| The Courier N°152 July - August 1995 Dossier NGOs Country Reports Belize, Malawi |
by Moussa Ba
At a time when a number of African stat" seem close to collapse, the need to strengthen NGOs takes on an even greater significance. But NGOs face numerous difficulties, in particular their dependence on external resources, limited skills and problems of adaptation.
To speak of NGOs necessarily involves discussing the 'phenomenon of association'. Many analysts, particularly in the West, see this as a contemporary state of affairs but those who know black Africa well, are aware that 'association' has always been an important element. In fact, the associative structure, which may be summed up as one where there is a solidarity, mutual cooperation and respect for hierarchies, has, in some rural areas, long been the basis of all social and economic relationships. There is no need here to look any further into this model, which is inherent to the African tradition. Nowadays, a consensus appears to have emerged when speaking about 'association' based on non-state structures, as devised by the West to facilitate North/ South contacts. The shaping of African associations in the form of NGOs has followed on from this. However, if one analyses the way African NGOs have come into existence, two distinct approaches can be identified. There are those that were established by Northern NGOs, which saw them as intermediaries, and those that were set up voluntarily, on local initiative, for a variety of reasons.
Most intermediary NGOs came into being between 1970 and 1985. In the wake of repeated droughts, problems had become so acute in Africa that the majority of western NGOs, principally suppliers of food, were obliged to take on the role, in the field, of food producers. They were involved on such a scale that many took on environmental restructuring work, either in association with recipient communities (village groups), or by requesting assistance from those with local influence in the form of technical support. In this latter case, restructuring sometimes led to the creation of an African branch of the NGO.
This movement to support the creation of local structures also coincided with the advent of participatory development projects which required the initiative to come from grass roots groups with a certain degree of organisational independence. Accordingly, for practical reasons relating to the volume of work, and financial ones (donor support was needed and they were attaching increasing importance to where the demand originated, in their financing decisions) NGOs from the North devised new approaches. Some set up brand new NGOs in the South, others distanced themselves from action in the field by encouraging local people to take over, creating autonomous structures, while others still monitored the evolution of 'new-loom' recipient organisations.
In the second case, NGOs made up of African volunteers generally include Africans in positions of authority who are either independent (because they do not belong to the political class) or 'from the Left' (because of their opposition to the policies and practices of those running the country). A number of the leading participants in local NGOs are otherwise unemployed. The people involved have various motives. It may be a sense of solidarity towards a rural world which is becoming increasingly poverty-stricken in the wake of repeated catastrophes such as droughts or locust plagues. It may be a reaction to the limitations of Westem NGOs, the more 'voluntary' of which are sometimes viewed as little more than 'enthusiasts' or perhaps even 'tourists'. Finally, the motive may be one of necessity,NGOs having become a source of genuine job-creation.
Owing to the legal void regarding NGOs in Africa, a group of friends (generally intellectuals living in the towns) are able to set themselves up as an NGO on the sole basis that they want to form one. Hence the proliferation of such bodies in Africa over the last 10 years. They include groups which profess to support development and service-type NGOs. The former are often unions or federations of grassroots bodies which are thus confused with their social base. The latter, on the other hand, specialising in training techniques, furnishing loans, literacy programmes, and so on, are more reminiscent of their Northern counterparts.
Scarcity of resources
African NGOs are sometimes guilty of amateurism. They often rely heavily on the voluntary spirit, using people with no professional qualifications, and it is rare for those in charge to have any technical training. When it was simply a case of carrying out charitable acts there were no particular problems with this. Goodwill coupled with a certain amount of organisational sense was sufficient. However, when one is talking about support in spheres such as agriculture, business or hydraulics, problems of efficiency do arise, problems which are made worse by an obstinate desire to work in isolation and without recourse to technical subcontracting (which, it must be admitted, requires financial resources that the NGOs do not have).
The old proverb 'Practice makes perfect' is a widely held belief in many NGOs, so it is not surprising that some observers describe the work they do as amateurish. Nevertheless, we can see a gradual change taking place. A number of African NGOs are seeking to improve their performance levels, either by recruiting qualified personnel, or by training their people in technical subjects. Unfortunately, there is a feeling that some Northern partners are not particularly enthusiastic about these new demands. The tendency is for these partners to give preference to management and monitoring tasks, to the detriment of efforts aimed at encouraging human resource development within African NGOs. Nowadays, while support for organisational and institutional aspects is generally acknowledged, the practice suggests that it is rarely an unbridled success. The priority is still to obtain a return from activities.
