Bleeding hearts: NGOs under the spotlight

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Returning home from a recent trip through Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, a recurrent theme on the trip kept nagging at me : NGOs – Non-governmental Organisations for the uninitiated. We found them everywhere – from the barren, but beautiful wilderness of Kaokoland in Namibia to the lush sub-tropical forests of Zambia. In Kaokoland I met an American couple involved with basic medical care provision to the Himba people. In Chipata, Zambia I had a chat with two young Chinese, involved with setting up gin mills for the cotton farmers and urban planning for a local village. Many more were spotted or briefly engaged as we meandered through above three countries. Even in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Wild-coast area we bumped into some young do-gooders.

Who were these people? Why were they doing what they were doing? Who were financing them? What were the ulterior motives if any? What was the positive and/or negative impact of their engagement with the different African communities?

After reading Paul Theroux’s superb ‘Dark Star Safari’ a few weeks ago , I decided it’s time to do a bit of homework. Theroux, a well known American travel writer and novelist, raises some very uncomfortable questions in his book. With a background as a teacher and lecturer in both Malawi and Uganda during the heady independence era of the late 1960s he pulls no punches when he describes his encounters with various NGO employees during a solitary trip from Cairo to Cape Town, forty years later.
I admit to a wry smile on my face as he describes his frustrations and incredulity with many of them, as I have had very similar experiences. Probably the most important issue he raises, is the fact that after forty plus years of NGO involvement in Africa, nothing has changed in many areas, and in some cases have even deteriorated further.

My own anecdotal experience goes back to 1993 when I was working as a salesman in the Palapye area of Botswana. Just finished with university I was trying to scrape some money together to fund my further exploration of the world. One evening a friend and I decided to get righteously smashed on some St Louis, the local brew. Sales is hard and thirsty territory. The evening dumped us in the bungalow of a crowd of American Peace Corps workers – the same institution that brought Paul Theroux to Africa many years before. Youngsters, just finished with university like us, we naturally gravitated together towards an evening of bonhomie, guitar playing and the odd spliff. Despite the relaxed vibe, it bothered me even at that young age that the bunch of them had a very patronising view of the people they were supposedly helping. I can excuse youthful ignorance, but the arrogant and condescending attitude of the ring leader, who looked like something out of the Bold and Beautiful, got my goat. Youth is its own panacea and I got over my annoyance quickly, until now.

Although the American couple in Kaokoland were doing apparently praiseworthy work, I felt uncomfortable with the fact that they were staying in a super luxurious lodge when we met them in Opuwe, the main town in Kaokoland. Another thing that bothered me – and that relates to Theroux’s opinion – was the fact that they worked for an NGO in southern Zambia for seven years before calling it quits and moving to Kaokoland and the next cause. Isn’t the main objective of an NGO to solve an issue that is insurmountable to the local population?

Enough anecdotes. What is an NGO? The United Nations Department of Public Information defines an NGO as “a not-for profit, voluntary citizen’s group that is organized on a local, national or international level to address issues in support of the public good. Task-oriented and made up of people with a common interest, NGOs perform a variety of services and humanitarian functions, bring citizen’s concerns to Governments, monitor policy and program implementation, and encourage participation of civil society stakeholders at the community level.” In wider usage, an NGO can be described as any non-profit organization that is independent of government.

The basic concept is not new. The British movement to abolish the slave trade in 1807 could be seen as an early form of an NGO. So could the suffragette movement in the late 1900’s and the International Red Cross founded in the aftermath of the Crimean War in 1863. However a certain formalization of the concept occurred with the founding of the United Nations in 1945.

Some definitions go further, distinguishing between operational and advocacy NGOs. Operational NGOs focus on the design and implementation of development related projects, while Advocacy NGOs defend or promote a specific cause.
A word of caution: often think-tanks, private foundations, corporate philanthropic initiatives and semi-governmental institutions take on the cloak of an NGO, increasingly blurring the above definition in subtle ways.

Getting to the figures is an interesting exercise. Various institutions offer different figures. According to the United Nations Development Programme there were 37,000 internationally operating NGOs in 2000. That excludes locally operated NGOs. India was estimated to have 3.3 million NGOs in 2009 – that’s over one NGO per 400 Indians. The South African Department of Social Development’s recent figures indicate more than 50,000 registered NGOs in South Africa.

