Global Policy Forum

How Can Southern NGOs Have More of an Influence on the Development Agenda?


Emma Mawdsley, Gina Porter and Janet Townsend

University of Durham
November 2000

Consultation Document

Emma Mawdsley, Gina Porter and Janet Townsend Many individuals working in northern development NGOs are committed to listening and learning from southern NGOs directly, and through them, to the voices of ordinary people. This is written into the organisational mission statement of most northern NGOs, and it is one of the reasons for the new emphasis on partnership and decentralisation. In theory, southern NGOs are closer to the issues and problems, and to the poor, and through their proximity are better able to listen and actively respond, with the funding, institutional and informational support of northern NGOs. Nevertheless, there are structures and processes which result in southern NGOs having far less of a voice in the global development community than northern NGOs. Moreover, a minority of southern NGOs tend to dominate the dialogue with northern NGOs. At all levels there exist 'information loops', and some southern NGOs are far more 'in the loop' than others. This defeats the rationale of locally appropriate development strategies, and results in the imposition of ‘global' development fashions. How can this situation be changed? Within the transnational development NGO community how can a more diverse and ‘egalitarian' flow of ideas and information be facilitated?

The following are a number of ideas that have followed research into these questions in India, Ghana, Mexico and Europe. This is a brief summary of the main ideas, and is best read in conjunction with the country papers (not all of them will be suitable or possible for different parts of the world). It is divided into four sections:

· What can inhibit ‘real' dialogue between northern NGOs and southern NGOs?

· What can northern NGOs do to ensure that southern NGOs get more of a say in setting development agendas?

· What can southern NGOs do to get more of their ideas on the global development agenda?

· What can bilateral and multilateral donor organisations do to increase efficiency by including the knowledge of southern NGOs more in development thinking?

This material is a starting point for discussion, not a finished product. We hope that you will look critically at these preliminary observations and tell us to what extent they accurately reflect your perceptions of the realities and possibilities of change. We welcome comments at the workshop and through the electronic salon which follows.

1) What can inhibit ‘real' dialogue between northern NGOs and southern NGOs?

Constraints on northern NGOs

  • Northern NGOs are themselves bound by donor agendas, and by donor requirements for accountability and documentation. Bilateral and multilateral donors make demands upon Northern NGOs which then influence the demands they must make upon their partners (such as the sectors in which the funds are deployed, and how it is to be accounted for). Many Northern respondents feel that the money that they raised themselves (e.g. through public campaigns) was the most useful because they had more autonomy over where it went and how it was spent.

  • Northern NGOs face serious constraints in terms of staff and institutional resources, and particularly in terms of time that individual staff have to visit their partners, to read, and to talk and discuss their work with colleagues, partners and other people in the development community. Some respondents felt that they were increasingly acting as managers at the expense of their role and knowledge as development professionals.

    ‘Professionalisation', monitoring and evaluation

  • While it is entirely proper for northern NGOs to demand appropriate levels of accountability and transparency, current monitoring and evaluation practices are widely felt to be damaging to genuine development efforts by southern NGOs. Many respondents feel that a ‘report culture' has developed, in which the important thing is to measure and count ‘activities completed', ‘performance indicators met' and ‘outputs', rather than ask ‘what difference does it make?'. In part this is tied up with the drive for ‘professionalisation' (the pros and cons of which are described in all of the country papers), but it is also felt to come down to a matter of trust. Fundamentally, many suggested, northern NGOs do not trust southern NGOs not to be corrupt or incompetent. This is difficult problem because there is indeed a great deal of fraud and corruption within the sector. But many of our respondents argued that current accounting practices are not particularly effective at weeding these out, while at the same time they actually make it harder for good southern NGOs to work effectively and well. Are there other ways in which corruption and inefficiency can be tackled without turning good NGOs into just ‘bean counters' and paper pushers?

  • Time and other pressures on northern NGOs means that many visiting personnel can only spend a limited time in the field, and this tends to centre on the partner NGO's offices rather than spending time out with NGO fieldworkers and the beneficiary people and communities.

