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Conversations with Southern Partners
The Search for Meaningful Partnerships

The preliminary brainstorm activity around the Task Force strategic framework resulted in seven primary areas which will be elaborated upon during the next meeting. One of these areas is new roles for NGOs. As we re-think our roles as Northern NGOs, it is important to listen to what our Southern partners have to say about our current work and how it should change. The following notes are the results of discussions with six Southern partners on their recent visits to Canada in January and February 1996. When considering these comments, it is important to note that this is not a representative sample: all of the people interviewed were fluent in either English or French and have already come to the attention of Northern NGOs, as is evidenced by the fact that they have come to Canada on the invitation of Northern organizations. This may result in some bias.

The Work of Northern NGOs in the South: Problems and Solutions

Problem #1: Northern NGOs continue to set the development agenda.

The first and primary concern of all of our Southern partners was that Northern NGOs continue to set the development agenda without sufficient involvement of their local partners.

  • Projects are based on Northern perceptions of what we need.
  • There is often a top-down approach by Northern NGOs.
  • Southerners have not had the moral courage to challenge the perception of the Northern NGOs; the result has been failure, and this failure discourages further investment.
  • Southerners are best able to define their problems and decide what is locally appropriate to address them.
  • There is a positive trend towards allowing Southern partners to establish their own agendas.
  • The North will not understand the South without taking residence in the South (and vice versa)

The solution: Real, meaningful partnerships.

  • The quality of the partnership is more important than the quantity of money.
  • The problem is one of values - we cannot define the value for the people (e.g. health may have different meanings for different people. We need to let communities define their needs.)
  • Help communities to come up with their own ideas and then help to organize and implement them.
  • The approach of Northern NGOs should be "You tell us what you need and how you might accomplish it".
  • Southern NGOs should know what they want to do before approaching Northern NGOs.
  • Southern NGOs are too accepting of the donor agenda - they need the moral courage to say no.
  • Strategy should be a bottom-up approach.
  • Communities should decide their own agenda
  • Northern NGOs need to communicate with Southern NGOs and the people.
  • Give more time to dialogue between NGOs and the people.
  • Utilizing local resources and expertise is cost effective.
  • Take into account what local people are doing and build on it.
  • Don't come in as "the expert". We are all experts. Ask what you can bring to the situation to make a difference. Share your experience and give us a sense of what is possible.
  • Help to increase exposure for Southern NGOs. If the Northern NGOs know of government or UN representatives who are visiting an area, they should encourage them to visit NGO projects. Increased exposure can lead to greater resources.

Other problems:

The time frame for many projects is too short.

  • The most important aspect of development is change in behaviour and attitudes in the community. This takes time.

Overlap and Competition.

  • In some areas, there are many NGOs doing the same thing in the same area.
  • Northern NGOs must stop competing against one another about who is having the greatest impact. They should work to complement the work of other NGOs. Coordination will lead to greater impact.
  • NGOs often do not have the resources of official aid agencies. In order to have a real impact, there should be some understanding of the government's official development plan.

Changing funding priorities.

  • When Northern donors suddenly change funding priorities, there can be a serious impact on work in the South. Southern NGOs may be left without funding or face having to quickly re-define their programs.

The Roles of Northern NGOs

Capacity Building

  • The most important thing is not to help in the technical aspects of development, but in building the base.
  • Strengthen the existing expertise of leaders who are already doing the work.
  • Transfer of skill and knowledge leads to sustainability.
  • Northern NGOs have a rich understanding of international situations. They can bring a more global perspective than Southern NGOs. There should be more dialoguing as equals.
  • Help Southern NGOs to gain exposure to new ideas through sharing of knowledge, opportunities to gain experience beyond their local community.
  • Northern NGOs can give Southern NGOs/Southerners exposure to new ideas/experiences so they can appreciate the issues in a broader sense.


  • Advocacy should begin with the NGO on its own government. The World Bank, UN respect national governments.

Education in the North

Only one of our Southern partners suggested that the most important role we have to play is in the North. His comments include:

  • Northern NGOs have many things to do here - to change the image/idea of the problem all of us are facing. Poverty is not only in Africa, it is here in the North. Environmental problems are also common North and South.
  • The perception that these things are only problems in the South is not helping us to collaborate - to get together to solve the problem.
  • What you can do here is as important as what you do in the South. If workers here can see the problem they have is related to that in Africa, we can work together.
  • When people realize the problem is the same, they won't blame their problems on the South (i.e. that jobs are flowing South because of cheaper labour costs)
  • People in the North don't understand why Northern NGOs work in the South.
  • Help people to come together to make a common program. Make people see the world in a different way - Not divided.
  • People think Northern NGOs are doing work "over there". Funding can be easily cut because there is no public support. The public doesn't see how the issues are linked.
  • We need to bring people to sit together - forums to bring people together and a neutral party to facilitate dialogue and awareness.

Based on meetings in January and February 1996 with the following Southern partners:

Elias Debebe, Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Augusta Henriques, Tiniguena, Guinea-Bissau
Lalita Krishnaswami, Self Employed Women's Association, Ahmedabad, India
Evans N. Maphenduka, Prison Fellowship International, Harare, Zimbabwe
Shahnaz Kapadia Rahat, Entrepreneurship and Career Institute, Islamabad, Pakistan
René Segbenou, African Institute for Economic and Social Development, Abidjan, Cote D'Ivoire

Further Resources:

Mustafa Barghouthi, "North-South relations and the question of aid", in Development in Practice, Vol. 3 No. 3, October 1993, pp. 204-208.
Karunawathie Menike, "People's empowerment from the people's perspective" in Development in Practice, Vol. 3 No. 3, October 1993, pp. 176-183.
Movimento de Organizaçào Comunitária, "On being evaluated: tensions and hopes", in Development in Practice, Vol. 3 No. 3, October 1993, pp.209-212.
Jehan Perera, In Unequal Dialogue with Donors: The Experience of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, no date (1994?).
Yash Tandon, "Foreign NGOs, Uses and Abuses: An African Perspective", in IFDA dossier, 81, April/June 1991, pp. 67-78.


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