On the night of July 21, Rwanda bid farewell to one of its most dedicated and longest-serving expatriates, Liz Damon (not real name) from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development.
The party was held at her residence, a vast piece of land and architecture in Kacyiru, overlooking the valley, Gisozi, and the on-and-off amusement park scattered by the lake. Among those in attendance were numerous senior officers from international donor agencies, the World Bank, United Nations, country directors of major non-governmental organizations, and two secretary-generals in the Rwandan government.
The luxurious affair, which lasted late into the night with a fully stocked open bar, catering and professional dance troupe, peaked with a song written and performed for Mrs. Damon, who was returning to London for a senior position at DFID.
Hail to the leader, the chorus begins, for all that she has done. Hail to the leader, for all the good she’s done.
She had been in the country five years.
Phoenixes rising from the ashes; the history and phylum of NGOs in Rwanda
This is a story about the development industry in Rwanda, but more specifically, the source and symptoms of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and those they employ.
As Rwanda accelerates its climb to middle-income status, an important and possibly imminent trailblazer on its path towards political and economic sovereignty, the role and future of development agencies and humanitarian NGOs in Rwanda must be examined. If—as is the stated purpose—the work done by such ad-hoc actors is accomplished and Rwanda becomes developed, sustainable and of its own accord, will there be a time when they, as one NGO worker put it, “pack up and go?” Many organisations first arrived in the form of emergency-relief operations after the Genocide, yet continue to remain in the country, sometimes each one working in over four fields of development. Instead of doing their job, they have increased it.
Civil society, including international humanitarian organizations, plays an enormous role in the development of Rwanda, as well as in numerous countries around the world. “They do things no one else can do,” Minister of Local Government Protais Musoni says.
To answer these questions, one must understand the nature, behaviour and role of NGOs within Rwanda, and to understand that it is helpful to look to similar episodes both before and after the time of their major arrival in the country; just after the 1994 Genocide.
It was a popular time to come to the country. The history of NGOs—some believe largely a contemporary chapter in the narrative of liberal democracy and, others argue, nation building—is one born from continual witness to war and slaughter.
The first of its kind, the International Committee of the Red Cross, was founded in 1859 after the Battle of Solferino during the Crimean War. Henri Dunant, a Swiss businessman travelling in the region, witnessed the one-day battle in which over 40,000 were left dead or wounded. Shocked by the lack of any care for the fallen soldiers, Dunant stayed in Solferino with others and provided medical assistance.
The organization Dunant later established formally in 1863 was founded on the principles of ‘humanitarian war;’ he was not concerned with the stopping of war, but its management, organization, and civility. Its founding ideologies were a lack of ideology, focused specifically on the care and health of soldiers and others affected by war, and the rules of engagement. In 1864, those very principles were adopted by the powers of Europe in the first Geneva Convention.
Since then, almost every significant war has given birth to its own crop of humanitarian organizations, phoenixes rising from the ashes of tragedy. Save the Children and CARE International were founded after World War I; Medicine sans Fronteries during the Vietnam War, and Mercy Corps in response to the genocide in Cambodia. All of these were emergency-relief operations at the time of founding, but have grown in size and mandate as their immediate inspirations faded away.
The transformation and lifespan of NGOs from their incarnation follow a rather common trend, largely seen as an attempt to adapt to changing situations;
1) Emergency relief and welfare
2) Longer-term, self-reliant capacity building programmes; and
3) national-level policy advocates.
These three categories are not exclusive of each other. Rather, it is commonly accepted that anyone NGO more often than not develops through the stages and categories described above. A vast majority of the NGOs seen in Rwanda today follow this path of evolution, growing linearly. (Organizations regularly state this. In Save the Children’s Rwanda country report, they say, “As Rwanda has moved on from the era of war and Genocide, our programme has evolved to focus on longer-term projects.)
Virtually every humanitarian and development organization in Rwanda today came to the country in the wake of the 1994 Genocide. Almost all came in the form of 1st generation emergency-relief, and all came with different and overlapping plans, none of which were immediately shared with the new government.
“It was a relief-circus,” says Michael Marren, former development worker in Kenya and Somalia. Over two hundred relief agencies descended on Rwanda and Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There was little coordination between organizations and even less with the government. And they were powerful. “By the time Rwanda rolled around, an unprecedented number of organizations were funded and ready to roll,” Marren says in his book The Road to Hell, 1997: the Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Chairty. “Most had no knowledge of Rwanda or Rwandans, and some had never worked in Africa before. A lot of mistakes were made.”
Michael Maren, is a former Peace Corp employee and worker for Care International, he has worked in Kenya, Somalia and other countries abroad.
“The NGO community was almost ruling the country,” says Minister of Local Government Protais Musoni. “They displaced the government. All the best-paying jobs were with [NGOs], leaving a vacuum of qualified public staff.”
