An honest conversation about the problems facing NGOs today is long overdue. We are not making enough progress in our fight against poverty, hunger, AIDS and other challenges that our region faces. Why? Part of the problem is with how some NGOs operate, especially larger organisations. The other problem is with funding, as most donors work in a bureaucratic and inefficient way. Could we not start using some logic, honesty and commonsense and implement some new solutions?
I have run an NGO called Indlu Finlandia for the last two years in Swaziland. We offer free training in design, sculpture, sewing, beadwork, life and business skills to the unemployed. Indlu was set up by a group of local board members who all have a background in business and wished to assist the unemployed in a constructive way.
Starting a new job in the NGO world after a background of being in business was quite a shock. It took months to understand all the jargon and rules while trying to get to grips with the challenge of training unemployed people. I asked a lot of questions from NGOs but got very few coherent replies. I realised that I would have to trust my own gut feelings about how to move ahead.
Our free book “A Practical Guide to Grassroots Training in Southern Africa” is based on what we learned. I wish somebody had given me a copy when I started, because it would have made my work a lot easier! The book talks about how NGOs need to work hard, in an organised business-like manner and be creative and innovative. It is not just about how to train others, but how to train ourselves to be more effective. The feedback has been great so far, people like the straight talking and the cartoons make them laugh.
We at Indlu think we are effective, so do the students, and the many NGOs and companies we work together with, but it appears as if donors do not. So who is right? The problem appears to be with words like “effective” and “sustainable” as donors view these in a totally different way compared to businesses.
Donors have strange ideas on what is effective as they adore puffed up figures and mysterious development aid concepts thought up in a back room in Brussels. They would be thrilled if I stated that Indlu had trained 14 948 people last year in setting up a business! Local business people would fall off their chair laughing and it would reinforce their negative perceptions of NGOs. Many businesses fund charities but wish to see their money being spent wisely. If they sponsor a soup kitchen that feeds orphans they will hardly ask it to be self sustaining as they understand it will need constant funding. But if the NGO uses funds to buy new 4 x 4s instead of a second hand van they will stop helping. Yet we see donors funding large NGOs whose first priority is having a fleet of new cars and computers and booking tickets to conferences in Geneva. Businesses understand how you do not overspend in your first year of business; if they operated like many of the larger NGOs (or some governments) they would be bankrupt in three months.
A business would understand the importance of funding reasonable salaries and rent in order to be effective, but would expect hard work and good results. Start small, buy second hand equipment and be innovative. Donors go two ways: for small local NGOs they think funding rent and wages is not necessary for some strange reason and yet the big aid organisations seem to have funding to rent entire office blocks and be staffed with too many overseas experts on huge salaries. Businesses prefer to get brief factual reports and would reward an NGO for coming up with innovative ideas as they understand the need to be dynamic in these competitive and changing times. Donors do not welcome innovative ideas but stick to safe, outdated bureaucratic formulas.
Many NGOs fill the gap that local governments should be occupying, by assisting the poor, ill and vulnerable. If they work hard, fill a much needed gap and do not misuse funds, they should get continued funding. There should also be a focus on local governments funding them so they are not dependent on foreign aid. Do not make them waste time filling out incomprehensible forms which takes all their time and energy away from the valuable work they do. And what is it with these ridiculously complicated application forms? I have been told that this way the donors weed out people who are too stupid to run a project, yet many people who run successful businesses have stared at these forms blankly. Also NGOs need to speak out honestly to donors and governments on reform that is necessary. If they play along because they want to keep their jobs, then who are they really helping?
NGOs involved in income generating projects are important, but their funding has to be assessed on the basis of their results. Could we not have the donors, who decide on funding, work together with the local business sector and actually listen to their advice? I feel that having these decisions made by bureaucrats only, simply does not work. Effective income generating projects are vital now, as I have seen the results in communities where food aid is being distributed continuously and it is turning people into beggars.
At Indlu we have found that the unemployed people who train with us just want a job so they could have some money. There are no unemployment benefits in Swaziland. Most of our students have dropped out of school due to lack of funding. Many of them have little or no work experience. They end up being ignored by society yet they are a large majority of the country. We have met so many amazing people with such potential and untapped talent who deserve to be given an opportunity to improve their lives!
Everybody is very excited about training and workshops. But they are all quick fixes. There are endless workshops with many certificates and glowing reports and yet absolutely nothing changes. Businesses would confirm that there is no quick fix and be ready for lots of hard work before you see any results at all. When I started at Indlu we offered free training but we did not pay transport costs. Students would borrow money in order to attend, or walk. They could not afford to attend a three-month training course so ours run from three to 14 days. There was no point in issuing a certificate in sewing and telling them to go home and set up a business as they had no money. So we started offering them workspace, tools and materials at our centre so they could learn to make products to sell. Their training continues while they are actually working; we all learn better this way.
Very few people on this planet want to be entrepreneurs or even have the skills and capital needed for it. Despite this we are being told that to solve the unemployment crisis it would be a good idea to set everybody up in business! This is simply wishful thinking.
At Indlu we were stuck; there were so few jobs available for the students and they did not have the skills or money to set up a micro business. This is why we also set ourselves up as a business. Students like to have a place to work as a team, meet customers, make money and keep learning. When you are out of work, sick, poor or surrounded by chaos at home it is great to come to a place where everything is in order. Indlu also focuses on instilling a creative way of thinking and being; this cannot be done in a one day workshop. It grows every day at our centre as we are all learning together and working hard. It saves money and time if we are all together rather than breaking up into a 100 micro businesses. And how many spaza shops are really needed anyway?
Donors baffle me when they say that Indlu should be self sustainable by now. Well, if I was going to set up a company in order to make a profit/be self sustainable then I really would not be hiring unemployed people with no skills would I? I would hunt around for the most talented people.
At Indlu, students earn income from orders we get, not from our budget. The more orders we get, the more we train and that way money gets spread around. Customers have one place to visit which makes it easier. We hire the students who show potential and ambition. Overseas consultants and experts have their uses, but are expensive and NGOs should focus on hiring local talent. Our centre could grow, with a staff of five we could work with 300 people. Then we would also be a role model for micro businesses to visit. We work in arts and crafts but this concept could be used in other sectors.
We had a plan for the next three years but unfortunately have been unable to get funding. Reasons given were included, “not self sustaining”, “not effective”, “too small”, in the wrong country etc. Logic seems to play no part in the reasons provided.
But the good news is the amazing response we have had to our book. So many people, from rural goat farmers to civil servants, have come by to share their stories with us. It has been wonderful to share ideas with other NGOs who have struggled with similar experiences. I look forward to getting feedback from people who read our book and from the workshop on 13 of August in Durban that Umcebo Trust is organising. Free copies of the book will be distributed and there will be a talk on how and why it was written, along with some practical workshops on how to be more effective. I will also talk about the idea of having more NGO business centres set up instead of focusing on endless quick fix training.
There are many amazing local NGOs that deserve proper funding. They also need to link up and develop dramatic and innovative strategies if they wish to be effective. This involves challenging the donors in how funding operates.