Working with Local NGOs: Addressing the Gaps

27 May 2016
Nurhaida Rahim

by Nurhaida Rahim

Nurhaida Rahim currently serves as the Coordinator for the Partnership Initiative (PI)

In this blog Nurhaida Rahim talks about the importance of working with local organisations and supporting their capacity development.

In my years working in the development and humanitarian sector, I have had various opportunities working directly with local NGOs. Donors are increasingly stressing the importance of engaging with local organisations and support their capacity development. Agreed. We know it is important and we want local NGOs to expand, strengthen, grow and be leaders alongside other international organisations. Whilst not impossible to achieve, the reality on the ground can sometimes present stumbling blocks.

Commitment 3 of the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS), “communities and people affected by crisis are not negatively affected and are more prepared, resilient and less at risk as a result of humanitarian action”, is a useful framework for humanitarian actors working with local communities and can help ensure that “humanitarian response strengthens local competencies and avoids negative effects”.

Key factors to keep in mind when working with local NGOs

1. The importance of shared priorities

The typical modality is international organisations ‘come in, set up shop, implement and leave’. They function on a series of two/three-year funding cycles and annual reports – too short to see any transformative change. Local NGOs stay and have longer term needs. They not only have to deal with the crisis at hand but more critically the aftermath of the crisis. For example, following the end of a conflict, local NGOs are key players in building communal trust, establishing good governance, creating livelihoods and much more. It is time international organisations change their outlook – one that is less focus on sub-contracting but one that is based on longer-term outcomes.

2. There is more than one way to do it

We often ask local NGOs to do paperwork, activities or procedures the way we, INGOs, do it for various reasons, telling ourselves ‘local NGOs don’t have any good systems/our HQ insists/compliance/we have been doing this longer etc.’. Insisting local NGOs follow a certain manner of doing is not going to be helpful in the long-term. What is more valuable is working alongside them to develop their own systems and processes. This entails genuine commitment and resources but above all allowing the space for local NGOs to actually learn, make mistakes and grow. And when we have encouraged them to develop their own systems that are appropriate for their needs, allow them to use it. This means we stop insisting they continue to use “our templates/manual/policies/tools”. A country director of a local NGO once commented to me, “What’s the point of us developing our own procurement systems and manual when INGOs insist we must follow their version of things?” He has a very valid point.

3. “Humanitarians, engage and listen to us.”

That was the key message by central Africans consulted for a study on humanitarian aid access, conducted by the Norwegian Refugee Council in 2015. We often assume that humanitarian access is due to insecurity, lack of physical access and so on. The report produced some surprising results – misinformation of needs, lack of community engagement and incompetency amongst aid agencies.

Local NGOs do know their communities best and can be a valuable resource. International organisations should not just come in, set up shop and implement. We should work with the community, sit down, drinks plenty cups of chai, listen and learn from them and tailor our support to provide better response. And when we don’t know, we ask.

I have had experiences where local NGOs are critical of our “global presumptions” and “know-it-all” and some others see international organisations as a conduit for funds since little aid goes directly to local organisations. Local NGOs are often frustrated at our heavy focus on upward accountability – administration, procedures and paperwork we insist they comply with – because that takes critical time away which could have been best use to develop and strengthen local capacity.

4. More aid needs to flow directly to local NGOs

According to the Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2015, only 0.2% of global aid went directly to local and national NGOs. It is high time global aid is localised. Channeling aid via international organisations that then collect a certain percentage as support costs has, in my experience, result in cries of fury amongst local NGOs. Paying high cost for support staff sitting in HQ or for office rent in a fancy city when local NGOs continue on “struggle street” just creates local frustrations. Local NGOs know they are more cost-effective but they are disadvantaged because they have limited access to the global aid.

5. Assumptions about corruption

There is a tendency to assume local NGOs, local staff and officials are typically susceptible to corruption. These assumptions are stereotypical, are harmful to creating a mutual working relationship and need to change. All organisations are vulnerable to fraud and corruption. Just look at the recently concluded USAID Office of Inspector General report regarding corrupt practices in the cross-border aid into Syria. Several big-name NGOs have been investigated, their programmes suspended and staff terminated. Bad practices affect us all and should not be deemed as a cultural phenomenon.

There is no set way on how to work best with local NGOs or a secret list to make magical working relationships. Our priority should be less on ticking the partnership box to meet donor requirements but recognising that we are all contributors and making a genuine commitment to engage with our local peers.