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Religious extremism, endemic corruption and bad governance; but now NGOs too!

The overwhelming majority of non-governmental organisations do more harm than good to livelihoods and sustainable developments in Africa

The World Bank’s working definition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is 'Private organizations that pursue activities to relieve suffering, promote the interests of the poor, protect the environment, provide basic social services or undertake community development.' But many people now ask whether the NGOs that work in Africa are progressively engaged in activities that are developmentally sustainable. And, by the way, how democratic and accountable are the NGOs?

Here in Kenya, it looks as though most Kenyan middle class individuals, and their regional counterparts who live in Nairobi, have their own non-governmental organizations or are partners in NGOs with others. Interestingly, Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, is the base for this huge, unregulated and unaccountable industry that, when looking at its surface, seems to have a supporting role for the local economy, human rights advocacy and governance programmes. Nairobi is the NGOs' capital in Africa.

I came to the conclusion, however, that the overwhelming majority of NGOs do more harm than good to livelihoods and sustainable developments in Africa. Here is my charge sheet: NGOs artificially sustain a false economy whereby they push huge amounts of cash into the pockets of corrupted local African partners while taking most of the cash back to their private bank accounts in Europe and elsewhere. Yes, they do pay the salaries of a few people here and there who support their families. But that’s not my point. The NGOs actually work against homegrown developmental strategies in Africa. The NGO operatives don’t want the recycling of aid operations—which creates chronic dependency and corruption within the receiving societies—to end. For example, NGOs are not prepared to cede some power or train local people to take over in the future, and they don’t give the confidence necessary to carry out their work to local government personnel of the countries that they operate in. Africans have the experience and the expertise to own the operations of the NGOs, but actually the foreign bosses of the NGOs want to retain power in order to continue the dependency culture that they have created.

In Kenya, the number of the NGOs in Nairobi had surpassed the capacity of the Kenyan government departments. If you stop at a traffic junction in downtown Nairobi for a moment, you’ll spot a specially number-plated NGO’s 4X4, clearly marked on the side with the logo of the NGO that owns it or a partnership logo with a government department, every few seconds. This is true. And you may find out more if you ask anyone who lives in Nairobi. When a European colleague and I recently took the steps of a first floor coffee shop at Yaya centre in Nairobi, he whispered in my ear and said, 'This is where they cook Somalia.' He was referring to the mixture of Europeans and Africans at most of the tables we passed.

Leaving that mall later that evening, we waited for our taxi for nearly an hour because the car parking lot was full and the road leading to the centre was choking with traffic. I confirmed my colleague’s statement when I later met a couple of NGO reps at Yaya centre. It’s the same story in every other Western-style shopping centre throughout Nairobi. Perhaps they do cook Somalia at Yaya, and Congo at the Junction Mall! I have lived in Nairobi since October of last year, and I have seen more than my fair share of NGOs' actual activities in this region.

Sexual freedom, women’s rights, child soldiers, judicial reform, and what they call 'good' or 'better governance' are the areas they concentrate on most of their efforts, and these kinds of NGOs are plentiful here in Nairobi. However, you wonder: how can they empower women or protect the rights of the child in Africa if they keep corrupting the very institutions that are meant to carry out the necessary support systems? Christian and Muslim NGOs are here too. But unlike conventional NGOs, the religious charities also compete relentlessly among themselves for the hearts and minds of Africa’s poor. 'Read the bible or the Koran and we will dig water wells for your community' is their main policy objective. Religion-based NGOs, however, are far more active in helping alleviate the short and medium term needs of their target populations, building matchbox-sized schools for villages or bringing a few mattresses to hospitals there.

Much of the operations of Wilson Airport, Nairobi’s second airport, are NGO-related. Tens of light aircrafts take off from this airport for destinations across East and Central Africa every day. Daily flights depart for Kinshasa, Kisangani, Juba (South Sudan), Mogadishu, Kigali and Hargeisa, most of the time carrying a few NGO executives who fly twice a week from Wilson to sign yet other non-existent projects with local leaders of their destinations.

