I remember talking to the Women’s Institute in Youlgreave, a tiny English village, on a cold, wet night in October 1990 about Village Aid, a new NGO I had established to work in The Gambia. In the course of the talk I no doubt said ‘Our role is to do ourselves out of a job’.
Naive? Perhaps, but I meant it then and I still truly believe that a white person working in the Global South has every reason to constantly question their role there. So as I prepare now to help close down Allavida, the organization I helped set up just over six years ago, it quite simply seems to be the right thing to do.
I was setting up Village Aid in the context of a sector desperately seeking legitimacy through ‘empowering partners’ rather than ‘saving the poor’. In some ways, the 1980s and early 1990s now appear as something of a golden age for efforts to pursue social justice by transforming North-South civil society roles and relations. I believe that in the last decade we have regressed, despite the growth of many new and influential institutions in the Global South.
Northern NGOs in the South
In Africa at least, there are more northern NGOs active today than ever before, particularly evangelical faith-based NGOs, often working in the patronizing, top-down way that was once the norm. At national level, the larger of these NGOs still have immense influence within civil society. Despite the rhetoric of ‘partnership’, in reality the sector defends itself to protect that power.
In addition to the formal and informal meetings when northern NGOs working in the South act more as donors than as ‘partners’, there is the issue of competition for funds. This includes northern NGOs repositioning themselves to be able to access funds now increasingly made available by bilateral funders through southern governments and institutions. It also includes setting up local fundraising operations in various countries of the South. I find it totally hypocritical for northern NGOs to decide to compete with the very institutions they have helped build and to which they ought – had they been effective in their work – to be able to hand over. In addition, encouraged by Blair and Bono and other celebrities, there is a new era of ‘Let’s Save Africa’ and many northern NGOs are quite shamelessly playing along to boost their fundraising.
The competition for funds is also at the heart of a new trend for northern NGOs to move their headquarters to the South, particularly Africa, and to register as ‘local NGOs’. We should treat such moves with scepticism. If they are made because of expensive overheads in the North, why applaud a move based on paying key workers lower wages? If the aim is to gain ‘greater legitimacy’ for global campaigns, why is it being done now and not ten years (or more) ago? Or, better still, why not simply scale back and invest in southern NGOs to lead the global campaigns? Does the southern base really change anything? For instance, does the board of the local NGO have complete independence or is there an international governing body? Even if such a body has a majority from the South, we know from the UN and other multinational institutions that numerical superiority is no match for wealth, power and influence.
These issues are at the forefront of my mind because Allavida is in a process of transformation that will see the creation of a new legal entity based in Kenya, but with ambitions to collaborate with partners across Africa and within a global network. Is the Allavida story different from that of other NGOs from the North that have set up in the South?
Is the Allavida story different?
Over the last two years, owing to funding realities and the successful transfer of programme management to partners in South-East Europe, Allavida has steadily reduced UK staff numbers and then closed the London office. We have known for some time that the remaining UK staff would be leaving in 2007. So, earlier this year, the board asked to be convinced that Allavida shouldn’t simply close.
Given that Allavida had been consolidating work in East Africa, where we have a branch office and a well-established programme of work on community development, philanthropy and social investment, as well as a growing services capacity, we recommended that Allavida should consult in Kenya (and elsewhere) to see if there was interest among our local colleagues and friends in taking over the leadership of the organization. If this interest were forthcoming, then the recommendation was that Allavida UK should continue in existence at least until the ‘new’ Allavida was established.
The board agreed the strategy in May 2007 but set very clear milestones, including identifying a new chair and founding board members in Kenya. As I write, we have a new chair (Aleke Dondo, Managing Director of K-Rep Development Agency) and applications are being received for the post of Chief Executive of Allavida, a job that will have at its core the creation of a new African institution. If all goes well, Allavida UK will close formally in March 2009, and all remaining assets will be handed over to Allavida in Kenya.
So how is the Allavida story different from the run of North-South transitions? First, we are actually closing the northern entity, not simply shuffling the pack in response to changing context. Second, there will be a genuine transfer of assets and leadership with no strings attached, no pre-determined strategic plan or ‘golden handshake’. Yes, I hope the new leadership builds on our existing work, rather than veering off into potentially more congested territory, but there is nothing I or the current Allavida board can do to influence the future direction of Allavida. Third, and I believe most importantly, the transition is based on a realistic analysis of power, influence and access, and supported by a strategy that seeks to transfer power as well as leadership and assets.
Transferring power and influence
Allavida is not a large organization but, with the help of our board, we have achieved a wide reach in the various networks connected with philanthropy and social investment. The growing international interest in these things in Africa, and in exploring new avenues for engagement, has enabled Allavida to build a reputation as an effective intermediary, working with philanthropy advisers, foundations and financial institutions. Our excellent local staff team has led much of our work in East Africa, but I know that in part our opportunities have arisen because of our northern origins and network.
Recognition of this underpins our strategy for finding ways to introduce the new Allavida leadership to these formal and informal networks, and to broker at least the initial relationships. The current UK board will have a critical role to play between now and the end of 2008 in making sure this transition is much more than setting up a new legal entity and wishing it well. Allavida’s current chair, David Carrington, will be a founding member of the board in Kenya while Aleke Dondo will join Allavida UK for its final year. We plan meetings and presentations at major civil society and philanthropy events, and I will be retained by Allavida UK to help coordinate the transition from the UK side.
We hope the end result will be a new and fully autonomous African organization, benefiting from the influence and access that Allavida UK once enjoyed.
1 The trustees of Allavida UK will have to get the consent of the Charity Commission to wind up the UK charity and ‘hand over’ its remaining assets and obligations to another charitable organization.
Andrew Kingman is Chief Executive of Allavida. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Comment Ezra Mbogori
It is depressing to be reminded of the fact that there are more northern NGOs in Africa today than ever before. The hypocrisy that most of them display when it comes to building the capacity of their so-called ‘partners’ and the predictable cycles of failure that usually ensue is also familiar to many of us. In fact, there is little that I can fault in the arguments presented here regarding the practice of those ‘friends of Africa’ who have pitched their tents on the continent in the effort to ‘save Africa from herself’. Many northern NGOs are indeed repositioning themselves to draw on the resources that are expected to flow into Africa.
I recall an experience I had in 1980, when I was trying to understand what a rather obscure NGO was doing in a remote village in one of Kenya’s driest districts. I came across a retired ex-railways employee in the village who had ‘gone back to the land’. He pointed out that the village needed whatever investment it could get. I asked him about the NGO and he replied that he and the rest of the villagers neither knew nor cared what these strange foreigners did. The main thing was that, when they were no longer flush with money and strange ideas, they would have to leave the buildings they had erected. ‘Then,’ he said, ‘we will take over and use the structures as we see fit.’
Are there any similarities with the Allavida case? One difference is that we know what Allavida has been doing. I would like to suggest that the shift proposed is commendable, if only for the fact that it is a departure from the norm. But I wonder how the rest of the sector will view this ‘new kid on the block’? As a welcome ally, as a powerful hybrid with friends in all the right places, or simply as a spoiler in the NGO terrain? The answer to this will determine its future impact.
Mergers are commonplace in the private sector and maybe a merger would have served a useful purpose here too. Transferring its experience, networks, goodwill and even its assets to an existing organization as it shut down operations would have made Allavida a real pioneer in the effort to build confidence and deepen the potential for sustainability in African civil society – with no strings attached. It would have been different. But, like the old man in the village, we will use what we get … once they are gone!
Ezra Mbogori has recently stepped down after 14 years as Director of MWENGO in Zimbabwe. Email email@example.com