Global Policy Forum

Foreign NGOs Map New


By William Mclean

October 9, 2005

To their critics, foreign aid workers in Africa serve a new form of imperialism: in their zeal to do good, the argument goes, they prop up a humanitarian system that perpetuates the continent's dependence on outsiders. To their supporters, international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) help the hungry and excluded, campaign for trade reform and take big risks to expose human rights abuses, often fostering African self-reliance in the process.

One thing friend and foe agree on: for better or worse Africa's attempts to tackle the issues that govern its fate are influenced increasingly by a growing army of foreign NGOs. On trade, hunger, debt, disease, war or governance, foreign NGOs are busy both in Africa and in the rich world's corridors of power lobbying for more and better aid.

"Deeper debt relief, the Ottawa Treaty on land mines, the global movement for women's rights and protection of the environment -- none of these advances would have happened without NGO ideas and pressure," wrote Michael Edwards, director of the Ford Foundation's Governance and Civil Society Unit. "(But) global NGO networks are dominated by voices from the rich world, a weakness that makes them easy targets for attack," he wrote in an article in London's Financial Times.

The number of international NGO branches -- measured by the presence of an office or just an individual member -- in Africa rose 31 per cent to 39,729 between 1993 and 2003, the Centre for Global Governance at the London School of Economics says. The rate of increase in sub-Saharan African was higher, at 40 percent. The number of international NGOs and NGOs with strong international links headquartered in Africa rose by 33 percent to 867 in the same period, its research shows. The study does not count the thousands of grassroots African NGOs which sometimes work alongside their foreign counterparts.


Criticism of international NGOs has long focused on the issue of legitimacy: Clare Short, then Britain's International Development Secretary, was memorably unimpressed by a protest against globalisation at a Group of Eight summit in 2001. "They are all white people from privileged countries claiming to speak on behalf of the poor of the world and there is something a little bit wrong with that," she shrugged.

Supporters of Western NGOs counter that the proportion of Africans in their operations is rising. Some are decentralising management and devolving authority to regional and country units to try to deepen their roots in the communities they serve. ActionAid has gone a step further and moved its global headquarters to South Africa from Britain to be based in the global "south". Its international board is headed by Noerine Kaleeba, a world renowned AIDS activist from Uganda.

"The issue of who is speaking for who is at the core of this," Charles Abani, a Nigerian who manages ActionAid's Africa operations, told Reuters. The more that genuine representatives of the poor were involved in analysis and policy-making the more pragmatic, effective and politically astute NGO operations would be, he said. "Too often analysis is done in the abstract by intellectuals from academia unfamiliar with reality on the ground. Analysis is written, not 'with' poor people but 'of' poor people," he said.

A more basic criticism levelled at the humanitarian system as a whole is that relief work undermines the political contract between a state and its citizens to prevent ills such as famine. Many years ago NGO workers' common response to that argument was to say that they are in Africa to work themselves out of a job. But it hasn't happened. The sector keeps growing and evolving, especially into the field of advocacy.


"Over time NGOs tend to grow of their own accord and act less in the service of the people they are meant to help," said Sylvie Brunel, former head of Action Against Hunger. "There are too many institutions. Some NGOs have become 'little U.N.s' with their excessive focus on logistics, fund-raising and communication," she told Reuters. Rye Barcott, American founder of Carolina for Kibera, an NGO in a Nairobi slum, insists that all its American workers are volunteers while Kenyan staff receive a salary. "The goal of all NGOs should be to transfer ownership towards the community," he said. "The generation of employment opportunities is not only important for economic development, it is vital to have legitimacy in the eyes of the community."

However, too many foreign NGOs remain reluctant to step back and let African groups take over their projects or give Africans more say in sectors such as fund-raising, experts say. It's not as if African NGOs lack a record of achievement. Examples are Kaleeba's work in Uganda, Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai's environmentalist Green Belt Movement in Kenya and the vast civil liberties movement at the forefront of the Nigerian democracy campaign under former dictator Sani Abacha.

"International NGOs are there to level the playing field and build capacity. But I sense a real reluctance among some NGOs to do that," Ford Foundation's Edwards told Reuters. Should international NGOs be more "Africanised"? "Definitely," Edwards said. "International NGOs currently agonise a lot (over that) but I'm not sure they act enough. "It's always difficult to hand over power and control because it may involve shrinking your organisation...But I think NGOS can and should live up to their best principles, and take the high road."

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