Some perspective may be gained from looking at the budgets of the biggest global NGOs. Oxfam International, the poverty relief confederation, had a budget of $528 million in 2005. In 2006, World Vision International had an annual budget of $2.1 billion, which exceeded the aid budget of Italy. Plan International spends more than Greece and the Save the Children Alliance more than Finland. Although that may be a bit of a simplistic comparison, Mediterranean countries traditionally don’t give a hoot about the fate of other countries. Maybe because they don’t carry as high a proportional colonial guilt as many of their Western counterparts. Morose Finland seems to be an anomaly. Global NGO spend on aid was estimated to be $27 billion in 2005.

The bottom line is that vast amounts of money are spent annually by NGOs across the world. Big money invariably has a big impact. Or does it? Are the actual impacts aligned with what was originally envisioned in the various NGO charters?

Let’s get back to some anecdotes before you, the dear reader, fall off your chair in somnolent boredom. During my trip through Zambia I had the decidedly unpleasant experience of a forced conversation with a bitter British ex-pat who had been living in a remote area of Zambia for many years. Her nauseating diatribe about the indigenous population’s weaknesses made me clench my teeth, but she did mention something interesting. Most of us know that malaria is the biggest killer in Africa. Many NGOs prominently advertise their efforts to minimise the deadly effects of the Anopheles mosquito. Copious initiatives to distribute mosquito nets have been introduced. The ex-pat showed me how the local people used the mosquito nets to fish in the rivers. That meant killing off all the tiny fish, before they could spawn the next generation. So less food and more hunger. All because a well intentioned foreigner dumped some mosquito nets and conveniently forgot to check that it was utilized properly. This is additional to foreign ignorance about local customs regarding remedies and prevention.

Then there was the ill- fated mission by American, Jason Sadler, to provide 1 million T-shirts to Africa. It would have been hilarious if the potential consequences wouldn’t have been so tragic. Jason wanted to send 1 million donated used or new T- shirts to the unwashed, shirtless masses of Africa. He had never been to Africa, and apparently did not do his homework about the need for and repercussions of his initiative. Thankfully an intervention by Senegalese born Mariéme Jamme averted disaster. Our boy never thought to take killing off local textile industries by way of indiscriminate dumping of t-shirts into consideration. Or the possibility that his self-promotional little stunt would play into the hands of corrupt officials and criminal elements who would hijack the items for resale.

Another American entity, TOMS, purveyors of designer shoe-wear, came up with what they thought was an ingenious plan to eradicate bare footedness in third world countries. If you buy a pair of TOM shoes, another pair is given to an impoverished child. A great marketing strategy, especially if the shoes are manufactured in a low wage country. Well, what about the fact that you are putting local shoe manufacturers out of business? Now you have shoes, but no job or money. Maybe distributing those free shoes in countries where you are manufacturing them would have less negative impact.

On a bigger scale, there have been the anti-slavery campaigns in Africa in which western NGOs buy children’s freedom for a few hundred dollars, only to perpetuate the selfsame industry they are trying to close down.

According to Oxfam, donors in Mozambique spend about $350 million per annum on 3,500 technical consultants, enough to hire 400, 000 local civil servants. Which begs the question if NGOs are strengthening local administrative capabilities or subverting them in favour of creating their own bureaucratic empires.

The above could be ascribed to pure ignorance and naivete. There are, however, more sinister linkages in the NGO world. Religious, corporate, ideological and governmental interests dominate many NGOs. For example, USAID has been accused of being no more than a corporate/governmental support mechanism, while ostensibly assisting developing nations.

The Gates Foundation invested in Monsanto, promoter and developer of genetically modified foods. A particularly noxious example of taking advantage of illiterate subsistence farmers. I sell you supposedly drought and pest resistant seeds, but once you are locked in you may only buy next season’s seeds from me. Let’s explain: traditionally subsistence farmers would put a portion of the current year’s harvest away to plant with the next year. With Monsanto you pay every year for your supply of seeds.

Many big NGOs are financed by governments. That means that your tax money may be used for a cause that you would not voluntarily endorse. Which goes directly against the grain of what a NGO is supposed to be about. If a government decides to fund North Korea’s missile programme we can vote them out of office, but how do we know if it’s done via an NGO? Governments pass aid on to NGOs because it is supposedly cheaper and more efficient, and of course there’s the added bonus of keeping the details at arm’s length from official (publicised) aid.

Proselytising religious NGOs have been around for a long time. Western missionaries have been telling ‘native’ unbelievers for centuries that their own beliefs are rubbish, and that if they want education, medical care etcetera, they have to submit to Western religious ideals. This business, because that is what it is, is bigger than ever. Idiots boring waterholes into a rapidly depleting aquifer, in exchange for some form of religious attendance, abound in Africa. It is nothing more than the economic extortion of vulnerable people.

