An article in a recent issue of Foreign Policy doesn’t mince words and calls international NGOs in Africa ‘the new colonialists ‘. In many countries, international NGOs have replaced traditional western donors and absentee states’ influence by providing services that are traditionally the responsibility of the home governments Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president prefers to call it ‘NGOism’-the growing trend where international NGOs wield increasing power and resources in fragile states or failed states as some would have us call them.
Hamid Karzai has reason to worry. In Afghanistan, 80% of services such as health care and education are provided by international and local NGOs.
International NGOs are gaining new importance in the developing world owing to the increasing preference by western countries to route donor funds through international NGOs rather than national governments which are perceived as corrupt, bureaucratic or incompetent.
According to Foreign Policy, an influential American magazine, the amount of aid flowing through NGOs in Africa rather than governments has more than tripled.
Recently the French embassy in Kampala signed an agreement with an international NGO to distribute relief supplies in Karamoja. In a bygone era this aid would be routed through the disaster ministry or the Prime Minister’s office. USAID has been channeling millions of dollars of AIDS money through intermediary International NGOs such as CARE. Considerable British relief aid in Uganda is sometimes routed through Oxfam or Save the Children.
Foreign Policy shows that spending by CARE, the international NGO, has increased by 65% since 1999 to $ 607 million in 2007. Save the Children’s budget has tripled since 1998 while Doctors without Borders (Medicine san Frontiers)’s budget has doubled since 2001 signaling increasing command of financial resources by international NGOs.
In 2006, total aid to the developing world from countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) amounted to $325 billion. Just a third of that sum came from governments. The rest came from non-state actors principally, international NGOs.
A 2005 Newsweek report estimates that if the world’s NGOs were grouped together as a country they would rank fifth in the world in terms of the value of funds controlled.
If truth be told, NGOs have been a godsend for the millions in our countries who can’t cope unaided From safe water provision, to life -saving health care, to relief supplies, NGOs have reached our needy people faster and more efficiently than our governments. Most of what they do is ordinarily the preserve of the state but in banana republics, the state is often dysfunctional or simply cash strapped. “Like failed cousins, they are increasingly unable to and perhaps unwilling to fulfill the functions that have long defined what it means to be a state.”
An analyst has observed that we live in a period when the nation state is distrusted, or more precisely, its institutions are considered ineffective and unreliable’.
International NGOs operating in Uganda like Plan International or World Vision will tell you that they are always under constant pressure from local politicians to locate their operations in more politically expedient areas, which speaks volumes about the increasing power of NGOs in relation to that of the state in Africa.
International NGO support perpetuates a dependence syndrome by the state on NGOs and doesn’t help states develop capacity in sectors such as relief or disaster response where NGOs dominate.
It has also been observed that international NGOs suck all the best local talent on the market because of attractive salaries that the public or even private sector can’t match. A good example in Uganda is HIV/AIDS treatment health care. Some of the best medical workers have left the public health sector and are on the payroll of international AIDS research agencies.
There have also been concerns that NGOs don’t have many checks and balances or are not as accountable as say governments to the electorate or private companies to shareholders and that more regulation is needed, a kind of requiring the ‘do-gooders to prove they do good’.
‘No matter how well-intentioned, these new colonialists need weak states as much as weak states need them’ couldn’t have put it better.