Coming Clean: Why I Need the Aid Sector (and why you do, too)

I often get asked when I plan to move ‘home’. After 15 years abroad, it’s a bit difficult to pin down just where ‘home’ might be. The last time I lived in my home country I was a student and so ‘home’ is still my parent’s address (according to the government and my bank, which is a difficult thing to stomach at 36 years of age. I’m considering changing my address to my brother’s house simply to be able to say I have legally moved out of my parent’s house). I have strong ties to my husband’s country and we have a house there, but because we rarely spend time there, it’s difficult to call it home, although I work hard to instill that idea in my children. We talk about ‘where next’ and that question is by definition framed around ‘where are we employable.’ My husband, being a lawyer by trade, will have no trouble finding employment should we next decide to move back to his home country. There may be opportunity there for me, but there is the issue of language proficiency and legal status. What won’t happen is moving back to my home country – Canada – because, beyond residency issues, I have a degree in conflict management and at this point the only thing I’d be employable as would be a speech writer for the government. But I’m no Sam Seaborn, and Canadian politics is far from the intrigues and dialogue of the West Wing. So perhaps it isn’t for me.

So, I need the aid sector. I went to school to be part of the aid sector because I feel the issues are critically important and I want to be involved. I started my career with an NGO, moved on to the UN, then consulting and then back to the NGO world. Every single country I have worked in has been a post-conflict or fragile state. While I don’t thrive on crisis, I’m passionate about helping the people who have been affected by crisis overcome the trauma in their lives and regain a feeling of security, of having plans for the future and for their children. I don’t pretend to be a lynchpin to the programmes that I have worked on, but in my field of strategic planning and monitoring, I feel my skill set and educational background contributes in some way. I worked behind the scenes to bring the Serbian community to the table to discuss decentralization in Kosovo, and to identify a previously-unrealized conflict trigger in a post-conflict region in Indonesia. I helped CBOs in Solomon Islands to bring the issue of trafficking into the spotlight, resulting in the first ever policy and legal response by the government. I help projects make sense of the data they are collecting and translating those results to the communities they are helping. Yes, I am one in a few hundred thousand, but I feel there is a place for me in the aid sector, and the aid sector is something I need… and the aid sector itself is definitely still needed. The structure of the sector, however, is changing, just like everything else.

So I read with interest an article on whether or not International NGOs have the right to exist anymore. In the current climate of an aid sector in crisis, this is probably a fair question. There is less money to go around these days, and more and more often we are seeing studies that show that very little of the aid money that is directed at the non-governmental sector goes beyond international NGOs to national and community based groups in developing countries. Given all the hype about North-South and now South-South cooperation, it’s both disappointing and dismaying.

However, it would seem most of the criticism is heaped on to the international NGO sector, when I am certain others such as multi-lateral agencies and private sector consulting firms are equally guilty of the same. I get the feeling that because INGOs are supposed to be politically (if not religiously) partisan they are held to a higher standard. From both donor and community organization perspectives, it seems like INGOs are supposed to exist simply to channel money from one to the other and provide fiduciary safeguards for one and accountability for the other. The pressure on INGOs is so much these days that they have begun moving headquarters from traditionally western locals to ‘Southern’ bases, aimed at proving – somehow – that they really do work for the betterment of developing communities. It seems like a lot of money to try to prove something that could be done by quality monitoring and a good communications team.

Now, I certainly wish to see more money channelled to local groups – the more opportunities they have to manage larger grants, the better they will become at it, becoming more effective, with bigger impacts and less hand-holding along the way. This is actually what we are working towards. It’s the whole point of international development. Effective and transparent government and a strong civil society to counter-balance that. INGOs play a critical role in helping to build local civil society because without it lots of things get missed, like community awareness campaigns, issues like family planning that often best come from community and faith-based groups, environmental and climate change awareness and legal aid. Government is responsible for the bulk of what happens in our day to day lives, but there are still gaps to fill and that’s where civil society comes in.

The article (above) noted that it has been asked ‘Would the poor pay for your services?’ Well, if they understood that the services being provided are needed, then yes. The problem is that in many smaller communities where civil society is weak or absent, people have no idea that the types of ‘services’ that civil society provides even exist. To use that age-old phrase ‘They don’t know what they don’t know.’

So yes, INGOs are still very much needed – by communities and local civil society as much as by me. They will always have a ‘right’ to exist, but we need to look at the issue as one of ‘need’. Let’s move beyond that. Let’s move to the issue of getting money from INGOs to local NGOs. This is the problem, and I wouldn’t say it is one of greed or mistrust, but of procedure. Most governments in the world have only in the last two to three decades been prevailed upon to start channeling money directly to local governments so that government funds were more responsive to local needs and priorities. Multilateral organizations also had to transition from parallel funding of government programmes to ‘on-budget’ financing so that the money to improve government was actually being used by government… with a little hand holding along the way. It takes a lot to change government policy and procedure, and perhaps even more work to undertake such a change in a multilateral organization. Project teams used to be hired by and directly financed by agencies such as UNICEF or UNDP, with their own project offices. Now the money is transferred to government, government does the hiring and the project teams sit in government offices. Imagine the financial and oversight regulations that needed to be changed and kinks worked out. Not a fun or expedient task.

So it is now with INGOs. In order to keep pace with the need to get money as close to the community as possible, they will have to undertake a similar type of transition. Rather than larger country offices with multiple projects staffed directly by the organization, an example of change may be to see a smaller office with programme oversight staff and a few advisors to work closely with the CBOs and national organizations that will implement a programme. In fairness, in some places with some organizations this already happens. But this type of scenario needs to be the rule rather than the exception. They have to do something to get all of those people turning out development finance reports off their backs.

The thing is, maybe one day INGOs won’t be needed, just as my skills won’t be needed as national capacity grows (as it has in the M&E sector already, to my pleasure). But for now they are needed, their ‘services’ very much in demand. The challenge, however, in this shifting aid environment, will be to reorient their business/operation models to reflect growing demand for getting aid money as close to the community as possible. In theory, it’s a smart approach. In practice, time is needed. But it needs to happen.

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