A lethal cocktail for Africa

Published on Pambazuka News, by Abdul Ghelleh, April 29, 2013.

The overwhelming majority of non-governmental organisations do more harm than good to livelihoods and sustainable developments in Africa. The World Bank’s working definition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is ‘Private organizations that pursue activities to relieve suffering, promote the interests of the poor, protect the environment, provide basic social services or undertake community development.’ But many people now ask whether the NGOs that work in Africa are progressively engaged in activities that are developmentally sustainable. And, by the way, how democratic and accountable are the NGOs?  

Here in Kenya, it looks as though most Kenyan middle class individuals, and their regional counterparts who live in Nairobi, have their own non-governmental organizations or are partners in NGOs with others. Interestingly, Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, is the base for this huge, unregulated and unaccountable industry that, when looking at its surface, seems to have a supporting role for the local economy, human rights advocacy and governance programmes. Nairobi is the NGOs’ capital in Africa.

I came to the conclusion, however, that the overwhelming majority of NGOs do more harm than good to livelihoods and sustainable developments in Africa.
Here is my charge sheet:

  • NGOs artificially sustain a false economy whereby they push huge amounts of cash into the pockets of corrupted local African partners while taking most of the cash back to their private bank accounts in Europe and elsewhere.
  • Yes, they do pay the salaries of a few people here and there who support their families. But that’s not my point.
  • The NGOs actually work against homegrown developmental strategies in Africa.
  • The NGO operatives don’t want the recycling of aid operations, which creates chronic dependency and corruption within the receiving societies, to end.
  • For example, NGOs are not prepared to cede some power or train local people to take over in the future, and they don’t give the confidence necessary to carry out their work to local government personnel of the countries that they operate in.
  • Africans have the experience and the expertise to own the operations of the NGOs, but actually the foreign bosses of the NGOs want to retain power in order to continue the dependency culture that they have created.

In Kenya, the number of the NGOs in Nairobi had surpassed the capacity of the Kenyan government departments … //

… In fact, journalists are encouraged to travel on the NGOs’ chartered planes for free, and in return for their hospitality, NGO executives ask the journalists to bring graphic pictures and exaggerated stories of the local situation back with them, ready for consumption in Western capitals for more donations.

The NGOs have unlimited powers here in Africa and they are unaccountable to any other authority. In Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda, for example, NGOs act as something more or less similar to coalition governments. But in Somalia and the Congo, they effectively run the whole country. African ministers are powerless against the NGOs and are scared of them for fear of being deprived of future funds, or they may have already been corrupted by them so the NGOs have the upper hand all the time. I heard a firsthand account of a Somali minister begging an NGO executive for extra subsistence allowance from his hotel room while the plane taking him back to Mogadishu was being repaired.

NGO operatives often resist the calls for relocations closer to epic centres of their operations, like setting up shops in various towns across Somalia and the Congo. Earlier this year, the UN agencies issued directives to partner organisations to relocate their staff to Somalia by May 2013. To my knowledge so far, none of them had done so. Almost all of the NGOs that have activities in Somalia, South Sudan and the Congo are based in Nairobi and do not wish, apart from periodical visits, to base themselves in the country of their operations. Simply put, it’s not comfortable enough for them to live there. You’d have thought that the safety of their personnel is their main priority, but the stories I am discovering are doubtful and suggest otherwise.

Early last month while I was returning from Djibouti, I met a Norwegian aid worker at Addis Ababa Airport. We were both transiting at Addis on our way to Nairobi. I asked where he was coming from. ‘Hargeisa,’ was his reply. The British government had earlier that week issued a warning of a credible terrorism-related activity in Somaliland. Without my prompting, he added, ‘Bloody UK Foreign Office, many people were leaving Hargeisa.’ He told me that he and his family live in Nairobi, and that his children attend private schools there. I asked about the operations of his organisation in Somaliland. ‘On my part, nothing much really,’ and he went on, ‘I just visit Hargeisa once in every three months, and Garoowe twice a year, simply to check the boys and girls there.’ There is no way to verify this story as people often misrepresent themselves in a volatile and dangerous region like the Horn of Africa.

If the NGOs are in Africa for anything other than transitional services, they should not be allowed to operate in this continent any longer. The NGO culture must come to an end in Africa and throughout the developing world. Where NGOs have become a substitute for governments for so long, it’s almost impossible to lay the foundations of a functioning state. Moreover, places like Somalia, the Congo and Afghanistan where NGOs have operated for decades now should set an example for any change in policy from donor states. How can we expect a Somali or an Afghan minister who begs for his subsistence allowance from an NGO to take on the Shabaab or the Taliban? Quite simply, it doesn’t make sense. Real power should be removed from the NGOs and transferred to the indigenous populations.

I suggest that a pilot programme somewhere in Africa—perhaps Somalia or Congo—should be put into action sooner rather than later.

In fact, it’s time to overhaul the cartel-style aid industry in Africa and the developing world. It makes all the sense in the world to hand the cash over to the institutions it is meant to be supporting and to embed couple of auditors in these institutions. It’s cheaper, highly effective and it will be in line with the local social economy in a sustainable manner. Donor states should seriously reconsider whether to funnel their taxpayers’ money and other resources through unaccountable third parties.
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