NGOs: bridging the North South divide

Louise Redvers

Freelance journalist and regular IRIN contributor

It’s an age-old story of money and power that breeds mistrust and resentment. But can relations between major donors in the west and local humanitarian agencies in the global south be changed to everyone’s benefit?

A key challenge is the widely-held perception that northern and western donors often lack faith in southern actors’ ability to deliver aid effectively; that due to increasingly stringent financial monitoring, it’s too risky to give small or “local” organisations cash because they can’t prove how they’ll spend it.

Southern NGOs, meanwhile, bemoan northern organisations’ tendency to barrel into crisis situations disregarding local knowledge and contexts and applying impractical solutions without proper community consultation.

Other gripes include: international NGOs poaching the best staff from local organisations (preventing smaller actors from building up capacity and impact); northern charities hogging the media limelight for work carried out by “partners”; and the practice of holding all coordination meetings in English whatever the vernacular.

A new network

In a bid to address some of these imbalances, perceived or otherwise, a new global network of southern NGOs is being proposed and was announced last week at a leading humanitarian forum in New York.

“Crises and needs are at the local level in local areas, yet the funding comes from foreign governments to largely foreign agencies,” complained Degan Ali, executive director of Nairobi-based African Development Solutions (Adeso) and one of the main forces behind the idea.

“We have come to regard western NGOs as ‘international’ and the rest of the world as ‘local’,” she told IRIN. “When so-called ‘northern NGOs’ engage with ‘southern actors’ it’s rarely a partnership, it’s more of a sub-contract.”

One of the biggest problems is that we don’t have a seat at the tables where decisions are being made.

Ali, whose organisation runs aid and development programmes in Somalia, Kenya and South Sudan, wants the relationship and power balance to change and is leading the call to set up a new global network for non-northern NGOs.

The idea of the network, which she hopes will be formally launched at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in June next year, is to bring non-western and non-northern organisations together for purposes of advocacy, capacity building and, down the line, funding allocation.

“One of the biggest problems is that we [southern actors] don’t have a seat at the tables where decisions are being made,” she said, adding that it was time more money went directly to local organisations rather than through foreign agencies.

“How are we going to teach local NGOs to be the custodians of money and to be responsible if we are always being micro-managed and not given the opportunity to manage that money ourselves?” Ali asked. “How do you teach someone to swim if you don’t allow them in the pool?”

Addressing imbalances

The announcement about the network comes after extensive consultation among southern NGOs, who laid out their frustrations about the aid system in a May 2015 report commissioned by Adeso.

One of the organisations backing the idea is the Bangladesh-based Coastal Association for Social Transformation Trust (COAST).

"A southern NGO network is imperative to bringing the southern community voice to international policy discourse, and to correcting the power imbalance in humanitarian aid efforts,” noted COAST executive director Rezaul Karim Chowdhury.

At the heart of the debate is funding.

According to research by UK-based data house Development Initiatives, between 2009 and 2013, local and national NGOs received just 1.6 percent of the humanitarian aid provided by international donors, equivalent to just 0.2 percent of overall humanitarian funding during that period.

This was despite the marked increase in activity by local actors responding to emergencies such as the war in Syria, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and the Haiti earthquake.

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, secretary general of global civil society network CIVICUS, agreed that southern organisations should have more say, be more involved in humanitarian and development responses, and receive more direct funding.

“A vast majority of NGO resources are controlled or administered by northern founded and northern funded agencies,” he said.

“In recent years, there have been huge changes to the global geopolitical and economic landscape, but if you look at the civil society landscape and at who controls the money, the resources, the power and the profile, it strikes me as far less transformed… that we are a bit behind in civil society compared to what’s happening in business or international politics.”

It’s about nurturing southern organisations, giving them the resources and the capacity and empowering them to act.

