIROBI (Reuters) – To their critics, foreign aid workers
in Africa serve a new form of imperialism: in their zeal to do
good, the argument goes, they prop up a humanitarian system
that perpetuates the continent’s dependence on outsiders.
To their supporters, international non-governmental
organisations (NGOs) help the hungry and excluded, campaign for
trade reform and take big risks to expose human rights abuses,
often fostering African self-reliance in the process.
One thing friend and foe agree on: for better or worse
Africa’s attempts to tackle the issues that govern its fate are
influenced increasingly by a growing army of foreign NGOs.
On trade, hunger, debt, disease, war or governance, foreign
NGOs are busy both in Africa and in the rich world’s corridors
of power lobbying for more and better aid.
“Deeper debt relief, the Ottawa Treaty on land mines, the
global movement for women’s rights and protection of the
environment — none of these advances would have happened
without NGO ideas and pressure,” wrote Michael Edwards,
director of the Ford Foundation’s Governance and Civil Society
“(But) global NGO networks are dominated by voices from the
rich world, a weakness that makes them easy targets for
attack,” he wrote in an article in London’s Financial Times.
The number of international NGO branches — measured by the
presence of an office or just an individual member — in Africa
rose 31 per cent to 39,729 between 1993 and 2003, the Center
for Global Governance at the London School of Economics says.
The rate of increase in sub-Saharan African was higher, at
40 percent. The number of international NGOs and NGOs with
strong international links headquartered in Africa rose by 33
percent to 867 in the same period, its research shows.
The study does not count the thousands of grassroots
African NGOs which sometimes work alongside their foreign
VOICES FROM THE RICH WORLD
Criticism of international NGOs has long focused on the
issue of legitimacy: Clare Short, then Britain’s International
Development Secretary, was memorably unimpressed by a protest
against globalisation at a Group of Eight summit in 2001.
“They are all white people from privileged countries
claiming to speak on behalf of the poor of the world and there
is something a little bit wrong with that,” she shrugged.
Supporters of Western NGOs counter that the proportion of
Africans in their operations is rising. Some are decentralising
management and devolving authority to regional and country
units to try to deepen their roots in the communities they
ActionAid has gone a step further and moved its global
headquarters to South Africa from Britain to be based in the
global “south.” Its international board is headed by Noerine
Kaleeba, a world renowned AIDS activist from Uganda.
“The issue of who is speaking for who is at the core of
this,” Charles Abani, a Nigerian who manages ActionAid’s Africa
operations, told Reuters.
The more that genuine representatives of the poor were
involved in analysis and policy-making the more pragmatic,
effective and politically astute NGO operations would be, he
“Too often analysis is done in the abstract by
intellectuals from academia unfamiliar with reality on the
ground. Analysis is written, not ‘with’ poor people but ‘of’
poor people,” he said.
A more basic criticism leveled at the humanitarian system
as a whole is that relief work undermines the political
contract between a state and its citizens to prevent ills such
Many years ago NGO workers’ common response to that
argument was to say that they are in Africa to work themselves
out of a job. But it hasn’t happened. The sector keeps growing
and evolving, especially into the field of advocacy.
TAKE THE HIGH ROAD
“Over time NGOs tend to grow of their own accord and act
less in the service of the people they are meant to help,” said
Sylvie Brunel, former head of Action Against Hunger.
“There are too many institutions. Some NGOs have become
‘little U.N.s’ with their excessive focus on logistics,
fund-raising and communication,” she told Reuters.
Rye Barcott, American founder of Carolina for Kibera, an
NGO in a Nairobi slum, insists that all its American workers
are volunteers while Kenyan staff receive a salary.
“The goal of all NGOs should be to transfer ownership
toward the community,” he said. “The generation of employment
opportunities is not only important for economic development,
it is vital to have legitimacy in the eyes of the community.”
However, too many foreign NGOs remain reluctant to step
back and let African groups take over their projects or give
Africans more say in sectors such as fund-raising, experts say.
It’s not as if African NGOs lack a record of achievement.
Examples are Kaleeba’s work in Uganda, Nobel Peace laureate
Wangari Maathai’s environmentalist Green Belt Movement in Kenya
and the vast civil liberties movement at the forefront of the
Nigerian democracy campaign under former dictator Sani Abacha.
“International NGOs are there to level the playing field
and build capacity. But I sense a real reluctance among some
NGOs to do that,” Ford Foundation’s Edwards told Reuters.
Should international NGOs be more “Africanised?”
“Definitely,” Edwards said. “International NGOs currently
agonise a lot (over that) but I’m not sure they act enough.
“It’s always difficult to hand over power and control
because it may involve shrinking your organisation…But I
think NGOS can and should live up to their best principles, and
take the high road.”
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