In Oecussi, partly for my job, I began asking about development’s new darling, “civil society.” How many NGOs? Are they good? Do they do what they say they do? Not surprisingly, in a small isolated place like Oecussi, there was one NGO. Named FFSO. (I guess my agency isn’t the only one obsessed with acronyms that everybody forgets the meaning of.)
FFSO was founded by Oecussi’s best and brightest during I assume the opening towards the end of the Indonesian period. One is now a defense lawyer, one is now Secretary of State for Labor and Solidarity (our counterpart – Division of Social Services). Others are all in Dili with “good jobs.” So who runs FFSO now? And do they do what they say they do?
This is where it takes an absurd turn. Apparently, FFSO an NGO funded by MAJOR donors such as IRC, USAID, Ausaid, <a href=”http://www.caa.org.au/horizons/september_2002/workingwithlocals.html” mce_href=”http://www.caa.org.au/horizons/september_2002/workingwithlocals.html”>Oxfam Australia</a>, UNICEF and others, has over 7 program areas. All administered by approximately 7 staff that have high school equivalent educations and have had little to no training in administration. But programs have just sprouted like mushrooms after rain. Why? Because donors are just waving money at FFSO. They must have “local partners” in order to be “sustainable.” Welcome to developmentspeak.
The basic problem here is not attention to sustainability so much as the donor agencies’ complete inability to be realistic about their partners. In the “emergency” they come in waving money at understaffed, underexperienced groups, who gladly take it (they need money for soap, roofing materials, clothes and FOOD.)
The NGOs and donors would not THINK of implementing their own programs in this day and age, no matter how poor the local NGO scenario may be.
Example: in Oecussi, the big bad <a href=http://www.adb.org/Timor-Leste/default.asp>Asian Development Bank</a>, blamed for massive, reviled infrastructure projects like dams and such, finally decides that it needs to work with and through the people. So they hand over a water rehabilitation and hygiene program to <a href=http://www.theirc.org/East%20Timor/>IRC</a>, but with the condition that IRC work through a local partner. So what ADB wants is a “development” project executed with all of the fuzzy feel-good ideas about partnership, in an “emergency” timeframe, three months. They want something like 200 latrines built and 2 water systems rehabbed and hygiene education for those two large communities. Hmmmm.
Of course there’s more to the story, but the basic idea here is that donors, international NGOs and agencies need to figure out how to make the “emergency” period less of a free-for-all and work REALISTICALLY for sustainability, transitioning to the “development” period, when they will demand total transparency and self-sufficiency from their hapless “partners.”
Too often the emergency ends in one week. All of a sudden, here come the auditors or the emergency money runs out and so the donors and big NGOs expect their partners to respond with lightening speed. The demands are great on the local NGOs in this period. Especially when there were virtually no strings attached during the “emergency” period. Reporting? Naaa. Line items in budgets? Only the most sketchy ones.
It’s like giving Enron a week to fix the mess that they created for three years.
In any case it’s a running joke at my place of work that the work we do is never sustainable. That HQ auditors will come here and tell us to make it more sustainable. Cut NGO staff salaries. Cut motorbikes. Cut fuel. But on most of our projects, which involve outreach to children, besides paste and felt-tip markers, SALARIES and TRANSPORTATION are the two greatest costs.
So what I concluded, jokingly with my hosts in Oecussi is that CHILDREN ARE NOT SUSTAINABLE. Therefore they must be phased out of our programs. For that matter, PEOPLE are not sustainable. Why are we working with these fragile organisms?