Saturday, August 30, 2008

Northern-Southern NGO Relationship

Devaki Shrestha

The northern NGOs and the multilateral agencies had been busy discovering a phrase to define their relationship with the southern NGOs. They energized NGO professionals, social development consultants, multilateral corporation executives, NGO leaders, journalists and academics to participate in this search process. The exercises to define the relationship encompassed seminars, meetings, research studies, consultations and writings. There were loud talks, popular mobilizations, serious studies, ritualistic conferences and numerous workshops. In the search campaign that took about four decades, several lofty phrases surfaced that included contractual arrangements, alliances, solidarity, partnership, collaboration, cooperation etc. However, most of the people in the NGO world preferred to use the term ‘partnership’. They thought that the popular term ‘partnership’ would impress northern individual as well as corporate donors. In addition, that term would give some relief and a sense of pride to the southern NGOs. By default, that also might contribute to humanize the relationships between northern and southern NGO bureaucracies in general and functional level employees in particular. Therefore, it has been accepted as a useful word to use in all billboards, be it in professional writings, evaluation studies, project documents, appeals asking for donations and speeches. Of course, the term ‘partnership’ mesmerized many development pundits. Therefore, ‘partnership’ topped the list of NGO jargons and vocabularies. It happened not only because of the reasons mentioned above, but also by accepting this lofty word, there was no practical obstacle to continue the northern NGO’s existing relationship behaviours and characters that included domination, distrust and subjugation.
Words do not produce behaviours; rather practices and behaviours create glossaries. The spin-doctors can corrupt the uses and meanings of the words, phrases or sentences. The same happened to ‘partnership’. The most important factor in defining relationships is the power equation. Robert Chambers (Ideas for development: reflecting forwards, Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, England, 2004: 28, website: says, "Power and relationships are intimately interwoven. ..... Partnership implies collegial equality but aid agencies with funds often call the shots." Of course, aid agencies including northern NGOs dictate terms because they have the control over funds.
The term ‘partnership’ has been widely used in business to define a form of relationship. It has three important factors – investment of capital, management of an enterprise and sharing of risks. All partners share common goals, basic management culture and mutuality of risk-taking attitude. Whilst adopting the same word to define their relationship, the not-for-profit agencies’ guiding-lights did not critically examine its applicability to describe their reality.
Northern NGOs harvest funds. They are the farmers of fund raising. They position themselves strategically as the champions of humanitarian cause or as advocates of human wellbeing, which includes but not limited to elimination of hunger, education and basic health for all, peace, justice, rights and people’s empowerment. Both, humanitarian cause and the human wellbeing are nothing more than the cosmetics for a large number of northern NGOs as they are private non-profits and not voluntary agencies; they are professionally run social marketing enterprises and not the representative people’s organizations. Therefore, they need funds to maintain their own bureaucracies and sustain their own organizations. They need practitioners and implementers to ensure the continuation of their existence by playing an intermediary role and getting a slice of the pie to cover their administrative and operating costs. The need of funds creates compulsions to invent numerous ornamental statements (visions, missions, strategies and so on), to find out implementers (southern NGOs, community-based organizations, consulting firms etc) and, to launch image-building exercises, continuously. These are their basics. This is applicable for a large number of northern NGOs, though there are exceptions.
On the other side, most of the southern NGOs exist by mixing idealism with creation of opportunities for the promoters and functioning as the processing enterprises, which package poverty, marginalization, injustice, deprivation, etc. They process poverty and generate funds. In the same way, they process funds and provide services. They have mastery of processing, packaging and repackaging. Southern NGOs talk loud to their service recipients and wag their tails in front of donors, including northern NGOs.
Northern NGOs insert most of the ideas, strategies and program philosophies in any ‘partnership’ programs according to their donor’s wishes followed by their own organizational mandate. The relationship, though, might be camouflaged by ideals of equality and mutual respect, is no different from the relationship between donors and recipients in a contractual arrangement. Irrespective of some signs and symptoms of mutuality, the relationships have been dominated by the wishes of the donors. In all designs and applications, the southern NGOs play the role of a marginalized junior partner, if at all.
Northern NGOs talk loudly about transparency, accountability and sustainability of the southern NGOs. It sounds that the talk is all about an infant who is at the verge of departure from this world to say "Hello!" to God. Northern NGOs behave in an unjust, disrespectful and unequal manner with their southern cousins when the issue is that of utilization of the funds. Their auditors play the role of an accuser or that of an investigating official. The southern NGOs not only fear the auditors but also most of the time they have to go beyond irritation and unnatural shivering. The second factor to add salt to their injuries are the bureaucrats of northern NGOs, as most of them think that southern NGOs are run by the spin-doctors, manipulators and crooks in disguise. For most of the southern NGOs, the third load is none other than they, themselves – full of contradictions, double-speak and questionable intentions and acts. As the fourth factor, there are program evaluators, mostly the consultants, who often play the role of a villain. Many of them focus on finding faults. Although, they are much better than the humiliating auditors, northern NGO bureaucrats and southern NGO promoters, they also contribute to lower down the morale of southern NGOs. All these actors push the lager southern NGO family in a defensive mode. This phenomenon is not limited to the management of a particular agency but also it has influenced the southern NGOs in formulating standards of relationships with their donors.
Another critical factor that influences relationships between northern NGOs (donors) and southern NGOs is the role of the donor’s donor. Nearly, all northern NGOs play the role of an intermediary and their donors expect certain ways in utilizing their funds. Their approach determines the behaviours of the northern NGOs. Hence, the range of inspections, overseeing, accusing, supervisions, investigations, suspicions, etc gets larger spread. The same is applicable to other bilateral as well as multilateral aid agencies and the transnational corporations. Therefore, the loud talk of partnership in this business of grant funding for a humanitarian or a social cause has become an ornament with some exceptions.
This is high time to examine the relationship objectively and give it a name that reflects the underlying ethos. Partnership among northern NGOs is perfectly possible as more or less, they are in the same core business of raising funds for social or humanitarian cause. Similarly, partnership among southern NGOs could flourish as they also are in the same core business of supplying services for social or humanitarian cause. Both arrangements have sound foundation of commonality of the core business. However, the northern and southern NGOs differ fundamentally in the core business, forget that both of them are called "NGOs". Somebody might argue that both types of NGOs are linked with similar motivation, and that connects them for a larger social or humanitarian cause. Therefore, they are in the same business. Remember, department of roads builds roads by employing the services of road construction contractors. Both of them are in the same larger business of road construction. However, they are not partners. Broadly, there are three options available to define the relationship between the northern and southern NGOs. First, call it service contract, if in a specific arrangement that reflects the reality and throw away all pretensions. Second, if the particular relationship could be best explained as an alliance, say it alliance, and give it the character and respectability the relationship deserves. Third, if you dare to say the relationship as partnership, then prove it with evidences, facts, logical reasoning and profound conviction. Primarily, bring equality into practice, particularly in the critical area of power sharing. Are the northern NGOs ready to accept "collegial equality" in dealing with their southern cousins?

The Telegraph, Weekly, Kathmandu, Wednesday, 16 February 2005

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