While it was the CNN effect—dozens of media cameras pointed on the cholera-ridden bodies of dying refugees—that brought the organisations en masse to the country, it was the very same cameras which shed public light on the behaviour of the organizations.
Normally, due to the emergency nature of refugee operations, Maren notes in his book, “Accountability is sacrificed.” This was certainly the case in Rwanda. In only one of many examples, The Red Cross had a tender to buy 100,000 blankets, each one to cost $7. The blankets the Red Cross actually purchased were of a different synthetic ration and only $4.50 each. One-quarter of a million dollars was pocketed by just one or two employees alone
In another story, AmeriCares sent 10,000 cases of Gatorade to Goma, falsely arguing that it included the same ingredients one would find in IV. In yet another, Operation Blessing, a group run by evangelist Pat Robertson, launched a nationwide television appeal to raise donations, while accommodation for Blessing’s headin Goma, David Rosin, and one other employee cost £4,000 per month.
Of course, NGOs in Rwanda did unbelievable, truly unique and vital work in the country that no one else could do, and still does today. One of the most worthy examples is of Save the Children, which focused its activities on tracing parents and relative of children who became separated during the Genocide.
Despite the embarrassing case where CARE-Germany sent down 267 German doctors to Goma only to not be used, the work and actions of 1st generation NGOs in the country was absolutely indispensable, and Rwanda regularly acknowledges the very special role it played in putting the country back on track.
That being said, the relationship between Rwanda and the NGOs and expatriates who operate there started with a lack of trust between the two, a friction that Minister Musoni says lasted until the turn of the century. One episode that truly highlighted the problem, the confusion and disorder caused was that of Americans for African Adoptions International, which arrived in post-war Kigali “scooping up” orphaned, abandoned and other children in distress for transport abroad, against Rwandan law.
“Slowly, the message had begun to sink in,” writes Michael Maren. “Logos were everywhere, like Nike ‘swoosh’ or Coca-Cola. It was like being at a grand trade show.”
Government as a partner, government as a peer; regulation in nation-building
Since then, the programmes, reputation and number of NGOs have greatly changed in Rwanda. Activities are more streamlined, professional and accountable. Most international NGOs today work not as 1st generation emergency-relief vehicles, but as 2nd generation long-term resident capacity builders.
Amongst the registered international NGOs alone, focus is now heavily directed towards government-policy initiative such as health (26 NGOs are active in this field); education (23), and HIV/Aids treatment (18). This not only points to the immediate needs of Rwanda, but also to the marketability of certain sectors for potential government grants and contracts.
Seventeen NGOs have activities in what is termed ‘community development’ but is really a potpourri of civil-society enhancement, workshops, and numerous other activities geared specifically towards long-term sustainable development in itself.
Thirteen work with orphans, and 12 in Genocide reconciliation and justice. There is a small, but growing percentage of groups working on 3rd generation national-level advocacy, as well as agricultural development.
(The range of work is truly massive. CARE, one of the biggest organizations in Rwanda, but with a modest country budget of $180,000, has one project in Umutara where it is working to plant over 900,000 trees to ensure “sustainable environment.”)
Also important, almost all work to some degree with capacity building, holding seminars, workshops and trainings. Of the 82 whose operations could be easily categorized, 34 work predominantly in capacity building, while 35 share facets of both 1st and 2nd generation activities. Only 13 were primarily focused on emergency relief and infrastructure development.
Forty-one, exactly half of those whose activities could be clearly determined, concentrate on a single theme of development, a focus enthusiastically welcomed by the government (“They concentrate on too many things,” an unnamed MINALOC officer recently complained.) In fact, of the other 41 partaking in multiple disciplines, 19 work in at least three different fields. The largest and most comprehensive also happen to be the oldest and richest, a correlation studied later.
Much of the progress is owed to greater coordination between the government of Rwanda and NGOs.
In 1996, Rwanda drafted and signed an agreed-upon draft report on collaboration between the government and non-governmental organizations in rebuilding the country. At the time, the situation had been out of control.
“You will notice,” Minister Protais Musoni says, “many things come back to 1994 [directly after Genocide].”
The 41-page report, bringing together the government, donor agencies, and 34 NGOs, set out clear guidelines and recommendations for how each party would operate within the country and with each other.
One such recommendation cited the need for field visits by local government to “assess the status and progress of and problems with NGOs’ work.”
The report also calls for financial audits, joint execution of projects, and “external evaluations,” as well as a united development community aligned with government desires and priorities.
As this last matter was a serious point of contention between organizations and the government in the early years after the Genocide, the government told 38 NGOs to close their doors and cease operating in December of 1996. The move was met with widespread criticism from the international community, and the incident was explained further in the collaborative report. Even after the departure, 114 NGOs were still operating in the country. Today there are 90.
Getting them to all agree, and agree to administration demands and goals, is not always easy.
The last four years, which Minister Musoni describes as a period of generally good relations with international organizations, has seen a significant rise in coordination between public, private, and civil society.
