Thursday, July 18, 2019

INGOs suffocate Women’s Rights Organizations

INGOs Suffocating Women’s Rights Organizations 

Mwanahamisi 'Mishy' Singano


If you have worked in the development sector, you definitely know what we call International Non-Government Organizations (INGOs). Yes, those organizations with offices in virtually every country. And, for lack of a better word, with head offices ‘abroad’. 

I must say, with all fairness, INGOs have played a critical role in supporting and nurturing local and regional women’s rights organizations, both directly and indirectly. I fondly remember the days when I worked with an INGO in rural Tanzania. My job was, among others, to mobilize women and farmers to form groups that were later transformed into full fledged functioning organizations. I also know there are many local NGOs/Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and Community Based Organizations (CBOs) were formed out of the ideas generated in meetings convened by INGOs. But, because INGOs have never really had shortage of praises, let me be the critic, at least for today.

We all know the world is becoming more polarized, with parochial nationalism and protectionism continued to be embraced as the new norm. Most INGOs, with their fast and detailed ‘context analysis’, have opted for localized registration. In other words, they are now registered as national or local NGOs in the countries they operate. By so doing, they are earning legitimacy to operate in local spaces. 

I know, as many of us believe, space is big enough for all of us. There is  or there should be  a place for everyone at table. But the sad truth is that there is a specific number of people who can fit in a specific room where strategic decisions are being made. With their financial muscles and well paid human resources, INGOs are consciously and unconsciously taking over the space used to be occupied by women’s rights organizations. And they are loving it – You can actually see the excitement in their reports splashed with big colorful pictures of their staff posing with decision makers! 

The only time they will desperately look for what they call ‘local’ organizations is when politics hit hard and decisions are made in favor of the unjust. I have seen it in Tanzania, when the government closed doors for pregnant girls out. We heard them saying, ‘local CSOs need to take a lead. I was like how? Taking a lead only when there is a state to fight? Anyway, that is the sad truth, we have to call it out, or live with it. Well, I have decided to call it out.

As the private sector continues to threaten INGOs funding and aggressively challenging their dominant positioning as the sole development agents, most of them have entered in to a new era of what they call ‘demonstrating impact’. This literally means, claiming and over-branding every little support offered to women’s rights and other ‘local’ organizations, killing their sense of agency and visibility. What is more visible the INGOs as sub-donors.

I was actually taken aback two weeks ago when attending the African Unions (AU) pre-summit consultative meeting. As usual, INGOs supported a number of women’s rights organizations to attend the meeting. What was so saddening was not being able to see the names of those women’s rights organizations displayed even in their tables. They all displayed the names of the INGOs that supported them, that is, their placards read that is such and such “INGO delegation”. Their identities were thus merged with, nay, somewhat lost into that of the respective INGOs that funded them.

That was/is a politically incorrect thing to do or be pressured to do, especially in a space like the AU. But INGOs – i.e. the sub-donors -  need those pictures with their logos and names tags to impress their donors. Besides, they are the only ones with AU liaison offices and they have paid for flight tickets, accommodation, and per-diem – so, they should demonstrate results, right? This tendency sustains the cyclic nature of stagnation and invisibility of women’s rights organizations across the continent.

I must also express my frustration on the ‘extractive’ nature of most of the INGOs that continue to turn women’s rights organizations into mere case studies and ‘real life experiences’ sourcing pool. More often than not, they add that one tokenized speaker from local NGOs in the big conferences to ‘demonstrate success’ of the big INGO or bring to life its ‘agenda’. Meanwhile, they continue to steal/extract local knowledge from women’s  rights organizations in the name of consultations, then package it in fancy english and organize a big launch of their reports as if it was theirs. Worse still, they come back to the same women’s rights organizations with a long training agenda, to teach them on their actual lived realities!

Undoubtedly, most of women’s rights organizations still receive their funding from INGOs. However, I have never understood why INGOs are so obsessed with ‘project-nizing women movements. I, for one, have never seen anywhere any proof of the success of ‘project-nizing movements. We all know that movements in general and women movements in particular, by their very nature, are fluid, dynamic, passion-intensive and flexible – they tend to address injustices as they surface. But INGOs, as donors, demands women’s rights organizations and/or movements to have long log-frames and fancy result matrices as requirements for funding. 

I really wonder why technology and all human wisdom have never been able to invent a funding model that works for women’s rights organizations and movements. We deliberately continue to kill their spontaneous agency, turning them into patriarchal, hierarchical organizations implementing linear projects. This is demobilizing.

Probably the only funding invention that we have noticed in the recent past is the ‘consortium model’. While, technically, this is not new, most of the donors seems to put more emphasis on the inclusivity of consortium members. Because of that, the good intention of funders has exposed women’s rights organizations into extreme power imbalance. To be blunt, consortium politics are toxic, but women's rights organizations are in a dire need of funding, so, they have no much option but to join the bandwagon, legitimize the process and deal with the display of power mongering that undermines womens movement building. 

When, finally, these funds are accessed, the emphasis is always on “output and outcome”, with no or little attention to women's rights defender’s “wellbeing”. It is a known fact that most women’s rights activists often risk their lives to do the work they are doing. But they are poorly paid, with minimal or no benefit, because most of the operational costs are kept far away, at the INGOs HQ abroad

I know you know that most women rights organizations operate in poor working conditions that  do not often uphold the same values and principles we are advocating for. Less attention to local’ operation costs has made it virtually impossible for women’s rights organizations to attract and sustain great talents who can deliver those fancy reports required by donors. The emphasis on the local programs and not local operations is to literally tell womens rights defenders who are doing the actual work that they don’t matter, if they want to matter they should join INGOs and work in those shiny offices with competitive salary packages and benefits.

The INGOs is what we call the “necessary evils” as they are needed in local spaces despite the overall harm they cause locally. As they transform themselves to fit into the local and face the current global challenges, they really need to do soul-searching. They ought to invite critical feedback, reassess power dynamics and rework how they use their power and influence to engage in transformative partnership with shared power.

Local and regional women’s rights organizations are not INGOs showcases and spare-parts  they are, or ought be, counterparts.

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