  • An over-reliance on documentation rather than visits to the field to learn and see what is really going on tends to reward good documentation rather than good work. The need to write and talk well and fluently in English (or to a lesser extent, Spanish or French) can be deeply exclusionary, especially for smaller NGOs. The requirement for technical language and skills can also act to exclude smaller NGOs (log frames and complicated funding applications, for example); not knowing the right 'buzzwords'; and even not having the skill or money to produce glossy applications, reports and documentation. These can all hinder NGOs from getting into 'the loop', and having more impact on the development agenda. Another impact, as some of our respondents pointed out, is the change that this can foster in NGO personnel and culture. They noted that instead of employing local, knowledgeable and committed people, they were increasingly having to divert funds to pay for computer-literate graduates from urban centres out of the area, who could deploy the right language and skills, but who were less aware of local conditions, and not highly motivated by the NGO's mission.

    Other aspects of ‘partnership'

  • There can be a deep lack of self-confidence within southern NGOs preventing them from advancing their own agenda more openly and positively. They may feel that they do not have the authority or the knowledge to challenge what they are hearing and being asked to do.

  • Many ‘acquiescent' southern organisations have no interest in challenging the accepted wisdom, and do not have a particular agenda to advance. Their concern is principally with winning funding to sustain their organisation and jobs. One respondent in India argued that this is because the NGO sector has become more dominated by ‘professionals' rather than older service-oriented Gandhians and socialists. He suggested that the former have no ideological standpoint from which to resist contested northern agendas, or advance radical alternatives.

  • The demands of institutional survival means that other southern NGOs may feel deeply opposed to donor demands, assumptions and expectations, but do not feel in a position to voice this, because to do so would be to risk organisational survival. At the personal level, we spoke to individuals within 'acquiescent NGOs' who were very critical of what they were doing, but could not afford to lose their jobs by challenging their NGO.

  • Many southern NGOs write and say the 'right' things in order to win funding, but then pursue their own development ideas and agendas. Although ‘subverting the agenda' this way may get the work done, it does not challenge the ideas or beliefs of northern NGOs.

  • Close, frequent and convivial contact has developed between certain northern NGOs and southern NGOs, encouraging the former to rely on a few big, familiar southern NGOs for their ideas and information. Some of these are incredible organisations, and are deeply involved in advancing global development debates and discourses. They are often associated with highly influential, committed and charismatic people. However, despite the best of intentions, they do not represent the whole development NGO community. While their roles and their relationships with northern NGOs (amongst others) are positive in many ways, they can limit the northern NGOs' exposure to a fuller range of ideas and outlooks, especially those of smaller and/or more radical NGOs who might have a different view on development, and what makes a difference in their locale and for the people they are working with. Many smaller NGOs felt that these big, powerful southern NGOs were predatory and/or suffocating of their interests.

    2) What can northern NGOs do to ensure that southern NGOs get more of a say in setting development agendas?

    Field visits, monitoring and evaluation

  • A clear message is that southern partners would welcome a change in the balance between assessment through documentation and assessment through direct field visits. This would range from the initial identification of appropriate southern NGO partners or sub-contractors, to the monitoring and evaluating of ongoing development work with existing partners. Documentation is necessary, and it can assist planning, accountability, transparency and efficiency. It is the sheer amount of it, and the balance with field visits that many respondents felt was the problem. Longer experiences in the field, and the increased personal contact that this would encourage, may facilitate the exchange of information on a more equal footing. Spending more time in the field (and specifically, amongst the NGO fieldworkers, target groups and communities rather than in the office of the partner NGO) would sensitise individuals to local conditions, cultures and constraints. It would help reduce corruption (an experienced and knowledgeable visitor is less likely to be tricked or deceived), and it would help cultivate longer term trust and good working relationships. Personal relations are important.

  • Related to this is the form of monitoring and evaluation. While this is necessary and important, the process of establishing and then tracking measurable ‘performance indicators' and ‘outputs' appears to have become the principal goal and activity of southern NGOs, as they try to meet northern NGO demands (who admittedly may themselves be meeting their donors' demands). The result can be a highly distorted development process, which achieves tracking, but at the expense of positive change. One possibility is for northern NGOs to encourage their donors to rely less on these sorts of indicators (see below). However, the actual monitoring and evaluation visits (rather than the documentation) were often felt to be very useful for face-to-face contact, and for the exchange of ideas and information, as well demonstrating what could be and is being achieved.

  • The experience of a few respondents was that monitoring and evaluation visits (especially by other southern NGOs subcontracted for this purpose) took the form of a hostile scrutiny which felt more like an exam or test than a constructive engagement.

