Giving a Voice to Local NGOs in a Flawed Global Aid Environment

(This piece was originally published in the Alternatives International Journal)

By Jeremy Wildeman and Matteo Mazzoleni

There is broad agreement at even the highest levels of the international donor community that the key to successful development lies with local ownership over aid projects, where people in affected regions play a leading role in setting the agenda and developing strategies to alleviate local poverty with external assistance. For some time now that consensus has been matched with the lofty rhetoric of “partnership” used to describe the relationship between donor and recipient. Ideally those partners work as equals with donors, together designing aid projects that effectively challenge poverty and enhance local capacities through institutional development.

In reality these are not true partnerships. Regardless of even the best intentions of some donors, the language of partnership clouds a highly asymmetrical, imbalanced relationship. In truth, those with funding exercise incredible power over those who are dependent on those funds, allowing the donor to drive the aid agenda to match their own priorities and interests. That imbalance is so great that research by Dr Moira Faul found that behind the formal networks of the policy making process, recipient “partner” input is completely absent from the informal networks that shape aid.

Meanwhile, there is evidence to suggest at the macroeconomic level that there are incredible problems with this asymmetrical development aid environment that is driven by wealthy donor countries, because they may actually be taking advantage of the same regions they are supposed to be helping. For example, a recent report by US-based Global Financial Integrity and the Centre for Applied Research at the Norwegian School of Economics, looked into unrecorded capital flight and found that developing countries are actually net-creditors to the rest of the world. This capital flight is facilitated by banks scattered across the EU that are assisting in high-level corruption and the illicit trade in natural resources. Further, a very significant proportion of donor country aid funding actually returns home, because they are funding their own nationals as consultants, trainers and project managers in this top-down aid environment; or due to tied aid that requires funding be spent on goods and services from the donor country. Evidence such as these has led to accusations by NGOs that richer EU and Western states are actually using aid as a smokescreen to hide a “sustained looting” of poorer states.

While it is of utmost importance to research, highlight and challenge inequalities caused by the way the global economy is structured, and with development aid practices, people in poorer and conflicted regions of the world still need funding in the meantime. In fact, they may need help accessing that funding more than ever, since their region may be a net-creditor to richer countries, meaning money they need to invest in their community may lie not at home but elsewhere in places like the EU, Canada and the United States. Below is what we have been doing to help local NGOs navigate this environment.

Helping Local NGOs with Local Ownership & to Access Funding

Many of us with experience in the sector will be able to anecdotally pinpoint friends and colleagues who we feel genuinely aspire towards altruistic aims of empowerment and partnership in poverty reduction. Even where such people exist, though, it is very difficult for local NGOs in poor and conflicted regions to reach out to them. There are incredible barriers that deny local NGOs agency over their own projects, including language (especially proficiency in English), networking opportunities, knowledge of granting and tendering processes, organisational culture, digital media strategies, registration, charitable regulations, administrative expectations and project management. Those same barriers offer incredible advantages to aid actors operating out of donor regions, making it immensely easier for them to access funding than their contemporaries in afflicted regions, regardless of levels of local expertise. Those barriers stifle the voice of local actors with the knowledge and ability to address their community problems, undermining local ownership and effectiveness in the aid process.

Navigating a flawed and complicated aid environment, we are doing our utmost to help small, effective, local NGOs to access funding and resources to provide services needed in their communities. We have been doing this with colleagues at the UK-based charity Firefly International providing assistance to local NGOs engaged in youth development work in conflict and post-conflict regions of the Balkans and Middle East. In this way we are assisting people at these local NGOs to play a leading role in setting their own development agenda and strategies to alleviate local poverty, while accessing external assistance.

Working from the geographical and knowledge advantages of a rich donor country, the UK, we have been doing our best to advise and to represent our colleagues from the local NGOs we work with, extending forward their voice into the richer West and granting them a greater degree of ownership over their own aid. As such, we are very much working in the spirit of Ernesto Sirolli’s call “to become a servant of these people”, who are seeking support in their efforts to be better persons and to make their communities better places to live in. We are facilitating them to solve their own problems, while also developing into better persons ourselves.

Applying this Method in the Balkans & Middle East

Firefly currently supports and cooperates with three local NGOs based in Bosnia, Palestine and one run by Syrian refugees in Turkey. In each case we have provided support for community actors to establish their own registered organisations, providing them with support first through a difficult incubator stage turning their aspirations into operations, before detaching to provide lighter but long-term structural support. We consciously aim to provide long-term support to the organisations we work with, including some core funding, because transformational change is generational and does not run on the 2-3 year funding cycles that typify global grant funding (and media attention).

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(1) The organisation we support in Bosnia is called Svitac. Established in 1998 in the city of Brčko, it promotes educational and cultural activities with the goal of building a common ground where young Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks can grow together and challenge narratives of conflict. To do this Svitac organises activities such as summer camps for children, as well as music, arts and drama workshops. These activities have been supported historically by an international volunteer programme recruiting instructors from EU countries.

