I would like to thank Dr Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem for his candid and courageous piece on NGOs as paymasters of CSOs. I share his basic sentiments, and think it is important to have this kind of reflection. However, he makes certain underlying assumptions that need to be challenged, and I hope he won’t mind this deconstruction.
I disagree most with the sweeping statement that African participants “often become prisoners of their sponsors.” This is a gross and simplistic caricature of the complex relationship between the “foreign paymasters” and CSOs. It tends to portray the latter as an uncritical ‘rent-a-crowd’ unable to see what they are getting into, and blissfully oblivious to the manipulation of those who have money. It seems to assume that paymasters and CSOs have never known each other before, have not built relationships of trust over the years (and trust is earned, not bought), and have done the transaction of attending the WSF only in front of the airline ticket booth just before flying to Nairobi.
I certainly think the participants Dr Abdul-Raheem was referring to are not blissfully naïve. I would say they know their needs, they know exactly who they are dealing with, and they know the choices they are making -- most of it involves complex calculations of benefit and cost, of what one may get in return for, say, turning up at a paymaster-sponsored event. Some of them may even turn their heads around and ask, “Who is manipulating whom?” CSOs are struggling and are in a constant battle to raise resources, and dealing with paymasters is not necessarily selling out.
I agree there is a need to challenge, even constantly, the legitimacy of NGOs. But again, Dr Abdul Raheem resorts to simplistic caricatures when asking who NGOs are accountable to and whom they are loyal to. I thought he would have known better that many NGOs have complex (sorry for using this term again) governance structures. They have functional boards (some of which have a majority southern membership), transparent recruitment, periodic evaluations and open books of account. Fund-raising, especially with northern government sources, is governed by policy and legal documents, and clear terms of reference. While such funding relationships may not be ideal, remain far from perfect, and one can poke holes into it, a simplistic conspiracy theory just won’t hold.
I agree too that there are scams, and that these should rightly be exposed and opposed. Which is why some of these paymasters talk to each other, to sort out multiple accounting, bogus ticket refunds, etc. What I object to is the insinuation that nothing is being done about these serious issues, especially when the scams are brought out into the open. The problem with blanket accusations too is that it also smears those who are forthright and doing well. If there is a scam, the best way of dealing with it is to name and shame responsibly.
Another fundamental objection I would raise – do NGOs not have the right to make noise? Dr Abdul-Raheem seems to imply that simply because they are paymasters, NGOs do not have the right to speak in events like the WSF. NGOs do “crowd out” CSOs who have a greater legitimacy to speak. Mainly because they professionals, NGOs tend to be slicker, quicker to the draw, and often become too zealous in marketing themselves and in getting others to carry their agenda. But please don’t rush to the conclusion that they are not legitimate actors. I am sure that some NGOs can also be considerate when these issues are raised before their faces.
Finally, the most irritating question Dr Abdul-Raheem asks, “how come the nationalists freed this continent from the yoke of colonialism without writing proposals to any funder?” They may have not written proposals, but many anti-colonial movements, I believe, recognised the contributions of people-to-people solidarity to their success. Proposals, if we take a less cynical view of it, can simply be seen as mechanisms to manage solidarity. My bottom line is, please, let us not go to the extent of denying the value of solidarity. When proposals become too cumbersome and have turned instead into mechanisms for manipulation, then by all means, let us challenge it.
I have no answer to Dr Adbul-Raheem’s most insightful question – why are our peoples not willing or able to support our activism? It is spot on and a good point. Until someone else comes up with answers, I would argue that solidarity relationships shouldn’t be ruled out, even if there are, clearly, problems that need to be sorted out. I maintain my belief that southern organisations can stand their ground in dealing with paymasters. I respect and value Dr Abdul-Raheem’s sentiments, but his framing of the problem is flawed.