Tag Archives: Climate change

Addendum: The Three NGOs We Need

Addendum to the May 27 posting.

This blog adds detail to my post-WHS argument for three new INGOs, which should not be confused for either a general call for more INGOs or a lack of recognition that such NGOs may exist, though on a much smaller scale than necessary.

  1. Fundraising without Borders.

The mission of this FWB is to build the fundraising capacity of NGOs in the global south in order to safeguard their independence.  One target, the home markets. Many ‘poor’ crisis-affected nations hold wealth and cadres of wealthy citizens and a burgeoning middle class that could easily sustain local organizations and finance national humanitarian crisis response. (Combined, Africa’s very wealthy elite have a combined net worth over $660 billion).  Note that FWB does not provide a short-term fix. It must develop a long-range vision of nurturing a culture of local support to NGO activity, building national and global fundraising support services, ensuring robust finance mechanisms, etc. FWB will mechanize the implicit call of One Humanity, Shared responsibility to replace the ‘white man’s burden’ with an everyman’s compassion.

Second target, and perhaps initially of greater financial import, my neighbors. FWB would enable NGOs in the global south to fundraise directly in the markets of the global north. Following Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines Red Cross advertised for donations in the UK media. The shock to fundraising departments might have been visible on British seismographs. Buying some advertising space, though, marks a crude beginning. Fundraising in Western markets constitutes a science, full stop.  On behalf of southern NGOs and based in each of the ‘fat’ markets, FWB would host highly developed skills and resources in terms of multimedia donation architecture (from an SMS to processing a check), media buying, messaging, financial management, database management and so forth.  The idea would be to take distinct advantage of being a non-Western NGO in the Western market – allowing donors to ‘bypass the middleman’, avoid expensive INGO costs like hotels and expat salaries, and to donate directly to those best situated to know the context and ‘solve’ local problems.

  1. Image Rescue Committee (IRC-II).

To raise money, Western NGOs deploy a range of techniques to ensure their prominence in media coverage of disaster response, displacing and disempowering local actors/efforts in the process.  The humanitarian sector’s distortion of the narrative impoverishes the global south, unsurprisingly reinforcing a picture of dysfunctional and/or primitive local societies being rescued by the international do-gooders.  And while the humanitarian sector has paid lip service to the enormous efforts of local actors, it has strenuously averted actually changing their dominant narrative. We should not wait for the Western humanitarian media machine to significantly improve the integrity of its messaging. Rather, this media bias needs to be challenged by the mainstreaming of alternative discourses. Enter, stage left, IRC-II.

The task is simple and rather straightforward. IRC-II should deploy teams on Crisis Day 1, delivering interviews, film footage and clever soundbites that profile (exclusively!) local actors and efforts.  One can imagine special reports that highlight the expertise and effort of local actors, complete with economic calculations of the value of the local effort – stats to rival those of the international community. Or maybe a TV montage of local authorities complaining that the Western intervention seems overly preoccupied with finding comfortable hotel space? Famous photographers documenting the goings on of the aid community at the local swim club or beachside restaurant?

Naturally, IRC-II would employ all of the same media tricks as the major INGOs, such as transporting journalists and film crews to their projects, lobbying news outlets for choice positioning, commissioning advocacy reports, or rolling in the celebrities, Hollywood megastars able to show their deep concern while strolling through an IDP camp in the logo-festooned shirt of a local NGO.  Put differently, the goal of IRC is to use international media to broadcast the truth in such a way as to crack the narrative divide.

  1. No-Mercy Corps.

Five decades of development work have yielded organizations specializing in empowerment against a wide array of oppressive and anti-democratic structures.  From the empowerment of labor against industry to the empowerment of women against the patriarchy and from empowerment of farm laborers against farm owners to the empowerment of people against despotic leaders, there is no shortage of NGO-led effort against the powerful.  Critically, nobody in this spectrum of work looks in the institutional mirror.  So there remains one glaring gap – empowerment of local communities against the Western NGOs and UN agencies.

