Global Policy Forum

African NGOs Urge More Aid Through Local Agencies


By Nick Cater

December 21, 2004

African relief agencies, keen to shift the aid world's centre of gravity from North to South, need far greater international funding if they are to tackle local emergencies effectively, delegates at a major conference have urged. Some 300 aid workers, diplomats, academics and businessmen met in Addis Ababa this month amid growing concerns that local African aid groups are expected to run major emergency operations or development programmes even though international funding often fails to cover essential core costs, from staff training to communications.

The conference backed a call for Northern donors "to channel not less than 25 percent of their contributions to humanitarian action in Africa directly through African NGOs", with a minimum of one-tenth of such funding to cover operational overheads and contribute to core costs. There was also strong backing for the creation of an African Centre for Humanitarian Action – a think tank based in Addis Ababa to support the sustainable growth of cost-effective and efficient NGOs.

"Today's international aid system is skewed in favour of the Northern agenda and cannot respond adequately to the priorities of organisations in the South," said Dawit Zawde, founding president of relief agency Africa Humanitarian Action. "Africa has long been depicted as a hopeless zone of conflict, famine and displacement that lacks capacity to respond adequately to crisis. This perception supports an aid paradigm that marginalises and erodes local capacity, casting African actors as sub-contractors to their international counterparts.

"International NGOs dominate the humanitarian arena, ostensibly because they have experience, competence and wider coverage. Yet as the security environment changes and calls to involve local actors increase, the need for local capacity cannot be over-emphasised.

"Strong indigenous organisations are essential for effective humanitarian response in Africa. Empowerment of African NGOs is, therefore, a critical goal, especially given the new vision of Africa's regeneration, in which Africa takes the lead in defining its problems and finding solutions.

"Since Africa is part of the global community, that community has a critical role to support and stand in solidarity with Africa."

‘More African leadership'

With local fundraising possibilities limited, almost all indigenous agencies rely on international funders, whose grant rules provide for tightly controlled operational budgets. UNHCR, the U.N. agency for refugees, allows as little as five percent for overheads, for example. Aid professionals and policymakers said such an approach was unsustainable, undermining the long-term interests of overseas funders, international NGOs, the United Nations and host countries, which all require good local networks to tackle crises quickly and efficiently.

Among the speakers was former British development minister Clare Short. Short said the symposium was part of a wider "trend for Africa to take command of its own fate", with a "determination for more African leadership" and "calls for partnership, not mere begging for aid".

In a message to the conference, pop singer and Band Aid founder Bob Geldof said: "Africa is poised to make the breakthrough which will turn around two decades when Africa has been the only continent in the world in a state of decline…. Now is the time for the international community to get behind those African efforts. But it is for Africa - its people, its countries and its pan-African institutions - to chart the course."

The International Symposium to Build the Capacity and Resources of African NGOs was jointly hosted by Africa Humanitarian Action and the African Union, with support from the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the Swedish International Development Agency, the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and UNHCR.

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