The charity-industrial complex

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.
This is the last part of a four part series on Understanding the psyche, culture and behaviour of NGOs in Rwanda
By Josh Kron
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.

Bidding farewell

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.
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