Increasing the skills and recognition of local NGOs is a long and complex process, yet one that is essential to humanitarian transition. According to Jean Emile Mba, a doctor in political science and associate researcher at the CERPSI at the University of Maroua in Cameroon, the process is taking too long. He analyses the conditions for empowering community-based organisations (CBOs). This is an essential step towards greater sovereignty in humanitarian action and crisis management.

What led you to take a particular interest in Community-Based Organisations (CBOs)?

Jean Emile Mba: Africa is in a state of transition in many areas: political, economic, energy and humanitarian. One of the ways in which these transitions are taking place is by seeking greater sovereignty. Politically, we are experiencing a break with the 1960s, a new autonomy, particularly in West Africa. In economic terms, the COVID-19 crisis has clearly demonstrated that Africa has a vital need to develop local consumption and production. In the humanitarian field, the desire for greater autonomy has been expressed for many years. In practical terms, this means enabling local NGOs and associations to run their own projects and gain direct access to funding from international donors. For the time being, international NGOs generally remain intermediaries in the distribution of funds. And when donors do take initiatives to allocate funding directly, they tend to focus on local NGOs that already have maturity, recognition and status. CBOs, often micro-associations that do not yet have NGO status, are ignored and caricatured. Yet they are the ones carrying out the work in the field, generally on behalf of other international humanitarian NGOs.

What are planning to achieve with this study?

JEM: The aim is to show that humanitarian transition can only be achieved from the bottom up, by empowering community mechanisms and, by extension, local NGOs. Even if the process is driven by donors, any attempt to impose an operating method from the outside, without taking into account the specific characteristics and needs of these local players, would be doomed to failure.

My research focused on regions in humanitarian crisis. It was carried out in two stages with the participation of 164 representative CBOs: firstly, workshops bringing together eight to twelve leaders from these organisations; secondly, online questionnaires with individual responses. The focus groups were very interesting: they gave the participants the opportunity to interact and argue; but they also enabled me to assess their ability to collaborate. Discussions between CBOs reveal power relationships between participants, a form of competition, divergent interests or values, etc. The way these workshops are run is in itself a response to one of my hypotheses. Donors want to encourage networking and cooperation between players in the field via platforms that would bring together CBOs in large groups on an administrative or geographical basis. But cooperation cannot be decreed. It cannot be organised and coordinated by donors. It can only come about through the will of the players themselves, on the basis of shared interests, agendas and projects, in a consortium approach. It is the will of the CBOs themselves that emerges from the questionnaires and exchanges.

Have you been able to identify the real needs and expectations of these organisations?

JEM: The research confirms that CBOs lack structural, organisational and managerial capacity. These micro-associations are often organised like small families around a charismatic founder… They are keen to acquire new skills and tools. However, NGOs do little to structure and strengthen their governance. More often than not, they focus their training on issues such as child labour, gender violence, etc. As a result, the CBOs feel they are stuck in a subcontracting rut. They carry out actions on the ground, but are not supported in their maturation process. Yet this is what they are required to do in order to receive direct funding.

How do you explain the obstacles to helping these structures become self-sufficient?

JEM: Donors sincerely wish to accelerate the empowerment of local NGOs. Their ambition is to strengthen the vitality of civil society, local initiatives and citizen involvement. That is the whole point of their approach. But between donors and CBOs, NGOs act as intermediaries with symmetrical intentions. They have a mandate to empower CBOs, but their raison d’être is control. In other words, the autonomy of CBOs would render them useless.

At present, the levels of intervention are usually stacked. An international NGO distributes funds to national NGOs, which select mature CBOs that will be responsible for building the capacity of non-mature CBOs. The result is a dispersal of funding and energy, and less effective programmes. The maturing process sometimes leads to direct financing after a few years. But the CBOs tend to see this as an attempt to slow down the process of empowerment. One of the solutions suggested by the CBOs is for donors to provide direct micro-financing.

How is your research likely to help advance the humanitarian transition?

JEM: L’étude a vocation à faire évoluer les mentalités et les pratiques, et à consolider certaines demandes relatives à la coopération des OBC, ou au renforcement de la gouvernance et de la structuration des micro-associations. Les premières cibles sont les OBC elles-mêmes, et en premier lieu celles qui ont participé aux ateliers. Des réunions seront donc organisées pour présenter les résultats de l’étude. Mais plus largement, il s’agit de parler aux bailleurs dirThe aim of the study is to change attitudes and practices, and to consolidate certain demands relating to the cooperation of CBOs, or the strengthening of governance and the structuring of micro-associations. The first targets are the CBOs themselves, and first and foremost those who took part in the workshops. Meetings will therefore be organised to present the results of the study. But more broadly, the aim is to talk directly to donors, as well as to researchers and the NGOs themselves. The aim is to ensure that all stakeholders not only appreciate the needs and expectations of CBOs, but also understand that the humanitarian transition is part of an inevitable march towards sovereignty. It can be accompanied, encouraged and supported, but never organised from outside.

Photo Credit: Jean Emile Mba