Johannesburg-based Sriskandarajah acknowledged that some northern organisations were making “great progress.” He cited Action Aid, which has moved its international secretariat to South Africa and has a number of other southern operations hubs, as an example, but said there was “still a rump for whom this (moving south) was a problem.”

“It needs a more conscious effort by all of us in civil society to adopt an almost ‘head south’ strategy,” he said. “It is something we need to make happen consciously. It’s about nurturing southern organisations, giving them the resources and the capacity and empowering them to act.”

From 2017, Oxfam International also plans to split its headquarters, currently in Oxford in the UK, between Nairobi and Bangkok in order to achieve a better north-south balance.

Money to develop capacity

Mercy Malaysia president Ahmad Faizal Perdaus told IRIN that despite large northern and western donors being “philosophically and ideologically committed” to supporting local organisations, money continued to be given only to a small pool of international (usually non-southern) NGOs with a view to letting it trickle down to local actors.

Faizal, who is also the chair of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), said the trickle-down approach wasn’t working, and that while not every NGO had to be big, even smaller organisations need a chance to grow their capacity to be able to upscale and improve.

“Southern NGOs are not entirely blameless,” he added. “Very few actually take proactive steps to improve their capacity themselves without waiting for help from outside.”

Ali explained that while the planned network would initially focus on advocacy and capacity building, she hoped it could also become a funding “broker” to help direct money from large donors to smaller southern NGOs, who often get overlooked due to their lack of profile or perceived risk.

“We are not going to be able to address the issues of power, resources and implementation unless we also address the issue of financing,” she explained.

“We are so tired of training by northern NGOs and UN agencies. What we really need is unrestricted money to develop our capacity. We need money that will help pay the rent, be there for the long term, not just for quick projects.”

At the end of the day, it comes to trust.

One of the barriers to southern NGOs – local and international – getting money from northern donors is the perception of risk, and a lack of capacity to comply with rigourous due diligence and accountability procedures.

“At the end of the day, it comes to trust,” said Sriskandarajah. “There’s risk in all of what we do and at some stage you have to trust say the Ugandans to be able to sort things out themselves without a London-based organisation managing the grant and dispersing the funds or reports to donors.”

Positive or negative change? 

Although Faizal welcomed Adeso’s network idea in principle, he had some reservations about how well it would work in practice.

“While I don’t think you’d find anybody strongly objecting to it, be they in the north, south, east or west, I think you might find people questioning its purpose and issues of sustainability, viability and feasibility.

“Perhaps we can get one or two donors for a year, but will we be able to have them in the longer term?”

Faizal also warned that the south was not exactly one homogenous entity and that cultural differences between the various regional organisations could create leadership challenges.

“When we talk about the global south, where exactly are we talking about? East Africa? Southeast Asia? West Africa? Middle East? Central and South Asia?”

“It will have to be thought out very carefully to ensure it works to the benefit and not the detriment of the entire system and southern NGOs specifically,” he said.

“The elephant in the room is that this network ends up being viewed negatively, not just by people in the west and the north but also by southern organisations. It could further divide the system and it will not solve the problems.”

Anne Street, head of humanitarian policy at CAFOD, which has been lobbying hard for more localised aid funding and contributed to the recently-published Future Humanitarian Financing report, told IRIN: “I very much support the idea of the formation of a strong southern network.

“Obviously it will take some time to get off the ground, and it will need careful leadership, but I really support the concept and thinking behind it. It is certainly needed.”

This is not about replacing western NGOs with southern NGOs. It’s about changing how we work.

Discussions about bridging the divide between northern and southern NGOs, and improving funding flows, have featured prominently at consultation events in the run-up to the WHS, including at last week’s Global Forum for Improving Humanitarian Action in New York.

“The implicit goal of humanitarian aid is soft power and until we address that, until we create a humanitarian system that is for global public good, we are not going to be able change anything,” Ali told IRIN.

“This is not about replacing western NGOs with southern NGOs. It’s about changing how we work.”

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