Empowering NGOs: International Donors Impose Tight Financial Controls on Africa's Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) but Now They Are Pressing for Millions of Dollars to Build Their Capacity and Offer Vital Services. Nick Cater Reports from Ethiopia

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Throughout Africa a new generation of non-governmental organisations is springing up to fill the gaps between the private sector and government itself, especially in tackling the continent's crises and conflicts.

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Whether managing refugee camps in Zambia, promoting HIV/Aids awareness in Uganda or supporting agricultural production in Eritrea, these relief, development and advocacy agencies provide a vital, and internationally acknowledged frontline, in efforts to save lives, support livelihoods and foster sustainable growth.

But many also face a fundamental challenge of sustaining their day-to-day operations while securing the resources to invest in building their own capacity, from staff training to computing and communications, to be prepared for future work, improve their cost-effectiveness and take on new tasks.

Once beyond the scale of volunteer-based community groups, African NGOs often find it difficult to raise significant funds from their domestic markets, while international funding is not only hard to secure but also comes with tight controls, especially in terms of amounts allowed for the management overheads.

But some African agencies are taking a stand against such restrictions, arguing that too little international funding is being channelled through indigenous NGOs, and that organisation support is a vital element in encouraging the growth of civil society to deal with the continent's problems.

That movement was given new impetus by a recent conference in Ethiopia, which heard growing concern that local aid groups are expected to run major emergency operations or development programmes even though international funding often fails to cover essential core costs and effectively treats them as cheap labour.

Hundreds of NGOs from all parts of Africa were represented directly or via their national or regional networks at the "International Symposium to Build the Capacity and Resources of African NGOs" held in Addis Ababa and hosted by the African Union and international relief agency Africa Humanitarian Action.

In a detailed plan, donor states, United Nations agencies and international NGOs were urged to direct millions more dollars of humanitarian aid to Africa through indigenous relief groups, with at least sufficient funding to meet overheads and reinvest in build their capacity for future projects and programmes. (See p. 46)

The conference also gave strong backing to proposals for creating an African Centre for Humanitarian Action (see box p. 47) as a think tank, research group and information exchange to support the sustainable growth of cost-effective and efficient NGOs, including support in raising additional resources.

Indicating that international agencies and donors are taking the issue seriously, the conference had significant support from the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the Swedish International Development Agency, the UN Economic Commission for Africa, the International Planned Parenthood Federation, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees.

The conference backed a call for Western donors "to channel not less than 25% of their contributions to humanitarian action in Africa directly through African NGOs," with a minimum of one tenth of such funding to cover operational overheads and contribute to core costs. The conference was carefully timed, for in 2005 the UK--as chair of G8, EU and its own Commission for Africa--hopes to win international commitments to significantly cut debt, expand aid and open up trade for Africa to support its own recovery efforts.

This year is also the 20th anniversary of the Live Aid famine relief fundraising concert, and its organiser, Bob Geldof, a member of the Commission for Africa, used a message to the conference to call for "a massive injection of extra cash" for Africa, "with at least a doubling of external aid". …