Living Unhappily Ever After: Southern NGOs and Northern NGOs

Posted on 27 January 2011

By Ramesh Singh

Keystone has just published NGO Partner Survey 2010 a report about the relationship between northern NGOs from high income countries and southern NGOs from mid and low income countries. The report is a presentation of response and ratings of more than 1000 southern NGOs about their bilateral relationships (partnerships) with 25 NGOs from Europe (16) and USA (9) who cooperated with Keystone in this survey. The list of 25 northern NGOs notably does not include some of the bigger, more visible or vociferous advocacy NGOs.

The 80-page public report that does not give out much about the 1000+ southern NGOs in terms of whether they are organizations or movements of poor and excluded people or intermediary NGOs, or whether they are bigger or smaller NGOs and whether they are from countries where civil society space and sectors are well developed or not (and such factors would affect the nature and the quality of relationships).

The report recommends that “every year (northern) NGOs publish systematic feedback from their southern partners that is independently collected on an anonymous basis and is structured and presented in comparison to similar feedback received by other (northern) NGOs.”

All in all, Keystone should be congratulated for the survey and the report, and for bringing up the relationship between southern NGOs and northern NGOs for discussion.

However, my hope is that this sparks a conversation and debate about the relationship broadly between northern NGOs and southern NGOs (beyond the money mediated so called bilateral “partnership” between northern NGOs and southern NGOs). Not all relationships are partnerships and northern NGOs relate to the southern NGOs in a variety of relationships from sub-contractor to grantee to partner.

If we were to do a similar sectoral survey about southern NGOs’ view about northern NGOs, I suspect the report card would look even worse with gory details of unfair competition for contracts, stealing staff by paying big salaries, double standards, media-hogging and hiding at the time of political pressure, etc.

In many of the contexts I know, northern NGOs and southern NGOs as two sectors have a relationship of constant tension (if not conflict). Yet, southern NGOs continue to shop around and take whatever they get from one or other northern NGOs – and live with the rest. Similarly, northern NGOs work with the southern NGOs that they like – and ignore the rest. Then they both live unhappily ever after!

Why is that southern NGOs, even in their better organized form as national federations or associations, live with so much unhappiness about northern NGOs without getting the situation resolved? Why is that northern NGOs get away with so much and do nothing to reconcile, change and co-exist positively?  Will this become more complex or come to a head when so many northern NGOs are now also trying to be southern NGOs (albeit international) in many countries? Who can further research, facilitate and mediate a more constructive relationship between northern and southern NGOs?  I am searching for diverse perspectives on this issue!

Ramesh Singh is a Visiting Fellow at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University. He is the former Chief Executive of ActionAid International.

3 responses to Living Unhappily Ever After: Southern NGOs and Northern NGOs

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jimmy Kainja, How Matters. How Matters said: Living Unhappily Ever After: Southern NGOs and Northern NGOs Important ???s posed via @hausercenterjhr [...]

  • [...] Ramesh Singh’s latest post on the Harvard Center’s Humanitarian & Development NGOs Domain, Living Unhappily Ever After: Southern NGOs and Northern NGOs, on the Keystone NGO partner survey demonstrates just how tenuous these relationships can [...]

  • Andrew says:

    Thanks Ramesh for this post. You pose some interesting question. We’re starting an initiative out of Europe asking why NGOs (or development organizations) don’t share their field lessons. I have noticed too that Southern NGOs are forced to collaborate, but then the Northern NGOs are not expected to share information at the same level. Maybe you will find this interesting?

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