What is a briefcase NGO and why do they exist? The term elicits imagery of an impeccably dressed individual holding a well-written proposal in a briefcase. The individual leading the briefcase NGO receives funding for their proposals, but ultimately pockets the money for themselves rather than use it for any programs.
The instances of briefcase NGOs are numerous, ranging from Freetown in Sierra Leone to Arusha in Tanzania. In my time working in the informal settlements of Kibera and Mathare in Kenya, I've personally witnessed briefcase NGOs.
The reasons for briefcase NGOs are quite complex. To understand the causes further, I spoke with Steve Kariithi, a local community leader who has devoted his life to working in Mathare Valley, the oldest slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Mathare Valley has an estimated population of 600,000 people. The entire community is comparable to the size of Boston in the USA, though it fits into a space 1/30th the latter's size.
International organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières can be found there, along with local organizations like Mathare Youth Sports Association. It's an interesting microcosm of what happens when international ideas meet local priorities.
Based on Kariithi’s and my own experiences working in local communities with briefcase NGO presence, we identified a number of reasons behind their formation, which we reflect on in this post. We also provide recommendations for funders to involve and understand the local community, as we believe this to be a critical component to prevent the funding and further rise of briefcase NGOs.
Why do briefcase NGOs form in the first place?
Briefcase NGOs don't always start out that way; some organizations launch with noble intentions. However, international funding agencies and foundations often dictate funding and program priorities, leaving cash-strapped NGOs few options other than to chase funding and adjust their strategic priorities in the process.
Throughout the years in Mathare, local organizations have been forced to shift focus in order to obtain funding. As Kariithi says, "About 13 years ago, the big thing was education... all the big NGOs would support anyone doing scholarships... And then the next cycle after that [was] child nutrition. Then you went to HIV and AIDS. This one was humongous. This was probably one of the biggest after education."
As a consequence of chasing the funding, organizations shift their focus and expertise to sustain themselves, moving even further from work they do well and making commitments that they can't deliver on; this is how the unintentional briefcase NGO is formed.
To prevent unintentional briefcase NGOs, international funding partners need to understand priorities on the ground and solicit meaningful feedback from local partners. Currently, funding priorities are often communicated in a top-down manner, with no indication that feedback from local organizations is being considered. Local First's "Putting Local First into Practice" suggests that organizations stop acting essentially as contractors, but seek funding that stays true to the organization's mission and priorities, and that funders work with local implementing partners to achieve this.
Supporting local talent and administrative costs is key to the long-term success of an organization. When the basic needs of employees aren't met, the line between where money should or shouldn't go blurs.
Local employees not always driven by altruism
As the report “Dishonesty in the Charitable Sector” describes, one of the reasons briefcase NGOs propagate is that “due to the high rate of unemployment and often also a dearth of other lucrative entrepreneurial activities with low set-up costs, it may be imprudent to assume that employees and entrepreneurs in this sector are attracted to this sector by altruistic motivations..."
What drives local motivations to engage with NGOs isn't as simple as altruism. Within Mathare, many local partners support change but also see development projects as a chance to gain salaries and access to coveted sources of money. The development industry is a source of opportunity in the local community.
Donors generally stipulate that a certain percentage of the budget can be allocated to administrative costs. This is a controversial practice, and sometimes that percentage isn't enough to support the entire staff. NGOs partner with numerous funders to raise different sources of funding and support staff salaries, but then don't effectively implement any one program.
"A lot of NGOs start out with genuine people," Kariithi says. But, he explains, when employees of NGOs can’t pay their own bills, they look towards the funding to pay their salaries first, and then use the remainder for their programs. As Kariithi explains, “People sometimes tend to feel like, 'You [the funder] have more than me. Why shouldn't I have some of your money? Let me make my life better in some way.’”
Funders should ensure that fair wages are paid - which means allowing an individual to sustain basic living costs with savings left over. This will help funders build stronger local relationships and commitment to project goals.
Steps to prevent the formation of briefcase NGOs
Preventing briefcase NGOs means reforming the way partnerships are structured between funding agencies and implementing organizations. Here are two steps for funders to consider.
Understand local values:
"We have people who come in to assist without being sure about what dreams, what values people have... I really believe in partnership where people come alongside [each other]... There's nothing wrong with people giving money. But I think a crucial component is that that money goes in not to fund a Western dream, but a local dream,” Kariithi says.
If a vision is owned by the community, it's more likely to be locally driven. While it's true that many of the individuals drawn to this work are also motivated by opportunity and entrepreneurship, the two don't have to be mutually exclusive (appeal to both and empower others to do good).
Work in social change has a lot of subjective indicators, and understanding long-term impact isn't always clear. Kariithi suggests; "Allow people to know that it's okay not to meet your targets and not to change lives... sometimes it might take 10 years before we see any difference... And that's universal. That happens across the world, everywhere you go.”
It's not uncommon for NGOs to adjust numbers on reporting forms, fearing that funding will be rescinded if targets aren't met. Instead, we need to make room for error and critical reflection of realities on the ground. To allow for this organic, long-term growth, budgets should also reflect what is happening on the ground and enable learning and mistakes through cushioning in the finances.
Encouraging funders to work more closely with locals
This explanation of briefcase NGOs is not given to prevent the funding of NGOs in the developing world, but rather to encourage funders to work more closely with local communities to understand how community capabilities, needs, and aspirations are reflected in NGO presence and funding needs.
While community partners sometimes have different priorities, this doesn't inherently have to be in tension with the idea of doing good. Understanding why local partners are involved is key to understanding how briefcase NGOs are formed and how to develop stronger relationships that serve the interests of all partners.
What do you think is important for supporting local initiatives and preventing briefcase NGOs? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
This article was also published on the Local First blog. Local First is an approach to international development that prioritises the views and leadership of people and organisations in the countries affected, over those of outsiders from the international community.