There is no Mystery
The Christian Relief and Development Association (CRDA)
This relates to an article that appeared in your esteemed paper, Addis Tribune, of Thursday/Friday, May 2-3, 2002, under the headline “The NGO Conundrum”.
In the first place, we would like to appreciate the initiative taken by the writer of the article, Sereke Berhan, who took the bold initiative to dwell at length with such an issue of paramount significance, but not adequately treated so far. It is our firm conviction that such initiatives will go a long way towards the realization of the efforts being made to improve the works of the fledgling NGO Sector and further enhancing their active involvement in alleviating the plight of the needy and subsequently contributing their modest share to the national development endeavours.
Secondly, we would like to stress that this piece is, in no way, a response to the unfounded allegations raised by the writer, which were too general and unsubstantiated. It is basically meant to throw light on the reality on the ground, and to raise the awareness of the general public with respect to the issues at hand. The Christian Relief and Development Association (CRDA), as an indigenous umbrella organization for more than 200 registered NGOs and religion-based agencies operating in Ethiopia, feels responsible to do this.
The population of Ethiopia is estimated to be a little over 65 million. It is an open secret today that 45% of the population live in abject poverty. On the other hand, there are only around 350 registered NGOs operational in Ethiopia (the least number of NGOs to be found in one country as compared to other African countries, where, for instance, in South Africa, there are about 54,000, serving less than half the population in Ethiopia). We tried to raise this comparison only to indicate the disparity in the figures, in light of the declared ideals of NGOs, which is to alleviate poverty and improve the livelihood of the marginalized sectors of society.
In this connection, there is one glaring fact that needs due attention. The alleviation of poverty and the realization of the development needs of a population is not a task to be handled single-handedly. It is rather a task that calls for the collaborative efforts of all development actors, i.e., the Government, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and the Private Sector. In light of this, the role of NGOs in Ethiopia, as their counterparts in other countries, and as an arm of the Civil Society Organisations, is to fill gaps and support the efforts of the major development actors, mainly the Government.
NGOs are only one among many development actors, which contribute to poverty reduction/alleviation. We do not in any way nor have ever claimed that we stand to alleviate poverty totally and independently. We have been and still are committed to contribute our modest share to the development of this nation. The writer has either a misconception about NGOs, or is a deliberate attempt to misinform the public in an effort to attain a hidden agenda. Otherwise, a genuine person will not make a blanket and generalized accusation and label around 350 NGOs as being unnecessary. The writer has not substantiated his argument and instead, refuted the reality and facts, which clearly show the positive contribution NGOs have made (minimum as they may be). The glaring facts are what we see on the media daily, the various initiatives the Government has taken and continues to take in working with NGOs on different projects/programs (e.g. involving NGOs in the process of formulating the documents on the establishment of the Human Rights Commission and Office of the Ombudsman, consultations in the process of formulating the National Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), drawing up an NGO Legal Framework, guidelines for operation in different regions, undertaking various development initiatives (Clean and Green Addis Ababa), etc.).
We do not deny that there may be problems within the NGO community itself, which needs to be rectified. But after all, this is normal for any growing sector, making mistakes and learning from those mistakes. Aware of the need to nip any limitations in the bud, the NGO community, for instance, has drawn up its own Code of Conduct by which, as signatories, all NGOs are obliged to abide by. If not, they have established a body, the Code Observance committee, which will take necessary measures. These are some facts which deliberately or not the writer has disregarded.
Furthermore, we do not claim in any way that we have done enough or brought about significant impact. What we have brought are promises for a better tomorrow to build on if we all work together (governments, private sector and communities, etc.). Looking at the trend, however, one would likely realize that NGOs have reaped positive results from their efforts, which count back to the 70’s and 80’s, when millions of lives were saved through the selfless endeavors of NGOs all the way to where we advocate today with Governments and World Bank for better strategies to reduce poverty in this country.
Just to mention a few points and set the record straight, NGOs have reached into the depth of communities, into places which have been considered as unreachable and they have set up health stations, non-formal systems of education, provided clean drinking water, empowered communities through income-generation schemes and introduced numerous activities. NGOs account for 7-10% of the health service coverage of the country. NGOs are one of the major rural safe water supply providers, benefiting 5.2% of the population. Apart from the 26.5 million persons directly benefiting from the on-going NGO development projects, there are many others who benefit indirectly through demonstration effects of the NGO interventions, as per data obtained from the Federal Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC). These are just to list a few from among several NGO initiatives.
So, a responsible person would question, if NGOs did not walk into these communities who would have? The Government? We doubt that, as the Government now gives positive recognition to NGOs as helping hands where it is short. The Government has openly declared that it cannot bring about development on its own, but with the support of others, such as NGOs. We don’t also believe that the private sector could replace the work of NGOs, since their focus is more on economic gain and may not reach into areas, which do not guarantee this. NGOs contribute to the betterment of Ethiopia and her people by focusing on the sector, which is more neglected: the social sector and the marginalized sector of the population.
It is interesting that the writer should think that with the sprouting of NGOs, poverty has worsened in the country. Poverty, as we understand it, is a political, economic and social problem, which calls for the concerted efforts of all. Development is truly development with all three pillars standing equally. NGOs can strive as much as they will but without the support of all other sectors to pull up the economic and political pillar (as well as the social), improvement in the social sector alone cannot reduce poverty.
The writer points an accusing finger at NGOs regarding the growing number of homelessness, street children, prostitution and lack of sanitation. Has he dared to question the root causes of such problems? Has he questioned that unemployment, deteriorating economic conditions, where several households suffer from little or no income, account for such problems? Has he questioned how many NGOs have helped in creating employment opportunities, set up income-generating schemes and that a majority of NGOs are involved in health programs by building up health institutions? And does he really believe that the current number of operational NGOs can solve all political, economic and social problems of the country? Had he based his opinion on facts, surely, he would not have come up with such negatively biased unconstructive criticism.
It is a very unwise conclusion to disregard NGOs as millions of poor people are benefiting from their services. Mistakes are common elements of all types of work and the solution is to identify, acknowledge and strategize towards rectifying them rather than shy away from them. Criticisms are meant to indicate limitations and possibly recommend solutions and that is how we all contribute our share to the development of our country, which suffers from so many dimensions of poverty. Criticisms such as the writer’s have no constructive elements and we can, therefore, only define them as hurtful to the number of NGOs that have done so much, voluntarily and out of humanity, to lessen the suffering, of our people.
In conclusion, we would like to underline that NGOs are and will remain pivotal development actors. Accordingly, what we need to do is try to identify their problems, their weaknesses and strengths and create for them a more enabling environment to effectively discharge their responsibilities.