by Ezra Mbogori, Executive Director, MS Training Centre for Development Cooperation
Having worked in the non-profit sector for over 35 years, I say nothing new by repeating what has been said many times before, that resources – both material and human – maybe even spiritual, continue to be the single biggest challenge for civil society in Eastern and Southern Africa today. I would suggest further that, more recently, this is in fact the case not just in this region, but across Africa and possibly on the planet. As if to make it that much tougher, civil society is now grappling with another existential threat – the phenomenon of shrinking civic space.
A short while ago I had a chance to talk to a northern donor – who, in a typically condescending way, told me that ‘actually, your real challenge is the absence of good, creative, compelling ideas. I can tell you for a fact that there is plenty of money looking for such ideas’.
I could not help but conjure up images of moneybags trolling the streets where NGOs on their proverbial death beds reside, looking for good ideas and expressing increasing frustration that none were out in the open. ‘What happened to all those lovely ideas that we funded in the eighties and nineties – the fights against structural adjustment…the ideological wars…the campaigns for fair trade or even the causes of handouts that we supported following cases of natural or man-made disasters…’
I can hear the moneybags carry on to describe the things they were delighted in supporting because they knew the money they held – hard earned money ostensibly from their ‘taxpayers at home’ or even proceeds from endowments derived from well-heeled private foundations, was applied to relieving human suffering whether this was providing temporary relief to displaced individuals in a remote famine-stricken, or war-ravaged village, or rescuing groups of migrants smuggling their way out of the continent in a rickety structure, as a result of conflicts whose cause they had no explanation for.
‘And’, the moneybags continue to observe, ‘we got our partnering African NGOs to do the bulk of the actual work, regardless of its nature. Some would line up the starving recipients and keep order at the distribution site, while others kept records. We, in the meantime, would use our valuable time – admittedly in five-star hotels – debating and documenting the origins and nature of each new emergency and what more needed to be done by the global community’.
When all is said and done, a fitting division of labour has often emerged in an almost natural way in these situations: ‘the African NGOs do the work and keep us informed, we tell the stories about this work and secure the resources to underwrite it. Now, as they begin to question our role and contribution, we cannot help but wonder what happened to their politeness, their fortitude, their understanding and even their adulation of those of us who carry the cheque-book. Was this all fake?’
I fear that as we tell the story of each African state – mired in corruption, steeped in debt, beholden to one or other economic power and using strong-armed tactics to restrain and manipulate their populations, we have reached a point where the NGO will enter the annals of ‘endangered species’.
It is time to re-invent ourselves lest we be described in the past tense rather than as a new creative, hopeful force, looking into an exciting future. This new possibility, too, is within our grasp, but we have to forge new paths and abandon the lethargy of the past.
The abiding question is; are we up to the task?
Ezra Mbogori is the Executive Director of the MS Training Centre for Development Cooperation MS-TCDC, based in Arusha, Tanzania. Prior to this, he was the Executive Director of the Akiba Uhaki Foundation in East Africa, and the founding Executive Director of MWENGO – a reflection and development Centre for NGOs in Eastern and Southern Africa, based in Harare, Zimbabwe.
This is the twelve NGO analysis of my 2018 #NGOs4Africa Campaign.