How NGOs in Rich Countries Control their Counterparts in Poor Countries..and Why they Refuse to Resolve it

By Paul Okumu, head of secretariat for the Africa Platform on Governance, Responsible Business and the Social Contract. He is also head of strategy at the Internet of Things Solutions Africa.. Originally published at Inter Press Service

Many NGOs around the world are fighting inequality between the rich and the poor, between the policies that make rich countries richer, and poor countries poorer. So while Civil Society Organizations claim to be equal and are are fighting together to secure space for engagement and to work, the bigger NGOs should also ask themselves why they are unwilling to let others who are less resourced take up the space where their voice can be heard. Why are they unwilling to fight policies that keep rich NGOs richer?

Here are some numbers to show you why this is a battle no Global NGOs is willing to take on.


The total amount of global funding that goes directly to civil society in the Global South. The remaining 97.9% is given directly to International Civil Society Organizations, who then sub contract 87% of the project delivery to Civil Society in the Global South to deliver on projects.

This is according to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and analysis based on working statistics from the OECD Data on allocation of funds to Civil Society and the DAC and CRS Code list.

Despite attempts by Southern Civil Society Organizations to reverse this trend, Northern NGOs have had the standard response for the past ten years “We acknowledge its a problem, but its more complicated than you think.”(Read the latest debate here during the Humanitarian Summit in 2016.)

Attempts to change for Humanitarian NGOs under the Grand Bargain campaign, has hit a deadlock because of very curious reason- disagreement on who is “local”. These goes to demonstrate just how embedded the INGOs are with their Governments. In one classic study, it was found that “while Syrian humanitarian actors were responsible for delivering 75% of the humanitarian assistance in 2014, they received only 0.3% of the direct and 9.3% of the indirect cash funding available for the overall Syria response. Despite their crucial role, Syrian NGO’s struggled to get their most basic costs covered in the sub-contracting and partnership agreements they have with international agencies. While international actors are all committed to transparency, 30% of the known funding remains unknown in terms of which humanitarian actor actually received the funding.” (Read Full study here)


The average annual Salary of a Chief Executive from the Global South. This is equivalent to the average salary of a Junior Project Officer from any civil society Organization from the Europe or North America (including those working in the Global South) and is 11.6 times less than the average salary of a Chief Executive of the Civil Society in the North.

This is according to data derived from IRS Returns of NGOs in the US (Charity Navigator), the Report of the Charity Pay Study by the Third Sector , UK, studies in pay gap between local and international staff by Massey University, studies by Science Direct, Pay studies in developing countries such as Kenya, and analysis of advertised salaries for locals and international staff posted on the UN information and recruitment website Relief Web.

Chief Executives of Southern Civil Society that are considered International in Scope earn just slightly over $35,000 in annual pay-with one exception, BRAC. BRAC is an exception in that while it is technically a Southern NGO, it is considered the largest NGO in the world, and the most well funded, with a vast catalogue of social enterprises, government of Bangladesh Funding and Foreign Government grants for its mainly MDG-type development agenda.

According to a study by Global to Local “The issue of large salary differences between local and international NGOs/agencies 22 have a direct negative impact on capacity and capacity building for local organisations – not least when it comes to crucial staff positions such as project and finance staff. Continuously building the capacity of their staff, just to see them leave for better-paid positions with INGO’s and UN agencies (their so-called partners) is an uphill battle for local actors. One that continues to keep them locked into an ‘underdog’ position vis-à-vis international actors. This kind of continuous “brain drain” is global.”


Percentage of local staff out of the total humanitarian workers in Syria who die in line of duty, according to a studymainly. This is mainly because the poor pay means local actors cannot afford the security measures needed to keep them safe, but also because being their community they tend to be closer to the conflict and respond with greater passion because International NGO Staff are either not in the field, or restrict their movements to security zones in conflict countries.This trend is noted in several other conflict areas around the world.


These studies also show that a record 99.1 % of NGOs in the Global South (that is nearly all of them) are working on a sub-grant basis by the International NGOs, meaning they effectively do not have an agenda of their own and must conform to what is known in the Development Sector as “Shifts in Donor Interests”. Hence, less than 10% of local NGOs are truly local. The negative impact of this on legitimacy, independence and objectivity of local Civil Society Organizations have been analyzed and documented. When asked why they do not give directly to local NGOs, Foreign Governments (commonly known as Donors) have given these five reasons since 1999 (they keep repeating it…See here in this article by BOND, for example:

“Lots of southern and smaller CSOs do not have the capacity to fill in all our forms, let alone spend our money effectively.

