The NGO Conundrum

The NGO Conundrum


April 26, 2002

By:  Sereke Berhan


The conventional wisdom about Non Governmental Organizations, commonly known as NGOs, is that they play an important role in the struggle against poverty and underdevelopment. Their direct involvement in relief, rehabilitation and development efforts is presumably expected to bring about incremental change, which leads towards sustainable growth.    However, in many areas around the country, NGO intervention is not yielding the desired ffects.  Development has become an illusive, utopian proposition.  Living conditions are showing continuous signs of deterioration and there is little or no hope in sight. Misery, apathy, stagnation, corruption and abject poverty have become permanent features of our ailing nation.


The proliferation of NGOs gained ground during the 1974 famine in Ethiopia. Thereafter, a steady increase has been observed.  The past ten years particularly saw a dramatic upsurge in the number of both local and international NGOs.  Rapid expansion has been witnessed in terms of coverage area and focus of intervention.  This represents an enormous amount of    capital expenditure and a significant engagement of skilled manpower.


Currently, NGOs have become widely entangled in the everyday lives of a large segment of the population.  They are the most ubiquitous advocates of development.  Their involvement is widespread to the extent that their presence is readily recognized in many rural as well as urban communities.  Well equipped, with sufficient capital, resources and trained manpower, they have managed to penetrate the remotest and most underdeveloped parts of the country. Overall, they have at their disposal the people's goodwill, government support and international backing.  However, their accomplishment, in stark contrast to their elaborate organization and exorbitant spending, is way below  expectation. Through the years, a wide array of programs supposedly designed to induce development has been carried out with mediocre results.


Categorized into two major types, as local and international NGOs, they have invaded our towns and rural communities with overstated goals, which have complicated problems instead of solving them.  Although the main reason for their presence is to provide enabling assistance and improve the living conditions of the poor, very little, if any, has been accomplished in this direction.  Many communities have become solely dependent on these organizations, but poverty, still remains undiminished.  What has changed is the fact that  people who used to be "self sufficiently poor" have been transformed into "NGO-dependant    poor" people.


Encouraged and promoted with intense vigor from abroad, NGOs have taken a major but deceptive role in our economy.  They are instrumental in the implementation of the humanitarian aid concept, created and financed by the developed world to indirectly benefit itself while conveniently avoiding the guilty feeling associated with the misery in less developed nations.  In what seems to be an open secret, NGOs these days are mostly instituted for reasons that have nothing to do with humanitarian and social causes.  The large majority of NGOs, according to the way they operate, seem to have been created with hidden objectives.  In many cases they have come to serve as lucrative means of amassing personal wealth.  Although it may be vehemently denied, evidence clearly indicates that foreign governments support them for influence purposes as well as to create jobs and business opportunities.  The associated benefits in the form of exposure, familiarity and experience are often used to promote self-serving intentions.  The needs and desires of the poor are secondary afterthoughts, which may be considered if conditions permit.


The mis-educated lazy elite, a group that keeps transferring the burden of its failures and shortcomings to the poor, has made this sacred undertaking another means of satisfying its unquenchable greed.  As if the sellout of the country's resources and the moral impoverishment of its social, economic and political institutions is not enough, this group has taken up the loathsome duty of completely undermining the independent survival and coping capability of the poor.


These self-aggrandizing vultures posing as lifesaving angels are doing more harm than good. Self-proclaimed Good Samaritans, with fake concern for the poor, they maintain a shamefully comfortable living by illicitly siphoning life-saving resources from the poor.  Hiding behind the guise of humanitarian intervention, they have mastered the art of swindling.  They pretend to be really concerned about the welfare of disadvantaged people, but their main interest lies in the obscene desire for power and money.  Unlike the profit-making sector of the economy they are not held accountable for their failures.  And aid money keeps coming to them regardless of how they perform.  They intentionally avoid the cumbersome duty of making their operation cost effective and result oriented. In most cases they do not have to come up with tangible reasons to justify the incredible amount of money and resources they misuse.  Humanitarianism as  they practice it does not have to make economic sense.  While this may be unavoidable in some cases, their wasteful experiment in the name of the poor defies the  very foundation of common sense in addition to making no economic sense.


Based on federal and regional administration requirements NGOs produce elaborate reports to boast about their success.  Regardless of how they present it, their spending doesn't correlate with their achievement.  Results, which have practically changed the miserable conditions of the poor, are rarely seen.   They simply produce  subjective reports, which look good on paper but cannot be practically transformed on the ground.  They take pride in exhibiting ineffectual but enticing accomplishments to impress dignitaries.   However, their involvement in disadvantaged communities fails to show significant and sound results, which have substantially improved the condition at hand. 


