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$100 million is a lot of money


One of the international organisations I worked with – one of the better ones in terms of understanding and empowering those with whom they worked – had a ‘Caucasus Team’ 8 years ago consisting of 1 person. So successful was that 1 person in understanding and empowering – or at least, in winning grants to empower and understand – that the Caucasus Team in London now consists of 4 1/2 people. Full time. Four-and-a-half people on London salaries, occupying four-and-a-half deskspaces in a central London office, receiving four-and-a-half pensions and paying four-and-a-half people’s taxes back to the British Government (the programme has been funded mostly by the British government, through the British taxpayer).

In addition to the permanent staff in the London office, the growth of the Caucasus programme over this period has also taken in a number of western ‘programme associates’ (like myself), commanding western consultancy fees, and managing from these fees to pay off substantial chunks of their western mortgages or other living expenses. Plus a stream of other experts (so-called).

That made me think…

If the point of ‘international aid’ is empowerment, in other words the transfer1 of some of the power (resources?) from those who have too much, to those who have none at all, then what a pathetic job most (international) ngo-businesses are doing. They build themselves up, every year winning more and more projects, more and more funding which they pile into ‘reserves’, core funding, new employees, more airfares, or increased salaries for managers directing the projects from a London base. For those same salaries, and for the cost of maintaining that London base they could have given employment, work experience, trust, and the possibility to direct their own affairs to goodness knows how many people for whom that funding was originally intended.

How can it be a mark of anything but failure that an international ngo-business based in a rich country is managing to increase its turnover, reserves and salaries for western staff, year on year? Surely if they were doing their job effectively, these organisations should gradually devolve more power, more decision making, and more resources to local organisations in the recipient countries. The Caucasus Programme should reduce its London staff from 1 to 1/2 a person in the UK, and not increase it fourfold.

The huge ngo-businesses will say that if the coordinating organisation did not exist, the funding could not reach those for whom it was intended. There is some truth in that, because western funders do indeed prefer to channel funding through respectable western ngo-businesses, rather than direct to local organisations. But still the respectable western businesses should try at least to hold their weight, rather than expanding. Otherwise they are not acting as a channel, but rather as a self-serving blockage in what was meant to be a channel.

They will say that the fact that they have been successful in winning grants is evidence that they are doing their jobs well – and there is a bit of truth in that as well, at least as long as you believe that their job is to butter up the funders. But in general it must be right for any additional funding that is raised to be used to employ local staff, rather than internationals; to pay their pensions rather than ours, and give them more opportunity to work on local solutions – rather than our flying over with yet another piece of international know-how.

Even if our paid ‘expertise’ was justifiable in the first few years of intervention, with time it should become not more, but less so: first, because the funding was never meant to be for the benefit of western experts. Second, because the experts’ role was almost never just to be an expert, but rather to transfer their expertise, and thereby to promote the growth of local experts. So the need for outside experts should diminish with time, if that transfer has taken place at all – and if it hasn’t taken place, then the expert has failed in any case. Third, because the local organisations need the experience of managing their own affairs, of being accountable for their own mistakes, of planning and organising local events and adapting western experience to local conditions; of holding the reigns, in other words. And western experts, however expert they may be, can never give them that experience unless they first let go themselves. Fourth – because the vast majority of western experts are no more expert than their local counterparts, and very often less so.

Organisations such as the one I have mentioned, or such as Oxfam, Save the Children, Plan International, and others less well known, have undoubtedly done highly important, life-saving, transformative work – not only in relieving poverty or hardship, but in empowering local organisations. Furthermore, most of the people who work for the international organisations are highly competent and highly committed, often working long hours for relatively little reward – at least if compared to others in the private sector.

But is that quite enough? Oxfam has an annual turnover of about £300 million (about $600 million), and you can do an awful lot of good things for £300 million. I wonder if these good things blind us to the fact that you could do far more with such a huge amount of money if you devolved more quickly and more seriously; if you did not require £20 million to provide support to local projects from an Oxford base; and if you did not distort the local ngos by paying internationals salaries 100 times or more the size of locals’ salaries.

Because – consider: you can do an awful lot for £49.7 million too – that’s about $100 million. But how does Oxfam choose to spend that sum of money? In 2006, it spent £47.9 million on salaries for people ‘on the UK payroll’. People earning UK-type salaries, in other words: internationals who are thought to be more worthy or more competent or more expert than the local people who would do the work at a fraction of the price.

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1. Is it?? Most ngo-businesses would probably not agree. They might agree with the empowerment bit, but not that this need involve a reduction in ‘power’ (in the sense of empowerment) on the part of those doing the empowering. I think it need, and that continuation of the unequal power relations which exist between the recipients and the donors (or those who do the donors’ business) is one of the key reasons for failure in this field.

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