How International Development can increase its impact: Follow the lead of local experts

International development wants to contribute to people having equal opportunities around the world; for example to access education, health care or a clean environment. That’s the vision that many nonprofits and development workers share. Yet, working for years in development cooperation ourselves, we experienced that the sector in itself is unequal. In turn, leading to ineffective collaboration, projects and results. Time to change!

Dr Karambu Ringera & Inemarie Dekker

Below we show this systemic inequality in international development, based on data. We explain from our own experiences thus, from a Dutch and Kenyan perspective. But we also look into what can be alternatives instead.

When I came back from a week working in Kenya, where I interviewed colleagues about the solutions and opportunities they had for a follow-up programme, my Dutch manager told me: “I don’t care what they told you in Kenya, I know better what should be in that programme proposal.”

I was shocked. But the years after that event, I started to realise that — although it often came with nicer behaviours — decisions are hardly ever made by my African colleagues with similar diplomas and expertise, but behind Dutch desks.

From a Kenyan perspective it looks like this: “Donors give money to do specific activities at International Peace Initiatives (IPI), let’s say for a water tank,” explains Dr Karambu, founder and director of IPI in Meru (Kenya). “They specify what they want done, even though they have not been to Kenya to actually experience and see how life is here. By the time the money arrives, priorities may have changed; a child is sick or school fees are not enough. At IPI we need donors to trust us, that we know what we are doing when we choose to take a kid for medical treatment and pay school fees so that they do not lose a day of school, knowing full well that the tank will be bought at a later date.”

IPI is an expert organisation that, for example, improved lives of 2,000 youth in the past 11 years with a modest budget, creating solutions together with them. Today, there is no project donated for that we have not completed.

“Still there is a lack of trust in African-led nonprofits. Recently one donor wanted to know what we did with funds for a program that was cut short by COVID-19. I said the funds are in the account. I was asked this question three different times and one of my staff was also asked in a separate email. When we confirmed yes, the funds are in the account, we were then asked to send a statement to prove the same.” Dr Karambu adds. “It’s something that really bothers me.”

It is certainly not how I learned international development should be like: being supportive to decisions made by the people concerned and co-creating solutions that serve them best; not northerners leading the solutions. But still, what makes us think in the North that we do have the solutions for far-away problems?

In 2006, Dr Karambu sat in a class titled ‘International Development’ at a university in USA. “Soon I understood that the underlying assumption was that (white) USA students were being prepared to go out to other countries to ‘develop’ people. I then pointed out that I did not think USA was a good example of a developed nation because of the levels of poverty I had seen as a student there. What’s more, I said to the class that I am from Kenya, a so called ‘developing nation’, where we measure prosperity in terms of the welfare of everyone in the community. So, if everyone in the community is able to meet their basic needs for food, health, protection and shelter, then a nation can be said to be ‘developed.’ The class broke into an uproar.”

Moreover, when I graduated myself in International Development (in the same year) I got the advice to work for a few years in Africa to gain working experience and get one of that scarce jobs in development cooperation. Most vacancies were responsible positions in emergency situations. From an African perspective again, they will receive these inexperienced graduates to solve complex problems in a context they don’t know. What could possibly be the impact of that…?!

As I didn’t see myself working in conflict areas, I started working from the Netherlands, traveling a few times a year to several African countries. Still young, I could be away for several months per visit. After I’ve got children, my trips became shorter — it was for just one week each time. I found the traveling fun, but I also started wondering what the added value was of doing those short visits.

Dr Karambu explains another perspective: “some donors only come for a few days, because they have other more important things that they want to do (like a safari) while in Kenya. In this hurry, they never quite get to understand the Kenyan circumstances.” Or an external (white) “expert comes and interviews people, takes notes, goes back home and creates a solution; then comes back to implement her or his findings to the researched community, if at all they come back. More often than not, the so-called expert misdiagnosed the problem in the community because of miscommunication, misunderstanding or false interpretations.” This approach has led to many unsuccessful projects that didn’t make a significant change in the lives of people, as envisioned. And oftentimes, “when these projects fail, the people on the ground are blamed.”

It was only last year, that I came to realise that these inequalities, were there for a reason. It’s the system itself that makes us — northern development workers — think we can come up with solutions for far-away problems and that puts the decision-making power in white hands.

And this is a glimpse of how the system works:

First of all, following the money; a meagre 1% of the Dutch Ministry’s budget for development cooperation is going directly to nonprofits in Africa, Asia or Latin America. And 30% of this budget meant for projects in so-called developing countries will never leave the Netherlands. It means that most of the development budget is distributed through Dutch organisations, who are holding the power in the decision-making about what are solutions in places like Meru in Kenya. And it’s no different from other European countries.