We do not have the administrative capacity to give smaller amounts of money.

We need to channel money through a few, trusted partners so that we can manage risk and comply with our own rules.

We have strict anti-terror and anti-money laundering rules that make giving directly difficult.

We are under domestic political pressure to fund through CSOs in our home country.”


The number of NGOs from the Global South that have access and resources to attend Global Platforms such as UN Meetings, OECD Sessions, World Trade Organization meetings or World Bank Meetings. Most Global Platforms are still a preserve of Northern NGOs.

If you include attendance by Global South sub grantees who generally represent the voice and Agenda of the main International NGO sub granter, this figure falls to less than 3%, meaning Global Advocacy is still for and about a Northern Agenda. For example, over 3000 NGOs engaged with the Intergovernmental process leading the development of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development (commonly known as the SDGs). Of these less than 100, or 3.3% were from the Global South.

And this was only possible because of the push by Southern Member states for ECOSOC to dedicate special funding for Civil Society Organizations from the Global South. Interestingly this concern was analyzed as way back as 1999 by the Global Policy Forum. The CARDOSO Report raised a similar concern, even offering proposals, way back in 2004.Civil Society Organizations in the Global South are still waiting to have it resolved!


The size of a project beyond which most European Governments require Southern Civil Society Organization to receive funding through a European NGO, and must have a European Staff to oversee all or part of the leadership of the project, paid for by the grant, at European Rates. This not only significantly depletes the resources available to the Southern Civil Society to implement projects, but forces to recruit European staff with discrepancy pay while deliberately undermining the ability of local Organizations to build their capacity.


The number of Governments and Philanthropists that account for 87.6% of Total Funding to Civil Society around the world.This is according to OECD figures and figures from Philanthropic Organizations. Within the OECD, five countries account for nearly 70% of AID to Civil Society Organizations. In 2018 these were the US, Germany,the UK, Japan (mainly to its own NGOs), and, France (primarily to NGOs in its former colonies).

Critiques have raised concern that with so few Governments controlling such a large number of Civil Society Organizations,they are likely to exert undue influence over Policies and advocacy, especially in the knowledge of the fact that all AID is intended to achieve the ever shifting terms for what is essentially a 3D Agenda as a form of soft power (Development, Defense and Diplomacy). Over the last ten years, the concerns have heightened, with Northern Governments accused of hiding behind Aid to control and shape friendly economic and social policies under the new AID Tendering system known as Request for Proposals (RFPs).


The total number of Civil Society from the Global South that can afford the $4000 Travel and Accommodation Budget needed to attend WEF (the individual fee of $75,000 and annual institutional fee of $675,000 is waived for Civil Society). Most Southern Organizations have budgets that are tied to specific projects, making it almost impossible to get the extra funding needed to attend advocacy spaces such as WEF.

So while Civil Society Organizations are fighting together to secure space for Civil Society, we who are already inside should also ask ourselves why we are unwilling to let others who are less resourced take up the space where their voice can be heard.

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  1. David

    This is all well known.
    Most “civil society” organisations in the Third World are completely funded by western donors, who in some cases helped set them up. In general, these donors only want to fund safe and touchy-feely projects, and spend a lot of time trying to avoid criticism from parliaments and media in their own countries. Donors are very sensitive about accusations of waste and corruption, so there are elaborate rules for reporting expenditure and reporting (often every six months or so) on your activity. (The rules for EU funding, for example, are extremely strict and onerous, and you need an experienced administrator just to deal with all the paperwork.) You then stand a chance of being audited. It’s not surprising that donors want to funnel the money through an organisation they have heard of, and that they could audit if necessary. Increasingly, major donors have been using professional management consultancies with the requisite skills (they think) to manage the projects successfully. This is also a way of recycling as much of the money as possible back into the domestic economy.
    The kind of salaries offered here may seem low to NC readers, but in many countries they represent genuine wealth. As a result, foreign-funded NGOs often siphon off good people from working in government to work for them. If you were hesitating between a job in the Finance Ministry of Chad, or a job in an international NGO at three times the salary, paid in dollars, then you probably wouldn’t actually hesitate at all.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Yup, its a very complex area. I know a few people who work in the sector and, without trying to defend some of the bad things some NGO’s do – there are complex and conflicting objectives with no obvious solutions. Everyone agrees that building up local networks to direct and manage project money is the right thing to do, but actually implementing this is very hard in many countries. A friend managed a small charity and spent the best part of 10 years getting a network of people ‘on the ground’ together than they could trust with substantial sums of money. And then the charity was taken over by a number of businessmen with agendas (i.e. they were using it to develop local political contacts), destroying all that hard work.

