Saturday, September 7, 2002

Chijioke Evoh
[email protected]
New York, NY, USA

NGOs and the challenges of sustainable development in Africa

rom August 26 - September 4, 2002 the City of Johannesburg in South Africa will host the World Conference on Environment and Development. From Senegal to Ethiopia and from South Africa to Nigeria, NGOs in the sub-Saharan Africa like their counterparts in other parts of the world, are looking forward to this diplomatic forum to present their views and visions of sustainable development in the region. Dubbed the Earth summit, the gathering will once again reemphasize the imperatives of ensuring that development goals and policies in the developed and developing world are in harmony with the natural environment.

However, at the present stage of this global diplomacy that was initiated at Stockholm Sweden in 1972, the subject is more of "development" than "environmental" issues. This is particularly true for Sub-Saharan Africa than other parts of the developing world. At this moment the quest for development in the region is not necessarily an effort to compete in a globalizing world, rather it is a struggle to survive. Development needs in sub-Saharan Africa is more of a "brown agenda' as opposed to "green agenda" which seems to dominate sustainable development discourse at the global levels. This, however, should not deemphasize the exigency of other global environmental threats such global warming, loss of biological diversity and the depleting ozone shield. Given the interdependent nature of our natural world, all these are unique issues of mutual interest that demands multilateral arrangements. However, the basic issues of hunger and survival would logically be the focus of sustainable development priority to Africans. Underlying social and economic needs of African countries are issues of basic health care, education services, employment and human rights.

For some obvious reasons, it must be emphasized that African development deficit should no longer be a subject of diplomatic discourse. The high level of poverty in the region, and the consequences on the natural environment are beyond any doubt. The needs at this stage are concrete and practical actions directed toward the poor and exploited people and communities in Africa. The realization of such development objectives demands the active participation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Africa. Environmental, human right, development, research and women NGOs in Africa have realized the importance of their role in the creation of democratic and organized societies. The contribution of African NGOs in the establishment of processes and patterns of development that can be considered "sustainable" cannot be overemphasized. Their presence in civil society initiatives has been felt more particular since the beginning of the present democratic changes in the region. As agents of development, NGOs were denied genuine participation in the development agenda of African states by the despotic regimes of the past. Fortunately, this ugly trend is beginning to change with democratically elected governments who are beginning to appreciate the importance of NGOs as indispensable partners in development efforts.

Unfortunate Africans are yet to reap the dividends of democracy especially by way of crafting and implementing people-oriented policies that can reduce the level of poverty in the region. Thus, a paradox seems to be emerging here: as more countries in sub-Saharan Africa democratize, the rate of poverty increases. According to the World Bank, "from 1987-98 the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa living on less than US$1 a day increased by 75 million people." Hence, rather than managing the development of their communities and societies, democratically elected governments in the region have focused more attention on the management of poverty. Such government inadequacies have made the role of a third sector imperative. NGOs and community-based organizations, more than government agencies, understand the dire economic and social conditions as well as the virtually nonexistent social security systems in different African societies.

NGOs around the world have proved to be strategic in development initiatives, especially in the implementation of the Agenda 21 at the grass-root level. This has been a source of inspiration for indigenous NGOs in Africa. They have proved to have measurable comparative advantages over African governments in different aspects of rural and urban development. Their greatest advantage lies in advocacy, research and participatory models of development. They are very effective in raising public awareness concerning the diverse ecological, development and human right issues plaguing the region. Many NGOs have good records in participatory development planning methodology. They do this by involving project beneficiaries at the local level in planning, implementation and monitoring of such projects.

Further more, the increasing role of NGOs in Africa can be attributed to the continuous shrinking of government power and the domination of privatization agenda in public economic policy. With such developments characterizing government relations with the citizens, there is a somewhat insensitivity of the ruling elite to the basic needs of communities in abject poverty. In some cases, NGOs are known to have tackled such issues that governments are unable or unwilling to take up. Well-organized organizations are known to have provided efficient, innovative and cost-effective approaches to difficult socioeconomic problems. Above all, and according to African Recovery, "they operate in spheres where government officials are constrained by bureaucratic or political considerations."

The high level of corruption among African leaders has also rendered NGOs a better choice for channeling development aid in the region. Apart from their non-partisan views, African NGOs attracts a lot of funds from foreign donors and agencies. In effect, virtually all the foreign sponsors of sustainable development in the region such as the UN agencies, the World Bank, USAID and other bilateral agencies work with local NGOs in rural and urban Africa. Though this development is yet to evolve into what might be termed an "NGO economy," it will not be an overstatement to say that this will be accomplished in the near future. For instance, in February 1999, the U.S Ambassador to Kenya, Prudence Bushnell announced that her government would channel most its development aid in Africa - estimated at U.S$711.3 million that year - through NGOs rather than governments. Many foreign donors also followed the U.S approach to varying degrees. The direct results of this policy are two folds: many NGOs became somewhat financially buoyant; and this in turn led to more dependence on foreign sources of funds on their. Whether the dependence of African NGOs on foreign NGOs and donors weakens or strengthens them remains a subject of debate. Thus, by 1999, NGOs in sub-Saharan Africa were managing nearly US $3.5 billion in external aid - a sharp increase to their 1990 portfolio of US $1 billion.

