Clarion Call to Africans Working in Inter-Governmental and International Organizations in Africa: A Radical Shift Needed for International Assistance to Work in Africa
In 2017 I hosted a team of Nigerians who were former colleagues while I was serving as the Head of the Humanitarian Team in Nigeria. As we sat down for dinner, I bemoaned the suffering of the tens of thousands of Nigerians who were still displaced in camps in the northeast. This issue remains close to my heart as I was part of advocating for increased humanitarian assistance in the wake of the displacement four years prior. One of the former colleague, in an arrogant and dismissive manner, announced to the dinner table that he was glad that the humanitarian crisis has persisted as this has given him a source of income. The conversation was heated from that point on and not very pleasant.
International action and development assistance effectively shifted many countries in Asia and Eastern Europe to self-determination and economic solvency. Derek Fee in How to Manage an Aid Exit Strategy noted that the Marshall Plan (officially known as the European Recovery Programme was devised in the 1940s to restore the economic and political fabric of post-war Europe.
According to Fee, the plan had many attractions compared to development and humanitarian assistance today. The plan was time-limited to last for four years, and the `administration was light and the staffing was minimal’. `The marshal plan ended in 1951 and its effectiveness can be assessed by the fact that the fastest period of growth in European history was recorded between 1948 and 1952’ Industrial production increased by 35 per cen. Agricultural production substantially surpassed pre-war levels. The poverty and starvation of immediate postwar period disappeared, and Western Europe embarked on two decades of unprecedented growth.’
But this is not and has not been the story for Africa. `The European development fund was launched in 1958 to assist the African, Caribbean and Pacific former colonies, USAID and the UK Department of Technical Assistance was founded in 1961 and Canada’s International Development agency was in 1968. Fee observes that the `enormous expansion in aid flows was not accompanied by a corresponding increase in economic growth as was the case with post-war Europe,’ says Fee.
According to the New African magazine `In many African countries, real per capita GDP has fallen, and welfare gains achieved since independence in areas like food consumption, health and education have been reversed. The statistics are disturbing. In sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, per capita incomes dropped by 21% in real terms between 1981 and 1989. Development, it seems, has failed. This has been the context in which there has been an explosive growth in the presence of Western as well as local NGOs in Africa.’
International Organizations, the UN and western NGOs have been central to the narratives and priorities regarding development assistance in Africa; for many African counties international action by the UN and NGOs has been the only game in town. Hundreds of thousands of Africans are employed in Africa within these organizations and are leading the implementing of programmes and actions that have not worked for decades.
It cannot just be about who is doing what to Africa but what we are willing to take. Half a century of international assistance not making a difference in Africa should ignite some form of radical and fundamental shift in thinking and operations. We must be bold enough to consider an overhaul if needed. It would be a shame to continue implementing the same systems and programmes knowing they have not worked for the previous 30 years.
Often when I bring this up in front of my colleagues who are Africans, I am told that there is a limit to what intergovernmental and international organizations can do. I disagree.
Today, `West Africa has the highest concentration of United Nations actors of any region of the world, including four peacekeeping operations (in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Mali and until recently Sierra Leone), a peacebuilding office in Guinea-Bissau, a regional operation addressing the Ebola outbreak (United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER)), a Special Representative for West Africa and a Special Envoy for the Sahel, and a wide range of United Nations regional and country offices. The region also hosts the United Nations Department of Political Affairs-led regional office, the United Nations Office for West Africa (UNOWA), the first of its kind, to harmonize and enhance efforts towards conflict prevention and peace consolidation within West Africa.’
In `The role of NGOs in Africa: are they a force for good?’ Published in the conversation April 25, 2017 highlights that `Non-governmental organizations have become key actors in responding to poverty and related suffering. In Africa, NGOs play a leading role in providing health care and education. In Kenya the number of NGOs grew by over 400% between 1997 and 2006. And for most observers, they seem to be well-intentioned actors who do a lot of good on the continent.’
Today, NGOs form a prominent part of the “development machine”, a vast institutional and disciplinary nexus of official agencies, practitioners, consultants, scholars, and other miscellaneous experts producing and consuming knowledge about the “developing world”. According to estimates, there are as many as 3,000 NGOs in OECD countries. In Britain alone, there are well over 100 voluntary groups claiming some specialism in the field. The articles in the Conversation concluded that the `evolution of the role of NGOs in Africa means that their role in “development” represents a continuity of the work of their precursors, the missionaries and voluntary organizations that cooperated in Europe’s colonization and control of Africa.’
Many of these development and humanitarian organizations that have not worked for Africa for decades are increasingly staffed by Africans, including many Africans holding very senior positions in these international organizations. Their ineffectiveness can no longer be blamed on the West, it is now what we accept and what we blindly implement.
Very often, I am asked to mentor young Africans interested in working in the international humanitarian or development field in Africa, I do so gladly and start by expressing why I and my generation have not done too well for Africa working in international humanitarian and development for decades with needs expanding rather than reducing.
I follow by explaining how we Africans have been gatekeepers of systems that has not worked and then I empower them with the need to be radical. We don’t need bureaucrats in these systems, Africans must apply a sense of stewardship to their roles and functions. Accolades should stop being conferred based on being African and holding senior positions within international organizations working in humanitarian and development in, on or for Africa. Accolades should be based in visible impacts.
Much more is required from us Africans. This cannot be about career advancement. We must start feeling uncomfortable with raising our families, earning big salaries on high job titles on the unresolved and unending humanitarian crises, protracted poverty and lack of development afflicting our fellow Africans.