Of late, I have been thinking a lot about how we – ‘civil society club’ can speed up “walking the talk”– working with communities towards just, sustainable, and equal society. Most of us exist because our systems, be it political, economic, or social, serve the powerful few. We want to reverse that or at very least open space for those at the periphery of power to have a share of that power and privileges.
Over the years we have sung our song louder. With different rhyme and tone, we repeatedly said ‘we work with marginalized communities’, ‘we work for women’, ‘we work with young people’, ‘we work for people with disabilities’. Our chorus is long and resounding. With zeal and passionate we are advocating for policy changes and some of us have ‘empowerment’ programs for women, youth or marginalized communities, (I think we need to stop using the word empowerment, it’s so disempowering). The point is, we have made our case clear that ‘things’ need to change if the fairer and equal world ought to be attained. The question is, are we changing too? Are we creating prototypes in our organizations on how society should be reorganized or, are we comfortable with ‘do what I said and not what I do?’.
If you follow social media account of most of NGO, Women’s Rights Organisations and even feminists’ groups and collectives, you are more likely to see images or fancy, shiny, and heavily branded meetings. While there is a lot to talk about ‘hotel halls movements’ as opposed to community led actions, today I invite you to join me in reflecting on a different angle- the suppliers or as we call them service providers. Who are they real? In fact, I am inviting you to reflect on who is pocketing the NGO money?
First of all, allow me to put it out there, I am guilty as charged, in fact I am writing this blog at the airport, heading to another ‘big meeting’ so this blog is in no way to claim righteousness but rather, is an invitation to reflect and assess our practices.
Now, If you work in the NGO sector – especially non-service delivery NGOs, you will know, our biggest expenses are on travels, consultancies and production of information and education materials. Again, we can debate on why this, but let’s focus on the bolts, we will do the nuts some other time.
My NGO clan, are we deliberate on who we source these services from? Let’s take travels for example, while most of us embrace our pan Africanism ideology, but when given the option to choose a flight, we are more likely to choose those owned outside the continent. “We need to be comfortable, the work we are doing is tiring” right? But if we can’t compromise on that, do we even try to work with small youth or women owned travel agencies? Or we can’t trust them with such important services like booking flights?
When we choose hotels to host our endless meetings, the fanciest will be on top of our list. Did we ever ask who owns the hotel? Or does it really not matter? The same questions can be asked to event managers, designers, and printers. Speaking of printers and the list of logos we put on backdrop banners, when did we decide, we will only promote the ‘trio’ that is, the event name, the organizers and the sponsors. To be specific when did we decide to kill promoting why we are doing what we are doing? Or because it invites an uncomfortable discussion we are not ready to have? Back to the topic, because branding has become ‘the main focus’ of most of our work, which printers and designers get the fat and juicy check from us?
Let’s face it, our suppliers are ‘established’ businesses owned by able- old men and often they are white. The same is also true with consultancies! One might wonder, like, real? We don’t have knowledgeable people among us to provide those ‘technical/expert opinions’ we often don’t need?
My clan, the wise once said, ‘we need to put our money where our mouth is’, are we? Do we realize, youth businesses are struggling to breakthrough, and women businesses are expected to be and remain small? – “but we source conference bags from women, we are trying right”? Someone told me, I guess it’s up to all of us to make a judgment call if that is enough. Sadly, we don’t even have conversations about businesses owned by people with disabilities and other marginalized groups. The thing is, even though we keep preaching ‘they’ should not be treated as mere victims, the truth is, even us, we don’t see them as anything more than ‘beneficiaries’. If we do, show me the track record of your organization working with ‘them’ as service providers.
I know some of you might say, I am subjecting NGO and WROs to high and unattainable standards, but first, why not? We committed to reimagine the world so we should do the hard work. And second, if some of the governments already have policies (even though most of them are only on paper) to procure from women and youth owned businesses, why can’t we lead and show them how those policies can be implemented to end poverty, transform lives, and redistribute wealth and power?
We all know the pain of fundraising – sleepless nights, and the number of drafts we need to write and edit before we get that ‘approved’ email. Why then, we are happily funding the same systems we committed to disrupt? Can we really attain equitable change if we keep financing the ‘established few’? It is like we are working so hard to sustain inequalities and injustices of this world.
The sad truth is, this is not by accident, it’s part of how the game is being played. Attaining the status of ‘professional NGO with robust financial system’ often means affirming your devotion in maintaining the status quo. Changing this, needs a candid soul searching process followed by practical and ambitious game changing plans. We need to redesign our organizational systems to embrace those who we work with and for, they need us as much as we need them.
As we welcome 2022, I am challenging all of us to do gender audits on our service providers. For feminists’ sake, let’s use intersectional lens to assess who exactly is providing which services and paid how much and why? I will be keen to learn your findings, but more importantly, I would love to know what you are planning to do next so that we can all learn from each other.
Before we end this piece, allow me to say this one irritating thing, can we civil society stop devaluing people’s knowledge, especially women and youth in all their diversity? We spend tons of money to pay for accommodation, meals, branding, publicity, etc but we spend peanuts to pay those who we invite to share their knowledge and experiences in our meetings. Even translators – who are often men, will have decent contracts for service they provide, but our panelists/speakers are paid close to nothing? Why? Do we realize without them our meetings will be just another gathering with nice food and colorful branded t-shirts?
Let’s reflect and rethink our practices, we have a duty to do so – for African sake. What we are seeing now are manifestations of well ingrained neoliberal systems and standards in our organizations. We cannot continue to replicate neoliberal ideas and models of operand to free ourselves from their oppression, injustices and exploitation, we need to decolonize our operations and alter relations of power. Rethink!