All NGOs wishing to work within Rwanda must register with the Ministry of Local Government, to whom they submit quarterly or annual reports—depending on the organization and its practices—detailing the number and progress of projects in the country, along with the respective finances. Not all of these reports are publicly disclosed, but MINALOC can—and does—make confirmation visits to field sites where projects are being conducted.
“Ownership” by the government of Rwanda’s development is vital, Minister Musoni says.
However, as many NGOs in Rwanda evolve into 2nd generation organization, with practices focuses on trainings, workshops, seminars, and overall ‘knowledge transfer’ it has been difficult for the government to find a level of accountability.
A part of this is the apparent recent confusion cited in a report of a development partners retreat to Gisenyi in March of 2006, where questions were raised over the roles of specific ministries in working with NGOs.
“Regarding management of NGO projects,” the draft report reads, “it was clarified that MINALOC is in charge of NGOs while MINECOFIN is in charge of monitoring and control of project execution through CEPEX.”
This confusion is part of the reason Rwanda’s biggest problem today with NGOs is duplication of services and what Minister Musoni calls ‘parallel management structures’ and ‘national systems,’ which basically mean NGO projects, instead of being directly-executed, with or without knowledge, approval or oversight by the government.
“Directly-executed projects,” Musoni says, “leaves a lack of inclusiveness in development projects.” They can confuse local staff as well, he says. An accountant may be managing three or four different but similar projects, from three or four different organizations.
“Everything depends on where the money goes, how it is spent, and importantly, who spends it,” he says.
One real life example he gives of the potential disaster of unsynchronized activity was the recent construction of a school in Northern Province.
A church organization near Byumba had funds and plans to build a school in the area. So did an international NGO. So did the district.
All were planning on building a school of roughly the same size, without any knowledge of each other’s activities. As it happens, recent flooding in the area had destroyed a bridge near one of the proposed sites and a couple of children had been seriously injured. Secondly, neither had budgeted for supplies, textbooks, and uniforms.
“We would have three schools for one population, without learning materials and students being washed away.”
This information was found through the recently-established Joint Action Forum, which seeks to unite government and NGOs through information sharing. Using the Forum, roles and responsibilities allocated between the different parties.
But communication and transparency about activities and funds leaves much still to be desired. Although accountability, transparency and overall trust in the larger, more seasoned NGOs has increased, there have been some serious cases of mismanagement and fraud.
“There are numerous cases of fraud, swindling, and other illegal activities,” says one high-ranking MINALOC official speaking on the condition of anonymity.
One recent example is of a Swiss organization working in Southern Province (name is withheld as investigations are pending) with cited activities in ‘socio-economic promotion for vulnerable groups affected by HIV/Aids.’ The organization, which claims an operating country budget of 518,159 Swiss francs, was recently reported to the Ministry of Local Government by its own newly-appointed country manager.
“There is no house,” the file reads. “No accommodation,” and “no office.” There is, she quotes, a complete “lack of contacts for people we are supposed to work with.” The country manager for the largely non-existent NGO claims to have spent $10,000 in personal funds towards the NGO’s activities. When MINALOC visited the organizations bank account, the balance was Euro1.
This isn’t the only case. One recently-fired legal advisor to an organization working in Huye emptied its bank accounts, changed its legal status with the government, and even managed to change the name of the NGO.
All of this—both the things that have gone wrong and the things that have gone right—beckons further oversight and coordination between government and NGOs. It also revisits the question first posed in 1994; what is their ultimate role and relationship with Rwanda? What is their future?
In August of 2006 cabinet ministers drafted and endorsed the Rwanda Aid Policy, a more comprehensive, though more succinct version of the 1996 report. Of specific importance, the Policy explicitly calls for a “gradual reduction of dependence on external aid.”
This is the be-all and end-all question for development in Rwanda; is there a future when, once the country attains ‘sustainable development’, the NGOs pack up and go home? Conventional wisdom says yes.
The evolutions of aid and the financing of survival
Jen Brea, an editor for Global Voice, calls it something else. “NGOs will always go where the money goes.” What she refers to are the sometimes gargantuan contracts and grants NGOs receive from foreign donor agencies. According to its 2006 financial statements, the International Rescue Committee—which has one of the largest chapters in Rwanda—disclosed that, of the $213 million in operation revenues, $164 million came from contract and grants. In comparison, charitable donations, the most well-known source of income for NGOs, accounted for only $20 million. The $75 million spent on salaries, about one-third of functional expenses, was almost double the amount spent on supplies.
CARE International, another giant of the development community, brought in about $111 million in direct donations, and $396 million in government grants. On the organization’s website, CARE advertises that 91 per cent of their income is spent on ‘programme activities,’ with the remaining going towards ‘support services and fundraising.’ Programme activities, shown in its 2006 tax-exemption form, includes an almost $200 million spent on salaries, benefits, conferences, and travel.
Their Anniversary Ball and Dinner lost the organisation $220,000, about 22 times the maximum donation allowed.
