Global Policy Forum

Do Donors and NGOs


Donors and Their Changing Paradigms

Lesotho Council of NGOs
April-June 2005

It appears strange that in a democratic state the powers of donor influence still outweighs that of the Lesotho Government where NGOs see international donors as their first point of contact to gain funding for NGO Programmes rather than contacting first and foremost their own government. Despite the fact that the NGO sector has accepted with open arms the defining development documents, the 'Vision 2020' and tool for achieving this the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), the case in point still exists where NGOs have more confidence in donor funding for their programmes than in their own governments' ability to back and fund projects related to the PRSP? In this country, unlike many others, almost no assistance is given to NGOs by the Government and NGOs depend almost entirely on donor assistance to survive. One would ask the question does the government have a true mandate for democracy or through this lack of funding are they trying to cripple the democratic function of civil society? If NGOs support grass-root advocacy and development, highlight issues with national laws or lack of them, human rights, social, economic and environmental justice and protection of Lesotho natural resources are they not a legitimate player in civil society that the government and donors should support?

In a complicated mix of governments' mistrust of NGOs, donor agendas, and an over dependent state on aid, grassroots NGOs are finding it hard to comprehend the changes in donor assistance and how that relates to NGO funding. Indeed this period of change in development in Lesotho is having a crippling effect on much of the non-state activity. As the government and donors adjust their positions, civil society organisations are falling by the wayside. Thus with the drastic changes in the mechanisms of donor assistance, a gapping hole is appearing in the democratic actors in Lesotho, that of NGOs. We have the government and donors and International NGOs as the bastions of change in Lesotho and national NGOs are being marginalised into oblivion.

In our last issue we asked local NGOs about their experiences and views on the donor community in Lesotho. Frustrations abounded with lack of financial assistance, lack of support and assistance to NGO programmes that are in line with government policy, criticisms from donors about NGO capacity, impossible to access funding streams through government and now the new local government as yet another factor reducing funding to NGOs. So in this article we have tried to ask the donor community to reply to some of these criticisms and create a platform for discussion between the two social actors in Lesotho, donors and NGOs so that they understand each other more in this period of dramatic change, where it appears that national NGOs have not been party to decisions on the change development funding. Where once upon a time the donors supported small grass-roots projects, suddenly a huge surge to support government 'programmes' has taken place. And even if that decision is a good decision, is it responsible to change so drastically with the result of NGO confusion and at worst the collapse of established civil society organisations?

Getting through the Front Door

Getting through the front door has not been as easy as perhaps it should be. In a society, where freedom of speech is integral to democracy, it appears that the donor community have either the fear of saying the wrong thing on their position with regards to NGOs and perhaps the governments perception of what they say, or perhaps there is a lack of capacity and transparency in responding to media concerns that would simply not be the acceptable in donor point of origin countries.

In our last article NGOs stated that is consistently difficult to speak to anyone bar receptionists of donor organisations. We found that many of our letters and telephone calls went unanswered by a number of the donors in Lesotho. For sure, in Europe it is customary to answer letters within two weeks. I wonder why such courtesy is not seen as necessary here by some donor offices? It appears donors definitely need to improve accessibility and communication, although there were some noted exceptions! Gold stars should go to the German Development Agencies who responded quickly to questions and requests for information.

New Ways of Working - old and new paradigms

Unknown to most ordinary citizens, the world of development has run on a series of development paradigms. DCI can act as an example of this and these global paradigms intricately have impacts upon Lesotho based NGOs.

DCI have been present in Lesotho for over thirty years. In the 1970's, as with most donors, DCI provided people in Lesotho with inputs of foods and medicines, but this had no impact on long-term development. In the 1980's this approach changed to a micro project approach where the government or organisations could come up with an idea and ask for funding. This approach lasted for many years, but another change came in the 1990's when donors wanted to become more strategic. They began to work strategically with Directors of organisations and Principle Secretaries in government, but the approach was still project based but was more focused in areas of work. An output of this under DCI was the support of the Foot Bridges and Rural Roads Programme and a water programme. However, in recent years this has been seen as being unsustainable in terms of skills transfer. It is felt that where foreign, usually white, technicians worked within projects, the projects appeared to last as long as the technicians were there. Once the technicians had gone the project disappears. Although the projects worked they were not sustainable.

From here DCI shifted to its current approach. This approach supported the Governments Poverty Reduction Strategy Programme (PRSP) and indeed DCI were one of the main funders on this initiative. DCI have now taken a seat at the heart of government and fund programmes in Education, Health and Rural Development and Parliamentary Reform and Governance, with a cross cutting programmes on HIV.

As a part of this new development paradigm, with notable exceptions of the World Bank and Millennium Challenge Account, donor 'harmonisation' is taking place between all the international donors in Lesotho, including some that do not have a presence in Lesotho such as USAID and the African Development Bank and International NGOs to work jointly on specific issues. Harmonisation takes a sectoral approach such as health, education, rural development etc and all interested donors and Principle Secretaries of the government attend these meetings to map out programmes on these areas.

Harmonisation or New Government?