While a large number of NGOs have sprouted in every conceivable problem area, the effects of poverty have intensified.  Development problems have become more complicated and difficult to solve.  How is it that the more organizations we have dealing with all these problems that we haven't been able to see even minor results?   Hunger, malnutrition, homelessness, diseases, urban blight, environmental degradation, and sanitary problems have all become worse.  New and unexpected problems are emerging while NGOs move sluggishly to find solutions for old ones.  The development of economic and social institutions has been severely retarded and they are mired with corruption, inefficiency and lack of work ethics. The incidence of droughts and famine keeps coming back to us with intensified severity and frequency. Overall, the country is wallowing in a deep sea of misery.  If so, why is it that we keep adding more NGOs to our already worthless NGO pack?  This is in no way to imply that there are no well managed NGOs.  Nobody denies that many lives have been saved as a result of NGO intervention in disaster situations.  But NGO action hasn't been able to go beyond providing alms to register solid results in the development arena.  Even in the area of relief assistance, much is wasted before it gets to the people. Nevertheless, it is clear that there are some genuinely motivated souls who work very hard to make things better.  But media savvy individuals who have corrupted this useful institution into becoming an impediment to societal development have largely overshadowed well meaning NGOs.


Today in Ethiopia establishing a local NGO has become a lot easier than getting a driver's license for scammers with the right connection.  International NGOs are also set up without too many hassles as their governments have the clout to exert influence on the agency responsible for granting permission to operate in the country.  Genuine motivation, drive and the desire to work for the poor  have no significance in the equation.  Neither the applicant nor the corrupt officials give heed to these important aspects of the process.  Both parties are motivated by the desire to take away what they don't deserve and they conclude the deal by scratching each other's back.  Once the NGOs get permission to operate, their focus and direction completely takes a form that satisfies the initiators interest and aspiration.  The empty promise and inflated rhetoric to work for the poor are quickly abandoned.


Sadly, NGOs have become miniature personal kingdoms for egotistical and power hungry individuals.  Some international NGOs led by foreigners are strictly run as small pockets of colonies with rigid master and slave relationships between "NGO owner/ leader" and "NGO workers and beneficiaries."  The top managers, locals as well as expatriates, act like dictators with blatant disregard for the rules of law, local wisdom, cultural values, fiscal responsibility and administrative integrity.  Common bullying, extortion and bribe are practiced with impunity and they are considered as inalienable rights.  These parasites have taken it upon themselves to believe that they are above and beyond any rules and regulations set up by civil society, the government or the NGO community to guide their conduct.  Irrational behavior, contempt towards the laws of the land and arrogance are rampantly displayed.  They get away with almost anything including racism by using their status as a shield to protect them.  The country's wretched lot; children, disaster victims, beggars, the old, sick individuals and other underprivileged souls become their pawns in their perverted quest for sadistic dominance.


Many people may believe that honestly concerned individuals and groups establish NGOs.  But in most cases the situation clearly shows that selfish and greedy individuals use the system to create and benefit from NGOs.  Armed with their crooked desire for money, power and attention they connive to form personal mini-empires, in- order to satisfy their vain appetite.  The mode of operation and nature of the activity by itself makes it tempting for people to divert their original intent even if they come into it with selfless desires. The patronizing character of the operation creates conducive conditions or deceitful individuals to assume superiority over others.  Absolute power and the control-free atmosphere brew arrogance and become fertile ground for corruption and power trips.


What is clearly apparent is that NGOs have created a revolving door where the poor keep coming and going without getting real solutions for their problems. By deliberately complicating the problem and making it more difficult than it really is, NGOs guarantee their continued existence.   Thus making the "aid business" an enterprise that thrives on the protracted presence of misery.  In most cases they come in to solve one problem and end up scrambling to deal with many more, which they cannot effectively address.  Instead of setting examples and leading by practicing what they preach, they are busy destroying the little bit of moral decency, common sense and hope left in the country.


For example the problems of homelessness, begging, street children, prostitution etc. should have been effectively, if not completely, dealt with given the number of NGOs active in Addis Ababa.  The disgusting sanitation problem shouldn't have been a daunting task when there are many NGOs claiming to have environmental sanitation program components in their project documents.  A large number of NGOs operate in the city, but overall condition still remains dismal. What is so shameful and disturbing is that only a handful and less experienced NGOs are making headway in the desired direction.  Should it really be so hard to improve conditions in this city with all the manpower and resources wasted to target the problems? There is certainly something wrong with the way these NGOs operate.  And mismanagement accompanied with greed and arrogance is the main culprit.


