Thursday, January 21, 2010

What is the role of an international NGO?

The term non governmental organization (NGO) is meant to describe an organization that provides services normally associated with governments in a context where a government is unable (or unwilling) to step in.

The positive side of NGOs is that they contribute to global resource redistribution and hopefully include the transfer of knowledge or technologies. However, NGOs have potentially negative affects as well. For example, they are often charged with allowing the state to disengage from the public sector with the assurance that the NGO will manage social services. Further, they can actually weaken the state by replacing services that the state provides with their own programs—and in such a way that it may not be sustainable. When the NGO departs, the state, who has not developed the sector because the NGO had taken over, is not prepared to adopt it. Finally, they are charged with addressing needs that are designed by the NGO or funders, often located in rich countries, rather than the needs defined by the people they purport to benefit. NGOs may have incentives to perpetuate themselves as organization, which may not create the right incentives to actually solve problems.

Given this, what is the role of an international NGO? How can an international NGO bring the strengths of the international community to bear while avoiding, or minimizing, the potential negative affects?

It is important to realize that, just as developing countries are not all the same, NGOs are not all the same. In fact, the term describes such a vast array of organization that it is actually not terribly descriptive. When Ariel and I decided to start Maria’s Libraries, we decided we could put these concerns at the core of how we structured the organization. Having both worked in and with NGOs, Ariel and I have seen a lot that we liked and a lot that we didn’t like. We have sought advice from major funders of library projects in the developing countries, leaders of similar organizations, students and professors in information technologies, and smart friends engaged in international development. Librarians in the US have also been amazingly forthcoming, and we have studied how library networks work at home. Librarians in Kenya have been similarly helpful, telling us how they operate and what challenges they have faced.

Taking all this into account, we decided to base what we do on an idea that comes from growth economics—in short, we asked ourselves and our partners in Busia the following questions:

What are the binding constraints that are preventing this library from being built and run in Busia?

What are the binding constraints to the emergence of a library network in Kenya?

Who is best suited to deal with those constraints and how?

Of course, the answers to these questions are specific to Busia. If Maria’s Libraries begins work in a new town or a new country, we will have to think this through again. We are already asking the same questions as we start to create a national library directory in order to network them.

In the case of Busia, the major constraints we have identified are the following: (1) funding and resources like books and computers; (2) organization and networking between and within sites; and (3) capacity to sustain the library. As for who is best suited to deal with these issues, in the case of Kenya we feel that we can have a role to play in procuring funding from international donors. Of course, local and national donors can help, and we feel that we are well suited to assist in local and national fundraising. We have also found that we can help with organizing disparate groups, and networking them. As for sustaining the library, in Kenya we do not feel that we are best suited to do this, either in terms of funding or know-how.

As for funding, we hope that this library will be around for as long as Busia is around. We further hope that Maria’s Libraries will be similarly long lasting, and we will remain committed to the library in Busia. However, for the library to be truly sustainable, it must be able to exist without our support and we can move on, bringing what we feel are our strengths to other communities. Kenya has a national library service that could run the library and, if the community chooses not to work with the national service, there are several ways they could design the library to raise enough funds to sustain itself. Building a local philanthropic community is part of that. Other ideas that our partners in Busia have had is to build an office space on the library compound that would be rented out to benefit the library. They could also run programs through the library, like computer classes, that they would charge for.

As for the technical aspect of running a library, we are not librarians and are clearly not best suited to be involved in this part of things. Similarly, the capacity to run a library does not, at present, exist in Busia. However, it does exist in Kenya, and we feel very strongly that tapping into local expertise will bring us a lot further than importing expertise from abroad. There are librarians and organizations in Kenya who would be willing to work in Busia. Kenya National Library Service has been running over 50 libraries throughout the country for decades. They also run classes where Maria or other people who have been involved in the project could be trained in librarianship.

In our organizing role, we are helping to connect KNLS and other library networks to the local community. We hope that in doing so we are actually strengthening the capacities of both.

In short, our role is organizing, networking and initial funding. We can assist where requested in the sustainability aspects, but we are clearly not the best party suited to this. Of course as funders we need to make sure that the plans for sustainability are well in place before we begin to build.

Not only do we hope that the library we build will be a benefit to the community for decades to come, we hope that our NGO represents a responsible model for promoting development.

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