While the face of an impoverished boy on a poster “needing your help” is the premier iconography of NGO fundraising, the significant bulk of income comes as grants from transnational and international agencies. The sentiment sent in advertising campaigns is of an urgent need to deliver goods and services, and those doing it are hard-working underpaid humanitarians bound to their work by the burden of helping. Their evidence is that they are not-for-profit; these organizations are uninterested in making money, just saving lives.
This very well may be true.
But according to its 2006 tax-exemption file, four of CARE’s five highest-paid employees (other than officers, directors, and trustees) made in excess of $100,000, including benefits and allowances. In total, 506 staff made over $50,000.
As for officers, directors and trustees, the organization spent $1.67 million on eight employees.
Those are not short-term ‘emergency’ numbers.
The question is not whether this is deserved, but rather whose money it comes from; private donations, public grants, or something else? Understanding this discrepancy is understanding how NGOs behave.
There are other ways of making money too. Revenue generated outside of private donations or government contracts—active autonomous income (AAI)—includes the sale of donated second-hand goods (used books and compact discs); the sale of purchased or produced goods (often reported as non-charitable trading); renting out of office space and residential real estate; and finally, the investment of funds from the above sources.
What is overly noticeable is how the behaviour of NGOs changes as they pass through the generations of the evolution as described earlier. By behaviour, we mean finances, and the flow of those finances; the connections and diversions from point A (individual donations, government contracts) to point Z (the tangible difference in the quality of life organizations aim to achieve).
Focus is paid to finances because it best traces the way entities act, and it shows, overwhelmingly, the survival instincts of NGOs as the original reasons for their existence begin to disappear.
An in-depth 2006 report covering the spending of 74 UK-based international NGOs found that there is a direct correlation between the financial behaviour of aid organizations as they inevitably transform from emergency-relief providers to virtually permanent institutions. Of equal importance, it examines the spending of money from different sources; is privately or publicly donated money spent the same way as AAI?
During the first phase or generation of an NGO, activities are based on emergency relief. Any money coming in almost entirely goes to relief material and programs. “Emergency relief NGOs often raise funds soon after a disaster happens for the specific purpose of helping the victims,” the report says. “Such NGOs need to intervene as quickly as possible, for an unknown number of victims.”
It is at this stage—the first generation of NGOs—the author of the report, Pierre-Emmanuel of the University of Toulouse says, that the ratio of spending towards actual project execution is highest. “The positive effect of autonomous income on charitable expenditure is found significant only for emergency NGOs.”
As organizations move away from this instant relief and become more ‘settled’, though, so does their spending.
Although this data cannot fully reflect income and expenditure of all NGOs in Rwanda, the study found that, on average, NGOs autonomously generated 12 per cent of their income. This implies a certain level of stability, time, and wealth unassociated with emergency relief.
“On average, NGOs with AAI are older, richer, receive more donations, and have more than three times as many employees.” This is explicit in Rwanda. Trocaire has a country budget upwards of (2 million; Oxfam with over $1 million and Catholic Relief Services with close to $3 million in country budget support. The International Rescue Committee had a 2005 budget of $1,361,000.
According to the study, 76 per cent of total expenditure was devoted to programme execution, or ‘charitable expenditure’ and 14 per cent to “administrative and other costs.” On the International Rescue Committees tax-exemption form, they say 89.4 per cent of expenses ($189,160,674) went to programme activities and 6.3 per cent ($13,498,581) on “management and general.”
When accounting for the $67 million listed under programme services that went to salaries and other wages, the picture quickly changes. For the 2005-2006 fiscal year, the International Rescue Committee spent $80,807,714, at minimum, on administrative costs, equivalent to 38.3 per cent of total expenditure. On CARE’s side, 91.3 per cent—$589,604,000—went to programme services, just as advertised, while 4.6 per cent ($30,121,000) was spent on “management and general.”
When costs are likewise adjusted, over $125 million, or 19.4 per cent of expenditure, was spent on administrative costs. This excludes the $37,915,000 going to “other employee benefits.”
Is there something in itself wrong with this?
The information they provide is technically correct; for the purposes of the United States Internal Revenue Authority, specific spending, however similar to each other, can be divided into different categories. The public’s general knowledge and understanding though, based on organization publicity of how the organizations they donate to spend their money, is completely skewed.
The study yields more interesting findings. The relationship between source of income and expenditure destination is vital. It was generally found that, due to public awareness by donors and criticism over practices, there is a strong bond between private donation and charitable expenditure. When that income source increased by 10 per cent, it led to a 7.47 per cent increase in charitable spending.
But the other sources of income, AAI, can affect other spending just as much. If it is possible to list sources of income from ‘most charitable’ (private donation) to ‘least charitable’ (rental income), it was found that a 10 per cent increase in the least charitable income yielded a 33 per cent increase in other, non-charitable expenditure. Note that the relationship between this specific income and expenditure is stronger than any other of its kind.
