This is a post I wrote for Why.Dev: committed to getting development right, a really important online community that thinks critically and constructively about development. The post is co-authored with Renee Black of PeaceGeeks, a Canadian NGO that is working with Dalia Association right now. I’ve been the main contact person with PeaceGeeks on Dalia Association’s behalf, and I initiated the post because it’s nice to share a positive experience every once in a while!
Is anything going right in NGO-INGO relations? By Nora Lester Murad and Renee Black
Nora Lester Murad, volunteer, Dalia Association:
Something is definitely wrong in NGO-INGO relations. Tension keeps popping up at global meetings and in social media exchanges. Some of it, I think, is the same power struggle as that between locals and donors (e.g., who decides how resources are used, who decides what “success” means, etc.), but there’s another aspect that’s about who “we” are as civil society, and how we manage power and privilege within “our” family. From my experience in Palestine, the disconnect is getting wider. Too often, internationals focus on projects and outputs that make sense in their organisational and funding context, but fail to take responsibility for their collective impact on local civil society – we are getting weaker and less sustainable as a result of international “aid.”
I find myself thinking about these issues all the time. I talk to colleagues around the world. I raise these issues whenever I write or speak at meetings. And the response I get is very challenging.
People say: “We understand your criticisms, but what do you suggest we do differently?”
In other words, knowing what’s wrong in NGO-INGO relations isn’t enough. We need to know how to do it better. But sadly, while I’ve had many bad and neutral experiences, I haven’t had many good ones. That’s why I’m happy to share my recent experience with PeaceGeeks, a Canadian NGO that is helping Dalia Association, a Palestinian NGO, to run an online competition.
What is PeaceGeeks doing right?
1- They called us.
PeaceGeeks contacted Dalia Association, first by email and then by Skype. As the English-speaking volunteer, I was asked to respond (we had never heard of them). Because we didn’t initiate a request for money, the dynamics lacked that sense we often feel of begging, trying to impress, of being evaluated.
2-They show respect for our leadership.
Having already read Dalia’s website, PeaceGeeks asked questions about our organisation and the context we work in. They were in learning mode; we were the experts. They also shared honestly about their organisation and their previous work. This left me feeling like there was a chance to create something together rather than being forced to take or leave a pre-packaged project on someone else’s terms.
3-They bring expertise we don’t have and at a high level.
PeaceGeeks is a collective of technical volunteers. They have expertise we don’t have. That feels very different than working with an INGO that only has money to offer.
4-They respect our timeline and limitations.
We have not been able to move as fast as PeaceGeeks. They are a huge team ready to implement ideas right away. Dalia is a small, grassroots NGO that doesn’t even have sufficient English capacity. So far, PeaceGeeks has been flexible and willing to move more slowly, making the effort to bring Arabic speakers onto their team, and understanding of our need for collective decision-making processes.
5-They are creative and responsive.
When we had difficulty coming up with the name for our philanthropy competition, they offered to incorporate a brainstorming activity into a volunteer recruitment event they were holding in Canada. Then they did extra outreach to recruit Canadian-Palestinians to participate as volunteers.
6-They act like partners.
At all steps in the process, they have shared with us what is happening on their end. For example, they explained how their board decides which projects to take on, and what kind of scrutiny we’d be subjected to. They also copy us on notes to their team so we are in the loop.
Our project—a competition to recognise Palestinian philanthropy around the world—is just starting, and there are much more work to do with PeaceGeeks around the technological interface, social media, and design. It’s a lot, and we might not be able to pull it off without help. So how do I feel so far having PeaceGeeks on our side? Hopeful.
Renee Black of PeaceGeeks:
PeaceGeeks began working with Dalia after a great chat where we could see both a clear vision of what they wanted to accomplish, and a clear role we could play a role in helping them to achieve it. Dalia is tackling a complex set of intertwined systematic issues. In the short term, they aim to challenge the perception that Palestinians are takers and not givers. The long-term objective is to engage more Palestinians in philanthropy and on questions on the effective use local resources to address local issues, towards reducing dependency on international aid and strengthening local accountability.
Breaking this unsustainable and disempowering pattern is no simple task. Dalia has chosen to begin addressing this problem through a contest that asks Palestinian youth to identify examples of Palestinian philanthropy in its various forms, whether it be sharing money, time, resources, talents and networks. They want a culture among youth who see that they have a role to play in addressing issues that affect their communities.
After meeting with Dalia, we identified three key areas where we could help make this contest possible. First, they needed a web developer to help create the website pages for the contest on their website and to train their web team in Jordan in how to replicate and manage these pages. Second, they needed a campaign name, brand and logo to help communicate the contest to stakeholders. Third, they needed help in building the capacities of their staff to make effective of use social media and blogging tools to spread the word about the contest to youth and solicit submissions. And all of this needed to happen in a very short time frame because of cutoff from one of their donors.
At first, we weren’t sure if we would be able to help because of the short turn-around time, but the project quickly piqued the interest of our volunteers, and within three days, we recruited web developer Scott Nelson, Arabic-speaking graphic designer Neeveen Bhadur and social media expert Carey Sessoms. We are now recruiting an experienced Arabic-speaking blogger to help Dalia to understand how blogging can help with their work. Along the way, we have been talking to Dalia about their evolving situation and making sure that the help that we are providing is timely and relevant.
We see our role as enablers of change. We can’t lead initiatives to address issues affecting people in other places. But what we do is help organisations like Dalia to get the tools and capacities they need to execute projects, better manage their resources or reach and engage their constituents effectively so they can solve local issues. And in the process, our volunteers get an incredible opportunity to both learn about how communities around the world are solving local problems and playing a role in helping them do it.
Check back for a follow up post in three months or so as we look back honestly about what worked and what didn’t. Meanwhile…
What are your experiences with local NGO-INGO relations?