There was once a time when taking care of people was a job for neighbours and family. Now doing good has become a career choice, and what better way to pay your bills than working for a NGO? Unfortunately, despite the best intentions of people who often work well over their paid hours, the scramble for dwindling funds to cover hefty operating costs has resulted in an unsettling power relationship between organisations and the very communities they set out to help. We met with a group of people from migrant-led groups to find out more.
Several members of the group raised a concern about a particular issue that was problematic for them. As organisations grow and move from the streets to offices, from community volunteers to paid professionals, they often become distanced from their beneficiaries. This presents a number of problems. Idil Ahmed* explained:
Often larger organisations do not have the connections with migrant communities that they need to carry out their work. So they sub-contract out the work to small groups who carry out the work for them but get little of the credit. The larger groups end up determining what the smaller groups do, when actually it is the smaller groups, that are run by the community themselves, who know best what the community needs.
For many NGOs it becomes a numbers game; they need to show funders they have reached many people with their projects. In the process of creating their impressive figures they become complicit in creating a hierarchy – with the funder at the top and the community at the bottom - that often silences and disempowers grassroots voices. Rather than migrant-led groups determining what their own communities need and how it should be addressed, they end up carrying out work dictated to them from above by people who often have no relevant life experience or real understanding of the community’s situation.
Funders’ preference for larger organisations working with a range of communities also has an impact on small groups that have evolved out of a particular community to address a particular need. Abdullahi Ali, Baraka Youth Association, told us:
Funders argue that they should only fund activities which aim to help the wider community; my answer to this is that any funding opportunity should be based on need. There are a number of barriers ethnic minority groups face at grassroots level, including language, cultural and religious barriers. These are barriers that create very real, tangible problems. Minority groups need to be empowered so that they can get equal access services provided by mainstream institutions.
Community needs can only be effectively addressed by taking into account their specific situation as well as their culture, language and other factors; smaller, community-led groups are much better placed to do this. Yet the entire funding process is geared towards larger organisations. Halima Asfaw*, of an African women’s group, explained:
Many user-led migrant and refugee groups don’t have funding for staff posts. If they are lucky they get funding for the Project Coordinator and that person is then responsible for everything, including the funding application, monitoring volunteers, admin and finance work. They end up doing the job of 5 or 6 staff, whereas larger organisations are well equipped and funded for all posts.
With more paid staff, including professional fundraisers who have the time and expertise to complete applications and comply with often burdensome reporting requirements, larger organisations are able to outcompete their smaller, lesser resourced competitors and end up sweeping up all the available funds. Not even the small grant programmes are free of the NGO fundraisers. But that’s not the only problem, migrant-led groups face other barriers to accessing funds that don’t affect larger organisations. Halima continues:
Migrant user-led organisations face language barriers when filling out funding application forms which really has a negative effect on the application.
It seems many funders place little value on community-led groups, preferring to stick to the traditional notion of charity; something that the privileged do to the 'underprivileged'. And it seems, despite the eloquently worded value statements about equality, fairness, empowerment etc, this is a position some NGOs are happy to exploit. Many have become corporate megabrands casting a shadow over smaller groups, in much the same way as Starbucks crowds out independent coffee shops through their aggressive expansion and pervasive marketing.
It’s not just migrant and refugee groups that are affected in this way, other communities face many of the same issues. Andrew Lee, of People First, which is run by and for people with learning difficulties, describes a similar frustration:
Non-user led organisations are often able to provide a cheaper service and use people with learning difficulties in focus groups, usually unpaid, thereby claiming that consultation has taken place. This is a practice we do not agree with as the process is not empowering, is tokenistic and does not serve well the people who live in the community.
Funders and NGOs could play a pivotal role in supporting communities and creating a more democratic and just society by forming genuine partnerships with community-led grassroots groups. Communities on the frontline of injustice need to know whose really on their side. Be prepared to admit you are not the experts; stand back, listen, and support communities’ own analysis of the problems they face and the solutions to them and understand that you can never play a lead role in someone else’s liberation.
* Pseudonyms used as requested by participants.
This is part of NLP's Immigration series
Edge Fund is a member-run fund that supports work run by and for communities facing injustice and work to create systemic change. As part of their aim to create radical change, decisions are put into the hands of those affected by them.
Its latest application deadline is 8th September 2014. Please see here for more details.