Local Needs and Agency Conflict: A Case Study of Kajo Keji County, Sudan

By Fegley, Randall | African Studies Quarterly, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Local Needs and Agency Conflict: A Case Study of Kajo Keji County, Sudan


Fegley, Randall, African Studies Quarterly


A Critique of NGO Operations

Once seen as unquestionably noble, humanitarian agencies have been subject to much criticism in the last 30 years. [1] This has been particularly evident in the Horn of Africa. Drawing on experience in Ethiopia, Hancock depicted agencies as bureaucracies more intent on keeping themselves going than helping the poor. [2] Noting that aid often allowed despots to maintain power, enrich themselves and escape responsibility, he criticized their tendency for big, wasteful projects using expensive experts who bypass local concerns and wisdom and do not speak local languages. He accused their personnel of being lazy, over-paid, under-educated and living in luxury amid their impoverished clients. Such criticisms have surfaced frequently. Based on research in Somalia, Maren described international aid agencies as under-scrutinized, self-perpetuating big businesses more concerned with winning government contracts than helping needy people. [3] He was equally scathing of the naivete of expatriate personnel, dependence by journalists on agency reports and willingness of native elites to exploit crises. Often aid has subsidized western businesses, such as grain-trading companies, eager to unload surpluses. Questioning whether non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are becoming Africa's new colonialists, one observer noted that the intended recipients of charity are the only persons who can assess whether or not altruistic goals have been met. [4]

Others have noted agency encroachment on state sovereignty. [5] Particularly relevant in the case of Sudan, NGO activities may impede local political processes that could allow beneficiaries of assistance to become masters of their own destinies. Critics note that agencies hamper the development of local consensus to aggregate needs and form policy. [6] Tvedt argues, ... NGOs contributed unintentionally to the erosion of the authority of a very weak state. ... The NGOs put up their own administration and authority systems thereby undermining the state institutions without establishing viable alternative structures. [7] Referring to the agencies as "inadvertent accomplices," Martin notes that international aid organizations have flooded into the Sudan, mostly via Kenya and Uganda into the rebel regions of the South, in response to the devastating consequence of "years of combat, concurrent droughts, floods, and other calamities." The "hundreds of millions of dollars" that these organizations have poured into the region have provided the combatants with an excuse to avoid considering the tremendous human costs of the war. Although "the two largest Southern rebel groups have each created fledgling civil service bureaucracies," these bureaucracies have no resources. Virtually none of the national government's newly-found oil bonanza goes to fight war and poverty. Martin doubts that either the rebels or the government "would divert resources to humanitarian needs if the aid agencies were to withdraw." But this does not obviate the fact that the very actions of the humanitarian community allows "both North and South to evade the question entirely." [8]

Mamphilly and Branch noted two categories of critiques leveled at foreign-funded, NGO-implemented humanitarian aid. The first focuses on political and social problems stemming from unmediated relations that NGOs often have with local populations. NGOs distribute aid according to their own institutional imperatives. No matter how far they try to involve the local population in participatory forms of aid provision, there will always be a gap between their imperatives and the imperatives that would emerge through democratic decision-making processes within the beneficiary community. Often such situations result in "high levels of waste and inefficiency" due to competition among NGOs. Negative results flow even when there is inter-NGO cooperation and beneficiary participation, "the population can be habituated to making appeals to unaccountable international bodies for assistance. …

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