CIS – NGOs

Chapter 9.

In the aftermath of the 2009 Tsunami, a plague of Non-Governmental Organisations descended upon Samoa. While much good was done, I observed the ‘business of NGO’s’ first-hand, and I became aware of patterns of corruption.

There are two forms of corruption I see in the NGO sector – direct misappropriation and systemic corruption. The first is the stuff that gets onto the front page of the papers and into the TV news. Money goes missing. Nepotism runs rife. This is the prime face of corruption as the public views it. But the second form of corruption is more insidious and is not quite so easy to see and understand.

Simple corruption, such as mismanagement for personal gain, Red Cross monies going missing; donations retained by those in positions of authority for private or semi-private purposes; and out right theft does exist. Theft in particular abounds in Samoa. Theft from NGOs is no exception. Others have, can and will detail examples of this ad infinitum. The local tabloid will usually expose such events that it gets its hands on.

Systemic corruption however is a bigger consideration in Paradise.

Passing commentary like this, especially anything that contains criticism on the Samoan NGO sector is a tricky thing, for again much good is done with well-meaning people giving large portions of their lives to a supposedly ‘worthy cause’.

The first problem I see is this . . . ANYTHING that offers employment, in a third world country is an opportunity for people to benefit personally (income from wages, career prospects, looking good in society and so on). The administrative costs of large numbers of NGOs; the human capital tied up in NGOs is huge. Basically it is a big business, and that is even before we get into whether or not the NGOs are beneficial in their work, and objectives. Many, especially United Nations affiliated programmes and international agencies are well funded – e.g they have new vehicles and pay good wages.

This reinforces the poverty mentality for the NGO is then seen by the locals, especially the poorer people, as a source of funding.

I have observed the status that working for an NGO brings to an employee here. While not as strong as a government position, it certainly is real.

The second problem I see is the effectiveness of the NGOs and the work they do.

I knew people within the NGO and was aware of the work that Habitat for Humanity1 did in the year following the 2009 Tsunami. Scheduled to build some three hundred houses, their business model, approach and performance failed to fire. They did complete sixty or so houses all built to their exacting quality standards by offshore voluntary labour, but at the end of the day it took way too long for the locals and so they departed Samoa’s shores earlier than planned and local construction companies whipped through the remaining constructions in short order. It was a very difficult time for the NGO and embarrassing as well, getting the flick like they did.

I have a lot of time for H4H and respect their business model, but in a situation where the locals just wanted to get the houses up fast, and quality wasn’t as important as it was to H4H (that had an international reputation to protect), their offering was unsuitable for the times.

This mismatch between an NGOs offering and what is needed applies right across the board.

I was chatting with a government official about the assistance in the agricultural sector that I was observing. When discussing the expertise that was being offered by an NGO, which required costs and advanced technology, the official agreed with me that while it was kind of them to offer their help, basically when their period of voluntary help was up, the locals would simply return to doing what they’d always done. Their traditional way worked; didn’t require advanced technology and didn’t require money, which of course is always in short supply here.

It matters not the discipline or sector. Mismatching an advanced or foreign solution with the simple needs in Samoa is common.

While not widely perceived as traditional corruption, these are however systemic failings that are a form of corruption.

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