Gloves On: Mending the Illusions

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In the last quarter of year 2015, an article in a leading development sector e-publication declared that the gloves are finally off between international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and their local counterparts in donor recipient countries. The article referred to a no-holds-barred, ‘undiplomatic’, guns-blazing assertion by representatives of local NGOs at a Geneva consultation meeting which was organized as part of preparations leading up to the  2016 World Humanitarian Summit (WHS).


At the Geneva meeting, NGOs representing the global south expressed long suppressed resentments against INGOs that carry the tag and earn the pay-grade of Experts, while effectively riding on the backs of their underpaid and under-acknowledged local counterparts and then not only do they hijack sector funding but also turning around to poach their staff all the while treating the NGOs like parasites. This relationship pattern has subsisted for decades and local NGOs have apparently had their fill of it. The accusations elicited sharp responses from the INGOs, leading observers to announce an end to decades of tiptoeing around the elephant in the room in the uneasy relationship between the two groups.

Faced with a plethora of challenges that require intervention, NGOs are historically and logistically bound to respond to their communities’ needs. They are designed to be flexible and nimble in order to be effective. This often means a trade-off of their ability to be geographically and operationally vast, so local NGOs tend to lack the wide presence that global programmes require of implementing partners. That is a major disadvantage on the international development scene, as funding partners who wish to implement programmes that contribute to country level outcomes or achieve sectoral goals need to aggregate multiple geo-specific NGOs, presenting a management and logistical nightmare for overstretched Programme Officers based in New York, Geneva and other developed country headquarter locations. This difficulty is mitigated by INGOs, which bridge the executional gap with a wide resource base, reporting experience and the management capacity to deploy multiple projects simultaneously across countries or regions.

Having been selected by their funding partner, the INGO arrives in a Country with a need to identify local expertise to help navigate its way around the communities, identify gate keepers, consult with stakeholders and home-in on their entry points.  Local NGOs, community-based organizations (CBOs) and Consultants are often a first port of call. Without their local counterparts, it would take years for an INGO to settle into a project beneficiary community, learn the language and culture sufficiently to design and deploy a credible intervention.

In addition to acting as guides to INGOs, NGOs are often subcontracted to implement projects at community level, trained in the reporting styles and standards of the funding partner, sometimes even representing the executing INGO partner at meetings. Many INGOs operate conscientiously in their host communities but the question is often raised: If an INGO actually does its work, would it work itself out of a job? What impact does this reality have on the project design and pace of implementation, especially considering that donors have specific areas of funding interest? It makes sense that organizations wishing to retain their funding streams might be tempted to show just enough results to whet the funders’ appetites but never quite reporting the job as completed in order to continue to access resources designated for the project area. In whose interests are the INGOs working then? For whose benefit are the international experts hired, who are paid bloated salaries and ‘hardship duty station’ allowances while they simply dog the footsteps of the local Experts, rehashing, cashing in and stealing their thunder at best or when let loose on the project, produce unimaginable faux-pas and cultural errors?

There is hardly a more glaring illustration of development faux-pas than the tragic incident over a decade ago in West Africa when an international pharmaceutical company implemented drug trials that left a trail of deaths and sparked a global outrage. Investigations revealed a background of shoddy preparations, government ineptitude, investor arrogance and human rights abuses that would have destroyed the main actors in this tragic incident if it had happened anywhere in the western world. Unfortunately, this incident was just another one in a long list of drug trial scandals in Africa carried out by internationally connected culprits seeking to cash in on the public health emergencies occurring in the continent.  True to type, it took years for the families to be compensated while the real culprits were hidden behind diplomatic maneuvers and global capitalist protectionism. Similarly, an INGO received funding to implement housing solutions in a nomadic community ten years ago. Following an extended and ‘thorough’ needs assessment mission, the INGO deployed its multimillion dollar housing solutions. Many years after construction was concluded, the beneficiary nomadic community continued to live in make-shift shelters, completely rejecting the houses. Finally, an NGO was invited to conduct an evaluation. The report was damning. The INGO’s project design team had neglected to take into account the cultural beliefs of the nomadic community, as the houses were built in the rectangular holding patterns familiar to their western designers. The nomads had superstitious beliefs about evil spirits in spiders and would not live in buildings that had corners which made them amenable to cobwebs and susceptible to spider infestation. The houses remain unoccupied to date despite several attempts to re-purpose them,

These real stories illustrate the fact that INGOs cannot operate without their local counterparts and the success of global programmes is simply impossible without NGOs operating at community level. NGOs on the other hand need the INGOs to bring in their global management experience and operational diversity in order to create interventions that are tractable and comparable within the framework of global targets. Rather than viewing one group as parasites and the other as amateurs, both parties as well as their funding agencies should encourage NGOs and INGOs to value each other as equal partners in the development process, not only at implementation but also in the design and execution states. The recent agitations calling for a renegotiation of the relationship between donors, INGOs and NGOs is long overdue, but it is also urgent and pertinent.


This article is part of ongoing conversations in the Global Health South forum @

Meaningful Gifts at NOVICA

Last Updated on Friday, 15 April 2016 18:55
Written by Oluwafunmilola Babalola

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