The NGO’s Conundrum – A Response

The NGO’s Conundrum  – A Response

By Getachew Yohannes

Addis Tribune, May 10, 2002


If you missed Sereke Berhan’s long article on the NGO Conundrum last week, then don’t worry, you didn’t miss much. The real conundrum that an article such as Sereke’s raises for NGOs and people who support NGO’s is whether to respond to it or not. Whatever good points he might be making are completely over run by his blanket statements, unsupported insinuations, and arrogant posturing. It is hard to fathom the reason behind his rambling diatribe on NGOs.  Perhaps someone from an NGO ran over his dog, or he was refused a job by an NGO, who knows. What is really surprising is that any reputable newspaper would print this drivel. Certainly the Addis Tribune under the wise former (now deceased) editor, Tamrat Bekele, wouldn’t have wasted so much space on such superficial and unwarranted slander against NGO’s as a whole.  


Unfortunately Sereke does represent a body of opinion, and uninformed and biased as it is, it does exist. No doubt any defense of NGOs will just encourage this body of opinion to respond, leading to an endless series of further hearsay accusations and resentments. Serekes’ naïve utopian expectations and lack of understanding of NGOs make his arguments hollow. NGOs could certainly do more to explain themselves to the public, but people like Sereke are clearly not interested in listening. There are none so deaf as those who will not hear.


The tragedy of this type of superficial attack is that it doesn’t allow for a more in depth debate or public dialogue about the role of NGO’s in development. What is the role of the NGO in relation to the state? What is the role of international NGO’s versus local NGO’s? What makes a good NGO or a bad NGO? How do you create an environment which is conducive to the development of good local community based NGO’s? NGO’s like any organization are never going to be perfect, and some are downright bad, but how do they as a whole contribute to the development process and how can we make that better?


Apart from tragedy there is great danger from Sereke’s lazy thinking and easily adopted point of view. The hostility he expresses has long been commonplace in Ethiopia, especially under the Derg government which hated all things western. It is an attitude that does not promote improvement through debate and feedback, but rather a culture of blame and defensiveness.

This hostility creates an environment which is not conducive to the operation of good international NGO’s or the formation of a strong local NGO community. Sensible and caring people who have devoted years of their lives working for NGO’s in Ethiopia have thrown up their hands at the frustrations caused by these attitudes and quit. This is a loss to development. In the next big emergency in Ethiopia, which will happen when the main Kiremt rains fail again, all the experience of all the NGO’s and other actors will be needed immediately.


Hopefully we can use the platform of Sereke’s article to launch into an interesting and relevant debate about NGO’s.  

However, some response to the rather thin and often repeated accusations which wander through his article is obligatory I



Let us try to summarize Sereke’s main points to start with:


1) There are a lot of NGOs and yet there are still social problems like street children – why aren’t they all solved?


2) NGOs have lots of money which doesn’t get to the beneficiaries.  They are crooked.


3) Anyone can easily  form an NGO, which is easily registered, and can do what they want.


4) Some NGOs (one, all?)  treat their staff like slaves.


5) NGOs create dependency, exploit the poor for their own purposes, and blame the poor for their failures.


On the first point, Ethiopia probably has the fewest NGO’s per capita of any African country.  Let’s start with the facts, something our friend Sereke is not troubled with.  There are only 172 NGOs in the CRDA, the umbrella group of NGOs, which represents almost all of the significant NGOs in the country.   Including other, mostly tiny organizations, there are 453

DPPC registered NGOs operating in the country as a whole. In Kenya, with half the population of Ethiopia, there are over

5000 NGOs registered. By any measure, the number of NGOs in the country is extremely small.


Ironically, Ethiopia also receives almost the least amount of foreign assistance per capita of any country in Africa, despite being amongst the very poorest.   In the year 2000, according to the OECD, all forms of foreign assistance grants to Ethiopia amounted to only US$11 per person, compared to over US$30 per person to much wealthier South Africa. Most of this assistance goes to the government and UN agencies. NGOs as a whole received less than 10% of the contribution from these donors, which amounts to about Birr 500 million a year.   That’s a lot of money.  But when you look at trying to better the lives of 65 million Ethiopians, it is a drop in the bucket – you can’t do that for US$1 a year per person! The growth in population, the overall poverty level, and growing social disintegration mean that the problems, including increasing numbers of street children, are growing a lot faster than the means to cope with them.


The question we should be asking is why is there so little donor support for Ethiopia, and what is the best balance of the channels for that support – government, UN, and NGOs? Currently, the NGOs are by far the smallest recipient, so if you want to blame lack of development on someone, they are the last place to look. NGOs themselves don’t claim to be able to solve all these problems, it is a partnership of community, government and NGO’s together that is needed. When you’re afraid to hit the donkey, you hit the saddle!


The next questions of NGOs registering easily and having lots of money which doesn’t get to the beneficiaries can be dealt with together. Almost no country in Africa, or anywhere else for that matter, makes it so difficult to register as an NGO or scutinizes NGOs more closely than Ethiopia.   No one who has faced the bureaucracy of forming an NGO here could possibly agree with Sereke’s conclusion that it is easy. This is one of the biggest constraints to new NGOs.