Besides the fact that the ability and willingness to partake in lesser-charitable revenues virtually requires an NGO to not be focused on emergency-relief activities, there are telling trends in the way money is spent as an organization grows through generations.
Firstly, AAI contributes significantly to charitable spending “only for emergency NGOs.” More importantly, the effect of donations on other, lesser-charitable expenditure is significant only for non-emergency organizations.
This is counter-intuitive.
“If NGOs’ preferences are biased toward charity provision,” Pierre-Emmanuel reasons, “an increase in income, regardless of which source, should primarily affect charitable expenditure.”
Rather, an increase in non-charitable trading, such as selling of postcards, T-shirts and fair-trade food was found to have little affect on charitable expenditure.
Taking into account that intentions and written policy may say otherwise, there is a certain stage when NGOs begin acting more self-beneficially, cementing their existence and strength, instead of focusing further attention and money to ending the original reasons for their conception.
To use the example of CARE, in 1994 it earned a little under $2 million in non-dividend/securities AAI. The following year the number climbed to $5.6 million. According to its 1999 tax-exemption form, the first year available, the total was just over $6 million; today it’s around 5.4.
During that same period of time, operations, especially in Africa, largely expanded, as did spending on both staff and programme services. In 2006, CARE spent over $50 million more on personnel than it did in 1999, an increase of 49 per cent. For programme services, $37 million more was spent in 2006 than 1999, an increase of about 38 per cent.
Now, it would not be fair to focus on the numbers alone. After all, the people on the ground are the most important part of programme activity. Things would not get done in the same way without them.
The point though is that these financial changes occur along generational changes. The meaning of developing from emergency relief to long-term capacity building is that the types of programmes—and their costs—change.
“It is one thing that is difficult with [monitoring] them,” a high-ranking official in MINALOC says, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It is hard to cover workshop and seminar costs.”
As said earlier, 34 of the 59 NGOs whose operations were easily identifiable worked almost entirely in workshop/seminar/training-led capacity building. Some of the organizations have country budgets of well over $1 million. Another 35 had elements of both 1st and 2nd generation activities, and only 13 worked largely in emergency-relief infrastructure and services. This is how it ties together.
And it can show.
The charity-industrial complex, and the art of misunderstanding
Rwanda is a place where status and money matters. Those walking the long roads piecing together hilltop commercial centres are seen as those who can’t afford to drive. Rwandans hold prestige near and dear to their hearts, and in that regard, development workers are the cream of the crop.
“If there’s one thing that’s immediately noticeable in Kigali,” one tourist recently said, “it’s the cars. They have the nicest cars, and they’re everywhere.”
But it’s more than just a fancy, fun vehicle; it is seen as reflection of class. That reflection being that NGO workers, especially expatriates but also local workers have the best jobs, the most money, and the best lives.
“It’s prestigious to be called an NGO,” says a high-ranking MINCALOC official of the booming proliferation of local NGOs, sometimes with no more than two or three staff.
Sometimes these desires can turn ugly.
In 2006, a professor from New Hampshire, United States, wrote an article on the reactions the prevalence of foreign aid workers stimulates. Calling them the “heirs of missionaries,” Joan Roelofs says international NGOs are not trusted in many countries, and that in some, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, they have been assassinated.
Now, this is not happening in Rwanda, and most NGO employees, both local and expatriate, express strong confidence and satisfaction in the relations they have with each other and the community.
Still, it shows that, on a day-to-day basis, they are understood by many to be the intruder; not as in ‘bad’, but as in ‘other’. During both those cases, in 2002 and 2003 respectively, they came in after the military, the next wave. This is not to say everybody actually thinks an NGO worker is a soldier, but when looking in the long mirror with an untrained eye, associations are made.
“When trouble comes,” Michael Maren writes in his book, “the Land Cruisers always follow. Airplanes and trucks bring bags of food and blankets, and Land Cruisers bring relief workers. They are young, earnest, healthy, clean, and tanned European and American kids in short pants, t-shirts, baseball caps, and sunglasses.”
Now, this may be an overly subjective opinion from someone who is very biased, but the point he is making should not be lost. To the outsider, those who come to deliver food don’t look so different those who come with guns.
In this way NGOs can be mistakenly seen as deciders of war, and thus the heirs to security and control; they are part of the victor, holders of the peace. They are immediately in positions of control. It is the same reason Henri Dunant felt compelled to help the wounded after Solferino, there were people in desperate need and he could provide that need. That power may bend over the decades, but it has yet to have broke.
RPF spokesperson Servilien Sebasoni puts it perfectly when he says, “They were too rich, and we too poor. NGOs replaced and displaced Rwandese people in running the country.”
Rwanda is not Afghanistan or Iraq. It was not invaded by men of other skin. It is not even Somalia, but it did come from a time when people were franticly distressed, and NGOs, and particularly outsiders, were in control of supplying the most elemental necessities of life. Although services have changed and government and private sectors are vibrant, it is still like growing up and away from a mother. And in that way, it is like the ‘heirs’ of colonialism.
