NGO = Nothing’s going on?

Accountability is one human attribute that some strive to uphold. It is a value that companies frame in glazed plaques in their lavish hallways alongside the hypocritical value of customer service.

Accountability is the reason the faithful believe in a Judgement Day when we will stand before our Maker and account for our choices while your skeletons and secrets are beamed on an HD 3D LCD TV for all to see.

Accountability is what holds us to our word. Without it, things slip through the cracks, promises are never kept, and people will never face the consequences of their choices. It is why we have laws. If laws fail, there is always God’s inescapable justice.

More and more, I realise that accountability is not fully embraced in terms of what it calls us to do. And if there were ever a sector that exemplifies this more than any, it is the NGO sector.

When you think about it, every other sector has to adhere to some semblance of accountability for it to survive. When you think about the private sector, if a company fails to fulfil its promise to its customers, there are repercussions, customers stop buying from the company and profit margins diminish as a result.

Even when government fails to provide social services or a conducive space for growth and prosperity,—citizens can always kick them out through the ballot or by protest; and thus transforming those once untouchable power oligarchs into common plebeians driving old Toyotas once again. That’s the bite of accountability!

With NGOs, however, it isn’t that obvious!

NGOs have been around since democracy’s dawn. Be they briefcase NGOs or large NGOs with national reach, we have always believed that NGOs are effective and achieve impact. However, enough time has elapsed to warrant some probing questions to evaluate this belief.

Look beyond the glossy year-end reports submitted to Azungus halfway across the world. Look beyond the poverty-pornography of skeletal mothers with dying children at their dry breasts. Look beyond the pointless workshop allowances given for merely sitting and ask yourself: What real value do NGOs add? And, most importantly, who are NGOs accountable to?

In my job, I have come across too many villages in the armpits of Malawi where boreholes were drilled once upon a time. The stories are always the same. Boring handover ceremonies were done with journalists taking photos for upcoming newspaper spreads. Women danced, chiefs over-praised and Azungu donors, who could easily afford a Chichewa tutor, assassinate our language during speeches that we weren’t really listening to. And then the NGOs, and their Azungus, mount their majestic fuel guzzlers and leave the village feeling that they have made a difference while also believing that the wiggling waists of dancing women were a sure indicator of impact. In fact, they may even upload a picture of the waist-wiggler on the Azungus website.

Afterwards, when village-life has normalised, the NGOs rarely come back to see if the borehole is still working. But of course, they won’t! Not until that village becomes another statistic of desperation that can be put into a project proposal for another Mzungu to fund.

Within a year of handover, the boreholes breakdown, rendering the villagers victims of, not just disease, but of another NGO that just got funding to do the very same boreholes project all over again. This is a common water-sector story, but I am safe in guessing that other sector-stories are no different.

In reality, NGOs are accountable to donors, not the people. Even if projects fail, NGOs can simply find another donor without anyone challenging those NGOs to fix the failed projects or to even own up to their failure. After all, NGOs have inadvertently instilled something much worse than the poverty they claim to alleviate—they have instilled an insatiable sense of NGO-dependency in communities that has poisoned any chance for real social change. It is this dependency that bankrolls NGOs while the well-articulated vision in the NGO’s strategic plan takes a backseat.

This way of working is flawed and must change!

But how can NGOs add real value? Despite good work by some NGOs, the best indicator for added value is that the people that the NGO is serving, become truly self-reliant and don’t depend on the NGO for help, ever! A layperson’s description of sustainability, I believe.

We need a new paradigm where NGOs, like private and public sectors, are held more accountable to the people they serve, and their impact is assessed through the lens of sustainability. If any NGO cannot subscribe to this ethos, then they are in the wrong business!

This will be a challenge even for me, a fellow NGO worker. But, that’s why we are in this business, right?

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