Our Approach: Svitac was established with help at the incubator stage by Firefly’s late founder, Ellie Maxwell. Now managed extremely well at an administrative level, we have focused in recent years on providing support for Svitac that allows it to exercise greater ownership over critical aspects of their operations, such as digital media and volunteer management. For instance, we have helped them to develop a digital media strategy and taught them to manage their own English language website, which are crucial to international volunteer recruitment and fundraising. We have also invested a great deal of time into helping Svitac transition away from an EU funded European Voluntary Service programme as its primary source of international volunteer instructors. The EVS programme required a great deal of Firefly involvement in the recruitment and management of volunteers, in a system we found favoured the voice of youth EU volunteers over local expertise, and where Svitac’s Director Gordana Varcakovic has nearly two decades years of experience in volunteer and project management. It was also a programme that subsidised European volunteers, rather than contributing funding to Svitac, and in fact cost Svitac funding, because the EVS programme runs at a deficit — drawing funds away from a local NGO in a process described in this first section of this article. The new volunteer programme will be completely locally owned, open to volunteers from across the world and meant to be financially self sufficient. It is modelled on a programme we helped develop Project Hope.

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(2) In Palestine, Firefly’s partner Project Hope has been running similar projects in the city of Nablus since 2003. Project Hope language programmes allow local Palestinians to improve their language skills with mother tongue teachers who in return are put in touch with the reality of daily life in the Occupied Territories. Digital literacy and a large number of creative arts classes round out a rich array of remedial education activities carried out typically in tandem with one of over 60 other Nabulsi community organisations supported by Project Hope. Engagement with the creative arts has even developed into a large annual arts and culture festival pioneered by Project Hope’s Director Hakim Sabbah.

Our Approach: Founded at an incubator level by one of the author’s of this piece, Jeremy Wildeman, Project Hope is the largest local NGO partner supported by Firefly operating on a large scale inviting in over a 100 international volunteer instructors per year to work with hundreds of youth per month. Tailoring our support to the specific needs of our partners, Firefly has primarily been supporting Project Hope with the tricky work of building networks abroad that help with volunteer recruitment and funding. This has included a particular focus on organising speaking tours and donor meetings abroad for its Director Hakim. However, our support has also included vital grantwriting work. Our medium-term aim is to transition away from such deep involvement in the granting process, as well as any connection to the reporting process, granting Project Hope greater ownership over the project management process — an area of historical weakness for Nabulsi community organisations.

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(3) Most recently we have been providing support for a Syrian local NGO in Turkey, in this case being set up by a Syrian refugee, Fadia Shaker, as an education centre for the countless refugee children living in the southwestern Turkish city of Antakya. Their work is geared towards the many children who are not accessing services offered in the refugee camps, and especially those who have been forced to neglect their education for years because they have needed to work to support their families. With our support, in particular Firefly’s Projects Coordinator Maria Chambers, Fadia has established an organisation that is providing dynamic education and creative thinking activities in science, literacy and maths for about 250 young learners per year. Innovative classes include 3D Paper Engineering, Electricity, DNA biology, Mechanics (creating moving models), Geometry and Interactive Maths.

Our Approach: Maria has followed in the footsteps of Ellie and Jeremy investing a great deal of time in identifying key personnel who want to help their community locally — in this case Syrian refugees moving across the region. Still in the incubator stage, we have been offering fairly intensive support to Fadia, including regular visits by Maria, startup funding, support with local registration, blogging their activities directly on our website, direction in organisational development, and running funding and networks for Fadia directly through Firefly. Further, unlike Gordana and Hakim, Fadia is not yet fluent in English, so we have been managing all of their foreign language correspondence. Drawing on the expertise of Project Hope, its Treasurer Salem Hantoli has provided advice to Fadia on receipting and financial record management, which is vital to charity administration and fundraising. Over time, as the local staff are trained to carry out all the organisational duties on their own, we look forward to seeing full refugee ownership over their own work, while continuing to offer long-term support tailored to their specific needs.

An Act in Reflexivity

Although we have entered this work with high aspirations, we have nonetheless been somewhat and pleasantly surprised by the longevity of the local NGOs we have supported from inception. Svitac has now been in operation since 1998 and Project Hope 2003. For us, this is an indication that our approach may be working. We also take great pride in having offered opportunities to such skilled and passionate people to do something for their respective communities. As individuals whose lives had been turned upside down by conflict — Fadia by the Syrian civil war, Gordana by the Bosnian civil war, and Hakim the Second Intifada/occupation — they are now community leaders making their societies better places to live in. We are very happy to have been able to support our colleagues (and friends) in their efforts to be better persons, just as they are enabling others to do the same, and we are becoming better persons ourselves.

The one area of concern we may never be able to change is with the granting/fundraising process. While we aim for these partners to have full ownership over the project management cycle, we do acknowledge the incredible structural challenges running against their accessing funds from the richer donor countries that can pay. This is especially challenging for places that no longer receive much media attention, or funding, such as contemporary Bosnia, putting pressure on us to come up with core funding. One philosophical question we are concerned about is to what extent then this level of involvement in the project management cycle subverts the concept of local ownership, or if there is simply no alternative in our flawed global macroeconomic and aid environment?

We plan to return this piece a few years in the future to reflect on what we have accomplished, failed at and learned. We would be keen to have your thoughts on what we have described, either as comments or even an article of your own.

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