There’s no loss of people disturbed by this association. In a 2002 article published in International Affairs, Firoze Manji accuses Western NGOs talking in a “new vocabulary,” to potential donors, but really saying the same thing.
“The real problem was that the dominant discourse of development was framed not in the language of emancipation or justice, but with the vocabulary of charity, technical expertise, neutrality, and a deep paternalism,” Manji writes. “It was no longer that Africans were ‘uncivilised.’ Instead, they were ‘underdeveloped.’”
Rwanda has tried to avoid this maternal/paternal-filial relationship, instead struggling at times to bring all development workers—national government, donor agencies, and civil society—under national systems and government policy.
Still, it has been difficult to argue against the association when looking at the direction and destinations of finances. Government contributions to CARE accounted for well over half of its total revenue. In Africa, western government have been shifting much of their aid to NGOs, and away from Rwanda’s stated desires—direct budget support. According to information produced by MINALOC, USAID works with and through at least 22 different NGOs in delivering aid to Rwanda.
As it says in a recent Economist article, “many ‘non-governmental’ groups are becoming contractors for governments.”
What Marren and Roelofs say begin—and numerous Rwandan government officials allude to—as military-charity relationships during moments of emergency, become a charity-industrial complex.
While organizations like Oxfam and Care work directly with returning refugees in Eastern Province, building houses, providing food and medicine, the vast majority of organizations operating in Rwanda today are exclusively 2nd generation; devoted to longer-term capacity building. World Vision has programmes lasting 15 years, projects and development plans that will undoubtedly take their country activities well into the 21st century. (Still, average staff terms are rarely longer than two years. Turnover rate is astronomic.)
Many NGOs readily admit this. In an April 2007 report of UK Save the Children’s human resource management, the organization explicitly states its strategic intentions. “Over the last few years Save the Children has been positioning itself and looking at its long-term strategy. It has launched a new brand positioning statement and confirmed a new strategic direction focusing on national level advocacy,” the third and so far final generation in NGO evolution. The group that thirteen years ago ventured into war-torn Rwanda to find the parents of lost children could soon be telling the government how to raise those children.
The understanding is that there is a very real connection here, between despair of one and survival of another, indisputable, and locals, be it in Rwanda or elsewhere, can see it and perceive it any number of ways.
The following is an actual posting by a man living in Mogadishu on a website forum devoted to NGO activity:
“In Somalia we’re better off without the white man. It’s the white man that creates and finance the warlords, it’s the white man that creates the wars and provides support for them. As soon as the bullet stopped, the NGO’s poured to the streets of Mogadishu.”
Obviously Rwanda has not seen that type of anger. There is not that tension. Save for the French, there is not that feeling of betrayal and hatred.
But there is contempt and confusion at their own times. “In Rwanda, we have some friends who work in NGOs or at the United Nations. They live more or less like kings, removed from the population, they spend most of the day at the office,” Civiliste Guillaume says in a post on the website.
“But how can they hope to understand the reality that the people you want to help when they themselves live in this way?!? It’s simply impossible. When we talk with them we clearly see the extent to which they have problems understanding the people they are supposed to help. It’s not by any ill will on their parts, it’s because they are part of an organization that does not let them.”
One university student, Sandrine Bizimana says, “It’s foreigners getting paid by foreign governments to work and live and change a foreign country. It is an organic growth of the same psychology that produced colonialism.”
Yet this is not yet a problem truly in Kigali—the socioeconomic domination of one group over another, like you saw in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Kenya, the real colonialists. And expatriates in Rwanda notice.
A blogger from Kigali on the forum talks of his surprise. “I am constantly amazed by the very limited resentment towards expatriate development and aid workers. The rhetoric of ‘make poverty history’ is balanced by good salaries, fine perks, and offices and homes always in the most expensive parts of town (and even then paying way over the odds for rent…). I know, I’m one of them.”
Clearly the situation in Rwanda is not like it was and is in Somalia, but the reason it is brought up is because there is a trend, and it stretches over decades: development workers, including but not limited to expatriate staff, are incredibly detached from the people they serve and live with. On one hand, globalism is the theory of mixing and incorporation, yet on the other, its offspring—development-aid lifestyles—exudes the exact opposite.
Why has it been so hard to amend a problem like this? Because it’s been here since the beginning.
Looking towards the future; the problem of personnel and local charity
The response to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami showed once again how little control government has in the actions and operations of international non-governmental organizations during crisis; and how human resource-management and sovereign civil society are affected.
Bambang Sipayung, a project manager for Jesuit Refugee Service in Bande Aceh, Indonesia, called the relief community in the aftermath of the disaster a “veritable supermarket of NGOs,” each with their own mandates and procedures. This is exactly like the ‘relief circus’ in Rwanda after the Genocide, and something the government has worked steadfastly since to avoid.
