The Myth of Capacity Building – Revisited

A year ago, before I left my position at DPDO, I’d gotten my back up about the inequities and absurdities I witnessed in the provision of aid in Darfur. I wrote a lengthy article (deemed “too snippy” by one humanitarian consortia magazine), but self-doubt has its way with me and I did not pursue other  publication routes. Here are excerpts:

“The core humanitarian principal of capacity building began its decent into insignificance early in the Darfur crisis. Only two Sudanese NGOs made it onto the “favored” implementers list, garnering just $59,500 of nearly $167 million in allocations from the Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF) for Sudan in 2006.Instead of developing additional indigenous partners, the UN and International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) wooed the best and the brightest Darfuris to join their organizations. These individuals seldom rose to prominent decision-making positions; many accepted menial or support duties. In candid moments, some Darfuris would confide their frustration, their disappointment, at being treated like outsiders in their own country. But, U.N and INGO pay was exceptional – far beyond what most Darfuris could make through legitimate channels. Nobody seemed to consider how inflated salaries and low expectation would play out once Western organizations and the U.N. pulled up stakes, leaving behind a trail of underdeveloped human and civic resources.

“When INGOs and the UN (17 agencies) set up shop in Darfur, they created an environment of formidable procedures that effectively denied access to funding or technical assistance to most community-based organizations. A few examples:

  • UNICEF became a distributor of student and classroom supplies. It purchased pre-packaged “kits” from a central procurement unit in Denmark and shipped them at great expense to El Fasher, Darfur. Virtually every item – except UNICEF-logoed notebooks — were available in Sudan. The school kits were stored in the warehouse of the State Ministry of Education (SMoE) but distribution remained under the control of UNICEF. The cartons, wrested out of storage through much paperwork, were split at the seams and spilling contents. Delivery by a local organization became an exercise in reducing losses.
  • UN agencies provided most documents in English. Sudan is an Arabic-speaking country. The opportunities for confusion became limitless.
  • After seven years of providing “free” food to displaced people, the World Food Program (WFP)  decided to link food rations with specific activities deemed useful to the community. This idea could have taken root IF local organizations had learned to manage large-scale beneficiary registration and distribution logistics. But, lacking experience, as well as transport vehicles, no Darfuri organizations offered to shoulder the burden.

The institutional blinds spots were exacerbated when the Government of Sudan expelled major aid organizations from Darfur in March 2009. Desperate to replace banished partners, the U.N. turned to Sudanese NGOs whose funding remained miniscule – a mere 1.6% of the CHF allocation in 2009.Because these organizations had been neither funded nor deployed in prominent roles, they often lacked the kind of managerial and communications proficiencies required in so complex a theater of operation. But they did know their own culture and country. As a matter of survival, they learned how to navigate the chaos inherent in a conflict zone.”

Now, we are four years into the seven-year plan of the Darfur Community Peace and Stability Fund (DCPSF). In 2011, grants totaling$20,862,992 were made to the following organizations:

Sudanese National Orgs    $3,290,485   (15.8% of total funding)

Azza Women’s Assoc.        $676,900     Mubadiroon   $283,000       (4.6%  of total funding)

Fellowship for Africa Relief   $2,330,585  (Though this organization is based in Khartoum, all Board members and majority of staff are evidently Americans or Europeans.)

 International NGOs           $17,572,507    (84.2%  of total funding)

  •        Adventist Relief and Development Agency (ADRA)  (US)
  •        Catholic Relief Services (CRS)  (US)
  •        Consortium of CRS, World Vision & Sudanese Community Development Association (CAFA)
  •        Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) UN
  •        Intersos (Italy)
  •        Norwegian Church Aid (NCA)
  •        Practical Action (UK)
  •        United Methodist Community on Relief (US)
  •        UNICEF
  •        War Child Canada
  •        World Vision  (US)
  •        ZOA (Holland)

Again, the lion’s share of funding goes to the “club” of international NGOs and the UN.

And, from the report’s “Lessons Learned” section:

Lesson 3:  Giving a voice to women in Darfur is challenging. DCPSF (phase 1 and beginning of Phase 2) revealed that the involvement of women in various committees did have limited success and the need for separate women’s groups become apparent to promote women’s involvement in conflict mitigation and reconciliation activities and processes. While involving women in reconciliation mechanisms has mostly been promoted by international organisations, it is seen as a western model in the Darfuri context and indeed in certain cultures, and hence the slow pace in being accepted and integrated in Darfur. DCPSF will continue to explore avenues for promoting the involvement of women in peace related decision-making processes at the grassroots without antagonizing the communities.

SBL Comments:  Clearly these organizations have not devoted the time and personal contact necessary to understand the true mettle of Darfuri women. These women’s influence in household and community matters is dramatic, important and generally no more culturally antagonizing than that of any uppity woman in the US. What they suffer from is lack of protection from abuse, egregiously insufficient health care and poor educational opportunities. The grantees’ failure and include them is entirely due to closely held stereotypes and lack of imagination – or perhaps lack of courage to mobilize the rage that is their lot and the determination that is their gift.

Lesson 4:  In its efforts to promote peace in Darfur, DCPSF has strongly capitalized on international NGOs-which constitute the bulk of its implementing partners This decision was based on the premises that INGOs with long standing international experience and history of engagement in complex emergencies would easily deliver in Darfur. The analysis of trends shows that Darfur is challenging to the extent that it drains the capacity and tenacity of reputable international organizations in their service delivery. In 2012-2013, DCPSF will endeavour to seek ways to energize those organizations and improve delivery in terms of project execution.

SBL comments:  Again, the usual suspects are hoisted in their high horses and…pitied if they have trouble getting a grip. The initial focus on INGOs as implementers of community programs in Darfur was a serious miscalculation, one that evidently will not be rectified any time soon.

Lessons 5:  A more hands-on capacity development approach for DCPSF Implementing Partners for project development and implementation is necessary It has become apparent that additional efforts are needed to strengthen the capacities of implementing partners especially regarding project design, implementation and quality monitoring and evaluation, using a conflict-sensitive approach. Against this background, going forward UNDP will strengthen its engagement with implementing partners to provide hands-on support through the development and dissemination of tools and guidelines, direct technical assistance and coaching and regular training seminars for partners.

SBL comments: The notion of capacity building seems to have mutated into supporting those who already have all the resources they need – except for the willingness to hand over money and expertise that will go infinitely farther and more effectively in the hands of the locals.

 I believe that many U.N. and INGO personnel are skilled professionals committed to their work and with much experience to share. However, the balky, top-heavy institutional cultures in which they must work often defeat talent and passion, waste vast amounts of donor money and destructively ignore local capabilities. Maladaptive intervention systems will require time, imagination and professional integrity to remedy.

I’ve developed a series of steps for capacity building that will appear in a subsequent post.

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