RPN 19 published May 1995

7. Enhancing the capacity of local NGOs in Refugee Assistance: Experience from Malawi and Zimbabwe by Roger Zetter

Although well placed to render assistance to refugees, indigenous NGOs usually play only a marginal role compared with the northern NGOs which dominate most humanitarian aid programmes. This article reviews the imbalance between northern agencies and donors and southern NGOs in the delivery of refugee assistance. It examines the strategies and conditions by which some indigenous NGOs in Malawi and Zimbabwe successfully challenged this prevailing situation. The study is based on the experiences mainly of five LNGOs (three secular and two church based agencies) which form part of a larger sample of NGOs which operated in the largely NNGO dominated refugee assistance programmes in those countries. These five LNGOs display, in different ways, some of the characteristics of indigenous NGO empowerment.

The north/south divide and refugee assistance

During the last two decades, NGOs have assumed a high profile role in responding to refugee influxes and in supporting refugee survival. There are, however, irresistible pressures to internationalise the delivery of assistance in major refugee crises and it is the internationally-based `northern' NGOs (NNGOs) which provide the main channel for this assistance, rather than indigenous, local NGOs (LNGOs) of the `south'. Entrusted by major governmental donors and intergovernmental agencies, NNGOs frequently play the dominant role (in Africa at least) in the mobilisation and implementation of refugee relief, whereas LNGOs are often no more than dependent counterparts, frequently marginalised from the main relief programme.

The general advantages which, it is presumed, NNGOs have in the developmental field, also relate to the specifics of refugee relief. Briefly, these are that NNGOs: provide greater managerial efficiency and effectiveness; have more direct access to major donors and professional expertise; possess wider experience, are better networked and thus offer enhanced capacity to mobilise, more speedily, funds and stockpiles of equipment (especially important in the emergency conditions of refugee crises); offer project and, crucially, programme and core management capability; and respond more easily to the demands for accountability and financial probity.

Evidence confirms, however, that NNGOs are not necessarily always better placed or experienced than LNGOs to render assistance to refugees. In the African context, research demonstrates that it is the local coping mechanisms, linked to a local understanding of the capacities of refugees and the adaptive responses of their hosts, which are crucial elements in refugee survival and the response to refugee influxes often well before the situations become `internationalised'. By developing from grass roots responses, local resources and coping mechanisms can be tapped more efficiently and there is likely to be greater cultural sensitivity to the needs of both hosts and refugees. A pragmatic consideration is that local agencies may be more cost effective. Potentially, a more self reliant response is likely to be more self sustainable. None of these arguments, however, deny the need for burden sharing with internationally based counterparts and organisations.

The current imbalance of power imposes a number of constraints on the ability of LNGOs to develop competitively.

i. Technocratic constraints to LNGO autonomy

There is a lack of LNGO institution building since, given the speed of action often needed in refugee emergencies, they are too rarely trusted with sufficient programme autonomy by their NNGO counterparts. LNGOs acquire limited financial responsibility and expertise related to the specific demands of emergency situations because reliance on NNGOs and their donors inevitably creates dependency and unequal sharing of power. Incapacity to develop beyond small-scale relief and welfare projects arises because locally responsive potential is marginalised by the apparently superior technical specification of imported NNGO ready-made projects deployed in other refugee crises. By concentrating on emergency demands of project implementation, NNGOs do not support core development (in supposedly ephemeral refugee crises), which would stimulate programme diversification and managerial capability. This picture is often reinforced by prejudicial expatriate perceptions of local professional and institutional capacity in refugee situations. In short, these distorting stereotypes, which undermine the growth of effective partnership and reciprocity, ensure that the continued dependency or disempowerment of LNGOs in refugee relief and assistance programmes is a cyclical and self-fulfilling outcome.

ii. Refugee emergencies and NGO capability

Denying all the empirical evidence that most refugees experience protracted exile, the conventional approach to humanitarian assistance is relief-driven rather than developmental, emergency rather than long term. This conventional model has important implications for the relationship between NNGOs and LNGOs and the potentiality of LNGOs.