“The first thing they each did was to search for accommodation, warehousing and local staff,” Sipayung says. Rental costs in the province rose ten-fold. English-speaking Indonesians found themselves sought after and ‘head-hunted.’
“Some who got jobs with international agencies had no experience of social activism nor ever been employed by an NGO.” Not only were the best jobs with international organizations, but they were virtually the only jobs.
This, too, happened in Rwanda, though is largely absent from human-resource management in the country today. Head-hunting, however, is virulent in the current NGO community. Organizations do not hire at random anyone who speaks English or French, but because of criticism over expatriate costs, close to 90 per cent of NGO employees in Rwanda are local nationals. When a country has a problem of capacity the way Rwanda does, it makes human-resource management all the more difficult, and jobs amongst locals all the more prized.
What happens is that the best of Rwanda, instead of the rest, flock to foreign-paid, foreign-owned employment. Those who were doing well before would probably still do well again. There is little movement of wealth throughout the workforce. Those without education or skills often get jobs as transport officers or drivers for NGOs. These jobs pay far better than most public or private sector jobs in the country, but are still far, far less than what the person in the back of the car makes.
“These same organisations also pay ‘local’ salaries,” says a development worker on a Kigali civil-society blog, “that are some of the best available, but they won’t make you a millionaire or anywhere close in most internationally traded denominations. To what extent these lead ‘local’ employees to be cut off from the real world, I’m not so sure.”
An unnamed official at MINALOC disregards the possibility with a laugh. “Everybody gets rich,” he says. “There is nothing wrong with making money. We can make it here, others can make it there, people are always going to make money.”
RPF spokesperson Servilien Sebasoni says that there is a problem, but it’s primarily with the foreign personnel living and working in the country. It is a problem, he says, of language. Ninety-three per cent of the country speaks only Kinyarwanda. Just over one-half of a percent (.59) speak English, about 51,000 out of nearly 9 million.
“How can you be an expert on something and not speak the national language?” Sebasoni asks. “On basic principle, how can they do their job?”
Minister Protais Musoni agrees. “It’s not easy to change what you don’t understand.”
Expatriates in Kigali have been wondering the same thing. “The greater absurdity is how few can speak or understand the national language - unable to read a newspaper, follow the TV news, enjoy the radio or understand the water cooler gossip of their colleagues. Quite cut off from public debate.”
It is no wonder then that there is such high turnover and short post duration; it’s not that being unable to communicate with the general populations creates dissatisfaction; they just never meant to stay.
The job of human-resources is a difficult one in Rwanda, and everywhere in the development world. Aid workers in Rwanda say there is something particular about development work. “One of the rarely spoken of subjects in development is just how much dough development workers are making. Great jobs are not supposed to be well-paid, unless they are protected by difficult entry requirements, such as those for doctors, lawyers and hockey players,” he says.
“But in development, the lack of accountability of entrenched bureaucracies like the World Bank and United Nations have prevented the market from responding to this influx of young people willing to work for practically nothing.”
The reason for this is everything mentioned in the previous passages. The complex, circular nature of the NGO/development/humanitarian/neo-colonialism industry is that it both begins and ends with the desire to have the job.
“The hiring practices of most non-profits are no more transparent, because they are only accountable to Charlie Church-goer in Tennessee, who sponsors two children in Nepal, which he thinks is somewhere near Nigeria,” one blogger says. “How else can you explain the number of people I meet who can't figure out how to ‘break in’ to jobs in development, while hundreds already in are clearly incompetent, at least to judge from the complete inanity of the proposals and projects that float by my desk.”
Not only does this industry appear to keep certain people in, others are inevitably, unintentionally, left out.
In his book, Michael Maren writes of Abdirahman Osman Raghe, who worked for much of his life as a public servant in Somalia during the 1970s and 1980s and started a Somali NGO called AfriAction.
“He [Raghe] learned it wasn’t that simple,” Maren writes. “The UN intervention in Somalia had once again brought hundred of foreign NGOs. The foreign NGOs got money and resources from their governments and the UN.” When the UN invited Somali NGOs to register, Maren argues, there was a civil-society population explosion.
“Suddenly more than 1,000 Somali NGOs appeared from the rubble of the city.” Local businessmen began calling themselves NGOs in order to compete for UN contracts. Some were cynical attempts to make money, Maren says, but others were a practical result of the fact that in Somalia (as in much of Africa), “relief and development are the most dynamic growth industries.”
No matter what Raghe did, he was seen by foreigners as “another Somali profiteer jumping on the aid bandwagon to make a buck.”
This, to a different degree, occurred again in Banda Aceh.
Sipayung says that when international NGOs came in, they ‘displaced’ local organizations also partaking in relief efforts. Not only did skilled labor leave both government and local NGOs for better-paying, far more prestigious international groups, but the very capacity and vocabulary of these organizations pushed local NGOs to the fringe of redundancy.
