4 ways Kenyan NGOs want international partners to do better on capacity building

A cross-sector panel discussing the main components for success of aid & development at the 2017 AidEx Nairobi conference. Photo by: AidEx

NAIROBI — Donors and international NGOs have not done enough to strengthen local partners, including governments and NGOs, a number of Kenya-based organizations and officials argued at the AidEx Nairobi conference this week.

Local groups used the discussion on aid effectiveness to express their frustration at what they described as a disconnect between pledges and policy. High-level aid discussions have prioritized local capacity building for over a decade, but aid programming still isn’t following through, they said.

Past declarations have been “only talk and no action,” Surein Peiris, national society development regional coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said during a panel discussion.

While such tensions are not new, the AidEx conference offered a unique window into the level of discontentment local organizations see in international NGO and aid agency policies. Kenyan NGOs and government representatives said that their work is undervalued. International groups — who are also worried about due diligence — rarely inject money into these NGOs directly, preventing them from growing and hiring the right expertise. Meanwhile, they said, INGOs often overlook their local expertise.

To improve the relationship moving forward, AidEx Nairobi panelists argued that donors and international NGOs should ensure that local capacity building funds are built into their budgets. INGOs should defer to local actors on development strategies, they said. Here are a few of the specific frustrations they highlighted — and suggestions for how INGOs could do better.

1. Don’t withdraw or wind down a project without local capacity in place.

International actors broadly under-invest in capacity building, said Peiris. Too often, aid actors enter and exit a setting without working with local entities on improving their own systems.

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According to a report from Development Initiatives, local and national NGOs received only 1.5 percent of international humanitarian assistance channeled through NGOs in 2016.

Without this investment, relationships of dependency are created, which leave local institutions vulnerable to becoming weaker than they were before the aid arrived, said Janet Mawiyoo, executive director of the Kenya Community Development Foundation, during a panel discussion.

To remedy this, a certain percentage of the budget of humanitarian missions and development programs should be set aside for local capacity building, said Peiris. 

A report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on donor support to women’s organizations, for example, found that unrestricted support is vital to these groups and activists, so that they can ensure minimum wages and social entitlements for their employees, along with strengthening them to strategically adapt their organizations and have the capacity to withstand backlash.         

2. Consider funding local NGO overhead costs to ensure local expertise is retained.

Local actors are asked to provide services and implement projects. Rarely are they granted unrestricted funding or overhead costs by donors, which stunts their growth, said Degan Ali, executive director of Adeso, a Kenyan nonprofit.

“So what happens? You don’t have the money to pay for proper finance people, proper HR people, develop your systems. You are in this perpetual system of being finger pointed at, saying you don’t have the capacity,” she said.

Funding restraints can also limit the ability of local actors to retain talented personnel. What happens, she said, is that local actors often take risks on hiring and training people, who gain experience working on the ground and are then poached by larger agencies for a higher salary.

Integrating unrestricted funding and overhead costs for local actors into aid budgets can help to change this, said Ali.

3. Balance due diligence with trust in local partners.

Too much value is placed on “due diligence” in determining whether local actors are trustworthy enough to handle international funds, Ali said.

To remedy this, conversations on capacity need to be broadened beyond corruption, she said. Ali also called on Kenyans to create a national development fund, almost exclusively financed by Kenyans, so that local actors have more control over the country’s development strategies.

4. Value local knowledge, including in policy and programming discussions. 

Local actors capacity is often undervalued, Ali said. Local NGOs might have a better understanding of the context they are operating in and could have the ability to respond more quickly to crises, among other strengths.

Local governments should drive the discussion around development in their countries, said James Odour, chief executive officer of Kenya’s National Drought Management Authority, during a panel discussion. This includes taking ownership over their own national development policies.

The judgement of local entities should carry more weight in policy discussions, said Ali. She pointed to Somalia, which was one of the first countries where cash transfers were implemented. Adeso proposed the use of cash in 2002, she said, but these efforts fell on deaf ears. Critics told her at the time that cash assistance program would be inappropriate in the Somali context, where the funds could be used for guns.

Adeso proposed the use of cash because of the context surrounding the drought, the economic situation for pastoralists, and observations that aid recipients were selling the food they received to have cash, said Ali. “It was our understanding of the context and the pastoral system that allowed us to propose cash, not the INGOs.”

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About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is a global health reporter based in Nairobi. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, and Bloomberg News, among others. Sara holds a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2018, part of a Vice News Tonight on HBO team that received an Emmy nomination in 2018 and received the Philip Greer Memorial Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. She has reported from over a dozen countries.