Should humanitarian agencies be a foreign country?

In the 1960s , a residential college was established by a lay-Dutch Catholic order in Tanzania. It offered scholarships for young women from low-income rural households to be trained as community development workers. Whilst it was initially supported by NGOs and the government, there was a sense by the early 1970s that the ‘expatriate stranglehold’ of an all Dutch teaching and management team was generating hostility within the government, and looking increasingly out-of-step with the commitment to Africanisation of professional positions within the country. No doubt the belief of the Dutch staff that they could do a better job than anyone who might replace them contributed to the strained relationships with local and central government. Whilst recognising the good work being done, one of the NGOs funding the college questioned ‘whether an all European staff can really be the best people to know (with all the will in the world) the needs of an African country.’

I was reminded of this when reading about the controversy generated by South Sudanese efforts to regulate NGOs in that country. The President of South Sudan has signed into law the NGOs Bill, passed by parliament a week ago. The bill establishes the regulatory framework for NGOs working in the country: all NGOs need to be registered; government monitoring and oversight mechanisms have been established; and foreign NGOs are required to obtain a ‘country agreement’ with the government before being able to operate in South Sudan.

However, amidst the fairly standard requirements on NGOs to be registered and subject themselves to government regulation, there are a number of controversial measures. NGOs are required to use South Sudanese banks; they can be fined around £8,000 for publishing ‘false statements’ about the bill (probably code for presenting the bill as a means for the state to exert political control over civil society and limit critical voices); and – what has most caught the attention of the international community – limiting the number of foreign aid workers to no more than one-fifth of the national workforce. Moreover, the bill insists that the requirement for 80% staffing by South Sudanese nationals operates at all levels of an organisation, including national managerial staff.

In a country in which around three million people are facing severe food insecurity, and 1.7 million people have been displaced through conflict, this is being seen by many humanitarian organisations as an attack on their neutrality and freedom, limiting their ability to meet the needs of those who require humanitarian aid. The EU Delegation, the Heads of Mission in South Sudan of Denmark, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, UK), along with the Heads of Mission of Canada, Japan, Norway and Switzerland have criticised the potential impact of the NGOs Bill, warning:

In their current form these bills could restrict the operation of NGOs who are providing life-saving services to the people of South Sudan. Restricting the work of NGOs could have a significant negative impact on the people of South Sudan.

David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee, has also criticised the bill for its potential ‘negative impact on humanitarian operations at a time of great need.

Presented in the light of South Sudan’s ongoing humanitarian crisis, the new bill looks ill-timed at least, malicious at worst. If millions are reliant upon international aid, and the international aid organisations who deliver it, then anything that might hamper those efforts cannot be supported. The most pressing problem is the underfunding of the Humanitarian Response Plan for South Sudan (with currently only around 2% of the required $220m secured). Concern over fraud, mismanagement and corruption within South Sudan’s banking sector raises fears that any money kept in the country will be siphoned off, further worsening conditions for those in dire need of humanitarian aid. NGOs say they do not object in principle to the call for more national staff across all levels, but in a new country, with serious deficits in people with appropriate skills (and competition for those that exist with government, international organisation and private sector employers) it is simply impractical to rapidly move to the 80% figure.

Perhaps the bill and its provisions should simply be shelved until the current crisis is over. Does it really matter of foreign NGOs ship in their aid workers? After all, they are keeping people alive in the now, and that has to be more important. As I am frequently told when I question the efficacy of NGOs, at least they are doing something, and something has to be done (something always ‘has to be done’, that necessity seemingly excusing all kinds of failures, mistakes, and disastrous responses).

And yet, and yet. There is something of the whiff of self-interest in all this, along with an echo of neo-colonial cant. Of course there is a crisis, and humanitarian aid is required (even if, as the work of people like Alex de Waal have long shown us, humanitarian aid is not as successful, nor as solely responsible for keeping people alive, as the myths of humanitarian action would suggest). Climate change, conflict, regional instability and the growing pains of a new nation mean that millions will continue to face food insecurity for years to come. So when, exactly, is the appropriate time to consider this?

Whilst there are problems with the bill (although are most of the provisions very different from other regional NGO regulatory regimes?) there are strong arguments why pushing for more national staff may actually be a good thing, even in the midst of humanitarian crisis. Just because a country is in need of international assistance, does that mean it can have no control over the organisations who come in, that it cedes all national sovereignty to foreign agencies who have no local accountability?

NGOs say that the skilled personnel for senior managerial positions do not exist, or not at the wage levels aid organisations can offer. It is true there are constraints, and expecting NGOs to fill those positions in a very short space of time is unrealistic. But for how long have these organisations been operating in the country (before and since its independence)? Why have they not been training up more staff over the years and years of their activities. Some have, but not enough.

This matters, because as we know from decades of experience of humanitarian disasters, interventions which do not build on (or which actively, if inadvertently, destroy) local capacity (which includes food markets and distribution networks, transport networks, local personnel, etc) create further long-term instability and insecurity, even if they resolve that particular crisis. Developing skilled national managers is not an addition to humanitarian action, it should be seen as a vital, necessary, obligatory, even, part of it. Leaving millions reliant on the vagaries of international good will and donations, on the services of international humanitarian agencies with so many other crises to attend to, is dangerous. It ensures that ‘emergencies’ never really end, as one crisis bleeds into, and feeds, the next. And it means countries can never build up the expertise and experience they need to cope if and when humanitarian agencies don’t respond as quickly as needed.

There is also something distasteful about foreign NGOs claiming they need to bring in their (well paid) foreign staff to manage programmes, employing nationals for the un- or semi-skilled (and often very dangerous) work. This is not a criticism of those foreign aid workers themselves, who in many cases take significant risks, endure significant hardships, and are motivated by values I respect and support. But it is to criticise organisations who fail to address skills deficits by not investing in training and support. The big lie of colonialism was that African peoples were not educated, not skilled, not capable enough to occupy senior government positions. Some NGOs are in danger of making similar claims to justify their organisational structure and employment. Investing in such training is not a diversion of aid, it is an essential part of it. Failure to capacity build (whether infrastructure or skills) is to fuel the crisis.

Rather than scaremonger, NGOs should take this bill as an opportunity to lay out their plans for how they will nationalise their staff, not just in South Sudan, but in all the areas in which they work. The government of South Sudan may have malign intent behind this bill as some say, but that doesn’t mean that the underlying principles in some of the controversial clauses are bad in their potential impact. Even if the purpose of the bill is not really about accountability, transparency and building national capacity, those ends could nonetheless flow from it.

Those Dutch volunteers – well-meaning, well-intentioned, good at their work – were eventually replaced, forced out by the Tanzanian government. Wouldn’t it be preferable for NGOs to manage their own succession, rather than waiting for governments to do it for them, and for less than benign reasons?

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About Mike Jennings

I am a Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. My work is on the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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