Donors determine what NGOs do

  • By Oscar Kimanuka
  • March 25, 2012
Send A Cow, an international NGO has helped to lift many from abject poverty by donating cows to families in poor countries. Net Photo

AID   Influence of donors has been a source of apprehension

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton holds talks at the EU headquarters in Brussels. The EU is the largest donor to developing countries. /Net Photo

The purpose of this article is not to disregard what Aid agencies and rich NGOs from our affluent friends from the north are doing to curtail the frightening levels of poverty in Africa, and indeed the developing world, but it is to point out what I believe is an unfair relationship which if not corrected could bring animosity between those being assisted and those lending the hand through development assistance.

Interestingly, this is a time when most donors are already balancing books on the backs of the poor following the financial crisis that is taking place in many countries of the developed world, especially Western Europe and the United States.

It is well known that the 1980s and 1990s were years of phenomenal growth in number and roles which NGOs had to play in various fields. This expansion has been in both the developing and the developed world. According to Broadhead and Masoni, the NGOs have from relative obscurity nearly two decades ago, found themselves catapulted into international limelight.

One of the reasons for this respectability and prominence is pragmatic considerations. For instance NGOs are viewed by our bilateral partners as more efficient conduits for development inputs than the often discredited official agencies.

These ‘darlings’ of the official agencies are said to be targeting the poorer sections of communities, particularly in the developing world. This coupled with their relatively low cost management style is an instant attractive alternative to donors.

The 1980s were a difficult period for many developing countries. For Africa, the 1980s were a lost decade. This was a period of unprecedented hardships with falling commodity prices, structural macro-economic imbalances and rising external debts.

As if this was not enough, severe famine and drought affected many countries in Africa. One of those serious famines was the Ethiopian famines that attracted celebrities to raise awareness and money in support of the millions of Ethiopians who were at the risk of starvation.

With the apparent failure for governments to provide basic services such as health care, education and employment, the voluntary sector found it inevitable to fill up the gap using funds mainly provided by donors, the international financial institutions and agencies.

This financial influence from the donors has crucially affected the independence and operations of NGOs to the extent that it has challenged the very philosophy of their work.

In examining the role of NGOs in development issues, it would be appropriate to distinguish between the northern NGOs, a number of which facilitate southern NGOs, and the southern NGOs themselves, which are recipients of the said northern ‘partners’.

The history of northern NGOs stretch as far back as colonization and membership spread geographically to many parts of the world. According to Peggy, 1987, these organizations are better endowed than their third world counterparts.

For instance, in as far as finance is concerned, they get funding from their own governments as well as from private and corporate philanthropy.  On the other hand there are the southern NGOs which are not as well endowed as their northern counterparts and occasionally live on a hand to mouth basis. Although they get some of their support from the northern NGOs and donors, their life is characterized by ‘constant fear, apprehension and destabilization’. 

These NGOs are often cash strapped and when they get funds to support their projects, they spend a lot of time accounting to their northern benefactors.  Both NGOs face a formidable challenge in their attempt to influence the policies of donor agencies.

Apart from the dependency, the donors have procedures and specific requirements, and these may be more or less rigorous, intimidating, frustrating or simply unacceptable to indigenous NGOs. In situations where for example there are shortages, NGOs are strongly tempted to ‘go where the money is’ to dress their projects to fit the priority of donors.

Since the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union way back in 1989 and the end of the cold war, a new policy agenda has come to be established. According to Moore, this agenda is driven by beliefs organized around the twin poles of neo-liberal democratic theory. The emphasis by donors and the multilateral financial institutions of ‘markets and private initiative’ has greatly affected the developing world’s economies and indeed politics since the 1980s.  The said policy agenda views the role of the state as limited.

The state is seen as the provider of an enabling environment for other actors to play their part. In the process however, considerable sections of society affected by the new policies of market economics are expected to be taken care of by the voluntary sector, the NGOs. They provide education, health services; mobilize the poor and the marginalized from the funding of the donors.

Influence of donors has been a source of apprehension for NGOs. Some larger NGOs have made attempts to reduce this dependency. Oxfam has for instance restricted its government income to about 20% of the total, while in the United States, the American Friends Service Committee and Oxfam America take no money whatsoever.  In countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Kenya a dependency of 80 to 95% on official funds is not uncommon.

The anxiety of NGO dependency on official aid has emphatically been expressed from many quarters. As Kramer says, the acceptance of increasing volumes of foreign aid involves entering into agreements about what is done and how it is to be done, reported and accounted for. As one African proverb demonstrates, ‘if you have your hand in another man’s pocket, you must move when he moves’.

Since their level of income is static, NGOs get easily enticed by generous benefactors whose conditions they cannot resist. One of the conditions often given to NGOs is professionalization of work and accountability. As Galilao puts it, the contracting era is placing the independence of NGOs in serious jeopardy. Advocacy and reform, long an integral part of the voluntary ‘raison d’etre’ are unwanted or even feared by governments.

