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The Uncharted Territory of NGOs and Development in Malawi

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have played a critical role in the development of our country since independence, when we set forth on an uncertain path to steer our own development and assert our position in a globalizing world. They continue to bring food straight to the guts of the hungry, potable water to the thirsty and parched, safe delivery to mothers in the most remote areas, and are quite useful to ingeniously direct us to the toilet when successful food security results in the temptation to head to the bush. CONGOMA estimates NGO activity, today, contributes about 10% to gross domestic product (GDP). By many standards, NGOs engage to improve every aspect of our livelihoods.

NGOs have been instrumental in demonstrating to government, particularly policy makers in central and line ministries, on what works. But they have also been valuable in negotiating with development actors on the specific priorities stakeholders ought to focus on through campaigns and targeted advocacy efforts. This has not been an easy task, as sometimes they have encountered a shrinking space for their mandates. Despite the challenges, a handful of NGOs continue to confirm their indispensable role in advancing humanity in Malawi. We may not be able to measure the obvious impact that the 500+ active NGOs, according to CONGOMA, have made on the people of Malawi across the board, but perhaps their absence would have been more conspicuous in the illusory plight of the masses.

Needless to say, NGOs and civil society organizations (CSOs: which, although not quite the same as NGOs, the NGO Act (2000) of Malawi identifies as the overarching framework for NGOs and other Non-State actors) have also sat on a wealth of data, information and knowledge ever since they have enjoyed their documented existence in the country. It is the infinite knowledge about Malawi’s development housed in NGO offices that we fuss a little about in this article. The clear spontaneous absence of this knowledge in shaping development policy and action, and academic direction on development, is a somewhat disturbing oversight.

NGO Knowledge Milling and some Shortcomings.

An important requirement of any NGO project proposal that has been funded by a donor in Malawi, or anywhere, for that matter, is the articulation of a robust monitoring plan that ensures the logical framework under implementation (or experimentation) is seen through. Through the lifetime of the project, data collection instruments are designed and used to compile data on progress in monitoring visits by project managers. In many instances, NGOs have, through such access to information, had the opportunity to possess better data than the District Offices under whose jurisdictions participating communities in NGO projects fall.

Another of the critical requirements is the production of an evaluation report, which condenses all the monitoring information on progress, makes sense of it and assesses the success or shortcomings of the activity from a number of viewpoints, with full cognizance of the context in which the intervention has taken place. Evaluation exercises that are properly planned also involve the collection of fresh data on the project end line and information that is used, through traditional treatment-control scientific methodology, to verify the impact of activities on populations. Although more than a few of these reports have signaled the unrestrained success on the part of the NGOs ability to deliver on its promises in the funded proposal, some have seen candid conclusions on some key failures.

The common factor, though, and most critical, is how these reports continue to gain dust on the shelves of NGO offices as well as the Ministries’ at Capital Hill. A few years down the line, another NGO walks into the country to implement a similar activity on the same beneficiaries. In the worst cases, you get to see three NGOs concurrently implementing the same livelihoods programs with the same beneficiaries and competing on strategies to engage communities. In an evaluation exercise of a Concern Universal’s livelihoods project in Mayani E.P.A. in Dedza District, in the mid-2000s, an evaluation team discovered three NGOs working on improving livelihoods in the same locations. Not only were the targeted populations confused at which NGO certain activities were attributable to, but were usually torn between attending World Vision Malawi’s meetings that distributed cash for sitting allowances and Concern Universal’s meetings that had food as a bait to sit and talk. To a certain extent, this has made collection of the quality data an insurmountable job.

A Government-Led Response to NGO Work.

In a couple of past articles, this website has argued for government coordination of development activities beyond government-specific programs (for one of them, click here to rekindle the memory). We believe that the coordinating body for debt and aid needs to keenly look into the results of development aid channeled to Malawi through NGOs and CSOs. An oversight mechanism that interfaces with all the relevant non-state actors, which the NGO Act identifies as the NGO Board, and CONGOMA would be important to analyse the work of NGOs, and also help to put together standards of their operation so that those that are only used as conduits for laundering money are purged out of the system. It would also help rationalize development further, by ensuring that proposed redundant activities are kept in check.

As a matter of emphasis, our opinion on the role of history in development could never be more relevant to this process. The NGO activities implemented over a 1964-to-date trajectory of interventions that have changed form and shape over the time should, for a clever government, signal changes in development priorities if accelerated economic and social progress is to be attained.

Furthermore, it should inform the basis for academicians to redesign development and its associated disciplines, like our degrees in Education, to respond to drivers of progress in the local context. Much of the historical patterns in development on the local scene reside in NGO studies and evaluation reports, which no one is collating and making sense of. That remains an academic exercise that our universities and institutions of higher learning should have taken on board, categorize them according to different fields of study, and tailor models of development economics that are suitable for our circumstances. So far, we continue to forge the Western models of economics that, at best, respond to the development pathways of the global North, whose settings have obviously been different from ours.

The separation of the proliferated NGO work from the academia and government policy should have been a no brainer. The protagonists in the conduct of research and M&E work are academicians, who prostitute from one assignment to the next with little pause to integrate findings from the field within the framework of the academic instruction they deliver to scholars. The expectation that highly-trained university lecturers perform much of the research that NGOs commission remains unmet in that our local and international academic journals have not benefited from such work. It is not exclusively their fault, as the universities that employ them also have to flex their ability to design academic courses with the most appropriate rigour.

Of course, if NGO-generated knowledge were to be synergized by high quality academic expertise, the first change we have to see is the quality of evaluation and research reports our learned NGOs are commissioning.


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