Africa: Opinion – Colonial Funding Models Hamper the Growth of African Charities


Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Western funding agencies continue to adopt a monitor and control approach, determining what the African CSO must do from a distance.

By Lord Dr Michael Hastings of Scarisbrick CBE and Joakim Reiter, Vodafone Group Chief External & Corporate Affairs Officer

In the United Nations Decade of Action, it is well known that Africa is facing a massive funding gap to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals. What is less known is that some of the aid money meant for Africa does not make it to the continent. The funds which do make it are largely distributed directly to international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) rather than African-led charities or voluntary organisations at the front line in the fight against poverty, malnutrition or diseases.

A new report Barriers to African Civil Society; Building the Sectors Capacity and Potential to Scale-up, supported by Vodacom, Safaricom and Vodafone Foundation, suggests that this approach continues to hamper the ability of African-led civil society organisations (CSOs) to build capacity at scale and in a sustainable way.

That is not only bad for socio-economic development, but also hampers the long-term growth of organisational capabilities, skills and talents in the countries to tackle their most pressing challenges, as well as undermining the emergences of a vibrant civil society that underpins stable democratisation and good governance.

The study, which covered five African Countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa) was delivered with research partners Witts Business School, Johannesburg, the Centre for African Philanthropy, Judge Business School Cambridge and Clearview Research.

The report outlines some of the international barriers which continue to hamper the growth and development of African CSOs. According to its findings, the “colonial” nature of the funding model means that western funding agencies continue to adopt a monitor and control approach, determining what the African CSO must do from a distance.

The localisation of international NGOs in African cities, and the donor preferences, language and reporting mechanisms of the development and philanthropic community, create a significant barrier preventing funds getting through.

If this barrier can be overcome, then the CSOs have in-country barriers which further reduce their chance of securing successful funding including high taxes on international funds and restrictive local government policy practises that prevent NGOs from getting funding from certain sources.

Even where CSOs have successfully overcome those external barriers, there can be in-house challenges which don’t help in their search for funds. Questions over governance, leadership, trust and transparency are often raised. Although legitimate demands for accessing aid, African-led CSOs themselves can struggle to resolve these issues, because – in the form of a catch-22 situation – they can’t get access to the funding to help them to do so.

We need to break the dependency of African charities on northern hemisphere funders by creating a better functioning, and healthier, relationship between donors and African CSOs. Doing that will require dialogue amongst key stakeholders about how to strengthen and accelerate the role of African-led CSOs. Greater commitment to the long-term sustainability of these CSOs is critical to the Continent’s success in delivery of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

International donors should be challenged to facilitate a level playing field for local CSOs by reimagining grant making guidelines, procedures, organisational norms and management systems.

We need a new balance between core and project funding with CSOs being empowered to develop long term strategies so that they can invest in non-programme critical issues such as securing resources and improving their own financial management systems. Larger grants are needed as well so these organisations can heavily invest in capacity building, people management and digital tools and applications, ensuring longer term efficiency and effectiveness.

This debate is taking place while COVID-19 continues to ravage large parts of the continent, and will undoubtedly have an impact, emboldening some donor and NGO community leaders to speak out and confront the inequalities in the allocation and use of resources.