“Local NGOs found themselves amidst giants—UN and government agencies, the Red Cross and massive international NGOs,” he says. Unable to compete, they were “powerless to prevent hemorrhage” of their staff.
Not only were international and local NGOs not working well together—Sipayung argues the very terminology of disaster response cause locals NGOs to lose interest—but a zero-sum development situation had been created. Where international NGOs succeeded, locals lost out.
Minister Musoni calls for everything but this, saying that non-governmental organizations and development agencies must “work within the internal dynamics” of any one crisis.
“Let the solutions come from the sources of the problem,” he says.
The relationship between local and international charity, as well as between local and expatriate staff within individual organizations is at the heart of whether sovereign sustainability really is possible.
There is a decent amount of cooperation and coordination between local and international NGOs. While the government would like more parity in the relationship, it is a simple matter of capability. Foreign NGOs, because of their funds and expertise, are far better able to execute projects, but this does absolutely nothing for ’sustainable development.’
To fix this, many international NGOs contract out local NGOs on specific projects.
The International Rescue Committee, for one, will be handing out nearly 400 grants to local NGOs in the upcoming year.
At Christian Aid, country representative Andrew Butare says, there is a policy of ‘non-implementation.’ “We do not do programs ourselves. We work with and through local partners. Some are churches and church-related, others are secular.”
“We tackle problems at the grass-roots quite well, it is the niche for Christian Aid.”
These are all good signs, and there are numerous local NGOs within Rwanda that play an important role in the quality of civil society in the country. Still, there is a clear, linear, chain-link of hierarchy (in terms of direct access to funds from donor agencies) that appears to leave most local organizations at the bottom of the food chain. It is inevitable and understandable, but pressure must put on changing it.
The interaction between civil society organs of national and international origin—simply because expatriates do not stay—and the interaction between foreign and local staff within organizations will determine how sustainable development will be.
The goodbye party for the DFID was not brought up simply because of its vanity. Certainly, it was a popular place to be Saturday night if you were somebody, and somebody in Rwanda usually means government officials or expatriate development workers.
But this party was privately paid for by Ms. Damon herself, and there’s another reason for starting with a story about an end. The song that was written and sung was written and sun sincerely. Many of Ms. Damon’s associated call her one of the hardest working they met. She is married to a Rwandan, and has her family here. The sentiment of that party was that development is not a scam, just maybe a misunderstanding.
The misunderstanding comes from how it appeals to its funders, who unfortunately for development happen to be different from their constituents.
Not only do NGOs and development agencies have important work in Rwanda, they are often doing things government or the private-sector not only could not do, but would not do.
“That is the beauty of international development and humanitarian organizations,” says a former employee of the World Bank, “the efficiency of it is questioned, and maybe things are not done as they always should, but their words and beliefs are strong enough to do things no one else would.”
This is what comes to mind when thinking of the farewell party and song about Mrs. Damon.
The inspiration for humanitarian assistance occurs in moments of urgency and emergency. This is the overwhelming stated principle of NGOs; to discard issues of race, religion, economic status or any other non-common denominator when providing relief.
It is an overly human reflex, an almost-anatomical reaction to something very specific. Henri Dunant, when creating the Red Cross, was not thinking of the political complexities that lay beyond the horizon of Solferino. He focused on humanitarian assistance, not because he was unconcerned with the reasons or conclusions of war, but because what he physically saw and knew in that moment was that some humans were dying on a battlefield, others had been fatally wounded, and all were being left to themselves with no help. His immediate sense was one any man or woman on Earth would likely feel in that same moment—this person obviously needs help.
But the character and behaviour of NGOs have come a long way since those moments. The maturation of such organizations from immediate-relief teams gradually to self-sustaining, international fixtures and institutions shows its symptoms in the focus of operation as well as fiscal management. All of this can be seen in Rwanda today, where all three generations of NGOs operate side-by-side, and sometimes even within each other.
But is there something wrong with this? Is it ‘bad’ that they grow in this manner and change character, behaviour and spending? It is a legitimate question to ask why people who sometimes come from far away should have to help others always? Are they not still doing good even though the recently-released Peter Bell made close to $300,000 before he left?
What research shows is that this is a trend. Organisations do continually grow and evolve in these generations. A human being itself operates in often the same way; when a situation is desperate, desperate action is taken. When there is more of a level of comfort, of stability, that sense of urgency does diminish, and likewise actions change. Basically, this is nature in action.
So then the problem, and what is only highlighted by the affair in Kacyiru, is the honesty and forwardness of organizations to funders in the West and to constituents in Rwanda. Even with its high birth-rate and family size, it will still take Rwanda till 2050 to double its population. How long will it take for development to homogenize throughout the country? The sense of urgency advertised by foreign NGOs is unrealistic to matters on the ground.
Especially when local NGOs are kept in the loop, but on the fringe. There are two things NGOs should be judged on; the medium-term effects their projects have on individual communities, and the richness of their work with local NGOs.