The view from the other side

Ezra Mbogori

Peter Laugharn’s advice to an imaginary first-time international grantmaker outlines a thoughtful approach to such grantmaking and the many and complex issues involved in it. But what’s it like to be on the other end of the grant? How do local NGOs feel about their relationships with overseas grantmakers? Ezra Mbogori of MWENGO in Zimbabwe responds to Peter Laugharn’s letter with some advice of his own for international grantmakers and suggests that good intentions do not always translate into good practice.

Dear Peter,

I found your letter extremely instructive – and for a while wished that it had been meant for me. I am sure it would have given me pleasure to put your thoughtful advice to use, as I ventured into international operations. Having been on the receiving end of the ‘donor/recipient divide’ all my life, I have often wondered how hard it can be to be a donor – particularly in a foundation where you are accountable only to your conscience and the Board of Trustees.

There is really very little I can fault in your letter. Your experience as a donor comes through very clearly. You have taken the time and resources necessary to develop, implement and refine your ideas. The important lessons you are sharing are the results of long and considered experience. You have all the main attributes of an ideal learning organization.

I assume another valuable advantage you have as a donor is that you can do all this at your own pace. As a grantee, this is a luxury I am seldom afforded. After all, in most instances, NGOs are usually funded to ‘do’, not to think. I doubt we are expected to spend too much time thinking!

Having said this, I would like to offer some thoughts from those of us who remain largely dependent on the aid system for your colleague to ponder as they enter into this new field.

No one can dispute that the most urgent issues at the moment are HIV/AIDS, and the issues arising from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). One growing concern that should be considered in respect of the MDGs, though, is the suggestion that these are actually a distraction from the real issue of fair and equitable global trade patterns and practices. Any donor will need to be familiar with these debates and how they shape relationships and development action in different parts of the world.

Aside from the larger issues, there are several basic concerns that I would urge on your colleague. First, we all retain unfortunate stereotypes which cause us to pigeon-hole people and things in ways that limit their true potential. It is vital for all of us (donors and recipients) to think strategically and be guided by a vision we have articulated clearly and are prepared to embrace. To do this, it is important to invest time in building relationships. This involves, let us remember, building a sense of trust, equality and mutual respect. I would like to suggest that it should be the donor’s responsibility to ensure that they do not project the view that they are a powerful organization working with a weak one, but that they value the opportunity to work with a social entrepreneur. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case.

One of the biggest preoccupations of NGOs over the years has been sustainability. This is almost always a requirement of donors. Invariably the NGO will suggest a sustainability plan in their proposal, even though they know that this will not work in the limited time span over which project funding is provided. It would be refreshing to have a donor that was willing to take the risk of experimenting with creative models for achieving a measure of sustainability in the NGO sector.

By the same token many donors extol the virtues of capacity-building in civil society, then insist that they cannot fund local organizations because they do not have the capacity to function as the donor requires. There are often no systematic efforts at capacity-building or nurturing of institutional growth. Instead, what has developed is the unfortunate chain of relationships between donors, international NGOs (INGOs) and NGOs which invariably reinforces the stereotypes spoken about above. Donors channel their funding through INGOs because local NGOs are thought not to have the capacity to run the whole programme. Donors expect the INGOs to build the capacity of the local NGOs as part of the process. However, this is never made explicit and very seldom happens.

For me, there are two other important terms that often show up in the discourse between donors and NGOs. These are ownership and effectiveness. Ideally, the relationship between donors and recipients should allow the unhindered flow of ideas, and activities would emerge from this process of dialogue. Ultimately, this leads to joint ownership of the results and learning can be maximized. In fact this level of relationship is rarely attained. Since the issue of sustainability depends largely on ownership, it is important to vest the ownership of any activity in the grantee at the earliest possible opportunity. I would argue further that this has a bearing on effectiveness. It is no secret that what one has built is often more valuable than what one has been given. Finding the right mix is usually the challenge.

Talking further about effectiveness, I would like to reinforce your advice about how to treat grantees’ feedback. I agree that many of us in the sector have learned what donors want to hear – because we are so dependent on them. We fear to tell them what we really think because we have been penalized in the past for speaking our minds. Not only are we not paid to think, we feel we constantly have to praise to retain our funding! I speak advisedly here because, not long ago, there was an attempt to collate the views of several NGOs on the effectiveness of their donors. The attempt didn’t see the light of day because most NGOs approached expressed fears that their donors would find out what they said. This proves that we have a long way to go in getting the relationship right.

I dare say I have dwelt almost exclusively on the notion of relationships throughout this letter. If the donor is genuinely in a position to make a difference in the lives of people, they cannot possibly ignore the value of investing heavily in building the right kinds of relationships. They also need to be seen to be empowering their counterparts at every possible opportunity. They should welcome critical feedback. I recall a discussion where an acquaintance from the donor community spoke about his aversion to NGOs who nibble – as opposed to biting the hand that feeds them. Given their dependence, can we really expect NGOs to be forthright about their views?

I know all this is easier said than done. But I am still convinced that there are attainable standards embodied in these simple considerations. I admit that I am quickly becoming a cynic, but I still hold out some hope for the donor that will look to achieve these lofty standards. Is there any way we can challenge your colleague to be the pioneer in this respect?

Ezra Mbogori is Executive Director of Mwelekeo wa NGO (MWENGO). He can be contacted at ezra@mwengo.org.zw


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