The NGO-ization of Somali public sector

Members of Somali Public Agenda were invited to participate in a local forum that brought together civil society, government and other actors to discuss and debate on current complex issues. This time, a senior government official was invited.

The forum was well-organized, with participants interacting, asking tough and relevant questions. However, the one thing that surprised us most was that the government official’s responses were full of language and rhetoric of Non-Governmental Organization (NGO)s-phrases like ‘indicators’, ‘roadmaps’, ‘capacity building’, ‘focal points’ etc. These are the same old buzzwords we have been listening to for years, except that sadly, for now, the English jargon now punctuates Somali discussions. This is a worrying trend.

The NGO-ization process

The protracted Somali civil war has destroyed state machinery, institutions, and systems. Many skilled workers with good track-records in managing public services fled the country, and nowadays, the few available government positions are mostly filled by either diaspora returnees or NGO workers.

NGOs, much like the unregulated private sector, filled the vacuum created by the absence of a government. They helped to bolster the strength of public voices and somewhat contributed to the rise of self-help groups aimed at improving people’s lives. But as the sector develops, so do arguments over the actual impact it has on the lives of those it claims to serve.

NGO-isation is now a global phenomenon. This is thanks to the West’s flawed “Just-pump-more-aid” assistance model to‘less developed’ countries, and their increasing focus on (ill-defined) ‘civil society’ as a target of funding.  Somalia is a classic example of this, particularly because state institutions have either been non-existent or extremely weak.

The NGO-turned-public servants have brought a semblance of normalcy, capacity, and work-ethics for rather weak and dysfunctional governments. But they also brought with them the NGO-Management mentality: of running public offices on project-based, short-term thinking, being mostly accountable to donors, not to the people they work for.

In one of her famous essays, ‘the NGO-ization of resistance’, the Indian author Arundhati Roy argued: “NGOs form a sort of buffer between the sarkar and public. Between Empire and its subjects. They have become the arbitrators, the interpreters, the facilitators”.  NGOs, who’s funding mainly comes from donor countries, employ local people who might otherwise help the resistance movement and public sector, but can feel they are doing some immediate, creative good by earning a better salary.

The problem of NGO-isation is that it is predominantly subject to the imagination and assumptions (most of the times irrelevant) of the lucrative aid business that operates for the interest of Western governments and aid organizations. It creates dependency, kills the spirit and momentum of the future servants of the nation. This cannot lead to the fundamental changes that society wants to achieve. We cannot talk about revolution, change, and reforms so long as we are not looking at the bigger problems created by NGO-ization.

Breaking the vicious cycle

The NGOs, the private and public sectors all have different governance and management structures, each with specific motivations, aims, and end-goals. While people may decide to move from public to non-profit, the sectors never mix. Being public servant means that, you put the people’s interest above individual gains.

Moreover, the government is a system bound together by common traits, and public service management plays an important role in the efficient and effective functioning of government. It is central to the making, management, implementation and evaluation of public policies, programmes and projects.

Over recent years, a variety of ad-hoc initiatives that support the revival of Somalia’s public service management have been implemented. While these initiatives have led to some progress, collectively, the efforts have not yet restored popular confidence in the public sector.

This is typical ‘isomorphic mimicry’ where the government looks functional, but in fact only gives that impression to obtain continuous foreign assistance without necessarily delivering better results for its citizens. It is a sad reality that Somalia has been trapped in since the collapse of the Siyad Barre regime.

We need to break the vicious culture of NGO-isation and isomorphic mimicry. This will not be an easy task; it would demand leadership commitment as well as behavioral and attitude change. However, in the meantime, we should emphasize (re)building the state institutions and capability by investing in the next generation of public servants – selected on merit or systemic basis, safeguarded by regulatory frameworks with performance management, promotions, and benefits. And this process should be owned and financed by Somalis. It might be seen a far-fetched dream, but, as they say, all dreams are valid.

The Economist’s famous essay once asked, ‘Anyone here speak NGOish’? We hope those serving this country start to speak with a little bit less of this jargon and avoid institutionalizing the NGO-ization process.

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