  • Many workshop participants suggested that monitoring procedures should be extended to beneficiary participation. This is difficult because of planning and logistical demands, but if working systems could be established it would help focus the attention of both southern and northern NGOs on their primary responsibility and accountability to the grassroots - not just to themselves or to their donors. It was noted that if the beneficiaries are involved in the planning and implementation of projects from the start, then the evaluation tools and methods are likely to be more appropriate, comprehensible and productive. It would also encourage evaluation to have real outcomes rather than just remain a paper exercise.

    Other aspects of partnership

  • A widely voiced request was for northern NGOs to work with longer time horizons. Development is far more complex, ongoing and messy than many 'project' formats allow for. When allied with the increasing demand for ‘indicators' and observable and measurable results, ‘real' development can easily lose out. This simple message has long been a plea of southern NGOs, but it continues to be a problem for many of them.

  • It was felt that northern NGOs should accept failure as part of the growth and learning process. Very few organisations talk about or admit failure (although there are some notable exceptions), and the fact that donors seem not to tolerate it makes them less likely to do so. But this is an important learning experience. If southern NGOs are afraid to fail, they are less likely to risk-take and be innovative in their approach to development. They are also more likely to attempt to hide failure and problems.

  • Many respondents wanted northern NGOs to support the southern NGOs themselves, not just the work they are doing, and recognise the importance of establishing well-equipped and financially secure partner organisations. Most importantly, this would require more commitment to funding core costs to ensure that southern NGOs have an adequate infrastructural, staffing and equipment base to carry out their work. It might be better to have fewer partners, but a stronger relationship between them through more visits (in both directions - see below) and a broader funding relationship.

  • Northern NGOs and donors appear to be very enthusiastic about creating and encouraging networks. While these undoubtedly have their strengths and values, southern NGOs tended to be more cautious about them. It was widely felt that specific issue-based networks have great potential as platforms for lobbying and information exchange. On the other hand, externally-established more ‘general' networks (‘forced marriages' as one respondent called them) were criticised. In particular, it was felt that when one large NGO dominates a network it will start to undermine and compete with the smaller NGOs in the network. A number of respondents felt that while networks should provide information and lobbying on funding issues, they should not themselves be conduits of funding, or engage in direct development work, because at that point they start to become dominated by one or two large NGOs, and work against or in competition with their smaller members.

    Information loops

  • One way to overcome some of the language problems would be if northern NGOs could accept more funding applications and documentation in regional languages where appropriate, for example, in India. This might involve devolving more responsibility and trust to local partners and collaborators to screen, monitor and evaluate these, or greater expense in terms of translators. An alternative model (and one which seems to be gaining popularity now) is for intermediary NGOs to help smaller NGOs with applications and documentation, assisting them to translate these and use the right technical language and frameworks. However, as discussed above and in the country consultation papers, this mode has been criticised, as many smaller NGOs feel that larger intermediary southern NGOs are crowding them out and dominating the information flows between north and south.

  • The more information that is available to southern NGOs on the organisation, mission and working practices of northern NGOs, the more informed they can be in their choices. The greater the transparency of such information the more likely smaller southern NGOs can get in ‘the loop'. The Web clearly offers particular potential here.

  • Northern and southern NGOs could push for greater institutional strengthening to a basic level. Many southern NGOs welcome the kind of capacity building which enables them to communicate better with donors through clearer records and accounts. Genuine NGOs feel that this sort of 'professionalisation' really promotes transparency. It is the weight of forms, reports and accounts currently required that some feel is the problem (others, as we have seen, extend a more radical critique of ‘professionalisation' and the form that capacity-building often takes).

  • One option might be to build on the possibilities that new IT technology offers, and (further) develop virtual services while encouraging more southern NGOs to develop their communication technologies. Information and ideas (funding, technical, organisation) and activities (especially networks and alliances) might be revolutionised. Smaller NGOs felt that, ideally, it could open access to them and reduce the time and money costs of travelling to the national capitals and large centres, where they are often at a disadvantage in any case (see below). At present though, technical problems effectively prohibit access to many, and only if the big technical changes which are predicted actually come about will this be a valuable option.

