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Transforming International Cooperation, the example of ACORD

Case Studies Prepared for the Canadian Council for International Co-operation
March 2003

Lessons in Aid Effectiveness from Civil Society:
Transforming International Cooperation, the example of ACORD
Inter Pares

Lake Naivasha, at an altitude of almost 2000 metres, is the highest lake in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. It is a place of fertile land, sunny days, and cool nights. The soft, dewy mornings are filled with the song of the over 400 species of birds that make their home in the area. Surrounding hills offer stunningly beautiful vistas for hundreds of miles. For a week in May, 2002, Lake Naivasha was the fitting site of an important gathering that marked a high point in an intensive process of organizational change for the international NGO consortium ACORD. Over seventy representatives of ACORD staff, consortium members, Board trustees, and allies from other African organizations participated in a five-day Pan-African Workshop to develop ACORD’s new Global Program. Almost five years earlier, ACORD had launched a thorough review of its mandate, identity, structure and programming strategies. The Naivasha meeting revealed how significant the changes over those five years had been, as well as the opportunities and challenges that ACORD now faces in the future.

ACORD’s history and process of change is unique. At the same time, ACORD has struggled with many of the same constraints, challenges, contradictions, and opportunities that are shared by other international NGOs – issues of viability, accountability, relevance, impact, and ownership. To resolve these issues in a constructive process of profound institutional change, ACORD engaged all ten member organizations as well as representatives of over 500 staff working in eighteen countries across Africa. ACORD’s experience offers a useful example of the potential for NGOs to adapt to historical challenges and remain relevant to the struggle for a development and social justice in Africa.

Created in 1976 as a consortium of European and Canadian NGOs, including Inter Pares, ACORD provided member organizations with operational capacity to address issues of poverty in "difficult" regions of Africa – in zones of conflict, isolation, and marginalization. Over the next two decades, with its headquarters in London, ACORD built a reputation for solid research and excellent local programs, providing direct service and support to local communities in many parts of the African continent. For its work, ACORD counted on the support of donor agencies and the communities in which it intervened. ACORD was a rather rare beast, not belonging to any one country, having no public fundraising base, governed by trustees who were representatives of Northern agencies and accountable only to Northern member organizations and donors.

While the staff in Africa were for the most part citizens of the countries in which they worked, the overall strategic management of the organization, including program development, was centralized in ACORD’s London secretariat, allowing for effective support to isolated and vulnerable areas, but minimal learning, accountability and ownership shared across the organization.

By the mid-nineties, it was apparent that the initial impetus behind ACORD could no longer sustain the organization. In addition, given the evolution in the social and political context in which ACORD worked, the legitimacy and relevance of the consortium’s original mission, management structure, governance and programming strategies had come under increasing scrutiny by external funders, and more importantly, by ACORD staff, consortium members and allied NGOs in Africa. ACORD was challenged to confront the questions of accountability and ownership as well as the strategic value of its interventions in countries in which the benefits of traditional development work were increasingly being contested.

In 1998 the Board of Directors struck a task force that included London and Africa-based staff to develop a range of options for ACORD’s future. After months of consultation, with the support of senior staff in London as well as senior program staff in Africa, the Board chose an option for which there was no model and set out in territory for which we had no map. The "new" ACORD would not be a Northern donor consortium. Nor would it be an African organization, or a federation of African organizations.

Rather it would be an instance of truly "international" cooperation. We considered the rich legacy of ACORD’s twenty years of work on the ground and the potential for that legacy to provide a foundation for the future. We also examined more critically the inadequacy and even illegitimacy of much of the conventional international NGO interventions in Africa, a legacy that Firoze Manji has called the "depoliticization of poverty"1. We decided that in spite of the complexity and difficulty of transcending conventional North/South NGO relationships, ACORD would transform itself by choosing to be an "Africa-led" international organization working in alliance with others to promote development and social justice. Given the institutional analysis of globalization and the political imperatives of working at many levels and in many places, we decided it was not time for the original members to walk away but rather to re-engage with different working assumptions, priorities, and methodologies.

Over the following three years, we all learned how difficult, confusing, risky, and exciting such a transformation could be. The process of change stimulated debate on fundamental values, programming strategies, management structures and systems, and institutional governance. Under the leadership of David Waller who was engaged as Executive Director to manage the organizational change, ACORD moved its headquarters to Nairobi and established a multi-disciplinary, pan-African programming directorate that has drawn on the expertise of staff from countries in every region where ACORD is working. The membership of the Board of Directors has also evolved to reflect ACORD’s international identity, including trustees from Europe, Africa and Canada. The programming approach has been transformed from autonomous local programs, to larger, regionally-integrated programs linking practical work with research and advocacy within a global strategy of supporting citizen’s movements in many countries throughout the continent. This Global Program for Social Justice and Development in Africa was launched at the Naivasha Pan-African Workshop, signaling to all the participants how significant a change had occurred.

