My contribution to the future role of international NGOs will be based on my experience as an African development practitioner. The key causes of poverty in Africa can be summarised as: bad or greedy leaders who put self before the people, a culture among the citizens of accepting a negative status quo rather than fighting for change and an unfair world trade system that is biased against Africa.
My contribution to the future role of international NGOs will be based on my experience as an African development practitioner. The key causes of poverty in Africa can be summarised as: bad or greedy leaders who put self before the people, a culture among the citizens of accepting a negative status quo rather than fighting for change and an unfair world trade system that is biased against Africa. This means that genuine development will come to Africa only when the continent has leaders who will put people before self, and when people, especially young people, apply civic energy and exercise civic agency to balance the power of the leaders and citizens, thereby checking abuse of power and looting of resources.
Development will also happen when there are real efforts aimed at levelling the playing field in the global market. In short, any entity or group of organizations, international NGOs included, that claims to be doing development in Africa must involve itself with these concerns.
The role of International NGOs and their relevance
NGOs play three main roles. These are: complementing government efforts (complementing services that government is not providing adequately), supplementing efforts (providing services where government is failing to reach geographically) and influencing government policy which means lobbying or advocating for pro-poor policies.
My experience has been that INGOs have been very good and have scored some impressive achievements in complementing and supplementing government efforts. They have also been good sometimes at influencing ‘power neutral’ policies as far as power relationships between the state and the citizens are concerned e.g. climate change, HIV and AIDS, gender, etc.
Almost universally or at least in Africa INGOs have been weak at influencing structural or power shifts between the ‘rulers and the ruled’. Where real power shifts have happened like in the Arab spring, in some countries in Latin and recently to some extent in Malawi, INGOs did not play any visible, conscious and direct role. In the nationwide demonstrations in July in Malawi where masses marched against bad governance and economic mismanagement of the ruling party, it was local civil society – local NGOs, trade unions, university students and street vendors who organized and marched. International NGOs did not. The mach forced an arrogant government to come to a discussion table to discuss with the civil society leaders the issues raised by the marchers.
A power shift had happened. The shift that occurred is what has defined the meaning of civil society to the ordinary citizens in Malawi rather than the many years of complementing, supplementing efforts and ‘power neutral’ advocacy of international NGOs in the country. It is a fact that minus power shifts and rebalancing of power between the leaders and the citizens complementing and supplementing efforts become just relief work. They are not sustainable.
Today, with limited resources available in the world for development work, INGOs are at a crossroads. They are faced with real possibilities of oblivion or utopia. For utopia to triumph over oblivion, INGOs have to deal with issues of relevance, legitimacy and sustainability. People, especially young people in Africa want to live in countries where they feel they have civic energy and agency with which to shape the society in the interest of the citizens not only leaders or more rightly rulers. They are not content to accept oppressive regimes anymore; they have seen that this is possible from their friends in the Arab world.
Can International NGOs help them achieve this? Do international NGOs feel legitimate enough to be perceived to be interfering in ‘local politics’ through ‘empowering local masses for structural change?’ for ‘power shift’ work is inherently political in nature. Knowing that minus structural change or power shift all complementing and supplementing work is not sustainable, are International NGOs truly serious about sustainable development?
The future of international NGOs is bleak unless they address the real structural challenges facing Africa: selfish leaders who are looting their countries, an unfair world trade system; and attitudes of fatalism and helplessness (or lack of civic agency) among the masses. In whatever else they do in terms of complementing and supplementing efforts, INGOs need to become more relevant by visibly involving themselves in structural change efforts of the masses; they need to earn more legitimacy by working much more closely with local actors on these issues; and finally they need to know that all their complementing and supplementing work will come to nothing if they do not get involved in genuine structural and power shift change work. The intersection of relevance, legitimacy and sustainability is called the ‘strategic fit’. It is only at the strategic fit that an organization can have its future guaranteed. The future of International NGOs is based on their relevance, legitimacy and sustainability.
If there is one lesson we have learned from the Arab spring, it is that structural change or power shift will come with or without INGOs. INGOs therefore would rather make themselves more relevant and useful.
Photo credit main picture: Blantyre, by Travis Lupick