Despite the increase leverage of the African NGOs through their partnership with the western donors, the institutions have been grossly deficient in influencing sustainable development policies in the region. Most NGOs in the region have policy advocacy as the cardinal objective of their operations. Unfortunately, their performance in this area remains poor. Part of the reasons for their deficiency in the area of policy advocacy are similar to the reasons responsible for the weaknesses of their national governments in planning and implementing sustainable development policies. First, environmentalism and sustainable development movements in Africa are recent phenomena that have largely been engendered by the popularization of the interrelationship between environment and development issues, especially since the Rio Earth summit in 1992. In fact, many African NGOs lack a defined focus of their activities based on the development dynamics of their immediate communities.

African NGOs have further been incapacitated by the ineffectiveness of most government agencies responsible for environment and development matters. This has been compounded by the apparent lack of stable, credible and organized democratic system of government in the region through which the NGOs can channel their policy proposals. While many NGOs have expressed critical concern over certain environment and development policy issues, their ability to articulate and actualize workable national policies is yet to materialize. In addition, African NGOs have been constrained by limited financial resources from within Africa. This, as mentioned earlier, has compelled them to depend on NGOs and donor agencies in the industrialized countries of the world. However, this dependence on foreign sources can have consequences. Such dependency has the effect of eroding the interest and preferences of the local organizations.

When compared with NGOs in other regions of the developing world, researchers have observed that African NGOs do not have the collaboration and institutional linkages that NGOs in South Asia have with government in a range of sectors. Hence, some scholars have the view that "African NGOs have gained a positive reputation by default - as a response to shortcomings of state intervention - rather than by any systematic review of accomplishments."

From another perspective, the effectiveness of African NGOs has been limited by corruption and lack of accountability. With most of their funds coming from foreign donors, many of their operations lack transparency. In recent times, many "briefcase NGOs" have been formed in Africa for the sole purpose of attracting and funneling foreign funds to private ends. Such corrupt NGOs are always managed as family businesses with two or three members of staff and without a credible board of directors who can direct its activities. Unfortunately foreign donors do have a good knowledge of the internal dynamics of such unscrupulous organizations they sponsor.

Despite their shortcomings, many African NGOs have done incredibly well in a short space of time. Groups like the Empowerment for African Sustainable Development (EASD) in South Africa, Zimbabwe Environmental Research Organization (ZERO) and the Centre for Environmental Resources and Sustainable Ecosystems (CERASE) in Nigeria, pursue true sustainable development objectives through projects in rural Africa. For instance, CERASE, a Nigerian NGO with the partnership of the World Bank initiated the bio-remediation and restoration of the ecology of the Niger Delta region. This region has been subjected to decades of environmental pollution due to oil spill, natural gas flare and many other adverse consequences of oil production. A pilot project started by the group at Ogbogu, a community in one of the largest oil producing areas of Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni local council of Rivers State, "uses plants and micro-organisms to clean up oil spills from the environment, particularly those affecting farmlands and fishing areas."

This is no doubt one of the most meaningful sustainable development projects in the country in recent time for obvious reasons. First, it is a restoration of the ecology and community that has long been neglected by the government and second, the project involves the mobilization and participation of the affected community not only by way of their approval but also by creating jobs for them. This strategy will help to avert the wanton destruction of lives and properties that has characterized community protests against the government and oil companies in the region. Such an example of participatory development approach especially at the grass-root level holds the key to the success of African NGOs in their quest for sustainable development in the region. This is a good illustration that African NGOs are playing critical roles in creating development options for the poor.

Despite their limited resources coupled with the discouraging political environment under which they operate, African NGOs are proving that there is no single path to development, nor is there a single path to poverty reduction. So far, their role is demonstrating a shift from the development paradigm of the past to something new and inclusive. Hence, the indispensability of indigenous NGOs in realizing the objectives of sustainable development in African cannot be overemphasized. African NGOs have a lot of rooms for improvement. But they cannot realize their full potential in isolation. They need the political commitment of African governments coupled with the increased partnership of the professional development world. However, just as democracy in the region needs to be groomed and nurtured, so also are the roles and structures of African NGOs. The increasing obstacles to sustainability in Africa is a direct challenge to NGOs in the region to give priority to horizontal and downward accountability, to the people they are serving. To ensure accountability in the activities and operations of NGOs, African governments must regulate them adequately. This is to ensure their proper integration in the entire gamut of development process in the sub-Saharan Africa.