With limited access to financial resources (especially external sources), compounded by doubts about long term viability, LNGOs are unable to build up their expertise sufficiently quickly to deliver emergency aid; neither can they offer long term employment security or training opportunities to their staff. Conversely, NNGOs have considerable advantage. Whilst some NNGOs specialise in refugee assistance, for many larger NNGOs, refugee relief is likely to be only one programme area in a diverse portfolio. In addition, they possess sectoral specialisation which cannot be matched by indigenous agencies struggling to get off the ground. Finally, they offer wide comparative experience of refugee crises (whether used effectively or not).

Consequently, LNGOs are frequently relegated to the low level role of implementing partners, mobilised to cope with an expansion in demand and then laid off when the crisis subsides and programmes are wound down.

iii. Ethics and trust

Many of those who challenge the current distribution of power between NNGOs and LNGOs argue instead that, as a fundamental principle, the burden of responsibility must lie with indigenous agencies and capabilities. Agency intervention and support is likely to be most effective when it resonates with local cultural conditions and needs, is rooted in indigenous settings rather than being imposed on them and fully recognises the value of local experience. To ignore these factors undermines local capability, creates a model which may be blind to indigenous responses and invariably leads to refugee dependency.

Field experience and the lessons learned

To what extent was this orthodoxy challenged in Malawi and Zimbabwe? In both countries a few proactive LNGOs successfully expanded their scope of operations and challenged the prevailing framework of donor interests. Their growth and capacity building was contingent on some or all of the following four factors.

i. Institution building

All the LNGOs in the sample gave priority to the development of their professional capability by paying particular attention to managerial capacity and organizational structure, and by expanding the core activities of project bid preparation, financial accountability and project management, monitoring and evaluation capacity.

First, the field directors and programme/project managers became rapidly conversant with the details of a standard range of evaluation methodologies and the essential format of project bids. These qualities were always backed up by high quality professional reporting and familiarity with the use and meaning of the donors' vocabulary participation rates, feasibility studies, project inputs, etc.

Second, the agencies incorporated modest overheads in their project bids which were gradually aggregated to build up core capability. Overheads of up to 10%, though frequently less, were cited for computers, office support staff, operational management, training in financial accounting and book keeping. Likewise, other core costs and capital equipment purchases (such as vehicles) were off-loaded, where possible, onto project costs to build up the agency's logistical capacity which could be rolled over to succeeding projects.

Third was the trend to larger projects. Typical of the initial stages in the development of indigenous NGOs, they tended to promote a number of small scale, disparate, low investment niche projects household level gardening, homecraft for women, distribution of supplementary supplies. Although valuable projects in themselves, they were often mobilised on a one-off basis in a particular location. Those LNGOs which broke out of this mould used their experience to reach a threshold where they could specialise in a relatively small number of larger projects. Moreover, like their northern counterparts, they often replicated the projects in different camps or agglomerations of self settled refugees.

In addition, these LNGOs employed carefully selected professional field staff and created management structures which gave the agencies greater institutional credibility. Though not able to offer salaries and working conditions generally competitive with NNGOs, they could offer their staff high levels of responsibility, discretion and autonomy in refugee settlements.

These developments placed a premium on accountability, coordination and supervision, hence the conventional hierarchical organisation which many of the agencies developed but which they recognised as a two-edged sword. While, in general, the LNGOs considered that clear levels of accountability and line management control met with donor approval, they also realised that some donors, particularly NNGO parent agencies, preferred their LNGO partners to have much less bureaucratic structures and greater delegation to and participation at the grass roots.

