Why Indonesia is right to limit NGOs

Recently Indonesia’s disaster coordination agency (Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana, or BNPB) issued guidelines on the involvement of foreign aid workers, stating that they needed to conduct all activities through local partners, and be registered with government agencies.

Indonesia is quite experienced in dealing with natural disasters. It is a country where a substantial amount of aid has been invested in building local capacity to do so. It seems that Indonesia’s intention was not to kick out experienced international NGOs, many of which have substantive national offices in Indonesia with predominantly national staff, nor to boot out relevant technical experts.

It is to try to exercise some kind of control over the cavalcade of random persons who might not be all that helpful, may have their own interests and who are not coordinating with government. In other words, those acting from self-interest. For those who have forgotten some of what went on during the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, here’s a quick reminder, based on past experience.

• A boat building programme for local fisherman built boats that were unsuitable for use at sea. This was part of a larger explosion of boat building programmes that led to a risk of overfishing.

• Child trafficking of ‘orphans’.

• Too many new houses were built in some areas, or not built appropriately for local needs, leading to ‘ghost villages’ still uninhabited ten years after the tsunami.

• An influx of unwanted items, like expired or inappropriate drugs and too many prosthetic limbs.

• The capacity of local NGOs was decimated by the influx of international actors, who poached a lot of their staff.

But the one thing they have all noted is the incredible generosity of local people. The kindness. The resilience. The problem-solving. No government-coordinated response to a major disaster will ever be perfect. In six months or a year there will be many lessons learned on what could have been done better.

What was the logic of putting faith in NGOs?

First, academics saw NGOs fostering communitarian, face-to-face interactions that generated social capital, and hence supported well-functioning states and markets. Others described NGOs as principled actors, without the selfish motivations of firms. Some others suggested that NGOs could be trusted (while firms could not), because NGOs could not legally distribute profits to their owners. Given these assumptions, why would anyone ask to look at NGOs’ books? After all, they were virtuous by definition. Working with this logic, academics began transforming NGOs from an analytic category to an idealized ideology.

All of this academic support helped encourage Western donors including governments, intergovernmental organisations, and big foundations to begin pumping funds into developing countries with the hope of creating vibrant civil societies.

Unfortunately, the narrative of the saintly NGO turned out to be false once money came into the picture. An abundance of resources, low barriers to entry and lax oversight was bound to attract bad apples, and create perverse incentives for the good ones to behave badly. Some NGOs soon became a thriving industry drawing sustenance from foreign aid.

The bottom line is that citizens and governments no longer buy the narratives that NGOs are automatically principled and trustworthy, and should therefore be exempt from transparency requirements.

This writer predicts work around climate change as the next big wave under the rubric of NGO work. The impact will be severe, affects all walks of life and calls for short, medium and hopefully long term action.

The moral of the piece is any country with self-respect must safeguard its interests, hold to account anyone acting in the public interest and ensure what’s undertaken as nonprofit work is what the country wants at its own pace, time and with active involvement of the locals.

Where there is money, corruption sniffs around. It’s true anywhere. It doesn’t take long for people to get smart when left to their own devices! The Indonesians, Indians and Thai governments have cottoned on to these vagaries and are watchful.

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A tale of corrupt practices

Dear Valerie,

Greetings. The context is in the visuals attached for ease of reference. We are the designated sector lead for NGO’s. MoU attached. We have since 2017 contributed to the development of the interventions in Sri Lanka. Some examples attached.

However, we have had reason now to disagree.

As sector lead we should nominate our 3 representatives to the Steering Committee. …………..determined they would make one of the 3. They thereafter proceeded to appoint the same nominee as the Grant Manager. We didn’t protest.

We proceeded to plan. However, Colombo staff ………..and Bangkok …… were of the opinion ………needed be involved in OUR PLANNING PROCESS.

Thereafter I was told, “There is no restriction from ………and from the Gates Foundation side that the Grant Management Entity can’t also be involved in implementing activities, nor I believe it has been indicated otherwise.”

The country Grant manager must be independent of the implementation of activities by grantees and must not be a beneficiary of the grants he manages nor must he decide on the request for grants which he thereafter approves by issuing an agreement. The Grant manager earns a fee for his management functions.

However the mail quote shows the ………..manager is unable to see the conflict of interest and is attempting to actually force me to agree. If we agree to this directive we essentially erase the separation of functions between a Grant manger and an implementing agency and agree to the Grant manager drawing on funds he approves for his expenses. It’s a corrupt practice. ……objections on principles has led to an email from ………., “it is up to ………to decide whether we will proceed with the sub-grant for a particular sector and an agency or not. We would decide that based on the project needs, our own assessment and guidelines.”

This matter is now before relevant authorities who may act.

This email text relates to a project around Disaster Risk Reduction in Sri Lanka. A case of serious lack of oversight mechanisms with select number of agency personnel running amock.

(Names removed)


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