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The dance for donor funds

NON-GOVERNMENTAL Organizations (NGOs) and foreign aid donors: God bless ’em; we can’t live with ‘em, and we don’t even try to live without ‘em.


Nitro-glycerine is a component in necessary life-saving heart medicine but in another form, it is a highly volatile explosive. Just like working with NGOs and donors, handling nitro without knowing and watching carefully what you need and why you need it is a recipe for disaster.

There is no doubt that in highly technical areas, foreign NGOs, donor aid and foreign consultants has been beneficial. Their impact on Namibian development and productivity is significant.

What worries me is that there is too much blind acceptance of donor priorities that come along with accepting their money and too much uninformed agreement with what NGOs and foreign consultants ‘advise.’ There is simply too little verification that their outputs are actually in line with Namibian priorities.

Anyone who thinks that NGOs operate in Namibia out of benevolence or love is smokin’ too much dagga. They are in the ‘business’of being an NGO. Their businesses thrive on scoring the next grant. Their priority, therefore, may not necessarily be to ‘solve’ the problem they are addressing. Actually, continuously redefining the problems they are supposed to be solving can keep grant renewal and contract extension possibilities alive.

My grandma told me: ‘He, who pays the piper, calls the tune.’ Realistically, no one gives money without expectations on THEIR terms. But, all of this goes off the rails if the expectations of donors, usurp the realities of the beneficiaries of the programme!

This is not to say that there aren’t well-meaning, committed folks working with NGOs and development partners. These agencies hire many local Namibians and provide income, training and work experience to people who otherwise may have had none. But, chasing after the next grant, winning contracts and fulfilling donors’ priorities is a way of life in the NGO world and that should NEVER be forgotten when dealing with them.

Grant-givers quite understandably require accountability and assurances for funds disbursed. But, in some cases, this has devolved into an impossible situation: donors who demand a sure thing in the uncertain realm of effective development projects. Donors would rather throw more money at ‘well known’ projects of mainstream NGOs with high administrative costs, than fund a project that may be the priority of a target community but which may present a risk in achieving donor-defined outcomes.

To be fair, casually handing out money in hopes of completing a target project, is like throwing a bundle of bills out of a window on a speeding train; a tiny bit might luckily hit what you were aiming for, but most gets lost in the wind. Checks-and-balances must be there in the dance for donor funds, but project targets that are requested by the local community must also be there. I still shake my head at an EU funding programme demand some years ago that required Namibia use part of the grant to buy graders for our national parks from an EU member state. Local and regional vendors with equipment more suitable to our climate and maintenance/spare parts realities were cut out. Result: those European-built graders broke down quickly; they sit collecting dust somewhere and the need for graders continues.

There are NGO and foreign government grant application forms for local development projects which are dozens of pages long and require a PhD in paperwork to complete. Fifty page project applications for funding for local people to complete and submit in perfect English? Communities need to obtain donor funding to hire consultants to prepare their applications for more donor funding. Someone is not serious.

I attended a workshop of a major international donor whose representative gleefully noted that they require all grant applications be submitted on line. I couldn’t believe my ears! Here is a donor proudly claiming to make much-needed grants to impoverished local communities, arrogantly assuming that the intended beneficiaries have access to the internet when these people don’t even have electricity! This must be a new kind of stupid.

But, that said about NGOs, Namibia needs to man-up on how we allow this situation to happen. Far too many people get stars in their eyes when they see grants on offer for millions or billions. They forget that no one gives away money; there is always a price to be paid. They say ‘yes’ to the money, without reading the fine print and asking the right questions. The donor says:“I’ll give you this money if you do this, this and that...” Well…are we able to do this, this and that? Do we want to? What are the costs of accepting this funding? Few are asking questions before they happily hand over their banking details for the deposit.

In Namibia, we usually hand the ball to the NGO to do whatever they want and then we sit on the side-lines and complain if something done makes a politician look bad. We don’t commit the time, staff and resources to work alongside the NGO; we don’t learn how they do what they do; and many times, we don’t question their conclusions, actions or reports (people don’t even read the reports).

Alarmingly, I have seen cases where NGOs become more respected in our rural communities than the Government! Sadly, that is almost inevitable when there is an acute lack of service delivery to those rural communities. Mostly, the NGOs working in those areas, deliver what was promised. But, at the end of the day, when the grant ends, the NGO leaves and it is the GRN that remains to pick up the pieces.

In recent media reports, a foreign donor of HIV/Aids grants is complaining that various local NGOs and Government Ministries did not account for the funds given. More than N$100 million is apparently gone with the wind. This is unacceptably wasteful with so much unaddressed HIV/Aids-related need in so many communities. At the end of the day, it is Namibia that takes the black eye on scandals like this.

When contracting foreign consultants, there is little skills transfer and inconsistent monitoring by the hiring body (usually a ministry). Most times, the people who contracted the work have little understanding of what the consultant is doing! For the most part, foreign consultants have no investment in Namibia; this is just a job between air flights in and out.Most want to do good workout of professional pride and to enhance their CVs in order to win other consultancies in other places. But, others couldn’t care less. It is up to the agencies hiring these consultants to monitor them.

I have edited several consultants’ reports that are full of cut-and-paste plagiarism of existing documents, incomplete research, biased assumptions, redundant text, interviews with poorly selected subjects, and other flaws. Yet these consultants are fully paid, sometimes are given new contracts and are praised like prophets and their reports are cited like the Gospels. Contracts with consultants are business agreements and need to be professionally negotiated and then managed with no fantasy expectations. We need to coldly get our money’s worth out of the deal.

The GRN must be prepared to say NO to some donor programmes, NGO projects, foreign consultants, grants, and loans IF the programme expectations, outputs and method of working don’t compliment Namibian goals OR if the agreement negotiations are not done as equals. We have to stop hiring consultants over and over, and start learning to do the work ourselves.

Namibia must not be the little underfed orphan in the Oliver Twist movie who holds out a feeding bowl, begging for ‘more please, Sir, more.’