I am a strong proponent of helping to build national capacities to lead and drive development. Afterall, I am now back home in the UK, whilst the Nigerians I worked with during my time there are continuing the struggle in the face of increasing COVID-19 challenges. However, at the best of times, national CSOs struggle to be seen and heard in their own countries, often overshadowed by international counterparts. Nationally owned development solutions are often undervalued at best or completely ignored at worst. When national CSOs seek to forge relationships with international CSOs and other external actors, I have witnessed them doing most of the work, but somehow results are attributed to the internationals. This seems to be an accepted practice and any challenge can result in national CSOs being blacklisted as “uncooperative” and “adversarial” which affects their ability to obtain funding.
This situation must change to an arrangement which is fairer; more equitable and sustainable. Promoting national ownership and leadership is not challenging. This simply means seeing national stakeholders in the driving seat as a prerequisite for delivering sustainable results. “Stakeholders” mean having a stake, so this is not so difficult to get right from my perspective, yet still, something blocks this rational thinking in inter-organisational relationships. The perennial “loop hole” in development accountability is to state “lack of local ownership” for why interventions fail, which is frankly dishonest. Why should national stakeholders own development interventions on international terms? Not exercising basic principles of human interaction mean that most development interventions are set up for failure, rather than for success.
COVID 19 has revealed many fault lines, including in international development. Most of the analysis I have seen looks outwards, rather than inwards at the behaviours of internationals operating in the space. COVID 19 responses must be driven by national actors, because the great many unknowns about the virus will be interpreted in different ways by different cultures. Therefore, understanding the country context will be critical for effective responses. At the same time, let me say that this is the time for national CSOs to step up to the COVID-19 challenge – some are already doing great work. Civic space requires serious actors, not profiteering organisations who reduce overall trust and confidence in national capabilities. At this critical time, it is not what you can do for yourself, but what you can do for your country. National CSOs must therefore command the spaces they occupy as leaders with transparency and accountability in mind, representing fellow citizens.
National CSOs should also be clear about their niche area – basically the specific expertise they offer.
COVID 19 is not a bandwagon for self-promotion, but a serious undertaking where rapid results are needed. In the case of Nigeria, tackling corruption in the COVID 19 response is the main challenge. Also responding to some of the deviant behaviours in the home, increased by the protracted lockdown, such as increased levels of domestic violence and child abuse. These are global challenges, but the responses must be country specific to work. Therefore, only national CSOs with access, experience and real expertise to offer should step forward.
Demonstrating the ability to command the space and drive responses is the first step towards demand more equal partnerships with international actors. National CSOs should not wait for donor funds to get started, because activism should be their main driving force. In international development speak, this means thinking and working politically, which is a requirement that many international actors cannot fulfil as they do not have the mandate locally or frankly the appetite for the exposure involved in swimming at the deep end. In fact, why should they, when this is more a role for national actors? Often, internationals do not see themselves as prominent actors who alter national dynamics and outcomes through their interventions. Programmes influence power dynamics considerably and can do more harm than good. Internationals who talk about mutual accountability focus outwards, not inwards at their own behaviours, attitudes and biases and examine how these negatively influence development outcomes. In fact, what internationals should be promoting is a national conversation on development challenges, exacerbated by COVID-19, backing rather than seeking to front national organisations.