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From someone who’s been there, done that: an interview with Irũngũ Houghton

Image credit: Vicki Couchman/Bond

I met Irũngũ Houghton, Executive Director of Amnesty International Kenya, at this year’s Bond Conference, where he chaired a panel on ‘Leading from the Global South.’ Intrigued by much of what he said, I asked for an interview to discuss the barriers and potential entry-points to creating a more equitable development system. Here is a summary of what we spoke about.


In your view, what are some of the key reasons that Northern organisations continue to monopolise funding streams and the management of projects in international development?


There are two basic reasons. First, the collective inability to go beyond the imperial project, which was a scramble for resources, markets, people and ideas. Second, self-interest, or what Jessica Horn describes as the NGO industrial complex – this has a number of beneficiaries and the interest of NGOs is to not rock the boat.


In the work you’ve done, how have existing power imbalances between the Global South and North hindered effectiveness?


We spend too much time in the way of resources and mental preoccupation on matters of form rather than substance. We spend money on branding, logos, imagery, at the expense of looking at what we were trying to transform. Most of our projects are essentially transformative, in terms of inequalities or exclusion, but we spend too much of our time on how our work looks, rather than on empowering communities. We design projects and bureaucratic layers that are costly – money that could go to the end beneficiary. It would be interesting to declare, moving forwards, that we would spend 70% of global funding in the Global South and only 30% at the home country level.

I have two experiences to share on how imbalances have hindered effectiveness.

In 2001, I was in Washington DC and had 3 years of work experience at ActionAid Kenya. We were there to discuss global policy and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PSRPs). I made my presentation on the Kenyan experience. A number of others made their presentations but didn’t name any specific countries – they had no knowledge of anything about a PRSP that wasn’t contained in a World Bank or IMF document, or an NGO document about the context. They had no other way of verifying what was actually happening in the country, which was the local context for the PRSPs. I came face to face with the ‘beltway policy advocates’. Bright, intelligent folks, with no experience beyond Washington.


Thirteen years ago, I was working with Oxfam to generate support for multi-country advocacy programmes around African Union standards and human rights instruments. We sought to create a consortium of African organisations that could collectively target bilateral donors for millions in funding. I started the process of negotiating with our affiliates to raise money in Europe and North America.


The first experience was painful. After six months of consultations, the ten organisations had drafted a US$2 million proposal in response to an invitation from a Foundation. Oxfam procedures required us to secure the approval of the affiliate from the same country as the Foundation. The negotiations went back and forth between us and the affiliate. Finally, two months later, the affiliate had generated a US$7 million proposal but could only find US$1 million for the ten-organisation consortium and we couldn’t work in the ten countries we wanted to work in. This was very awkward as we had already built up trust and agreement. We went back and forth and eventually withdrew from the bid. Very little of the US$ 7 million ended up being spent in Africa.


A year later, learning from our experience we secured €6 million from other donors. The Pan Africa Programme became one of Oxfam’s biggest advocacy programmes operating in the global South, and most Oxfam affiliates were very proud of it. Within three years, it was funding African organisations and Oxfam offices in over 20 countries across Africa (15% was spent on Oxfam itself). We only managed to do this by negotiating directly with the headquarters of key European donors.


What we need to demand for the Global South is that the bulk of consortium funding come back directly into the continent – and those of us with allies in the North need to work together to do this.


If you could only change one thing about the current system in order to improve it, what would that change be?


The key thing that’s needed is context-responsive intellectual leadership. Unless I was coming to do something where I could bring added value to the inner cities of Birmingham, I shouldn’t be going there to work. In addition, on NGO boards we see people who do not come from the countries where the work is done. This is a disgrace. We also need Southern representation on boards of international organisations.


Related to this question, Irũngũ has written about five disempowering traits that international NGOs must drop, especially as democratic space is shrinking globally.


To end with, Irũngũ posed his own question: What must be given up in the Global South?


We must give up a model that prolongs our dependence on global assistance. One thing is Official Development Assistance being spent in the South. There are calls in Middle Income Countries on what we can do to generate domestic resources for our work and accountability. The counterpoint of this is local aid workers or activists who are part of the 1% in their countries and are unaccountable to other citizens. The model of solidarity is still the most important in world in which demonization and dehumanization is a global phenomenon – the toxicity of identity. How do we create new solidarity models as we move forward?


An excellent question – what do you think?


Check out Irũngũ’s own personal blog here.

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