I asked whether NGOs or MP's were involved in these meetings. James Atema, DCI quite curtly responded ' No, I don't think they would have the expertise to do so, for example if they were talking about malaria, they would not understand. MP's and NGOs need a different forum.' Is it wrong of me to assume that even if you are an MP or a related NGO that does not have expertise in an area, that this truly means you cannot learn to understand concepts. Indeed these civil society actors probably have a critical stake in understanding? Should other stakeholders be concerned about these closed doors meetings? I would suggest, yes! It is almost as if another non-accountable power has been created in Lesotho. These committees need to be far more transparent and publicise what decisions they are making. It should certainly be considered very carefully whether there should be checks and balances on the decisions made in this kind of forum. This is a Democracy and no longer Protectorate!

Don't get me wrong foreign donors can bring to the table valuable skills in strategic and financial planning, but if closed door meetings continue this is slipping back into the very development paradigm that is supposed to have been left in the past.

Funding through Government

One of the issues addressed in the last article was a concern over funding to NGOs through government. NGOs had felt that this was problematic because of slow and ineffective systems and the feeling that the government do not have the will to fund NGOs even when they are working towards the governments own policies. We managed to speak to representatives from both DCI (Development Corporation of Ireland) and GTZ (the German Technical Assistance Organisation) who are both currently inputting most of their resources through government.

As mentioned above DCI are now active at government level, trying to influence programme development in relation to the PRSP on specific areas of work. All areas of work have a civil society budget attached to these programme. James Atema, from DCI the leading bi-lateral agency with a budget of M72 Million per annum said that funding is predominantly being streamed through a Sector Wide Approach (SWAP). Budgets are allocated per sector and streamed through agreed accounting procedures, with internationally agreed monitoring & reviews (one accounting system). A multi-stakeholder group chaired by the government is held accountable for the funds and outputs. There is also some funding allocated to civil society who support these programmes. However, the onus is on larger organisations in the hope that umbrella organisations and international organisations will filter funds deeper into civil society.

As a result programmes such as LCN's Civil Society Support Programme (CSSP) are being delivered. However, criticism has been raised on this approach in that they undermine the capacity of smaller NGOs and CBOs to build capacity in fund management, thus again weakening civil society.

I asked Mr Atema whether this approach supported corruption through governments' misuse of funds. I was told "This is just a perception that people hold, there is no evidence that corruption exists. It is not true that government is always corrupt. If donors bypass the government, sustainability becomes a problem. NGO projects are not sustainable as they rely on short-term funding, communities cannot sustain projects, it is only the government who can sustain programmes long term. " He said "NGOs can and do create islands of excellence, but their projects are not sustainable in the long run if governments do not support them".

Views on NGOs

So if we establish that there appears to be a logic behind the changes in donor behaviour, that of long-term sustainability, then perhaps NGOs need to look at how there organisations need to be evolving within these shifting paradigms. However, leaning back on an age old criticism from donors that NGOs shift their core mandates to be eligible for funding, donors truly need to recognise that NGOs 'have' to shift when development paradigms change, this is not just a matter of NGO survival, but also should have strategic consideration under current development conditions. I move it is time to drop that criticism of NGOs as lets face it governments and donors are guilty of 'change'.

We asked donors how they thought NGOs can improve their core services and also their fundraising capacity. Kirsten Roettcher, the Community Advisor for GTZ said on the subject of improving NGO services "NGOs need to work with the new local authorities, there is an opportunity for NGOs to act as local authors, as a gateway to where resources and need meet. They should act as a conduit of information and act as an overview to what areas need. Decisions have to be made by communities on resource management and local health needs. NGOs need to be involved in these planning phases, through this NGOs will be given a platform to strengthen local need." Mr Atema mirrors this expectation that NGOs need to get involved with local authorities " NGOs can provide training to local authorities in areas such as project management, institutional development and capacity building, they need to capitalise on what they are good at and transfer those skills into local government".

Both the donors who agreed to be interviewed suggested that NGOs need to be involved in advocacy on critical issues. Ms Roettcher said " There needs to be more discussion on critical issues, for example the health service is in chaos, NGOs appear not to be doing much on this, they need to show their credentials and stand up and be heard! We need to hear more from them"

Mr Atema said "NGOs have the power to take an evidence based approach to issues. This does not always mean collecting facts and figures, sometimes the simple collection of views can act as a powerful advocacy tool for influencing governmental decisions". Mr Atema also raised a note of caution to NGOs "NGOs in Lesotho compared to other African nations have a weak educational background, as a result the government don't see NGOs as part of an intellectual exchange, this needs to change".

It is not surprising that NGOs in Lesotho are left bewildered by the changes in donor assistance strategies. Donors appear to be doing very little to publicise and explain their new approaches. NGOs were neither consulted or were able to input on these changes in Lesotho. Of concern though, is just how dependant NGOs are on donor assistance due to the lack of assistance from government and the poverty innate in Lesotho Society. In an immature democracy, where the government see NGOs as a threat to governance this is unlikely to change. And even if the government decide to support civil society will this be enough in the form of the popular 'small grants funding' that throws scraps to Lesotho's civil society. However, perhaps a comment needs to be re-iterated from Ntate Soforea Shale, Programmes Co-ordinator for Development for Peace Education, 'It is naive to redirect the funding through government to the detriment of NGOs because the government is not the only arbiter of society; it is shared with civil society organisations. This may paralyse the development process.' This indeed is what is happening. If the trend of reducing funding to NGOs remains then the government and the donors can look back and claim responsibility to the collapse of civil society. Historically speaking, this is a dangerous road to take.

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