This narrative starts in the first week of March 1994. I was sitting in the chair of the National Director for World Vision International, Ghana, with my back to the door and the time was a few minutes to 10:00 p.m. I was startled by the baritone voice of Dr Joseph Riverson, the National Director. Apparently, he had opened the door quietly and had been standing in the doorway for several minutes. He asked what I was doing in the office at this time of the night. I reminded him that it was my last day with the organisation and I was in his office putting various documents in identifiable folders to ensure that in my absence he could find whatever document he wanted. I, however, left the clear message that I was available to help with anything that needed to be done. We walked out of the office together as I locked it up and handed him his keys. That was my last activity in the Ghana office of World Vision. I had submitted my resignation letter earlier and on this night, I said farewell to the organisation. That also meant that I was stepping into a new job.
My new job was with a local Non-Governmental Organisation(NGO) called African Center for Human Development (ACHD) and I was taking up the position of a Deputy Director to the organisation. Being in an international NGO, I thought that becoming a Deputy Director in a Ghanaian NGO offered me a better opportunity to contribute to strategic planning, policy development and grassroots development implementation in Ghanaian rural communities. This thought reminds me of the lyrics of the song by reggae artiste, Lucky Dube, that says “the grass is greener at the other side till you get there and see it for yourself“.
I consider NGOs to be in two categories. International and local or national NGOs(sometimes referred to as Civil Society Organisations – CSOs). Local NGOs can further be categorised into those who are dependent on grants from international NGOs and the international donor community and those locally constituted groups receiving a particular development agenda. For example, I have worked with groups constituted to carry out food processing across Ghana and the African continent to make a living and who depend on grants. The characterization of CSOs is beyond the scope of this narrative.
My career from 1981 to 1994 was with an international NGO. My departure from World Vision International was a step into the world of the local NGO world. This move gave me an opportunity to see the operations of such an NGO. Although this looks like a study of one local NGO I have learnt over 25 years and in three different African countries that the pattern is the same across the continent.
In the middle of March 1994, I started my new job as the Deputy Director of ACHD. I believed that this was going to be an exciting job. It turned out that this was not going to be exactly the case although I learnt a lot in my new job. I believe that my rural upbringing and early education, as well as my Christian faith, prepared a suitable environment for the values I developed that enhanced my commitment to development work. The 13 years in World Vision International established the roots and initial growth in my development thinking and practice. The step out into the local NGO community was expected to build on this foundation.
I quickly learnt that ACHD was led by an exceptionally brilliant hard-working and self-driven individual. He could use only two hours to write winning project proposals that clearly articulated the problems he wanted to respond to with clear objectives and expected outputs and outcomes. The leader was very visionary and could see ahead of time what others did not see. His diplomatic skills were exceptional and as I attended meetings with him with bilateral and multilateral donor community members this diplomacy came in handy.
I remember an occasion when he was expected to contribute to a document I was writing. I needed the document by the end of the day but it was not ready. This meant that I had to have it first thing the following day. He assured me that I would get what I wanted. The following day I walked into his office to tell him that I really needed that document within the first one hour of the morning. He handed me 12 pages of handwritten work on foolscap sheets. I asked when he was able to do this and he told me he had come to the office at 5:30 a.m. This was a demonstration of focused hard work.
It must be said that anybody who has the courage and determination to start a local NGO in Africa(and for that matter any business venture) is most likely to have most of the qualities outlined above. However, these qualities could be undermined by inappropriate Leadership, Organisational Development and Management practices. Practices that could be out of ignorance or a willing compromise of their own integrity with the excuse that everybody is doing the same thing.
One of the key elements of capacity that are necessary for the successful functioning of an NGO is a Strategic Plan. A Strategic Plan provides the organisation with a medium-term view of what they want to do. It also enables the donor community to see whether the strategic plan of the local NGO is consistent with their own long-term plans. Indeed in recent years, development partners are beginning to ask whether strategic plans of NGOs are consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Bilateral/Multilateral alignment with the SDGs. Local NGO should seek to respond to the overall development needs of the country in which they operate. This may or may not be consistent with the development aspirations of the ruling government of that country.