In general it took the agencies, on average, about three years to accomplish this transformation in their development to a stage where they could compete successfully and credibly with NNGOs for large scale project funding.

ii. Donor diversification

This was accomplished by preparing a portfolio of several project bids and targeting several donors with the different projects, plus networking to ascertain and ensure compatibility with donor preferences and the kind of projects likely to be supported. The agencies mainly tapped external donors, since local funding was rarely sufficient to match their ambitions.

iii. Project specialisation and project visibility

As the emergency phase evolved into protracted refugee exile, the handful of agencies in this study perceived the changing opportunities that were emerging. On the one hand they were determined not to miss out on the developmental phase, especially when the donor base expanded. On the other hand, the local agencies were often better placed to recognise and provide for specialist needs and target groups. By developing variations around a specialist theme, the LNGOs could avoid the dangers of project diversification. Moreover, their growing expertise and detailed understanding of the needs of their target group, provided them with a more convincing basis on which to argue the extension of their programmes. Thus one LNGO, specialising in food production in refugee vegetable growing projects, developed expertise in seed varieties, irrigation and cultivation methods and pest control. Another had developed a comprehensive programme for the elderly including: supplementary feeding and food production, physical rehabilitation, welfare and counselling work and community mobilisation.

In addition, and where possible, the agencies also mobilised projects which tended to have high visibility, either in terms of accessible locations or through the physical impact of well constructed project workshops, shelters, stores and extensive vegetable gardening or forestry schemes. This strategy, particularly characteristic of refugee relief programmes, was a lesson learned from NNGOs. Another feature of their programme expansion, also replicating the approach of some NNGOs, was to mobilise projects which emphasised relief substitution or which had a significant multiplier (such as training or facilitating trainers among the refugee community).

Finally, in developing their programme credibility, the LNGOs ensured that their projects were well managed, with an additional insistence on high standards of equipment and premises.

iv. The role of LNGO directors

When asked to account for the breakthrough of his indigenous NGO as a major player in the assistance programme in Malawi, a field director cited three factors: `good projects, risk taking with donors, negotiating power'. The negotiating skills of directors were evident in all cases, deriving from their thorough understanding of local needs and conditions (and thus the ability to negotiate with conviction) and their realisation that donors needed the LNGOs probably more than they needed the donors. The field directors frequently adopted a hard line in negotiating with head office and often challenged donors and parent NNGOs on policy, management and funding priorities. They endeavoured, not always successfully, to ensure that project and programme evaluations were carried out by indigenous consultants who would be likely to have a closer understanding of local conditions and who might, in any case, be more sympathetic to local interests.


Clearly, in expanding their role and despite the initially promising responses attuned to indigenous capabilities and local needs, the LNGOs in this study did not develop alternative models for the delivery of assistance; rather they replicated the approaches of the NNGOs which were not significantly more responsive to refugee needs and capabilities nor any more empowering than those of NNGOs.

The more important question is whether the empowerment of LNGOs has been sustained in the more conventional development arena now that the refugee crisis and the associated relief programme has been wound down. Here the evidence is not optimistic.

First, to the extent that the LNGOs still relied substantially on northern donors, they could not be considered truly indigenous. Nevertheless, evidence of their increasingly proactive stance was their demonstrable ability to confront their donors' or parent agency's demands and to act without necessarily surrendering their autonomy.

Second, although the LNGOs successfully grew during the refugee crisis, they had not, in fact, consolidated their institutional strength sufficiently to be able to switch into (or to revert to) large scale developmental programmes.

Third, although there are important lessons to learn about the strategies and methods which LNGOs in Malawi and Zimbabwe deployed to enhance their autonomy and capability, this did not result in a fundamental reformulation of the current institutional framework of refugee assistance.

Regardless of the comparative strength and capability of LNGOs and NNGOs to provide refugee assistance, the larger issue remains: that is, the extent to which NGOs, whatever their provenance, are really in the business of empowering refugees as opposed to providing palliative support which merely enforces refugee dependency on an international humanitarian regime.

[This article is an edited version of a longer paper entitled `On the Margins or in the Mainstream? Indigenous NGOs and Refugee Assistance : some lessons from Malawi and Zimbabwe' to be published in Development and Practice, Vol 6:1 (February 1996), Oxfam. Contact: Caroline Knowles, Oxfam, 274 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 7DZ. Tel: +44 (0)1865 311311.

Dr Roger Zetter is Deputy Head of the School of Planning, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK, and Editor of the Journal of Refugee Studies.

* Field work funded by the ESRC (UK), the Pew Charitable Trusts (USA) and facilitated by Georgetown University, Washington DC.


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October 1996