Not so civil after all?

‘Civil Society’ was not a term familiar to me before my time in Zambia. I have come to learn that is an elegant phrase for a rather inelegant grouping of sometimes strange bedfellows. Essentially anyone who can be said to have a stake in society but is not part of the state or private enterprise can be considered to be a part of ‘civil society’. By my reckoning, that pitches a tent big enough to encompass everyone from the busybody’s who run your local neighbourhood watch to the august members of the Royal Society but I guess most often refers to what I would have simply called ‘charities’ in the past.

In large, developed economies these organisations are unquestionably visible but perhaps peripheral actors. I was probably most aware of them when they were looking for my bank details on a street corner or offering a ‘talking head’ on their particular issue for a 24 hour news channels – Greenpeace whenever the Japanese felt like nipping out to pick up a whale or two; Fathers for Justice whenever someone wanted to demonstrate their suitability for paternal access by climbing a high building in a Batman costume etc. etc.

Zambia has the dubious honour of hosting more of these organisations than almost anywhere else in the world. I will leave it for you to judge why a country populated by English speaking, friendly and peaceable folk in a clement climate might have cemented this particular fatal attraction. Regardless of the reason, you certainly can’t miss their presence here – from dusty outposts in the smallest town, through large fancy offices in Lusaka and on to the side of every second 4×4 crawling through the rush hour rain – you will see the logos of NGO’s and their donors everywhere. What this says subconsciously to the Zambian on the street about the power of their state versus the influence of the state’s of others is anyone’s guess.

The funding of ‘non-state actors’ to support (or sometimes bypass) a fragile state is a controversial aid policy we have discussed before that has boomed in the last two decades creating enormous organisations sometimes with budgets that exceed the government departments they are here to support. You will know the names of some from their television appeals to sponsor a child or help the victims of the latest natural disaster, but there are many others who live in relative obscurity as their main funding comes from government grants rather than private donations. There has even emerged a special type of organisation who manage aid grants ‘for profit’ though whether they qualify as civil society is probably an argument for another day.

The sheer volume and diversity of grants that these organisations work with is jaw-dropping to the uninitiated. Each one answering a specific set of directions from a specific set of donors, it is surely no wonder that efficiency and coordination of efforts are often far from perfect. This inability to work together has hit the news again post the Haitian earthquake as it seems the lessons of the Asian tsunami (where it is still unclear exactly who the donations of polar jackets and Viagra were intended for) are struggling to be learnt. Whatever excuses you can make for agencies responding to a disaster, it is all the more inexcusable to my eyes that issues of communication, allocation and coordination of effort and alignment of priorities continue to manifest themselves in a stable long term crisis such as the one Zambia finds itself in.

Within these organisations there is a sad but somehow predictable pattern of patronage. Donors tend to prefer to see their grants managed by organisations from their home country. Perhaps more troubling, a substantial glass ceiling appears to exist for local talent with many ‘key positions’  in many NGO’s (though thankfully not mine) being held by expatriates. Dedicated and skilled though they no doubt are, it must be said that these expats live very comfortable lives with accommodation and support packages for their families that far outstrip local salaries or for that matter what they would be able to afford back in their home lands. Where then is the motivation to develop and promote your local staff to positions of authority so you can pack up and leave?

I have heard some Africans say that NGO’s today perform a role similar to that played by the church a century ago. When the colonial powers first arrived, they were often accompanied by church missions to show a caring face to their domination back home “saving the souls of the great black masses” while they got on with the serious business of extracting the continent’s mineral wealth. Today, the funding of a multiplicity of NGO’s to provide band aid style solutions to gaping wound sized problems is equally a PR stunt in their eyes, to soothe the conciousness of the folks back home while the real issues of social justice such as equal access to markets and fair terms of trade are conveniently ignored.

Perhaps I am being too hard on the sector, after all my hosts for the year are active members of the Zambian civil society funded by international donors and I can happily attest to the contribution that our activities make to many Zambians lives. It may well be the least bad solution to a very bad situation. So let me limit my criticism to the following: many (perhaps all) who work in the sector (NGOs and donors alike) will readily accept many of the flaws discussed above but I see little or no serious effort to reform or resolve the situation. Given the length of time and amount of money expended in stable, peaceful Zambia in particular, the country is a poor example indeed of what the sector can achieve in terms of sustainable development.

4 Responses to “Not so civil after all?”
  1. Cathal says:


    I must congratulate you for raising some very important issues in this post. The dubious nature of donor & NGO branding, and how that effects the ‘virtous circle’ of taxation, representation and service provision between a government and its citizenry is one I feel quite strongly about, and needs to be discussed more, but sadly is not. Slapping a logo on the side of a health centre or a motorbike is standard practice these days. Just driving the 108k from Salima to Lilongwe yesterday, I must have passed at least a dozen signs for an agricultural diversification programme bearing the immediately-identifiable logo of a pretty well-known donor. What message does this send to Malawian citizens?