  • Some smaller and regional NGOs feel that money, power and information is so concentrated in the capitals that they are seriously excluded from the circuits of information and influence. Depending on the country circumstances, options could include decentralising offices away from the national capital, or making more use of the web.

    3) What can southern NGOs do to get more of their ideas on the global development agenda?

  • Try and establish as many different sources of funding as possible. These might include different northern NGOs, multilateral and bilateral agencies, Government Departments, partnerships with industry and the private sector, and direct production, sales and/or marketing. In particular, many in the India workshops felt, more resources and funds should be raised ‘in country', both from richer sections and from the community at large, to act as a counterweight to external funders. The southern NGOs which were most vulnerable to donor pressure were those which had only one or two principal funders. This is, of course, easier to say than to do, and is something that most NGOs are already engaged upon.

  • Consider staying small and (in the case of Indian NGOs) unregistered with FCRA (for foreign contributions). A couple of groups had chosen this path, arguing that they faced far fewer restrictions and had much more autonomy in what they chose to do and how. The problem is the considerable limitations this puts on the scope of a potential southern NGO.

  • If possible, be as selective as possible with partners and donors, and don't necessarily go for any money that is available. Growing bigger and doing more is not necessarily a mark of success. This does not preclude growth - by developing a track record - a reputation for credibility and good work - future donors may be more likely to listen to what a southern organisation has to say, and impose fewer conditions.

  • Southern NGOs could push for fewer expensive outside experts and consultants to be flown in, but request more visits from and to their northern partners (both ways). Visitors from the northern NGOs should be encouraged to spend more time with the beneficiary groups and communities, and with the NGO fieldworkers.

  • One option is to network, and make as many personal contacts as possible. Email and the internet is very useful in this respect, but having it is not enough. Alliances, partners and networks can have their problematic elements, as described above, but they can also be forums for the exchange of information, and provide more powerful platforms from which to express opinions. Where this level of contact is impossible, developing a relationship with an appropriate 'mentor' NGO may provide a way into the loop.

  • ‘Outside' visits, within the South or to the North, for meetings, conferences and even for Masters courses and work placements, were often mentioned as being very influential experiences. Our INTRAC partners identify this as one of the critical factors which gets southern NGOs into the loop. Getting outside of your normal locale, whether that be abroad or to another State (for a workshop, or to visit another NGO), can be important in stimulating fresh perspectives and affirming individual viewpoints.

  • Making more use of national Universities and research centres, not just for knowledge production, but also for dissemination (they could act as ‘nodal points', or information resource centres). Students and research staff could also be encouraged to develop closer relations with NGOs e.g. collecting and collating data for smaller NGOs especially. This would have the additional benefit of involving and introducing more students to the work and role of NGOs.

    4) What can bilateral, multilateral and other donor organisations do to increase efficiency by including the knowledge of southern NGOs more in development thinking?

  • One of the most important needs is to continue searching for ways to increase transparency and accountability from northern and southern NGOs while moving away from an old-fashioned report culture which is no longer popular in the business world, and certainly not in leading-edge companies. This dates back to a bureaucratic culture of hierarchy and blame, and can impose inefficiency and real psychological and institutional costs. It is for donors to learn from leading-edge companies to encourage innovation, motivation and success.

  • It is also important to escape forms of professionalisation which achieve depersonalisation while blocking off listening, hearing and sharing with each other. This serves much more to protect donors ("we had all the proper measures in place") than to reduce fraud and corruption, and at the same time impoverishes communication.

  • Donors could usefully reduce the proportion of "air-conditioned" consultants on whom they depend, and rely more on experienced northern and southern NGO personnel with longer experience in a particular area.

  • To include more southern NGOs in the "information loop", donors could fund appropriate virtual NGOs, support existing virtual initiatives, particularly by southern NGOs, and make basic hardware, software and Web skills accessible to large numbers of southern NGOs. For example, should ongoing technical change continue to the point where cheap mobile phones become available which can access the World Wide Web as cheaply and reliably in Nepal as in London or New York, such a strategy could really make a difference.

  • Allow northern NGO personnel and organisations more time and space to think, reflect and talk, within their organisation and to talk to and network with other development NGOs in the north and south.

  • Allow northern NGOs to risk take and innovate, and perhaps fail.

  • Fund more longer term exchange opportunities both ways between northern and southern NGOs.

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