African nonprofits want to “decolonize” donor funding

New report explores barriers facing African civil society organizations.
New report explores barriers facing African civil society organizations.
Image: Reuters/Baz Ratner
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International development funding to Africa has a “colonial” approach that favors Western organizations at the expense of local civil society organizations (CSOs), a new independent report funded by the Vodafone Foundation says.

Most donor resources go to intermediary non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in the northern hemisphere, the report says, describing the system as one that is designed to make African institutions forever dependent on international donors.

As an example, funding by American foundations to Africa increased 400% from $288.8 million in 2002 to almost $1.5 billion in 2012, but most of the money was directed to organizations headquartered outside Africa for direct delivery of services in the continent and as channels of funds to smaller partners in the continent. For informal and smaller organizations, this approach, fails to secure them resources needed to sustain their work.

“There is injustice going on here,” Kennedy Odede, founder and CEO of the Nairobi-based Shining Hope for Communities NGO, tells Quartz.

“There is no respect, there is no understanding on the ground. And the international donors must really understand and facilitate a level playing field,” he adds.

Calls to “decolonize” funding models for the continent are not unique to CSOs as there are similar efforts in health and tech.

Report investigates barriers facing African civil society

To understand the barriers facing African civil society organizations, researchers conducted a literature review and interviewed 56 people from 37 CSOs in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa, including executive directors, country representatives for international NGO, and program managers.

In Africa and elsewhere, CSOs including NGOs play a vital role in filling humanitarian and social gaps left by the government and the private sector in key areas such as health, education, human rights, and the environment. They help advance human rights and develop policies and implement them. But the global flow of aid resources hinders the effectiveness and sustainability of local NGOs, as well as their ability to scale and build capacity.

Rose Maruru, co-founder and CEO of EPIC-Africa, an organization that works to increase the impact of philanthropy in Africa, says when international NGOs serve as intermediaries, African CSOs are reduced to “foot soldiers.”

“They have no say in the issues or solutions that get prioritized, even when they know better,” she tells Quartz. “It means that their work is donor driven, rather than community led.”

In this model, she adds, the relationship between African and international CSOs are rarely partnerships to co-create solutions but a contractor-sub-contractor relationships where the African CSOs are contracted to deliver specific outputs.

Covid-19 has increased the need to revisit funding systems for CSOs

The Covid-19 pandemic increased the need to simplify funding systems and build resilient institutions, the report says. With international NGOs leaving, local NGOs had to continue working on the ground but without emergency resources as funding is typically meant for specific projects.

“Covid really was able to expose the inequality that existed,” Odede said.

The report found many international barriers that African CSOs face, including “racialized and colonial” funding and donor preferences and choices, complex donor systems, requirements, language and reporting mechanisms.

Donors, it says, “prefer funding INGOs because they are professionalized, urban, and have the required skills, credibility, and resources to deal with donors’ architecture.” International NGOs, “understand ‘donor jargon’, including accountability and the reporting requirements that are seen to ensure value for money and project effectiveness,” the report says

Vodafone report recommends Western donors change their approaches

One of its recommendations to addressing these issues is for Western donors to change their grant-making processes, their guidelines and procedures, standards, and management systems to create a fair environment for local CSOs. Another is by creating a balance between core and project funding, whereby CSOs get enough funding and room to develop long-term strategies so they can invest in non-program critical issues or improve their own financial management systems. Lastly, the report recommends donors make conscious efforts to strengthen the capacities of CSOs in order to build the sustainability of the organizations.

Maruru says African CSOs should reduce their dependence on one funding source—be it local or foreign—to strengthen their financial sustainability.

“Growing their own assets, and leveraging local resources, could be a way to build the foundation for financial sustainability so that if all external funding were to dry up, a CSO would not have to shut down,” she says.

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