One of the concerns for NGOs, however, is new NGOs formed just to get money and provide good jobs for their Director and other senior staff. These have been dubbed ‘MONGO’s’, which stands for ‘My Own NGO’. These are formed by one individual and relies more on their personality than on any community structure. Legitimate NGOs formed with good leadership

and values which base themselves, and their decision making, on the communities they serve should and must be supported.

However, all NGOs get a bad name because of individuals who start NGOs cynically and for the purpose of making money.

This is no doubt based on the same perception of what NGOs are as Sereke has.


The proliferation of new NGOs is not a bad thing however. One study in Southern Africa followed 24 new NGOs over a 3 ear period. At the end of that time half of the NGOs were effectively closed, 6 more were functioning but not doing very well, and 6 were highly successful and moving forward. In the longer term you end up with good NGOs surviving and bad ones falling away.  The current situation in Ethiopia is similar, and perhaps we need many NGOs to start in order to end up with a strong body of good ones after a few years.


There are strict government rules which require NGOs to submit budgets and plans a year in advance and attempt to weed out good NGOs from the bad ones  through this process. This unfortunately does more to tie up good NGOs with bureaucracy than to harm bad NGOs. The rule from government that does ensure accountability from NGOs is the annual audit, which each

NGO must undertake and provides anyone who wants to support an NGO with all of their financial information. One cannot say, therefore, that NGOs can do whatever they want – they must follow the rules. 


NGOs themselves have set up a Code of Conduct, which the 172 members of the CRDA have signed up to. This sets high standards for conduct, including fairness and equity, moral and ethical integrity, transparency and accountability, good governance and other standards – 11 in all – which the signatories must live up to. Any individual or organization in Ethiopia can file a complaint against an NGO signatory to Code to the Code of Conduct committee, and complaints are received regularly. This provides the framework for the NGOs themselves to set high standards and regulate them, as happens in other professional associations such as doctors and engineers. Watch out for the NGOs which are not signatories to the Code of



The issue of efficiency and effectiveness of NGOs, or any other organization, is necessarily a complex one. It is easy to assume that all NGOs are good, or that all NGOs are bad. It is much more difficult to analyze and determine which are efficient and effective NGOs. A good rule of thumb is ability to learn and adapt and improve. If an organization increases their effectiveness over time and learns from their own experience and that of others they will become or have already become an efficient and effective organization.   Many NGOs don’t have this learning capacity. Many new NGO’s start with the same contemptuous attitude that Sereke has towards existing NGOs – thinking that development work is easy, and they fail. Development processes are complex, and don’t follow a formula or template.


As to the accusation that NGO staff are mistreated, there are no doubt as in other organizations cases of this. The strength of the Labour Law in Ethiopia in any case provides a framework for any employee who thinks they are badly treated, and people are notorious for taking these issues to courts even on the flimsiest of grounds. However, International NGOs at least are usually the subject of the opposite accusation, that their higher pay and learning opportunities and delegation of authority make them so attractive that they end up raiding good people from the government. Our man Sereke makes both these contradictory criticisms.


The relationship of NGOs to the poor is a complex and interesting question, once one gets past the superficial accusations and posturing of Sereke. How does an NGO relate to the poor? How do well meaning but relatively well to do people implement programmes in a way that empowers the poor and ensures that they control their fate and futures, rather than creating patron-client relationships, or dependency, or dis-empowerment in other ways?   This is not an easy question. The best solution for local NGOs is to be a community based organization which draws its governance from the poor, so that it is an organization of the poor. There are examples of this from various parts of Africa, including the Organization of Rural Associations for Progress (ORAP) from Zimbabwe, or the Green Zones Cooperatives of Mozambique. These organizations are characterized by strong leadership which subjects itself to a mass membership base in an open and transparent way.


For International NGOs, the option of a mass base doesn’t exist. The range of NGOs is very wide, from church organizations, to left wing activists, to the well meaning middle classes.   How do organizations which are from wealthy countries and therefore inherently wealthy relate in a meaningful and empowering way to the poor? The best way is through support to organizations as described above, mass based organizations of the poor.  Unfortunately, these organizations are few and far between. In Ethiopia there seem to be lots of NGOs in urban areas (though not enough to meet the needs even if they are all perfectly effective and efficient), but over 90% of the population is rural.  Most rural areas don’t have any NGOs, so the only option is to work with the local government structures or directly with communities. Treating these partners with sensitivity and supporting their capacity are the most important principles. A huge body of constantly developing techniques for undertaking this work has been developed by NGOs and academics, such as Participatory Rural Assessment. These are in use by good NGOs in Ethiopia.


NGOs know that they cannot do away with poverty on their own. In some cases they are simply assisting people to stay alive while other larger processes, such as industrial development, are hopefully getting underway. The criticism or praise of NGOs should be proportional to the part they can play in development, which is smaller than communities, donors, or the government.

Even if Sereke is not grateful for NGOs, then at least the millions of people saved in the last two famines are.


It is time for an open and critical debate on development in general and NGOs in particular. It may interest Sereke and his ilk to know that the environment for funding of NGOs in Ethiopia is deteriorating. Many large NGOs are having to reduce staff, and many donors have announced they prefer to fund directly to government. While new local NGOs are sprouting up, many of those now operating, both good and bad, are losing their funding base. Instead of an influx of new NGOs, Ethiopia may suffer a decline in NGO activity – which Sereke may think is a good thing, but I think would be very sad. A hostile and unreasonable environment towards NGOs will just make this worse.