Secondly, most INGOs don’t engage the beneficiaries in design, planning or elevation, says Willem Elbers — senior researcher International Development at Nijmegen University — so they often don’t account for weak solutions or even failures. More so, action research from Context revealed that there are often more than eight (!) actors between a donor and a beneficiary, who all take a share, but hardly add any value in terms of impact.

And thirdly, “racism — whether conscious or not — is part of the organisational structure,” writes Kiza Magendane, “and is rooted in our history.” I can see it from examples like this manager s the start of this blog believing she knows better (and I know many more examples). And that it took me 15 years (!) to see it.

Dr Karambu sees it in “case studies painting this picture of the ‘other’ as someone who did not know themselves and had to know who they are through an expert from outside their community and nation, in the skin of a white person. This is what colonialism is about. It is sadly, still very alive in international development discourse today.” And sometimes it gets openly racist. “Once I asked a friend from USA why they behave like this and he said: ‘It is because we think we know everything and are better than you’.”

As an individual it’s not easy — and probably even impossible — to be in the system and change it at the same time. (I’ve tried — maybe that’s a follow-up story ;)) And we do need to change the system, to be able to actually collaborate and achieve better results and more impact in international development.

For real systemic change to take place, we need new alternatives. We need to turn the tables. That’s why we decided to build a living example of how that can be. That is iMPACT direct.

With iMPACT direct it is now possible to directly donate to professional and reliable African nonprofits. And the money comes without strings attached. The nonprofit itself decides what to do with the donations. As a donor you directly contribute to their solutions and impact. And donors can read the NGO’s unfiltered and unedited updates and reports on our website.

Dr Karambu’s concludes: “It’s my dream for IPI to be self-reliant in the long run through IPI’s approach andunconditional donations. Dare to trust us!”

See more of iMPACT direct: www.impactdirect.eu/#about

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Karambu Ringera, Doctor of Philosophy in Human Communication. She is the founder and director of the nonprofit International Peace Initiatives (IPI) in Meru, Kenya. Since 2003, her foundation enables vulnerable people to reclaim their power, voice and agency.

Inemarie Dekker, holds a Masters in International Development Studies and has worked for 14 years in development cooperation, from which were 9 years as a freelancer at several organisations. She is the founder of iMPACT direct foundation, Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

Sources used:

• The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation spends on average 1% of its budget to NGOs in Africa, Asia or Latin America. 31% of the budget even remains in the Netherlands!

Evelyne Bruning (director of the NGO called The Hunger Project): ‘When you look at the direct institutional financing of the Dutch government to southern NGOs between 2003 and 2020, this is just one percent. And if you ask: what about the the power relations? Then the answer is: There are no power relations. (Sources: the Guardian, Vice Versa, Trouw)

• 45–60% of an NGO’s budget will reach the final beneficiaries. (Source: an interviewee with an officer of Give Directly in Dominee of Koopman)

• NGOS on average spend 20% on overhead costs (e.g. staff and offices). When offices would be in Africa and hire local experts it will safe costs. (Source: max 20% overhead is a criterium used in fundraising).

• Private initiatives and crowdfund-actions generally also send a large percentage directly to the good cause. Crowdfund platforms ask between 5% and 13% of the total income. Moreover, reliability is not assured.

• Sometimes more than 8 actors are involved between donor and receiver in development cooperation, often hardly adding any value. (Action Research Context)

• About percentages of fundraisers from big NGOs I cannot find figures.

Als passagier in plaats van chauffeur, Olivia Rutazibwa, Groene Amsterdammer Belgisch-Rwanderse onderzoekster (8/7/2020)

Discrimination and Prejudice in Development, Célestin Monga, Brookings (15/07/2020)

• Video Willem Elbers on the 3 flaws of development collaboration (i.e. looking for holy grail in development behind Northern desks; decision-making by northern partners; beneficiaries’ voices/accountability are not taken into account) (August 2020): https://www.linkedin.com/posts/inemarie-dekker_thursdaythoughts-amid-youhaveaparttoplay-activity-6715211926877544448-yDSm

• Article of Kiza Magadene in the Broker about racism in system of development collaboration (Oct 2020): https://partos.nl/actueel/nieuws/artikel/news/a-hard-look-in-the-mirror-reflecting-on-racism-and-whiteness-in-the-development-sector/

iMPACT direct connects a large group of donors to underfunded locally-led NGOs. We strengthen these impactful non-profits by making donating simple and direct.