The money and human resources that are wasted by NGOs cannot be justified by any standards, humanitarian or otherwise.  Their spending in the form of employee compensation, furniture/equipment purchase, travel expenses and others is notoriously extravagant.  Private enterprises with much more capital and profit making capability spend less compared to many of these NGOs.  If this amount of capital had been made available to private entrepreneurs, they would have created a profitable and thriving economy.  This could have sufficiently provided job opportunities and a dignified life for the poor people that are being constantly patronized as incapable of doing anything on their own by NGOs. 


The country's economic record gives the impression that it is performing better than it actually is because of the huge amount of money circulating as a result of NGO activity.  In reality this money is not being used to boost an economy that is producing.  The money is received and used up to import and consume instead of being put to use for production purposes.  This doesn't have much contribution towards inducing economic development. The incentive to work and produce is simply not a preferred way since the NGO way makes it so easy to get the basics without having to work.  It also makes it simple for the crooked NGO chiefs and their bootlickers to gain access to money through unscrupulous ways. The rampant apathy, moral corruption and the resulting stagnation are clear indications of the misleading role of NGOs.


Unfortunately, the country has produced more elite beggars imploring in the name of the poor than honest, innovative, hard working and concerned citizens.   In collaboration with their foreign counterparts, they have made it their duty to permanently cripple their own homeland.  The country's development in the direction that the people want it to go is not desired and tolerated.  The inept elite is being used to satisfy this intent.  And NGOs play the leading role in implementing it.


We have to start doing things differently because what has been going on so far is not taking us anywhere.  Our country's future should not be based on begging. And we shouldn't let these worthless pests make it so.  Poverty is worsening, living standards are dwindling, and we have more social, economic, and environmental problems than ever before.  We do not seem to be making progress in any direction.  Apathy has been elevated to a new level as the country's resources, human as well as natural, keep getting shamefully wasted.  As our problems become more complicated, the solutions we are being forced to swallow from international agencies, NGOs and donors are making no  difference.


Unless we really want to deceive ourselves, most of us know that the money acquired in the name of the poor is not getting to the intended recipients. It is fueling some other Mafia type economy in the name of the poor.  So, instead of letting them get a free and expensive ride in the name of the poor, let's hold them accountable for what they promise to do.  Let us not help them make begging a permanent feature in our nation's record, as it is sucking the motivation and drive out of our people.  We have to learn to wean ourselves from the need to continuously seek assistance from outside.  Otherwise, we have no chance of developing into a self-sufficient nation.  The NGO approach is certainly not helping us.  If they have made a difference, it should have been apparent by now.


My simple suggestion is this.  Rather than letting them spend huge sums of money to prop up the decadent lifestyles of a few individuals in the name of Ethiopia's impoverished, let's reconsider the value of this corrupt establishment.  Is it really worth it?  It is teaching and encouraging superiority complex, corruption, favoritism, decadence and immorality to the lazy elite.  Misappropriations of funds and corrupt administrative practices have become routine activities in many NGOs.  Sick behavior; such as pedophilia and sexual harassment are now synonymous with the NGO acronym.  The lack of respect for a person's human rights and vengeful retaliation against dissenting views and voices of reason have been harsh and go unchecked, driving many well- meaning individuals out of the occupation.  And the poor are becoming hopelessly dependent on aid.  They are convinced that the NGO way is a more convenient way than having to work for subsistence.


Unless we quickly halt the deception, the future will always be as bleak as it has been so far.  With no solution in sight we need to look at other alternatives to change the situation. Just because everybody else is doing the same thing we do not have to keep following.  The promise of development, the eradication of poverty, diseases, ignorance etc. shouldn't remain distant visions for our people.  How long do we have to keep dreaming about a better life when the people who claim to relieve our poverty keep getting fat?  Instead of helping a corrupt system expand into becoming blatantly more ludicrous we would be better off distributing the money directly to those who deserve it.   I don't think that the poor will need elaborate systems as NGOs to pick up the pieces and stand up on their own.  They are resourceful like many other human beings.  Given the freedom and opportunity, they can rise up and make life better for themselves without somebody else telling them what to do.  It is the paternalistic attitude of NGOs and their obstinate desire to drag their feet where they are no longer needed that's stealing the desire for self-reliance   out of our people and making them permanent beggars.