And it’s not only the local African populations that receive the brunt of NGOs' onslaught; ethical journalism is a victim too. Upon arrival in the continent, NGO reps and journalists link up much quicker than other professional expats because they depend on each other in the rough terrain of Africa. It makes business sense too, more corrupting business that is. NGOs are the first to find an African tragedy. Then, they call their journalist colleagues in on their phones, and upon arrival they provide with them handy 4X4s, complete with experienced drivers and armed bodyguards. To return the favour, journalists beam harrowing stories of death and destruction to Western prime time television.

In fact, journalists are encouraged to travel on the NGOs' chartered planes for free, and in return for their hospitality, NGO executives ask the journalists to bring graphic pictures and exaggerated stories of the local situation back with them, ready for consumption in Western capitals for more donations.

The NGOs have unlimited powers here in Africa and they are unaccountable to any other authority. In Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda, for example, NGOs act as something more or less similar to coalition governments. But in Somalia and the Congo, they effectively run the whole country. African ministers are powerless against the NGOs and are scared of them for fear of being deprived of future funds, or they may have already been corrupted by them so the NGOs have the upper hand all the time. I heard a firsthand account of a Somali minister begging an NGO executive for extra subsistence allowance from his hotel room while the plane taking him back to Mogadishu was being repaired.

NGO operatives often resist the calls for relocations closer to epic centres of their operations, like setting up shops in various towns across Somalia and the Congo. Earlier this year, the UN agencies issued directives to partner organisations to relocate their staff to Somalia by May 2013. To my knowledge so far, none of them had done so. Almost all of the NGOs that have activities in Somalia, South Sudan and the Congo are based in Nairobi and do not wish, apart from periodical visits, to base themselves in the country of their operations. Simply put, it’s not comfortable enough for them to live there. You’d have thought that the safety of their personnel is their main priority, but the stories I am discovering are doubtful and suggest otherwise.

Early last month while I was returning from Djibouti, I met a Norwegian aid worker at Addis Ababa Airport. We were both transiting at Addis on our way to Nairobi. I asked where he was coming from. 'Hargeisa,' was his reply. The British government had earlier that week issued a warning of a credible terrorism-related activity in Somaliland. Without my prompting, he added, 'Bloody UK Foreign Office, many people were leaving Hargeisa.' He told me that he and his family live in Nairobi, and that his children attend private schools there. I asked about the operations of his organisation in Somaliland. 'On my part, nothing much really,' and he went on, 'I just visit Hargeisa once in every three months, and Garoowe twice a year, simply to check the boys and girls there.' There is no way to verify this story as people often misrepresent themselves in a volatile and dangerous region like the Horn of Africa.

If the NGOs are in Africa for anything other than transitional services, they should not be allowed to operate in this continent any longer. The NGO culture must come to an end in Africa and throughout the developing world. Where NGOs have become a substitute for governments for so long, it’s almost impossible to lay the foundations of a functioning state. Moreover, places like Somalia, the Congo and Afghanistan where NGOs have operated for decades now should set an example for any change in policy from donor states. How can we expect a Somali or an Afghan minister who begs for his subsistence allowance from an NGO to take on the Shabaab or the Taliban? Quite simply, it doesn’t make sense. Real power should be removed from the NGOs and transferred to the indigenous populations.

I suggest that a pilot programme somewhere in Africa—perhaps Somalia or Congo—should be put into action sooner rather than later.

In fact, it’s time to overhaul the cartel-style aid industry in Africa and the developing world. It makes all the sense in the world to hand the cash over to the institutions it is meant to be supporting and to embed couple of auditors in these institutions. It’s cheaper, highly effective and it will be in line with the local social economy in a sustainable manner. Donor states should seriously reconsider whether to funnel their taxpayers' money and other resources through unaccountable third parties.