You may never have heard the term “briefcase NGO” but you may well know the type of organisation it describes. A briefcase NGO exists, metaphorically or literally, inside a briefcase. It may have well-written proposals and access to western donors but for one reason or another, any funding it receives for programmes goes into the pockets of those running the NGO. These NGOs can be run by foreigners and local community members alike but here I will focus on the latter.
No one knows how prevalent briefcase NGOs are. I’ve personally come across several while working in Mathare – the oldest slum in Nairobi, Kenya, where international NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières mingle with local organisations like Mathare Youth Sports Association.
The reasons briefcase NGOs exist are complex but from extensive conversations with Steve Kariithi, a local community leader, I have been able to draw out two key points that can help funders encourage genuine community work: understand local strengths and values and support local capacity.
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Understand local strengths and values
Many briefcase NGOs begin with noble intentions. But international funding agencies often dictate funding and programme priorities, causing cash-strapped NGOs to chase funding and adjust strategic visions.
This has happened with local organisations in Mathare. Steve Kariithi says: “13 years ago, the big thing was education. All the big NGOs would support scholarships … after that [came] child nutrition. Then HIV and Aids.”
As a consequence of chasing funding, organisations shift their focus away from their areas of expertise into where the money is to sustain themselves. This causes them to make commitments they can’t deliver on; thus, the briefcase NGO can be unintentionally formed.
Funding priorities are often communicated in a top-down manner, with few systems in place for considering feedback from local organisations. To prevent this, major international funders must work to understand the unique expertise local organisations offer.
Understanding and acknowledging local values while funding is also important to preventing briefcase NGOs. “We have people who come in to assist without being sure about what dreams, what values people have … I really believe in partnerships 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,” says Kariithi.
If a vision is also owned and co-developed with the community, it’s more likely to be locally driven and sustainable, not become a briefcase NGO.
Support local capacity
Supporting local talent and administrative costs is key. Donors generally stipulate that a certain percentage of the budget be allocated to administrative costs. This is a controversial practice, and unfortunately that percentage sometimes isn’t enough to support the entire staff. When the basic needs of employees aren’t met, the line between where money should or shouldn’t go can start to blur.
As the report ‘Dishonesty in the Charitable Sector’ (pdf) describes, briefcase NGOs spread because of high unemployment and lack of opportunities. Within Mathare, local partners may support change but also see working with NGOs as an opportunity to earn salaries.
“A lot of NGOs start out with genuine people,” Kariithi says. But when employees cannot pay their bills, they use the funding to pay their salaries first, and then spend the remainder for their programmes. “People sometimes 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. While it’s true that many drawn to this work are also motivated by opportunity and entrepreneurship, that and empowering others to do good need not be mutually exclusive.
The message here isn’t to cut funding of NGOs in the developing world, but to encourage funders to work more with local communities to understand how capabilities, needs, and aspirations can be 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 how to develop positive, mutually-beneficial relationships between local organisations and funders is key to preventing briefcase NGOs.