I read with much interest Rick Wayne’s article about who is pushing the agenda of NGOs and it reminded me of some of the concerns that I have as a member of the NGO community, although now in a much less active capacity.
I believe all NGOs have very good, ambitious intentions but the issue of funding has always been a grey area because of the level of influence from the piper who keeps the NGO machineries running. There are many funders out there that allow NGOs to determine their agenda by funding activities and proposals initiated by them, but those funders are now fewer because of the global economic crunch. The biggest funders provide conditionalities and are often driven by their own agendas based on the policy of certain countries or organizations.
As you rightfully stated, some of those agendas end up clashing with national plans and policies and sometimes even coercively act together to remove governments from office. I witnessed this firsthand when I served as Treasurer in an organization which receives a significant amount of its funding from outside of St Lucia. I often lamented the fact that so much money was being spent on travel and overseas meetings, but the funders themselves had no problem with it. In fact, some funding is actually air marked specifically for travelling and when an NGO is in the good graces of certain international organizations , it seems like the sky is the limit when it comes to globe trotting and attending all kinds of high flying meetings which push the agenda of the donor.
There are times when we would ask for more resources to go to our target groups, but unfortunately some funders prefer to allocate more resources where they feel it would have the kind of impact they would like and not necessarily what is recommended by the receiving NGO. Because of that situation I often agonized over the hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent on travel. One year, our budget for travel was about 50 percent of the total budget and the main beneficiaries of this travel largess are the leaders and those whom they select to also go globe trotting. I personally met with one of our funders and requested that we have a leaner budget for travel but I was flatly refused on the grounds that we had to maintain an international presence. Most of the resources for travel are kept in our overseas accounts and it would break my heart to see people travelling first class sometimes, when flights were not available, and in some cases, we had to pay for hotels which cost US$700 a night. The funders have no problem with this kind of largess, but they are more likely to question why a certain amount was spent on the actual target group that we serve.
The influence of funders cannot be overstated and in small countries like St Lucia I have personally seen how certain countries would give money only to certain organizations. How does one explain a donation of US$300,000 at certain strategic times, with a request that all must be spent before the elections, otherwise whatever is left must be sent back. The international agencies and funders are therefore not only the ones who influence NGOs. Governments also use creative means of supporting NGOs which can push their agenda.
In St Lucia it is very easy to see which NGOs are well oiled by outside sources. Their staff is well paid; they have well equipped offices and all the latest equipment you can think of. They also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on travel every single year. As in our case a very good per diem rate is provided for every day of travel overseas, and on top of that they get all expenses paid for by many of the organizations which invite them to attend those said meetings. In my stint as treasurer, I saw how one trip overseas can easily amount to some 20,000US dollars, especially when leaders have the privilege of deciding on which hotel they stay at and how they travel, and when they want to travel first class because of a long flight to somewhere such as Africa. The interesting thing about all this is that the funders themselves encourage this kind of largess because of their policies. It is like there is no limit to how much the piper will support those who dance and sing to the beat of their drums.
I remember going to a meeting in Brazil. I received my US$290 per day from our office here and my hotel was paid for by the organizers of the meeting, plus I got another $800US from the organizers of the meeting when we arrived in Sao Paulo. But that was not all, the person whom I went with, got US$5000.00 for making her presentation. When travel becomes so enticing, anyone would go globetrotting, but at the end of the day, it takes away the amount of effort and energy we could have been spending on the actual work on the ground here.
There are some NGOs in St Lucia which have captured the right market and built up an army of resources and supporters out there. But you are right. Although I am the first to admit that a lot trickles down to the core beneficiaries, I must also agree with you, that leaders have benefited and continue to benefit immensely. The travel alone and the high rates of per diem and allowances, can keep anyone in tandem with the pipers tune. Not to mention the exorbitant salaries of five and eight thousand US dollars per month, paid directly into overseas accounts.
Many may not have noticed, but some of our NGO leaders are very wealthy, purchasing lovely beachfront homes and country houses. Nuff said.
At least NGOs are helping in a variety of ways!
Editor’s Note: Author’s name has been withheld upon request.