By Sangwani Joseph Nkhwazi
Last December, I had an interesting conversation with the director of a Non-governmental Organistion (NGO) in Malawi. It was before Christmas and as is usually the case with such a time of the year, most companies were preparing for the festive season, with Christmas parties aplenty and talk of presents for the children punctuating many conversations.
We talked about several things, the NGO’s projects, the business and investment climate in Malawi, the Constitutional court election case, Brexit, but the conversation centred around institutional bottlenecks associated with funding, and some of the fundamental challenges which restricted the activities of local NGO’s, and which prevented the creation of sustainable funding solutions.
He said most of the international organisations and funding agencies are not interested in investing in capacity building or financial sustainability of local NGOs. Not that it is their responsibility to do so, but everybody seemed to think that it’s somebody else’s issue or that the local NGO ought to figure sustainability out themselves, which is probably a fair stance. But of course they never do; not when their time is almost wholly invested in delivering projects, data collection (often on behalf of the very same international organisations) and in all-year-round fundraising efforts among other time-consuming day to day tasks.
One of the phrases he used several times during our conversation (and which got me thinking) was “We are all chasing after the few resources available“.
Essentially that if a small NGO is based in a third world country which was considered one of the poorest in the world, then their chances of survival were predicated on how much money international NGO’s (iNGO) gave them to supplement their income; in any case they did not have any large corporate donors who donated huge sums of money directly to them, and their own fundraising projects wouldn’t pull in high enough sums for long-term planning. So with all this talk of trade-not-aid, if the iNGO pulled the plug on funding for the local NGO to be weaned of such aid, out goes the baby with the bathwater!
He said successive administrations of the government hadn’t invested sufficiently in services and infrastructure for the country to be an attractive option for foreign investment, or for home-grown industry to be able to support the relatively large number of NGO’s that existed.
So after the discussion, I dug around and found that the story doesn’t end there. It seems to me that when it comes to charitable donations, even by foundations, the comparatively well-off places appear to receive a far greater share of the aid pie than the less well-off places.
Which doesn’t really square up the more you think about it.
Ask yourself why a place that is doing relatively well would be attracting far more aid funding than a place that is not doing as well (and as a consequence – probably needs the funding more)?
It’s a bit like spending $120 million on funding an existing large shiny hospital that is already well-resourced, that has enough doctors, enough drugs, an acceptable doctor-to-patient ratio, a cash surplus, etc. etc. whereas a struggling hospital without drugs, without sufficient equipment, with leaking roofs, whose wards are overcrowded, and which has an unacceptable doctor-to-patient ratio only gets $42,000.
Now, I’m not saying there aren’t reasons why the shiny hospital is able to attract more funding than the struggling hospital, or that the shiny hospital doesn’t have legitimate and credible uses for such funds. My point is that proportionally, there’s a credible case for the struggling hospital to get significantly more help and assistance. And as sensitive as the issue may be, the gatekeepers and funding directors ought to be aware of such a problem.
Further, these figures may not be accurate (under-reporting / not reporting at all), and may not be representative of all aid that flowed to recipient countries (including informal transfers).
But it’s not just about numbers, targets or throwing money around. Instead the industry as a whole needs a self-reflection to look at how such imbalances can be effectively tackled while moving towards helping create greater sustainability. Simply put, how do you begin to bridge the gap while helping local NGOs build capacity?
I’m yet to encounter a convincing justification as to how such an uneven distribution of aid funding can be effective in the broader scheme of things? Especially if the ultimate goal is for continent-wide impact.
And if you were to examine figures of the years before and after this data was collected, the same countries listed above would probably have received roughly the same levels of aid, when compared to each other, although don’t hold me to it. Minimally it means that however noble the aspirations or problems that were being addressed, the local NGOs in those countries which received little amounts of aid were only as effective as the resources they had at their disposal? And that ought to be a problem for the entire sector.