Once the NGOs have accepted funding from outside, it becomes difficult for them not to tailor their programmes to the priorities of donors. While they may survive today in managing to limp financially, their future may not be guaranteed hence the saying that NGOs are here today but may be no where tomorrow!

Sadly for the NGOs, by being ‘attuned’ to the donors, they are becoming “more and more bureaucratic and less prone to take risks or bear the costs of listening to those they seek to assist”. Ironically, this is not what NGOs are meant for. Typically, high rates of financial dependence coincide with weak internal capacity for programme formulation. The agenda of indigenous NGOs tends to reflect the international NGO’s agenda. Clearly then the indigenous NGOs are disenchanted.

They can not build a local and authentic constituency if they do not have resources and capacity. Donors should assist their southern partners realize their objectives through facilitative rather than directive assistance. In this the southern NGOs will develop the necessary skills to survive.

It would be tempting from the foregoing arguments to say that NGOs influence is far from real, particularly when viewed against a background of their innumerable difficulties. NGOs have actually had some influence with donors and decision makers sometimes at the highest level possible.

They have on some occasions lobbied and campaigned against injustices, unfair trade practices, the crippling third world debt burden, environment, dumping of toxic wastes, gender imbalances, political exclusions of ethnic minorities and so on. The list of activities that NGOs are engaged in today is increasing by the day.

This undoubtedly demonstrates their importance. One early case in point to demonstrate the effectiveness of NGOs in lobbying is the case of multinationals which were involved in the selling of manufactured products to developing countries.

Clark. J details the case of selling of Nestle milk as substitute to breast feeding. The new internationalist, a small social active NGO published an article about problems associated with powdered milk. A report entitled the “the baby killers” was commissioned. Nestle, the multinational company sued for libel.

While it won the case, its moral standing suffered immensely. Clients of Nestle in the developed north started boycotting Nestle products. As a result of this pressure on Nestle, a convention was signed between Nestle on one hand, World Health Organization and UNICEF on the other. The purpose was to increase collaboration among the three with respect to baby milk.

Finally, a code was drawn for baby milk by the World Health Assembly in 1981. Although it took a long time, it is evident that the work of protracted pressure from NGOs and pressure groups on powerful multinational companies like Nestle had fruitful results. In recent years, there has been a debate on the crippling debt burden of the third world nations.

A number of NGOs from the north and the south have been involved in extensive lobbying. Foremost among these are Oxfam, the World Development Movement, Friends of the Earth, World Vision International and a host of others. 

Forty one of the most heavily indebted of the least developed countries were proposed to benefit from the well publicized debt cancellation of a decade ago. United Kingdom and other members of the G7 have supported this initiative. 

Another interesting example is the NGO coalition that sponsored the boycott campaign that took place in Washington a few years ago. The aim of the said coalition was to highlight their call for a boycott of the bonds that the World Bank issues on the private market. Overtime, the World Bank has revised or changed some of its policies in favour of developing countries.   

The point however is that it has been the efforts of NGOs like Oxfam and other powerful NGOs that have over the years brought the stark realities of the debt burden and the effects of structural adjustment programmes on third world countries to the attention of decision makers in the west.

Oxfam has for instance made it clear through writings to the World Bank that through the latter’s policies; a growing number of children in the third world can no longer afford to attend school. That would mean that the World Bank is ruining the future of children!

Apart from the northern NGOs, the southern NGOs are also busy in advocacy work. As early as April, 1998 NGOs from Latin America, Africa and Asia stole the show from their counterparts in the north when they convened a conference in Geneva.

The purpose of the conference was to highlight the impact of free trade. Useful recommendations were made during this conference which came to the attention of agencies such as the World Trade Organization.

Delegates from India spoke of how globalization has led to lower tariff barriers on food imports into India and how this affected their livelihoods. Civil disobedience against globalization has already been made in several capitals where meetings are held. From Seattle, Turin to other cities, anti-globalization protests have been held.  

While various World Bank Presidents has dismissed some of these meetings as “ ill-advised”, the point is being made. The pressure on the Bretton Woods institutions and other bodies that determine the fate of developing countries is growing.

In conclusion, NGO influence on aid agency policies is still limited. But it is also important to point out that the World Bank and the IMF and indeed other donor agencies no longer view developing countries’ problems from their air-conditioned offices. They are getting closer to the ground through participatory approaches and some modest measures have already been initiated as a result of NGO pressure.

For instance there is already an NGO liason office in the World Bank signaling the importance the World Bank attaches to NGOs. While relations between donors and NGOs have tended to create a degree of dependency and vulnerability on the part of the latter, the most important issue at stake is the future of indigenous NGOs.

These local or grassroot NGOs should not continue to work as conduits or extensions of first world aid flows. They should play a more meaningful role in their country’s socio-economic development by increasing their capacity and then transforming themselves into development institutions with authentic constituencies. 

Not only this, but they will need new strategies including new mechanisms for accountability and governance among NGOs which allow for new forms of relationships with low income communities based not only on programmes and projects but upon a critique of present global economic relations.

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