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“What exactly is the role of NGOs?” is a question that I have been asked often by friends who are not in the development field. There is no easy answer to this question especially since the role is not static and has been evolving. A short version of my answer is

In the humanitarian emergencies space, inputs and services that can help save lives.

In the longer term, (1) improving people’s awareness of their rights,  (2) innovating and establishing poverty alleviation models that can then be scaled up and (3) acting as democratic watchdogs to ensure that rights of people are not trampled by the State or multinational corporations.

In order for NGOs to effectively deliver on their longer term roles, they need

  • Dedicated staff and volunteers who understand the context in which the work is being done.
  • Governments which are not completely uncaring about the opinions of their citizens. They may not be genuinely democratic but they should afford some space for engagement. A tyrannical government will rarely allow or hear dissenting voices leaving coups and popular uprisings as the only way of ushering in any change.
  • An environment (policy and infrastructure) in which they can innovate & experiment.
  • Support from donors who have a vision of long term development and are not looking only at ‘quick wins’.

Over the last few years, I have had the opportunity to engage with communities and development workers from what are called  fragile states. The more exposure I get, the more I realise how similar these states are. They are all marked by

  • Abject poverty amongst a majority of the population.
  • Sense of haplessness.
  • Poor to non-existent infrastructure.
  • Weak (even absent) governance mechanisms and structures.
  • Poor social capital as the intelligentsia has either fled or been incarcerated / decimated.

I could go on but surely you get the picture.

International NGOs with a humanitarian mandate are operational in most of the fragile states around the world. They are trying to stick to their mandate of sustainable development. However, I am increasingly getting the feeling that NGOs working in fragile states are just setting themselves up to under-perform if not actually fail.  From the very outset. Let me explain why. Programming in these states presents enormous challenges.

  • The total lack of any infrastructure makes it very difficult to move people and material around causing additional expenses and delays.
  • Not having adequately qualified local staff necessitates over-dependence on expatriate staff at all levels. Needless to say, expatriate staff are much more expensive. Further, the more difficult the country, the more difficult it is to attract the necessary talent and the more expensive it gets.  The tough work conditions saps morale of even the most optimistic, leads to huge turnovers and therefore instability in programming.
  • It is difficult to determine where to begin addressing the myriad problems that stare at the assessor. For instance, can (should) we really talk of ‘participation in governance’ when there are no structures in place? Focus on sustainable livelihoods programming, private sector engagement and enterprise friendly policies when their needs are food on the table and basic inputs like ox-ploughs, goats and seeds?

It is like trying to undertake development programming in a purely humanitarian context. The truth also is that in fragile states, most of the demands from donors, governments and communities are for services and inputs.

The problem with this is that while providing services and inputs does meet the immediate needs, it is rarely sustainable in the long run. Lasting changes in lives of people are difficult, if not impossible with this type of support. Providing aid in this form has been known to lead to a dependence on aid as we have seen in a number of fragile states & contexts.  Providing inputs and services also lets government off the hook – it sees no immediate need to beef up the systems for input and service delivery for its citizens.

Another aspect is that the cost of delivering these services is enormous simply because of the programming challenges. Delivering safe drinking water in a remote location in South Sudan or Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of Congo for instance, costs double or treble as compared to doing the same in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Tanzania. It is the same for almost everything one does. It is not easy to explain this to donors – individual or institutional.

Costs, human resources and infrastructure dictates that NGOs can reach very small pockets in the fragile states – thereby being unable to reach any critical mass for development results to shine through.

Programming in fragile states is like being in a Red Queen Race.  Tremendous energies needed just to prevent the poor from falling off the edge. This situation begs questions :

“Given the limited resources, would it not be strategically appropriate, to spend the funds differently? Perhaps even in other poor countries where one could make a lasting impact on poverty?”

Viewed from a purely economic and strategic point of view, it would appear that it makes no sense for INGOs to work in fragile states, especially on service / input delivery.

The costs and logistical nightmares are just not commensurate with the benefits delivered. Plus the weak systems make any form of accountability difficult. In my opinion, input / services are best left to bilateral and multilateral donors and the governments of these States.  The earlier governments take responsibility, the better it would be for all concerned. INGOs providing services provides a false sense of security to governments.

There is the counter argument though – the humanitarian consideration. The primary mandate of NGOs to alleviate avoidable suffering many a times prevents NGOs from taking these hard stances.

There is no doubt that the inputs provided do help the vulnerable especially when the State is absent. Also the mere presence of INGOs and expatriate staff provides a signal to the suffering communities that they have not been abandoned by the rest of the world –  a small beacon of hope I guess.

However, at the end of the day, I feel that the meagre resources of INGOs are probably best spent elsewhere within the context of fragile states : say working on promoting stronger governance structures, community led peace building (conflicts and insecurity are a common characteristic of fragile states) and advocacy with donors for more concerned and co-ordinated action.

    • Should this be the strategy?
    • Should INGOs not get involved in service delivery and look at strategies that can make a difference in the longer term?
    • Should the funds saved be applied to more stable states where they can do better?

This could be a controversial, even disturbing question which has no easy answers.  However, there is no doubt in my mind that there is at least a case for giving this idea a great deal of consideration.