Thursday, December 22, 2005

NGOs: When Too Many Can Be a Bad Thing

Collaboration with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is often seen as a positive step towards the strengthening of civil society — that nebulous term used to refer to all non-State structures that usually work for the common good. Working with local NGOs can provide an alternative to working with a corrupt, incompetent, or excessively bureaucratic regime. They may be more accountable for funds made available to them. Many local NGOs may also enjoy greater support than the government in the areas in which they work. In areas where government’s influence is limited, the decision to work with local NGOs may have implications for security as well.

In Somalia, which has been without a central government since 1991, local NGOs are often the only available counterpart for international organizations seeking to fund relief, recovery, and development activities. The United Nations, which is limited by the fact that there is no recognized central government authority, relies on local NGOs to implement many of its projects. International NGOs also benefit from local NGOs’ knowledge of the communities and project areas as they collaborate together in project implementation.

The self-declared "Republic of Somaliland" (referred to in this article as North-West Somalia) is in a peculiar situation in that although it lacks international recognition as a State separate from the Republic of Somalia, it has had a fully functioning governmental administration since 1991. While officials in the secessionist State’s Administration will be among the first to admit that their capacities are limited due to financial and personnel constraints, as well as a near total absence of legislation to guide it, North-west Somalia has managed to maintain peace and provide some essential services for its citizens. In fact, in 1999 it was able to balance its budget for the first time, improve the strength of its currency against the US dollar, and bring in more taxation revenue than ever before.

Despite its accomplishments, North-West Somalia still suffers from lack of credit and banking facilities and its currency is not accepted as foreign exchange; these factors have slowed the rate of private investment and locally-initiated development. At the same time, the establishment of peace in the area has led to an increase in the level of foreign assistance available. Until recently, international organizations have been unwilling to provide funds directly to the State’s administration for project implementation, either because of their own mandate limitations or concerns about the competencies of line ministry staff to carry out the implementation. They thus solicited proposals from local NGOs to implement their projects.

Some of the NGOs who have implemented projects with foreign funds are actually viable and committed organizations whose objectives are to bring assistance to the people of North-west Somalia. It is important not to denigrate the significance of their contribution to the rehabilitation and development process. Most local NGOs, however, consist of no more than one or two individuals who have given themselves a name, hung a sign in front of an empty office, and see humanitarian and development assistance as an opportunity to get rich quickly. They lack the technical and professional expertise to carry out complicated construction or vocational training projects (two of the most common subcontracts given to local NGOs). Furthermore, most are affiliated to a particular clan, and their receipt of contracts is often viewed with resentment by the public.

In 1992 (the first year such records were kept) the total number of NGOs registered was only 40. As of October 1998, this figure had grown to 493. According to the Ministry of National Planning and Coordination, as of May 2000, that number had risen further to 553. The existence of so many NGOs in operation in a country as small, and with as limited a development budget as North-West Somalia, suggests a kind of anarchic situation.

The fact that so many people are vying for foreign aid resources, either through their own local NGO or through employment by the international aid community (as UN agency or international NGO project or office staff but also as landlords, suppliers of goods, and service providers), rather than from sustainable private enterprise suggests that North-West Somalia may gradually become overly dependent on foreign aid as a source of personal income. Many skilled Somalis have opted to work for local and international NGOs at higher salary levels rather than for the administration, which lacks the resources to pay competitive wages.

Furthermore, some previously viable private companies in North-West Somalia have suffered significant losses to their business as international agencies often award contracts only to NGOs.
Furthermore, the legitimate NGOs have found that working with international funding agencies may put them in a no-win situation. They depend on these contracts to carry out their activities and support their staff, but often the contracts being tendered by the international agencies may be at odds with local rehabilitation and development priorities, and may alienate them from their constituents. International agencies have not always considered local concerns and preferences (which may be conflicting) in their project formulation; this has led to intensified rivalries over access to resources and has limited the sustainability of many projects.

Responsible collaboration of legitimate local NGOs can be important in building the capacity of people, particularly women, in a society where government capacities are weak. However, international organizations must take care to ensure that mechanisms are in place to ensure quality and sustainability of the projects implemented by local NGOs, and should, wherever possible, also promote the capacities of local governing structures. Without this essential support, rehabilitation and development efforts will never be maximized.

Laura Hammond was seconded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) during 1998 to work with the Ministry of National Planning and Coordination in North-West Somalia.

The author would like to thank the Somaliland Centre for Peace and Development for their assistance with this article.

by Laura Hammond

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