ACHD cleverly avoided medium-term strategic planning and coined the term “process approach” which really meant that “we will build the ship as we sail”. It enabled just writing proposals to fit into any donor proposal criteria. One of the very strong attributes I found with the leader of the ACHD was his ability to identify and recruit human resources with the knowledge, experience, skills and competencies to implement programmes. Several of those recruited have gone on to work for the World Bank, the UN, Bilateral Organisations and International NGOs. I have learnt that a talented human resource base needs very strong policies and systems to enable them to perform their duties based on policies clearly defined in policy documents and not on sentiments, subjective ideas and other persuasions.
I started work as the Country Director for ActionAid, Burundi in December 2004. In January 2005 I was approved by the director of a local NGO to sign a Memorandum Of Understanding and establish a partnership that will enable them access funds from ActionAid. I requested to see a Strategic Plan for the local NGO highlighting their Vision, Mission and Strategic Objectives to enable me to make an informed decision. I was in Burundi for six and a half years and that strategic plan never arrived. The most disturbing part of this encounter is that the director of the local NGO was European. I asked myself whether the Europeans are beginning to learn the tricks of weak local NGOs in Africa.
Another key element is a functioning Board of Directors. While working for ActionAid in Burundi I was assigned to the national council for the fight against HIV/AIDS. I was sitting in a committee to assess proposals from local NGOs seeking funding to implement projects to fight against the disease. One of the criteria for assessing a project who was a functioning Board of Directors. One local NGO presented us with a list of seven people as their Board of Directors. It turned out that five of the people on the list could not be contacted because they were either deceased or were out of Burundi. One of the two remaining members of the was related to the leader. I scratched my head and remembered that in my attempt to work with a local NGO in Ghana the organisation did not have a well-constituted Board of Directors known by the staff. This is a common occurrence across several countries in Africa. A young man working for a local NGO in Accra found out that the director simply picked the phone and called people he knew and told them that they were members of his board and they should agree to say so if auditors came to ask them.
Every NGO should be able to identify and solicit support from individuals with in-depth knowledge of development to be members of their Board. The presence of a functional Board of Directors is one of the basic requirements for a good governance structure that will facilitate the efficient and effective functioning of an NGO.
Policy Documents are another important element of a properly functioning NGO. The most important documents include a Human Resource policy and a Financial Management policy. Basic HR policies should normally include recruitment procedures and processes, working hours, salary and rewards administration, promotions, sanctions and exits of staff etc. Many organisations tend to use a Finance and Administration person who is not necessarily an expert in any of the two areas in order to avoid the high salaries of such expertise. However, a way out is to outsource this expertise to support the multiple tasking of a finance and administration person.
Other policy documents include Gender policy and HIV policy that could be organisational policies or included in the Human Resource policy. There could also be thematic policies such as a climate change policy that will form the basis for seeking funding for the implementation of programmes in these thematic areas. Other organisational policies could also include Partnership, Fundraising, Program Initiation and Exit etc. The presence of such policy documents will avoid ambiguity and help define organisational practices.
Working with ACHD over the years I noticed that many of them did not have a salary structure administration policy that should be in either the Human Resource policy or the Financial Management policy or both. This has resulted in many of them running the organisation without a salary scale and paying cash to staff. In the organisation that I joined in 1994, Staff salaries were always paid in cash and never by cheque thus compromising the existence of a paper trail of expenditure that will facilitate efficient auditing. This is not only in the NGO world but is widespread among private businesses. One young man has told me that in this day and age in the year 2020 his landlord will not accept advance rent payments through the bank or the mobile money transfer system. He would rather have the cash counted and given to him. In fact, the employer can escape tax payments for his staff as well as social security contributions to the right authorities.
I have learnt that several directors in the NGO world are not able to separate funds that belong to the organisation from their personal resources. Some do not actually pay themselves but rather dip and take funds from the organizational resources as and when they need it. The absence of a salary scale is another big issue. Some local NGO directors pay their staff based on the staff’s ability to negotiate. I saw this in the new NGO I joined. One could see two or three staff doing the same job receiving different salaries that are not related to their job descriptions.