Too often, the grand, noble aid agency remains largely untouchable to the marginalized, desperately grateful communities. No wonder the WHS consultations found that only 27% of aid recipients felt their needs were being met. Time to end the sector’s free pass and create No-Mercy Corps, to work locally on how people affected by crisis can better control the crisis response. Looked at functionally, the purpose of NMC would be to counter the powerless of people affected by crisis against one of the most powerful determinants of their lives by creating multiple points of accountability.

The problem is not a new one. Yet the good-intentioned though relatively ineffective ‘solutions’ have always sought to change the sector from within, to (grudgingly) bequeath some illusion of participation, as exemplified by its decades-slow and miserly (voluntary) bequeathing of downward accountability.  Control and power, of course, need to be taken. (The Core Humanitarian Standard? A first sectoral step in the right direction, but we should be wary when the foxes approve new controls on the henhouse.). Specific to each context, NMC’s aim is to build multi-pronged, independent/external control upon the humanitarian response.

  • Setting up and funding aid ombudsman or watchdog functions, either as organizations within the community or as part of local government capacity.
  • Enacting local legislation or standard technical agreements that incorporate Sphere standards and the guiding principles, or require greater foreign NGO transparency in terms of decision-making, performance and reporting (and ensuring translation/dissemination).
  • Creating and funding local organizations that are able to work with aid recipients to assess aid performance and rectify problems.
  • Ensuring local consultation, both individually and across communities, such as has been done through surveying by Ground Truth.
  • Training local media, community leaders and existing CBOs in the assessment of aid efforts, with attention for example to the humanitarian principles.
  • Monitoring and advocacy (in the West) on the work actually being done, aiming to change the behavior of the INGOs, such as reports delivered to donors and media in INGO home societies or lobbying INGO trustees/boards to improve performance.

Another Perfect Storm

Western aid agencies, especially those here in the UK, have spent the last two weeks fanning the media flames of a fundraising campaign for the Horn of Africa.  Merlin even went so far as to call it a “global food crisis” but seems to have recoiled to the idea of an East Africa Food Crisis.  Let’s start by stating the obvious.  The situation in parts of Somalia, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia seems desperate, and humanitarian aid is needed to save lives right now.  To question whether or not this is the Drought of the Century is not to deny the gravity of the situation and the need for emergency aid. 

But I don’t really want to debate whether or not aid agencies are hyping drought in order to stuff their pockets.  Of course there is hyping.  Of course agencies use weasel words, at the same time painting a picture of saving stick-legged children from starving right now while being clever enough to avoid claiming that it is already a famine or mass starvation.  Nope, those things could happen.  Writing in The Times, John Clayton makes his opinion clear:  “By hyping up a localised “drought” and playing down the real causes of the turmoil in Eastern Africa, the aid agencies are crying wolf. What happens when there’s a real emergency? Will we believe them?”

On one point, it is easy to agree with John.  It’s a sad reflection of public attitudes towards aid, but people like the idea of giving to the innocent victims of El Nino rather than to the not-as-innocent victims of clan violence, war, and greed-fueled bad governance.  It’s amazing how even somebody purporting to set forth a list of factors somehow miss out:  “High food prices, fluctuating rainfall, a rising population and ever dwindling natural resources have created the perfect storm,” said Leigh Daynes, director of communications for Plan, in the UK.   Oops.  Forgot to mention conflict in Somalia.  Oops.  Forgot to mention corruption in Kenya.  About like forgetting to mention Ghaddafy in an analysis of the situation in Libya. 

But let’s not be too hard on these agencies for omitting the ways in which locals themselves could be blamed for their own suffering.  By definition, humanitarian aid is based on need, not worthiness, because being a human being possesses inalienable worth enough.  Besides, the entire point of the media campaign is to raise money to pay for the relief effort and save lives.  So let’s not moralize about painting a picture that is skewed towards being effective rather than depressing to the average punter.

That said, let’s moralize anyway.  Let’s moralize not about the fact that the perfect storm of factors missed conflict, missed corruption (kudos to UK AID for suspending bi-lateral aid to Kenya on account of the lack of integrity), or missed the way in which drought has some very local and human causes (on this point, check out Paul Theroux during his Africa overland odyssey ten years ago, quoting a diplomat on the situation in northern Kenya: “Right, it hasn’t rained in the north for three years.  Whose fault is that?  They cut down the trees for fuel, they sold them to loggers, they destroyed the watershed.  And they’re still doing it.”).  No, let’s moralize about the fact that the aid agencies’ perfect storm of factors forgot one key factor:  aid agencies. 

