NGOs: Just a Band-Aid Solution for Africa

I went to Africa, and I don’t want to start an Non-governmental Organization.

You don’t either if you really want to see the continent succeed.

The more these altruistic western organizations try to improve African societies the more harm they do.

The continued donation of aid through non-governmental organizations continues to facilitate a global system that subordinates African countries to the West.

Dambisa Moyo wrote in her book Dead Aid, “But has more than US$1 trillion in development assistance over the last several decades made African people better off? No. In fact, across the globe the recipients of this aid are much worse off.”

This idea extends to the now “hip” world of NGOs. Giving to the poor is always good, except when it’s not.

There is no doubt that many African countries have problems, but Westerners must let the people of the countries work through the problems alone.

It isn’t a battle we can fight.

Almost all NGOs are just bandages to the structural problems that the continent faces. Each time an organization adds another band-aid to the body of Africa, the literal bodies of Africans are covered in these bandages, as well. Each NGO adds another barrier locals must go through to work for change.

There are definitely rare exceptions, but there is one ultimate factor that keeps western organizations from ever creating sustainable lasting change: they aren’t locals.

No matter how long an NGO works in any of the 55 countries on the continent, the organization will always be seen as an outsider. When run by non-locals, that group can never truly understand the nuances of the cultures. Added to that is a continued mistrust of the West.

It can’t work.

Ideas will never take effect unless the people come up with the ideas on their own, and that happens when the idea originates from the African people. Ideas by the people for the people.

The Sahel region of Senegal is facing desertification. As climate change continues, the great Sahara desert is beginning to encroach. The wells built by NGOs and foreign governments are drying. There is little water for the people and animals, which provide the economic livelihood of the people. According to the United Nations there are 11 million people in the region facing a food crisis.

To combat the idea, Senegal, along with 10 other African countries, began to build a great green wall. Along with the wall, the program is investing in small gardens for local women, not only empowering them but feeding their families as well.

As I walked along through small trees that will make up the wall, I envisioned what it will look like in the future. Slowly the trees will grow and begin to help prevent the desertification of the country. Slowly the gardens will begin to provide more food for the villages. Slowly the women will begin to gain more power.

The program will work because it comes from the people.

This is how development works sustainably, slowly and from the people.

The West often wants results fast, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

The people of Africa are intelligent, cerebral human beings capable of correcting problems facing their countries. NGOs and the West must give them a chance to do so.

It may take 20 years for the trees to grow, but they will grow and prosper.

It may take Africa generations to overcome the history of subordination and intervention, but they can and will if given the chance.

Bryan Cronan is a College junior from Griffin, Ga.

  • emory scholar

    yes, locals need to be considered and in discussion with international aid, but to write off all international NGO aid is foolish. this article over simplifies the issue of international aid. it’s complicated and no one solution is going to work for ALL of africa and in every situation that needs attention. international aid does not need to be abolished, but simply critically examined. from such an examination we can work to eradicate activity that is perpetuating colonial legacies and work to find ways that our wealth can be used to benefit instead of hurt others.

    also, this article needs to be proofread for grammatical errors. i hate to point this out as an issue because it is one i struggle with as well but i don’t publish my work online for our school newspaper aka a website the whole world can see as an example of the caliber of intellect at emory. (ps, there are only 54 countries in africa)

    • Bryan Cronan

      Thank you for your comment. I would like to challenge your statement that there are only 54 countries in Africa. You are correct in saying that there are 54 members of the African Union. However, Morocco is not part of the African Union, but it is recognized by the United Nations. This makes the amount of recognized countries on the continent 55.
      https://www.un.org/en/members/
      http://www.au.int/en/member_states/countryprofiles

  • Naveed Amalfard ’14

    This argument lacks the nuance and balance required for such a discussion.

    In terms of nuance: Each African country has a unique set of development issues. The same way we cannot talk broadly about Europe or Asia, we cannot talk broadly about Africa. The same way Nepal and Japan are very different, Eritrea and Swaziland are very different. Generalizing about Africa is analytically irresponsible.

    In terms of balance: There are many Africans (perhaps even a majority) who would disagree that African countries should be left to solve their problems alone. Not all countries have the capacity to address their educational, health, and security shortcomings. In these cases, NGOs offer lifesaving services. The author may have a philosophical opposition to Western intervention in African affairs, but African isolationism is hardly the solution. Many sub-Saharan African countries do not have the local or national capacity to address the full range of dire isses they face. The argument for increased local involvement makes sense, but the argument for withdrawing Western NGOs from Africa is impractical and would result in the death of likely millions of Africans.

    Certainly, many NGOs have problems, but let’s be proactive in resolving these issues — rather than advocating for the end of NGOs in Africa. There are a lot of ways for NGOs to improve, and I would suggest the author work with these NGOs to make them better. After all, NGOs want to help provide the resources/capacity required for countries to achieve their own vision for their future.

    I would also ask the author to understand that those who have started NGOs have spent many days and nights thinking through the many reasons they should not start an NGO (including all of the counterarguments above and many more). Founders of NGOs are deeply aware of the issues and most are students of international development theory and practice. There are very unique, carefully thought-out reasons why anyone would put themselves through the difficult process of setting up an NGO. It is not an easy (or “hip”) decision and not one that would be taken except under extraordinary circumstances.

    I hope to write an op-ed to provide an alternate perspective on the role of NGOs in African development. While I have respect for the author’s experiences, I strongly disagree with his broad, sweeping generalizations about Western NGOs in Africa.

    That said, Bryan, if you’re interested in developing strategies to improve effectiveness of NGOs in Africa, I’d be happy to assist in those efforts. Let’s focus not just on problems that exist but also on practical, actionable reforms that NGOs can implement to address your concerns.

    Naveed Amalfard ’14

  • Cat

    I’ve been working in development for over 10 years in Asia and Latin America, and I agree with the author 100%. It’s a fairly unpopular position among all of us who want to make the world a better place, but it needs a voice. Here are some resources I really like:
    http://www.developmenteducation.ie/8020-extracts/17-the-debate-on-aid.pdf
    http://www.ted.com/talks/ernesto_sirolli_want_to_help_someone_shut_up_and_listen.html
    http://ebookbrowse.com/to-hell-with-good-intentions-ivan-illich-pdf-d39696303
    http://www.survivalinternational.org/thereyougo
    http://www.8020.ie/