      The issue of outside experts is of course another of those complex ones. I know two very high level engineers who volunteer their time and expertise, just getting expenses. Their expertise in water management is invaluable, but its still considered sensitive that westerners are being brought in.

      Another issue of course is that certain types of projects attract a lot of donor money and others don’t. I’ve talked to fund raisers who have said quite frankly that they raise money on the basis of ‘problems’ which are actually quite minor in the particular context – but are headline grabbing – while then quietly trying to use the resources on the ground in a more effective way to tackle the real issues, which are often ones that bore journalists and rich donors.

      NGO’s get a lot of flack – much of it deserved – but in many respects they really can’t win, no matter what they do. Its just too politicised and too many people consider themselves experts – the worst offenders I think being Silicone Valley types who launch themselves into saving the world, assuming that knowing how to code and set up an app means they know more than the professionals when it comes to helping Africa.

      1. AstoriaBlowin

        You can’t be a direct recipient of development or humanitarian aid from a major institutional donor like USAID or DFID unless you can meet the compliance and accounting standards mandated by US or UK law for example. That is why the vast majority of funds to local organizations is subgranted, the “prime”, often an INGO, takes on the legal, compliance, and financial risk of managing the funds on behalf of the donor so that they don’t have to manage what adds up to thousands of small dollar awards.

        This is on the grants side, with contracts its a whole other story. Those are (mis)managed by for profits and are often a total mess with little to nothing to show for billions spent, aid to Afghanistan post US invasion is a great example.

        With humanitarian aid, nothing gets done without local organizations, either to support implementation or to assist with needs assessments, community mapping, market analysis, etc. The best projects marry technical skills that INGOs can bring with detailed contextual knowledge and community access. Like the org that I work for, we can bring in the engineer to supervise the construction of a motorized borehole but we need locals to tell us where to put it, who will benefits, conduct trainings and behavior change campaigns around use of the borehole, etc. This article points at an issue but it’s pretty superficial and poorly argued, glossing over the larger issues around aid delivery and purpose.

        The most effective single thing to do in an emergency response for example is just give people money, no strings attached. If the local markets are still functioning then its the fast, cheapest and most effective way to help people. In those circumstances you may not even need a local organization to help, just a unique ID for each beneficiary to stop double dipping.

  2. Joe Well

    You need to see the development set in person for this to all “click” into place and make sense.

    Here is a viral video from last year of Theresa Lund, executive director of the Harvard Humanitatian Initiative, harassing a local resident in one of the designated “affordable” units of her apartment building, apparently trying to get her thrown out, according to this Time article.

    These individuals are a clique of the lower rungs of the 1%. Sharing with other people is just not something they do or value doing. The only mystery is why they are dedicating their lives to misery-tourism rather than more lucrative pursuits. I still do not understand this.

    One big issue is that many of the potential development leaders in the “Global South” are every bit as awful. Have you met the upper-middle class of Latin America or Asia? It’s turtles all the way down. Universal entitlement programs and strong enforcement of regulations protecting the little guy are the only solution I see.

    1. Off The Street

      The only mystery is why they are dedicating their lives to misery-tourism rather than more lucrative pursuits.

      Bragging rights, or virtue-signaling, why not both?
      Better table at Elaine’s?
      Daddy couldn’t pull enough strings to get them into a better school?
      Never liked those standardized tests anyway?
      Childhood friend got them headed into the sinecure cul-de-sac?

  3. Alex

    But what is the alternative? To give money directly to organisations in developing countries?