Financial resources are also scarce. African NGOs do not, unlike their Western counterparts, have members and sympathisers making regular contributions to the financing of their activities. Moreover, few of them develop an initiative to raise funds internally and it is unlikely that they would receive finance from their own government (even the limited encouragement granted in the past, such as exemption from taxes and import duties on equipment, is being called into question). The NGOs are therefore totally dependent on the finance they receive from their public or private partners in the West. This restricts both their development and the efficiency of the support they can give. On the planning side, they have no margin for manœuvre, since funds are received on the basis of projects. The NGOs, therefore, have to get by on what they are offered. In blunt terms, there is no 'life' beyond the confines of the project. The projects generally relate to highly specific activities which have been evolved for target populations and the NGO will be reimbursed by the sponsor only for work carried out within the context of these activities. As for the other possible activities, the organisation has to come to terms with the fact that it has insufficient resources-a situation which encourages dishonest behaviour such as embezzlement, inaccurate activity reports and so on. Finally, their lack of resources leads to increased competition between NGOs, which does not facilitate exchanges of experience, means and tools, although such exchanges are indispensable. In this context, the few rare exchanges which do take place between NGOs are based on need and generally developed on the basis of a psychological affinity.
This dual poverty accentuates, furthermore, the two imperatives of a population's needs and a donor's priorities. In fact, both are changing: NGO work has progressed from emergency actions to development actions, implemented through micro-projects. These days, they include economic activities and there is a growing tendency to take account of the need for political affirmation and participation. African NGOs have great difficulty in keeping up with this evolution and many of them are out of step with the real needs of the populations they are supporting. Moreover, donor priorities are also changing. The humanitarian and geopolitical considerations which used to form the principal motivation are no longer the main priority. The emphasis is now on respect for human rights, the establishment of democracy or economic freedom. These new priorities have the appearance of requirements and, even when shared, create genuine problems for African NGOs who then appear to be 'left behind' in terms of donors' expectations.
NGOs and civic society
Nowadays, the proliferation of African NGOs offers both promise in terms of civil society but also cause for concern. Hope is drawn from the fact that the very existence of NGOs is evidence of a type of popular civil society. Indeed, it would appear that the many people's associations, their federations and the bodies which support them, aim to give some say to all the 'little people' who have hitherto been oppressed and manipulated by those in power. It also appears that these organisations, which are flourishing throughout Africa, are in the process of progressively assuming a negotiating role, becoming aware of their responsibilities and offering a certain resistance to power. In this context, African NGOs are, consciously or unconsciously, on the way to setting up an 'intermediate authority' something which has long been lacking between African states and their populations.
Yet there is also concern. The development of some NGOs without significant links with or contributions from the grass-roots, and whose main motivation is the satisfaction of their own material requirements, makes some observers fear the emergence of a parallel administration within the NGOs. It is also a recognised fact that NGOs are being set up without those in charge having the least idea of how such an organisation should operate and these are intervening sporadically, according to the financial opportunities offered to them. Given this proliferation of intermediate structures, which are accused of lining their own pockets, some NGOs (which generally identify with their social base) are calling for clarification.
It has also been noted that there are some NGOs which rely on 'ready-made' ideas, generally reflecting their sponsors' expectations. They offer little encouragement for the necessary maturing of the concepts that should underpin the work they do with the population at large. Moreover, most are barely competent to monitor properly the communities they support. Their results are often disparate and short-term, and it is rare for such NGOs to offer an 'after-aid' service.
Most African NGOs, often preoccupied with their portfolio of activities, are incapable of measuring or assessing the impact of their actions in order to capitalise on and develop changes which would facilitate genuine participation on the part of the people they support. In this context, they often demonstrate a fear of political action. In fact, rather than acting as the provider of emergency aid in crises provoked by state mismanagement, the NGOs would do better to devote themselves to actions with a more political bias. They must become less 'neutral' in their work. In particular, African NGOs should be aware of their role as a balancing power and of the political character of the support they offer. They must define appropriate strategies to favour the full participation of the people in their own development. However, in this respect, despite a wealth of experience acquired over the years, most African NGOs still lack a 'critical mass of analysts' to assist them in defining relevant methods and strategies in order better to perform their tasks of monitoring the grass roots populations they claim to represent.
Despite all the problems they encounter, African NGOs are today acknowledged as essential players in the socio-economic and political reconstruction currently going on in the continent As they develop, the concerns set out above will doubtless diminish. The hopes that are attached to them will not prove to be misplaced.