There are two major culprits when it comes to ineffectual or malignant NGOs. The accountability of the organisational NGO and the accountability of the individual working for an NGO.

Getting facts and figures out of NGOs seems to be a very difficult process. A few websites and organisations try to keep track of what NGOs do with the monies entrusted to them. It is an uphill battle if you look at the amount of opacity and deliberate obfuscation thrown at investigators.

General accusations levied at NGOs:

  • NGOs often perpetuate incompetence by assuming the role of a parallel government. By supplying administrative infrastructure they are implicit in local governments abrogating their responsibility in that regard.
  • Long term social sustainability is damaged by the NGO’s provision of teachers, medical staff and other professionals. Local professionals tend to leave in search of better opportunities if the gap is already filled. It also leads to lethargic government policy to retain local professionals. Africa has experienced a massive ‘brain-drain’ because of this over the past few decades.
  • The artificial economy created by big spending NGOs undermines local economic sustainability, and perpetuates corrupt governance.
  • Civil services are over-stretched dealing with the registration and report handling of various NGOs. Local health workers in several African countries say they are so busy meeting western delegates that they can only do their proper jobs, vaccinations, maternal care and so forth, in the evening.
  • ‘Tied Aid’ is a cynical form of assistance where the donor or NGO stipulates that the recipient spends a certain percentage of the aid in the donor country.
  • Transparent financial figures and empirical outcomes about NGOs are often hard to obtain. A favourite obfuscation by NGOs about employee salaries seems to be that the details of the often massive remuneration disparities with local colleagues would cause a disruption in relations and efficacy.
  • Fragmentation and Duplication of NGO focuses caused by the massive growth in the worldwide NGO industry. This of course leads to inefficiency and wastage.
  • Some NGOs are used by money laundering and other criminal organisations. Your $5 donation may help wash the proceeds of human trafficking.

The Chinese aspect:
Over the past two decades China’s influence in especially Africa has risen dramatically. High levels of criticism have been levied, especially by American interests. The usual critique is that China’s aid carries a disproportionate caveat in favour of the donor country. Accusations of sub-standard infrastructure development coupled with self-serving infrastructure development have been leveled.

Interestingly enough, Dambisa Moyo, New York Times best selling author and Zambian economist, has called for less NGO engagement in Africa and more Chinese investment in her book, Dead Aid. Calls for less or more controlled NGO involvement seem to echo through the words of many African commentators. The Chinese are driven by their expanding economy so any of their NGO involvement should be taken with a pinch of salt, although I am hesitant to follow the hysterical utterances of the US Foreign Department.

There have been several accusations of Chinese improprieties and corruption when doing business in Africa, but that falls out of the ambit of this article. Interested parties may read up on issues relating to Chinese involvement in Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

On an individual level:
There is an ongoing movement of personnel between NGOs, governments and corporations. That makes one question the moral verisimilitude of those individuals. One moment you are expounding a selfless cause and the next you are pursuing your own best interests. Some NGO employees seem to use the opportunity working for an NGO as a resume enhancer.

Poverty tourism is also on the rise – let’s spend six months in Cape Town singing ‘Kumbaya’ to previously disadvantaged kids for a few hours and then spend the rest of the time getting pissed at the most expensive clubs or lounging on the pristine beaches of Clifton. The company that sent you there with their glossy prospectus is happy with the easy money they got out of you, and you have partially placated your materialistic, privileged conscience. Then there is the irony of travelling half way around the world to help when there may be equally important issues in your own home town or country.

After 2 weeks of reading NGO employees’ blogs and articles I want to either vomit about the crass ignorance and base self interest expressed, or subscribe the poor well meaning soul to an online shrink in order to alleviate his or her low self-esteem. Many comments seem to come from people who have never been to Africa and know even less about it.

One girl’s blog about her experiences in South Sudan came across as particularly heartfelt and earnest, but I couldn’t get over the feeling while reading it, that she should rather have stayed home. At the expense of sounding harsh, her insights and contributions were so obviously minimal that it just made no sense for her to occupy space in such a challenging environment.

Wannabe do-gooders aside, probably the most offensive crap is published by NGO professionals themselves. Endless reports, conferences and and workshops are their lifeline, and someone else always pays for it. Very little ends up benefiting the people they profess to be working for. Yep buddy, your flow chart really helped the people in Darfur. Maybe next time create a flow chart about how much was spent on your NGO’s year end function.