    I can’t speak for the whole developing world but I lived most of my life in a place which is somewhere between the developed and developing world. There is so much fraud in NGOs that basically I never donated to anyone but a few organisations that had a name and reputation. So someone must do this screening, otherwise the money will just go to local politicians and their pals (or rather wouldn’t even leave Europe/US as they prefer to keep their hard-earned savings there)

  4. ChrisPacific

    I had to google the term ‘Global South.’ Apparently we (NZ/Aust) are part of the Global North, and the Global South is most of the countries immediately to the north and west of us. Glad we cleared that up.

    1. Foppe

      In most of the global south, white settlers weren’t able to genocide and/or outpopulate the natives to a sufficient degree to become majority-white. Aust/NZ are exceptions, for various reasons, and that made it much harder to exploit them or justify colonial aggression.

      1. Joe Well

        Four enormous counter-examples: Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Chile.

        If Brazil isn’t majority-white, it’s because there was so much slavery. Ditto for the Caribbean.

  5. RBHoughton

    Thank you for that. It explains the intimate agreement between NGOs and Western Government policies. A recent example is the Amnesty International back-packer who accused China of abusing its returning Muslim fighters from Turkey when UK was rehabilitating theirs in exactly the same way.

    It seems to me that many of these NGOs are not really in the business of helping humanity and Amnesty since the passing of Benenson ten years ago is one of them.

  6. JBird4049

    Has anyone noticed that the NGOs like the Red Cross are doing increasingly nothing when disasters happen in North America? The relief efforts after the last NYC hurricane or the last Haitian earthquake was all about collecting donations and not about spending it on the victims themselves.

    IIRC, from reading a book a few years back, the NGOs, the various government agencies, as well as the contractors “working” on housing in America are increasingly corrupt and ineffective. I could not finish the book as it was so aggravating.

    Money, money, everywhere and for everyone except for suffering who need it. The people doing the grifting best hope that there is no Judgement Day as it might be mighty unpleasant for them.

  7. CoryP

    The use of Syria as an example for this article is amusing what with the clusterfamilyblog that is Avaaz/The Syria Campaign/White Helmets…

  8. Stadist

    I stopped donating to ‘do-good’ NGOs after I commonly passed by the one’s main office, which was only in their use, very comfortable looking office building. The front of the building was parked with relatively new Mercedes’, Audis, BMWs and similar luxury vehicles. I mean I get people need to be paid for work and stuff like that, but I think there is disconnection between doing good in an organization and having salary big enough to buy brand new or almost brand new luxury car. Certainly doesn’t look like the work is getting done out of goodness of their hearts, also the reason why I am somewhat cynical about the real motives of some or majority of the NGOs and this article doesn’t help their case in my view.

  9. Hayek's Heelbiter


    My late wife was working with THETA, a local NGO in Kampala, doing amazing work liaising with traditional healers to discover new herbal remedies.

    UNICEF has a large facility in Kampala, and as far as I can tell, spend a huge amount of time driving around in their large white air-conditioned SUVs emblazoned with the UNICEF logo.

    Local NGO workers complained that instead of addressing the issues upon which their organizations were founded, they spend a lot of their energy trying to eke money out of UNICEF, apparently without much success.

    This is only anecdotal, and unfortunately I have no numbers to back it up. I do know that I will no longer contribute to the organization since I realized that so much money is going to purchase these wonderful SUVs that I myself can’t afford.

  10. Keith Newman

    As noted in a previous comment much of what is in the article is well known to the informed observer as is the problem of outright corruption and use of funds for political ends, etc. The only international NGO I donate to is Doctors without Borders which, as far as I know, is completely legitimate. I have also donated to an independent health related NGO that sends health professionals to assist (poor) people in poor countries. One of said health professionals is a personal friend who donates two weeks of her yearly vacation toward this work.

  11. jun

    I wouldn’t touch Doctors Without Borders (founded by Bernard Kouchner) with a 10 foot pole. There were good articles on zmag site several years ago about this shady operative (iirc, written by Diana Johnstone who is based in Paris for several decades). Here’s what turned up in my search:

    Gino Strada and Paul Farmer are battling the odds in a far less ethically challenged way than this former French career politician:

    Also, an excerpt from a book (in next post) that might shed light on what’s wrong with the institutionally corrupt organizations birthed by the likes of Kouchner.

