Some points on "The NGO Conundrum" by Sereke Berehan and CRDA's response on it.
By Samuel Gebre-Selassie, Ph.D.
It is appreciable for Sereke's initiative to raise a point highly significant to be discussed widely, objectively and at all levels both by the people (including those in the NGO) and the government. The objective of this writing is, however, not to make lengthy article in support or oppose points raised by Sereke, his supporters or his opponents. Rather the objective is to highlight some vital points missed, and worthy to be included in any future discussions, in the discussion by both parties.
1. On Sereke's side
1.1 NGOs are vital as they base themselves to fill the basic gaps created by government's failures in meeting its social and/or economic responsibilities especially among disadvantaged people and in remote areas. These failures by the government have two sources: the very nature of the government and its capacity limitations.
§ The government has been inflexible in its organization, operation and response to dealing with public problems having both catastrophic and non catastrophic natures. Even though a lot can be written on why the government has become inflexible and inefficient in dealing with these problems, the poor has no alternative but to get missed social and economic services from NGOs and to thank them for their services. It is hard and inappropriate for the poor to ask for cost-benefit (or with or without project) analyses (Note that the poor has the right to carryout cost-benefit analysis as the money wasted in the project come in their name.) of the projects. For the poor, i.e., for those who have no alternatives, such type of analyses always and under any circumstances yield positive results but may not for people like Sereke. Now the basic question comes in. When and how the beneficiaries in one hand and non-beneficiaries and the government on the other should judge NGOs and their contributions? And which factors should be common yardsticks? These questions lead us to the second point.
§ Government's capacity limitation is the second factor that contributes for the emergence and expansion of NGOs. NGOs principally involves in activities or areas where government activities or operations are either weak or need additional assistance. Moreover, the opportunity cost of NGOs money for the government is near to zero. This means NGOs does not compete with government for the same donors' fund. In other words the government gets no additional foreign money even if no NGO exist. This is mainly because of government's capacity limitations to search external for fund, prepare projects for funding and executing them. It is not donors' biasness to NGOs.
Therefore, in conditions where project beneficiaries have no better alternatives and when the government is characterized by serious capacity limitations (to search and use foreign money), it is advisable for the government or for that matter for people like Sereke to tolerate existing problems on NGOs. But this does not mean NGOs should not be controlled. Rather it is to mean that any mechanism to monitor, control and direct NGOs should be in light of the above discussions. Consequently, the government should have yardsticks, among others, the ratio of NGOs operating cost including staff salary to money spent on development activities; code of conduct of their personnel and their activities at all levels (project, regional or national); degree of cooperation with and freedom from local government institutions; preparing annual forum to present and discuss over their activities, accomplishments and problems with all stakeholders or their representatives against current practices of submitting their report to one bureaucrat in the DPPC. Even to handle such responsibilities properly and efficiently the government needs to strengthen its capacity especially at Wereda and regional levels. Current government effort to this direction is commendable.
2. On opponents of Sereke's side (especially on CRDA)
2.1 I should start with the very wrong title CRDA selects for its title "There is no Mystery" in responding to Ato Sereke's comment. I can say that NGOs are equally mysterious as the government in this country. They go in public only to make public what they accomplished here and there in the country as the government did. Otherwise, the public has no information on any other aspects of NGOs. On the other hand, what the public feel about NGOs is that they spend too much on operational costs which otherwise should be spent on real development activities. We do not know how they select their project areas. It is not public secret that some NGOs -especially local NGOs- select their project areas where their relatives resides. How and why they select this or that project, etc.
Even though CRDA is an umbrella organization of NGOs in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian people have no information whatsoever on what its role is and today's achievement in making NGOs more nearer to the public and warning or correcting NGOs with wrong doings. Otherwise, wrong accusations against NGOs and blank defense by CRDA or senior elites in NGOs will also continue at any time in the future for no good purpose.