That sinking feeling in Somalia? The trouble with NGOs in the Horn of Africa

That sinking feeling in Somalia? The trouble with NGOs in the Horn of Africa

There has been welcome progress in the NGO sector in Somalia during recent years, with many new organisations setting up around the country. However, questions have been asked about the degree to which they are helping to support peace and development work, with international aid money flowing in and the potential for corruption increasing.

 Suggested Reading Conflict Background GCCT

By Abdiwahab M. Ali

After the 1991 downfall of government led by Siad-Barre, a new era of great decadence began in Somalia, which continues to this day. The country found itself in the midst of an intense struggle for power, featuring prominent Somali clans and warlords. The bloody civil war which ensued was followed by several humanitarian crises, with an estimated 350,000 peopel dying as result of f ighting, kidnappings and other problems linked to conflict.

Although more than 20 peace-building conferences on Somalia have been held since the demise of Siad Barre, none has brought lasting peace in Somalia. They have failed because of a lack of local participation, and the influence of clan-based interests where there has been. Regional and international interventions in Somalian affairs have further complicated matters.

However, in the wake of disintegration of the Somalian state in 1992, numerous NGOs were formed. This upshot of the civil war has helped to bolster the strength of indigenous voices, and contributed to the rise of self-help groups aimed at improving people’s lives in the absence of government.

Somalians have seen tremendous growth in the size, scope, and activities of the non-profit sector. They all claim to be dedicated to improving people’s lives and livelihoods, curbing poverty, fighting against injustice and exploitation.

They have often been established with the backing of international actors, including the UN and several other international agencies, which work to implement relief and humanitarian interventions with local partners.

The credibility gap

But as the sector develops, so do arguments over the actual impact it has on the lives of those it claims to serve.

Indeed, when I visited Somalia last year, I was very worried to see that many local NGOs have disappeared, with few replacing them.

Problems but potential: the status of NGOs in Somalia

Research has shown that NGOs experience a number of common problems and dilemmas, including internal decision-making processes, recruitment, retention of staff, layoffs, and accountability, evaluation, structural growth, and fund raising activities.

From my experience and observations of local people and organisations, it appears the much of the decline of Somalian NGOs is self-inflicted. Below are four common challenges facing then:

Donor dependency

NGOs are non-profit generating organisations, and must offer their services for the greater cause of Somalis. However, some community organisations are driven less by vision, morals and beliefs, and more by the need to generate earnings. Such money-minting behaviour is an indication of the presence of vested interests, and erodes the local credibility of such organisations. It is also typical for the founders of NGOs in Somalia to be their chief executive as well. Often, what they do is establish an organisation, develop a donor-recipient relationship with foreign NGOs, take photographs of supposed work which has taken place, and use these as false evidence for having completed a project, in order to gain access to donor funds.

Corruption and poor leadership

These problems are a nation-wide hindrance not just to NGOs, but to democracy and good governance generally. As youth specialist Mohamoud Yosuf says:

Some NGOs in Somalia put their principles into practice, but too many are becoming part of the problem, instead of the solution. They’ve last their public image of being honest brokers. Some locals dub them ‘brief-case’ NGOs – organisations which exist only on paper, in order to make their owners money. They need to work for the sake of their community

Gender bias

Many who claim to be helping minorities and vulnerable groups in Somalia, including women, children and the elderly, actually ignore those very same people. No properly inclusive process can function in this way.

Geographical location

A great fault, which has surprised me a lot during my research, is how many local NGOs run very similar projects, with the same objectives. And these are often in the same, usually urban, areas. Clearly there are disadvantages to working in rural settings, but it is important not to neglect people living and working away from towns and cities.

Correcting the trend

The general growth in Somalian NGOs is to be welcomed. They provide vital services, and reach sectors of the population who otherwise would not be able to access services.

But the private actions and public image of these local NGOs is far from positive. By taking the following steps, they will be able to regain the full confidence and trust of local people and international organisations in Somalia.

First, efforts should be made to formulate good organisational structures: being flexible, innovative and inclusive of all those relevant to the issue they are working on.

Second, the accountability, transparency, and efficiency of NGOs needs to be improved. Although a large undertaking, establishing an independent authority to assess actual and claimed NGO achievement would be one step towards doing this.

Third, and most importantly, the civil society sector in general and local NGOs in particular should turn to grassroots communities and evaluate themselves and their performance. They should work collectively, wherever possible avoiding competing for resources and sharing technical know-how.

And last but no means least, donors should think twice about to whom they give aid, providing funding based on the reality on the ground, not merely for the sake of funding.

Trying to avoid past mistakes will make it much easier to promote social justice and development, across all of Somalia.

Abdiwahab M. Ali is a Somalia-based freelance writer and researcher

This article was originally published by Insight on Conflict and is available by clicking here.


Interested in writing for TransConflict? Contact us now by clicking here!

What are the principles of conflict transformation?

Email