One more fundamental document necessary for the operation of an organisation is a document that contains the Core Values of the organisation. Core Values should be defined by and emerge from the deep convictions and philosophical thought of the leadership of the organisation. The words that are contained in the Core Values must be consistent with the practices of the organisation for success. For example, if the Core Values of an organisation contain words such as integrity, transparency, equity and honesty and the organisation’s leadership practice the opposite then there is a problem. If such an organisation does not have a salary scale and the leadership gets engaged in underhand dealings and turn around to ask their staff to cover up for them the Core Values become meaningless. In carrying out strategic planning for state and private organisations I have always insisted that the words contained in Core Values must be clearly defined to avoid ambiguity and individual interpretation.
I have seen many organisations who just copy the Core Values of another organisation and display it as their own without conviction and commitment. If Core Values are well articulated it will help incoming new staff to understand the philosophy of the organisation and align their thinking to the same.
ACHD for implemented very important projects for several development partners. Such projects include an integrated project in the Kejebi district, a capacity-building project in the Ashanti Region and a water and sanitation project in the Western Region of Ghana. I also carried out the first medium-term development plan for the Kejebi District. The research to develop this plan lasted between 6 and 8 weeks. Although I completed and submitted this plan before my departure from the organisation all evidence that I did this was suppressed in the final report. By July 1995 I had found out that the “greener grass” that I thought was on the other side had quickly turned brown. I felt that I was sitting on a tree with a group of knowledgeable, skilled and competent individuals and that the trunk of the tree was being undermined. I became aware that the tree would fall sooner or later. I, therefore, decided to get off. Anytime one finds himself or herself in an organisation that has an inappropriate organisational culture there are usually three options of action. Option one is to join the inappropriate culture and do exactly what everybody else is doing. Option two is to stay in the culture but refuse to be part of it. In this case one is actually an accomplice to the wrongdoing. Option three is to quit independent of any loss in personal gains. At the beginning of every year my prayer has always been that God will give me the courage to change the things I can change, the humility to accept the things I cannot change and the wisdom to differentiate between the two. At this point I recognised that I could not change anything about the organisational culture in this job. Therefore I resigned. At the end of July 1995, I resigned from the organisation. 25 years after my departure from ACHD, it does not exist anymore. I went to work for the US Peace Corps albeit with a lower compensation package as an Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD) in charge of Small Enterprise Development (SED).
It is important to state that there has been very strong leadership and organisational development successes in the local NGO community. Some of these include are ISODEC (Integrated Social Development Centre), Third World Network, Centre for Democratic Development (CDD), SEND Ghana, IMANI Africa and others. ISODEC and Third World Network were started in the late 1980s and early 1990s and are still operational and successfully implementing programs with their founders no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the organization. These organisations definitely had succession planning and strong policies that have facilitated their operation for up to 30 years. The reason for this success lies in the ability of the founders of these local NGOs to strive to establish fundamental capacity requirements despite difficulties. They are able to look beyond personal gain and focus on institutional stability. They quickly think of succession planning that will enable the organization to grow beyond the individuals. Above all this, the founders see the organisations as a step in their career development and aim for higher goals.
The critical issues I have raised above including the questions of a Board of Directors, a strategic plan, policy documents and Core Values also apply two business ventures. Any business venture that wants to succeed beyond the founder must be rooted in these principles.
When one looks at big businesses search us Microsoft, Apple, the Hilton chain of hotels etc one will realise that the founders looked beyond themselves and organisations lived beyond them. Major international NGOs that have been successful include Save the Children Fund, Oxfam Christian Aid, World Vision International, ActionAid etc.
The organisational culture of international NGOs tend to be influenced by the culture of the countries from which they originate. This usually facilitates their existence. Laws from these home countries tend to facilitate the existence and successful operation of the NGO. Despite legislation that provides for the existence and operation of local NGOs, African governments tend to engage local NGO in a way that stifles their work
Until Ghanaian and indeed African local NGOs are formed not for the purpose of immediate financial gains for the founders, Africa will continue to look more to international NGO and local NGO will continue to die young.
The next blog is subtitled “Beyond The Frontiers of Ghana “. I appreciate the comments from my readers.