  12. jun

    Paul Theroux’s ‘Dark Star Safari’

    Even the most prosperous towns in this part of Kenya had the bright
    signboards and relief agencies, the offices and supply depots of people
    doling out advice and food and condoms. The merchandise of the gang of
    virtue. This was true in Kericho, its large leafy tea estate softening
    its green hills and valleys. Maybe such places attracted missionaries
    and aid workers because they were so pleasant to live in. Maybe
    communications were better here than in the remote bush. Whenever I saw
    a town that looked tidy and habitable I saw the evidence of foreign
    charities: Oxfam, Project Hope, the Hunger Project, Food for Africa,
    SOS Children’s Village, Caritas, and many other with saintly names and
    a new white Land Rover or Land Cruiser parked in front.

    As this was a coffee growing area, any of these vehicles could have
    belonged to the satirical figure of Dickens’s Mrs. Jellyby and her
    African project. She had said, “We hope by this time next year to have
    from a hundred and fifty to two hundred healthy families cultivating
    coffee and educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha.”

    Mine is not a complaint, merely an observation, because hearing horror
    stories about uneducated starving Africans, most Americans or Europeans
    become indignant and say, “Why doesn’t someone do something about it?”

    Much was apparently being done—more than I had ever imagined. Since
    the Kenya government cared so little about the well-being of its
    people, concerns such as health and education had been taken up by
    sympathetic foreigners. The charities were well established. Between
    the Bata shoe store and the local Indian shop you would find the office
    of World Vision or Save the Children—”Blurred Vision” and “Shave the
    Children” to the cynics. These organizations had grown out of disaster
    relief agencies but had become multinational institutions, permanent
    fixtures of welfare and services.

    I wondered, really wondered, why this was all a foreign effort, why
    Africans were not involved in helping themselves. And also, since I had
    been a volunteer teacher myself, why, after forty years, had so little
    progress been made?

    An entire library of worthy books describe at best the uselessness, at
    worst the serious harm, brought about by aid agencies. Some of the
    books are personal accounts, others are scientific and scholarly. The
    findings are the same.

    “Aid is not help” and “aid does not work” are two of the conclusions
    reached by Graham Hancock in his Lords of Poverty: The Power,
    Prestige and Corruption of the International Aid Business (1989), a
    well-researched account of wasted money. Much of Hancock’s scorn is
    reserved for the dubious activities of the World Bank. “Aid projects
    are an end in themselves,” Michael Maren writes in The Road to Hell:
    The Damaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity
    (1997). One of Maren’s targets is Save the Children, which he sees
    as a monumental boondoggle. Both writers report from experience, having
    spent many years in Third World countries on aid projects.
    While these writers are kinder to volunteers in disaster relief than to
    highly paid bureaucrats in institutional charities, both of them also
    assert that all aid is self-serving, large-scale famines are welcomed
    as a “growth opportunity,” and the advertising to stimulate donations
    for charities is little more than “hunger porn”.

    “Here is a rule of thumb you can safely apply wherever you may wander
    in the Third World,” Hancock writes. “If a project is funded by
    foreigners it will typically also be designed by foreigners and
    implemented by foreigners using foreign equipment procured in foreign

    As proof of that rule of thumb, the most salutary and least cited book
    about development in Africa is an Italian study, Guidelines for the
    Application of Labor-Intensive Technologies (1994). Revolutionary
    in its simplicity, it advocates the use of African labor to solve
    African problems. After describing the many social and economic
    advantages of employing local people, who would work with their hands
    to build dams, roads, sewer systems, and watercourses, the authors,
    Sergio Polizzotti and Daniele Fanciullacci, discuss the constraints
    imposed by donors. Donors specify that purchases of machinery have to
    be made in the donor country, or that bids be restricted to firms in
    the donor country, or that a time limit be placed on the scheme, which
    encourages the tendency toward large contracts and heavy spending on
    equipment.” Labor-intensive projects are few in Africa because so much
    donor aid is self-interested.

  13. Jonathan

    Its their money they can do whatever they pleasr with it.

    Stop begging for equitqble distribution of aid and start fighting for equitable distribution of opportunity.

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