A major reason for the above is the ascendancy of Western intellectual chauvinism, propagated for self-interested reasons by developed countries and their corporate cohorts. That often translates into patronising and damaging engagement with other cultures.

There may be some constructive solutions. Decent people want to help those less fortunate, but there should be a framework in place that ensures peace of mind to both donor and recipient. There is a definite need for an international online entity that scrutinises internationally operating NGOs in the following areas:

  • overheads as % of monies raised
  • general operating transparency
  • specific fund allocation
  • impact evaluation
  • time frame evaluation
  • associate transparency: Who are the major donors? Is it aligned to any religion, government or corporation?

In South Africa,the National Department of Social Development recently proposed an Independent Regulatory Authority for NGOs in a policy document. The Policy Document proposes, amongst other, the establishment of a new entity to be called The South African Non-profit Organisations Regulatory Authority that will deal with the registration of non-profit organisations, investigate complaints and enforce compliance, raise awareness and education and provide public access to information. The successful implementation will of course depend on governmental will power and civil society demanding proper implementation. If that is currently possible in many African countries, already struggling with their administrative burdens, is open for debate.

The best way to avoid criticism would be for NGOs to work diligently towards becoming defunct when their goals have been accomplished. Otherwise they risk being labelled as self-serving enterprises that benefit only a few inner circle members.

3 thoughts on “Bleeding hearts: NGOs under the spotlight

  1. I could not agree more with the author’s insightful article as well as the comment left by Sara. While on a recent trip through Southern Africa, I witnessed something similar in Malawi. We were camping in Liwonde National Park. Before we knew it there were about twenty five American Peace Corp workers taking up the rest of the whole camping site. They arrived to take part in the annual voluntary game counting operation in the sanctuary of the park. I just couldn’t understand why they got these guys to do the game counting.Most of them couldn’t tell a sable antelope apart from a roan antelope or even an impala from a bushbuck! One of them even claimed to have seen a bear while out on his game count!! Are you for real!! According to them they goand live in Malawi for two years. Each one of them individually go and live in a village for that whole time. They eat and sleep in the village while running some programme of development in the village. I don’t know so much about this whole programme to be honest. One guy I spoke to lived in the fantasy that he will be saving an entire village by helping them setting up a bee farm that will produce honey for the whole village. Huh??? Surely the people that was born and raised in Africa will have a clue about bees and how to produce honey? It’s THEIR bloody bees in the first place isn’t it?? Not to try and imagine the scew numbers they got From the game counting…..well the park must have been intrigued by the bear sighting. Most of them I spoke to was either a college dropout and one guy even told me he was running away from bad debt back in the States. Millions of dollars go into programmes like these. Programmes that confuse the living crap out of me. Could have bought a whole lot of honey for that amount of money 🙂

  2. Thank you for sharing great insight. I sadly agree absolutely with this Brilliant article. It reminds me of Amartya Sen’s five components in assessing capability, the knowledge of which would be a good start for both prospective aid workers and the Independent Regulatory Authority.
    The five components:
    1. The importance of real freedoms in the assessment of a person’s advantage
    2. Individual differences in the ability to transform resources into valuable activities
    3. The multi-variate nature of activities giving rise to happiness
    4. A balance of materialistic and nonmaterialistic factors in evaluating human welfare
    5. Concern for the distribution of opportunities within society

  3. Hear hear. An excellent piece that sums up the situation nicely. I was horrified while doing field research in the Eastern Cape this year to see a pack of what I like to call voluntourists from the UK descend on a small Xhosa village to ‘teach life skills to the children at primary school, including how to practice safe sex’. The whole idea just boggled me beyond words. Where to start? The fact that they can’t speak the local language? The fact that they’re so young and naive they’re probably still a virgins themselves? The fact that they have ZERO understanding of the cultural, social or economic pressures in this region that influence people’s sexual behaviour? Or the fact that they are happy to allow a local NGO to perpetuate this horrible form of patronising neocolonialism by paying a stupid amount of money for their conscience cleansing holiday to Africa while they hit up the chalets and booze it up in a small village tussen vokol en nerens? I wish they’d all just sent their £10 000 or whatever they paid for the ‘privilege’ (har har) to the local village cooperative and stayed in the UK telling people that ‘Africa is not a country’. Grrr.

    Speaking of enabling human trafficking by ‘buying a childs freedom’… how about STARTING human trafficking by just BUYING A CHILD:

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