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Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (NGOs and UNHCR) - NGO self-coordination

Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (NGOs and UNHCR) - NGO self-coordination
Refugees (97, III - 1994)

1 September 1994
A representative of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies looks at coordination among NGOs.

A representative of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies looks at coordination among NGOs.

By Jon Bennet

Coordination is a value-laden word. It often causes a knee-jerk reaction from those who have no wish to be "controlled" or swamped by interminable layers of bureaucracy. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in particular have traditionally resisted institutionalized cooperation among each other, though this may be changing. The last decade has seen a discernible shift in favour of closer, more routine cooperation among those who deal with the ever increasing demands of humanitarian assistance.

Partly, this is a necessary response to the sheer scale of the operations underway. NGOs collectively spend an estimated $9-10 billion annually, reaching some 250 million people living in absolute poverty. International governments increasingly channel resources, especially for emergencies, through their favoured NGOs rather than allegedly less accountable governments of the South. In several emergencies of the late 1980s and early 1990s, short-term money available to NGOs - albeit mostly to international NGOs - surpassed even that of the United Nations. NGOs are now the frontline forces of "neutral" intervention and are more closely linked to the United Nations, EC and donor governments than ever before. This could not have been foreseen in the days when NGOs simply filled the gaps at a grass-roots level. As the number of crises demanding our attention increases, so too does the number of new NGOs willing to meet that demand. The international safety net of voluntary assistance has never been so buoyant.

However, the phenomenal increase in the number, size and financial status of NGOs in the 1980s and 1990s has to a large extent happened without close inspection of their actual performance. For all their laudable success, some NGOs have been guilty of poor practice, wastage and a lack of professionalism which to a large extent has gone unchecked. They tend to throw a veil of secrecy over actions that would not stand up to public scrutiny, and NGO programmes are rarely evaluated independently. Critics of NGOs have pointed to a lack of accountability, mutual competitiveness and poor coordination as perhaps the three most serious charges levelled at the so-called Third Sector. Alarm has also been expressed about the fact that some NGOs have "crowded out" governments by offering better resources and salaries and, in some cases, have made little secret of their wish to replace government structures. Another serious charge is that Northern NGOs have failed to transfer skills to any significant degree to their Southern counterparts.

Over the past year, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) has confronted some of these charges head on. ICVA's significant membership in the South is demanding that far more attention be payed to building local capacities, even during emergencies where the tendency has been to bypass developmental principles in favour of rapid responses dominated by Northern capital and Northern agencies. The so-called relief to development continuum, much favoured in the PARinAC process, is still only at the blueprint stage. The signs are, however, that donors will be increasingly receptive to channelling money through Southern NGOs in the future as part of an attempt to bolster local institutions, the guardians of civil society.

As a contribution to this process, ICVA has looked specifically at NGO coordination bodies and their role in promoting a more efficient space in which NGOs can collectively exert influence, especially during an emergency. In a forthcoming book, comparisons are drawn between eight case studies from around the world. Although the size and sophistication of NGO coordination bodies vary considerably, a number of common themes emerged. In Lebanon, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Mozambique, for instance, the NGO coordination bodies have been instrumental in bringing the NGO community into close dialogue with U.N. agencies. They have also developed local codes of conduct for NGOs, including very specific guidelines for health, agriculture and food delivery programmes. Most importantly, the coordination bodies have mapped out where and in what sectors the NGOs work, thus minimizing the duplication of projects.

ICVA will continue its programme of support for NGO coordination bodies, especially those umbrella organizations formed by local NGOs in developing countries. A handbook on how to set up such bodies is now available and training programmes will soon be underway. Behind these initiatives lies the belief that if NGOs as a community have something unique to offer, then a greater degree of NGO coordination at field level is crucial in realizing that potential. The U.N.'s own coordinating role in emergencies will be better served by having a representative NGO umbrella body that it can relate to. Coordination "owned" by NGOs is not a bureaucratic imposition designed to stifle the independence and imagination of individual NGOs; it is a tool for increasing the effectiveness of a collective endeavour. The challenge is to design a structure conducive to strengthening cooperation without limiting the freedom of any one participant.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (1994)