The other side of grants to Africa, who are the beneficiaries?

James T. Cooper, General Secretary/CEO, Association of Evangelicals of Liberia

At first glance, one may think that there is a bias or unfairness in the way human society is structured with regards to how natural resources are geographically distributed, the issue of poverty, sicknesses, natural and man-made disasters, and so on. As a Christian, I believe that the diversity, mixture and complexity of God’s arrangements in the affairs of man are for our good and to insure that we become our brothers’ keeper.

I wish to honestly admit that some of our brothers and sisters in Europe and the Americas have graciously demonstrated their brotherly love by sharing their resources, sometimes to a large extent , to help the needs in Africa, for which we are grateful. I am aware that some of these donations come from people who themselves are not wealthy, and who have needs of their own, but chose to sacrifice their comfort to help the most needing. Their donations are then channeled through their governments or national or international organizations as grants for the most needing, particularly in Africa and Asia.

As I look back and reflect on it, I’m saddened by the fact that donations sometimes do not go to where the most needing persons are. Furthermore, donations made to some of the governments and international organizations in Europe and America for humanitarians needs in Africa and Asia either end up going back to Europe or America through clever arrangements or to institutions that “meet the application requirements”.  Many of these governments and institutions in Europe or the Americas institute stringent, rigorous and complicated requirements as prequalification for local organizations in Africa, in order to access grants in a crowded field of humanitarian organizations and donor fatigue. In the end, the most needing communities do not get listened to because an average local organization does not have enough capacity to meet the “requirements”.

In addition to the prequalification requirements, is a long list of demands for things that are new to Africa, like counter terrorism check report, policy on gay, lesbian, transgender, etc.  It is good to have bench marks to consider before approving applications, but if these bench marks defeat the very purpose and intent of the donations, then they are not worth it. The Europeans and Americans need to understand that grant application requirements should be realistic, simple, easy to comprehend and contextualized as per the condition in Africa, but without losing integrity, accountability and fairness.

On the other hand, local organizations who are passionate about the needs of their communities will devise  means to meet these requirements in order to access grants. They could either hire a consultancy firm or a consultant who understands the European “requirements”; or at least is able to speak in the language of the Europeans. This cost will then be charged to the grant directly or indirectly during project budgeting. This is funds spent not on needs, but preliminaries due to complicated requirements, thereby reducing what goes into direct project activities.

In worst case scenario, European governments sometimes employ international NGOs who come with huge numbers of “expats” to do direct project implementation. I am not opposed to people coming to help us in Africa, but it has its price in relation to the beneficiaries. These “expats” are given accommodation allowances, health insurances, rest and recuperation allowances (R&R), food allowances, allowances for working on weekends and the likes. The irony is that someone hired locally and performing the same duty gets less than 30% of what these “expats” get. And I have noticed with regrets that some of these “expats” have actually come to learn.

Africa is grateful to the many generous people from Europe and America, but due to bureaucratic requirements, many of the donations do not reach the people most needed. Some of these requirements need to be revised, with the intention of making them more relevant to Africa. Thereby it will be easier for the most needy to get access to funds.

International NGOs need to stop importing foreign staff into Africa for duties that could be performed by local staff. By building local capacity and hiring more qualified local staff, the high overhead cost on expats will be reduced, and spending on direct project activities will be increased. Hiring more local staff will empower local families, increase staff confidence and reduce dependency.