    Your point about funding flows from donors to civil society raises another very important question, however I must disagree when you say that donors prefer to see their grants going to organisations from their home countries. It is undeniably true that this does happen in some cases, but to say that this is a situation that donors PREFER is in my book not true. I am sure all donors would love to see every cent of their money spent by small local organisations, with low overheads and strong financial management capacity…but this is not the reality unfortunately. You must also remember that donors are spending YOUR hard earned tax Euros/Dollars/Yen and have a responsibility to ensure that the money is not wasted or stolen. The fact of the matter is that very often a western NGO may be the best placed to manage a grant.

    When you speak of glass ceilings and key positions being held by expatriates, I feel I must again disagree. You seem to be suggesting that the only reason these positions are held by expats is that they are expats, and not the best placed to do the job. I simply do not think that in many NGOs such glass ceilings exist, and if they do of course I disagree with them. All positions in development work, like in any other field should be allocated based on merit, pure and simple.

    ‘Where then is the motivation to develop and promote your local staff to positions of authority so you can pack up and leave?’…I am afraid that this sentence really puzzled me. After one year of living in a developing country you seem to have concluded that those expats working for NGOs etc have lost their original motivation for choosing to work in development and led them to view their local colleagues as a threat, simply because of a nice house they may be given. Why should NGOs not be allowed to attract the best possible person that they can find for the job? If they could always do this by sourcing locally, at a lower cost, don’t you think they would?

    • berkeleysblog says:

      Hey Cathal,

      A highly reasoned argument as always and thanks for taking the time to put your perspective forward on these important issues. I trust you won’t mind that I let everybody know that you work for a donor and so have more than a passing interest in the topic and of course a deeper insight than I to boot.

      On the topic of partner selection, I am sure you are right that donors would prefer to fund local well run NGOs but actions tend to speak louder than words and you can’t fail to notice that the ‘big bucks’ grants seem to still go to international headed operations.

      Of course there are sometimes good reasons for this, such as grant governance (not to say that International NGO’s are without funding scandals – see World Vision in Liberia last year) but surely there is a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ issue about building local NGO capacity.

      In addition, as you know well, many local NGOs fail to handle the very high levels of technical expertise required to apply for let alone manage donor money these days further reducing the potential pool of local applicants.

      You may not see it the same way, but I do see a similar issue regarding expat staff. Given that the NGO sector has been operating here for well over 20 years, I think it is reasonable to expect by now a generation of skilled Zambians leading these large operations when again a quick headcount will tell you that is still not the case.

      I am not for one second questioning the skill, dedication or even desire of expats to enhance their local teams and move on if they felt they could – I am just suggesting that based upon what I have observed from my time here – the system isn’t working very well.

  2. Maurice says:

    While I would agree with some of the criticism set out in your initial and second response I find overall your argument to be overly simplistic, one dimensional and generally insulting.

    In terms of salary differentials, I think you need to relook at your figures here, I don’t want to quote anyone’s salaries here but there is as little as a 15% difference in some organisations between local and expat staff.

    In terms of glass ceiling for local staff, have you considered the number of Zambian staff who have progressed to higher management level and then taken jobs outside of Zambia, I have met many throughout my relatively short time in development. Have you also considered the levels of south to south recruitment, your headcount would show a diverse range of backgrounds for all levels of country management. In my opinion these are two of the main reasons why we see very few national managers in international NGOs.

    Of course I see my role as capacity building of local counterparts while I am in my position; however the ultimate goal for my organisation and many others is not to leave behind a Zambian run organisation still linked to the international NGO. Instead we aim to leave behind a local partner, who is capable of delivering programmes which are responsive to the needs of the extreme poor, or even to wish even higher a Zambia where there are no extreme poor.

    You make the statement “Zambia has the dubious honour of hosting more of these organisations than almost anywhere else in the world. I will leave it for you to judge why a country populated by English speaking, friendly and peaceable folk in a clement climate might have cemented this particular fatal attraction.” This leads one to believe that half of the English speaking world has descended on Zambia and set up an NGO here; on the contrary the vast majority of NGOs in Zambia are locally set up and run!

    Berkeley, I hope as you return to the pharmaceutical world you can be as critical of it as you have been of the development sector.


    • berkeleysblog says:

      Hi Maurice

      Firstly I meant no offence, I know how much dedicated hard work goes on the sector (Zambian or expat alike) so profound apologies if offence was taken. I was definitely talking ‘in the round’ and perhaps thinking about some of the larger donor/NGO relationships in particular which probably failed to recognise the many shades of NGO set up that exist.

      Secondly you are 100% right about the brain drain of Zambian NGO workers to South Africa and beyond, it is yet another major challenge for the sector.

      Finally, I would like to think that I haven’t shied away from commenting on the less than glorious history of the pharmaceutical industry in promoting health on this continent and the challenges that lay in front of it to reverse the situation (See this weeks post for a start). I promise more to come.


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