Inside Somalia is a different story, because aid agencies have little access there.  But the rest of the Horn?  Kenya?  Ethiopia?  Uganda?  For decades, aid agencies (and the Kenyan government!) have been all over these places, practicing what they call development.  They collect a lot of money for this work and they have been pumping out glossy reports describing their glorious success in helping communities become sustainable, in helping to protect the environment, in building the capacity of people to cope. Etc etc.  So where is it?  Where is this development we keep hearing about?   Surely people have been helped.  But as the current disaster in the area would seem to suggest, at the big picture level all this development work didn’t amount to squat. 

What we have, then, is a perfect storm of irony.  Aid agencies are asking us to fund humanitarian relief work (and I admit this is also an assumption, because we don’t really know what sort of program will receive their money).  We should do that.  People need it.  Lift the veil, though, and what they are also asking the public to do is to fund their own failed development policies.

Say goodbye to the gravy train: Part I, An Inconvenient Truth

Continuing my flirtation with futurology, what about the way aid as a business seems to be acting like aid as an idealistic pursuit?  I mean, why the quasi obsession with perceived threats to our principles and access — Has the “erosion of our space” gone platinum yet? — while largely ignoring the much more potentially ruinous erosion of our market share? Why worry about the inevitable securitization of aid when global warming, the private sector, and non-Western NGOs are going to steal our hallowed seats at the head table? 

Pope Urges Young to Care for Planet – Headline in the IHT, 3 Sept 07, p. 3

Did this rather dull report on the meanderings of Pope Benedict XVI catch your eye?  It should have. The golden age of humanitarianism died that day. When the Pope himself jumps on the environmental bandwagon – when the Holy See decides that spiritual salvation matters less than the carbon footprint of the Popemobile – then it’s not only a bandwagon, it’s the beginning of the end of humanitarianism as we know it.

The Seventies and Eighties marked the golden years of the development industry. A patchwork coalition of Western nations, academics and eager volunteers set out to eliminate starvation, disease and poverty, and generally to make the Earth a better place to live.

It wasn’t working so well (still isn’t), which left the turf (and donor pockets) wide open for the onset of the humanitarian juggernaut.  In a relatively short span of time humanitarians became the new heroes. Forget about trying to establish a private sector agrarian economy in a desert like Burkina Faso. Our message held the sexy promise of immediate gratification:  let’s save lives and alleviate suffering right now!

That was the end of development organizations. Their money dried up. Some NGOs dried up.  Others, simply swapped hats. They began calling themselves humanitarian organizations while running income generation or literacy projects.  The word “humanitarian” itself became synonymous with doing good.

Why blog about this new bandwagon? Because we sit at the precipice, blissfully unaware that over the next ten years the exploding global environmental movement is going to bury humanitarianism. In our focus on the competition among us, nobody seems be thinking about the competition between brands of goodness.  Nobody is talking about an upcoming 25% crash in donations. Or maybe it will only be 15%.  I don’t know. I’m just making this up.  But the bottom line is clear:  People who want to do something good with their money will progressively opt for a different generation of NGOs. Once the money starts, the graduate degree programmes and NGOs will follow. Then the celebrities, politicians and the media. Then the rest of the donors and maybe even Angelina Jolie.  And all that time, the effort and enthusiasm of youth will be siphoned away.

Many “humanitarian” organizations will again change their hats. They will prioritise the war on global warming over the war in Darfur.  They will write reports about the needs of populations in 2050.  Other organizations will resist, retaining focus on saving human lives in the present. Their days are numbered.  Trees may not sound so important, but how do a few thousand lives way over in Congo or Afghanistan compare to our planet? That’s what the people with the money will say as well. As Pope Benedict XVI so aptly put it: We need a decisive ‘yes’ to care for creation. 

So it won’t be the West’s politicisation of aid or the erosion of “humanitarian space” or even the way bureaucracy has pummelled the idea of compassion right out of our work that killed off we humanitarians. In the end, it will be the loss of our market share to the planet.  In the end, it will be Al Gore.