What has this meant concretely in communities where ACORD works? Northern Mali, one of ACORD’s longest-standing program areas, provides an example of the dynamic relationship between local imperatives for change and currents in the wider organization. In 1997, ACORD initiated a review of its program in northern Mali to transform the approach it had developed over 20 years in the area. Its aim was to shift from providing services and technical assistance to building the capacity of local autonomous associations to improve the livelihoods of communities and to participate in local governance structures. The shifts in ACORD-Mali’s programming coincided with a decentralization process of the national government, and a growing recognition within many sectors of the country of the importance of strengthening the democratic structures of local government as well as the capacity of citizens to participate in those structures and to hold their government accountable. In the region of Timbuktu, ACORD began focussing its work on strengthening the institutional capacity of community organizations (that had previously been "beneficiaries" of assistance) so that they can effectively promote and defend their own interests.

In the context of efforts by the Malian government to decentralize governance structures and strengthen local administrative capacity, the ACORD program helps community members and local officials to understand their rights and obligations. This initiative also assists rural organizations to gain more autonomy, and enhances their ability to address livelihood and resource management issues through the translation and dissemination of the text of new government legislation (including laws related to marriage, land ownership, and government decentralization), and training with officials and local groups on the content and use of the new laws.

Long-standing tensions among the nomadic pastoralists and sedentary farmers over access to land in northern Mali have intensified under decentralization. When the government of Mali divided land plots, the needs and historic practices of the nomadic populations were not taken into consideration. In addition, as once nomadic communities choose to settle, conflicts arise over land use in a fragile environment. ACORD-Mali’s history in the region has provided a unique opportunity to encourage and facilitate dialogue among communities and social groups in order to find ways to manage and use resources, and to prevent further conflict and/or violence from arising. This experience and knowledge is now being shared systematically with others through a new ACORD regional program in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mauritania, that has been developed in collaboration with Inter Pares and other ACORD members. The Sahel experience is also being used in initiatives with other regions of Africa through the new ACORD Global Program.

The Mali experience is an example of how the legacy of ACORD’s early years has been transformed and re-vitalized through the organizational change process. This momentous change within ACORD would not have been possible without the dedication and commitment of ACORD staff in all parts of the organization. Many positions were changed, moved, or lost through the reformulation and restructuring. But in spite of their personal loss, those who knew the process would cost them their jobs (particularly in the U.K.) supported the vision of a renewed alliance and worked diligently and creatively to make that vision a reality. ACORD also benefited from the support of its member organizations and a very active international board of directors.

The new Africa-led ACORD responds to the initial challenge that an exclusively Northern donor-driven consortium is no longer a legitimate or effective form for development action in the South. Ownership of the organization matters because an essential condition of transformative social development processes is that people be the authors of their own lives and the architects of their own futures. Development efforts that do not emerge from the authentic aspirations of people and draw on their knowledge and experience are doomed to failure.

At the same time, ACORD’s option for change, which has been authored by the people directly concerned in Africa, also asserts that resolving the issue of ownership in any development strategy is more profound than merely determining the nationalities of the privileged people who draft the "log frames" and sign the contracts. Re-establishing ownership is a process of democratization, not corporate decentralization. In Africa it is taking place amidst a legacy of colonialism and centuries of disenfranchisement and expropriation. In the context of 21st century Africa, ownership implies the power of citizens to assert their rights, to demand accountability from their own governments, and to engage in the world as global citizens.

Responding to this context is not the exclusive responsibility of Africans. Development assistance is a public resource that can serve to redistribute wealth among citizens. It is useful to the extent that it transforms the conditions and processes that create and maintain disparities and inequalities in the first place. Ownership matters because so many own so little, and so few own so much. Working to transform inequality and to redress injustice is a vision that many of us can own, and for which each of us can be responsible. ACORD is one example of an international effort – international cooperation in its most profound sense – among African and other actors willing to collaborate strategically to defend the space and the possibility for people to assert their aspirations and transform their communities and their lives.

For more information contact Molly Kane at Inter Pares:

1 Manji, Firoze, "The Depoliticisation of Poverty", Development and Rights, Selected Essays from Development in Practice, Oxfam GB, 1998.


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