John Graham started to work with Oxfam Canada in cross-border relief operations on the Ethio-Sudanese border in the early 1980s. He worked on the provision of assistance to areas in northern Ethiopia, which were not receiving assistance from the central government, as they were controlled by the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF). After that, he worked in Namibia as the country director of Oxfam. He never physically came to Ethiopia until the 1990s, however. It was in 1997 that Graham moved to Ethiopia with Save the Children to manage the disaster management and capacity building section. He then became the country director of Save the Children UK. Graham has also worked with USAID for nine years. This seems to have given him the opportunity to look at the overall economic situation in the country. An advocate of good governance and food security, Graham says the merger of the seven separate organisations of Save the Children helps to better support the Ethiopian government in reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Where NGOs operating in Ethiopia find the civil society and charity law of 2009 constraining, Graham says some adjustments are needed in order to make conditions smoother for both the NGOs. In this interview with BIYAM ALMAYEHU, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, Graham shares his views on the CSO law, criticisms on aid and NGO accountability Excerpts.
FORTUNE: The end of 2012 saw the seven members of Save the Children completing their merger to create a single Save the Children International. During the merger, the then head, Ned Olney, said the step could help to combine resources and bring efficiency. From the point of view of beneficiaries, what does the merger brings?
John Graham: The Save the Children merger is about efficiency. Prior to the merger, we were dealing with seven separate offices, all working in Ethiopia, doing more or less the same thing with different resources. You can easily imagine the inefficiency. There was recognition from Save the Children globally, not just in Ethiopia, that there was a lot of duplication going on and that we needed to reduce those duplications in order to help the beneficiaries.
In terms of changes, what we saw afterwards was a sizable reduction in cost. There was also a reduction in the number of international staff.
This brought about savings. Then we thought about where to use the money saved. The organisations now focus on fundraising.
As the country director, I get daily emails from each one of the 23 Save the Children organisations, which only exist in their home country, saying that there are funds or resources to do this or that. We have been able to gather together these resources from all these countries and use them more efficiently to reach out to beneficiaries.
Because of the combined resources, we have now become a much bigger organisation, with 44 field offices. We reach out to children in all parts of the country. Wherever the need is greatest and wherever children need help, we are close by. We have the capacity to be able to deliver anywhere.
Q: Disaster preparedness and prevention is a vital component of your program. But the latest outbreaks of emergencies show that preparedness and prevention are given lower attention. What have you devised to make this component work better?
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that preparedness and prevention are working in Ethiopia. I worked on disaster prevention and management a lot – looking at disaster mismanagement policies.
I would like to admit that we are going to have droughts and emergencies. In Ethiopia, those emergencies tend to turn into the loss of human life.
How do we provide assistance to prevent people from dying?
That is the first priority. And there has been a huge amount of progress in that. The second priority is to determine what percentage of people are being vulnerable to these emergencies and addressing those underlying vulnerabilities. We particularly want to help people reach the stage where they can withstand these emergencies without external assistance.
Every country has an emergency, but then what is needed is a strong emergency response. In Ethiopia, the important thing is to how we take the predictable emergencies and help people overcome them. That brings us to the resilience agenda. We are working very hard on that.
Q: Any specific examples where this component has worked better?
In 2011, drought hit the lowland areas of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. But the response in Ethiopia was very different. The emergency response worked well.
There was a lot more done than in Somalia and Kenya in terms of adaptations and protecting livelihoods. For pastoralists, we thought hard about that and tried different things.
For example, we devised ways of helping farmers to have access to markets so that they could sell their animals during the first stage of the drought. There was opposition from some people saying that the pastoralists won’t sell their animals. We said let us keep on trying. We did and, in Borena, we succeeded.
We then worked with the government to make this best practice part of their policy. The experience on livestock was published by the Ministry of Agriculture as commercial stocking. There is significant change now.
Mention could also be made of the safety net program. This is something that came out of the 2003 drought. Every year when droughts hit, there are people who find it difficult to produce anything to support themselves. So we take people who are chronically food insecure and provide them with predictable support and help them preserve their assets.
Q: There has been some difference in estimates of the number of people who need assistance. Governments often estimate lower and accuse the NGOs of coming up with exaggerated figures.
Yes, there have been issues like these where we work. Often, we hold discussions with various levels of government about the estimates and whether they are too high or too low. Our biggest priority is to help the government provide early warning mechanisms.
For the most part, the discussions are working and, in some cases, government bodies say more assistance is needed. In some cases, of course, some officials seem to be embarrassed by the bad news. We insist on providing accurate estimates and things are working.
Q: The latest Charities & Societies (CSO) law was one of the controversial bills approved by the Ethiopian Parliament back in 2009. Critics have been saying that it hampers the smooth operation of local NGOs working on rights issues. How has it affected you since you work with these NGOs to whom it directly applies?
As far as the CSO law is concerned, we understand that this is a sovereign government. It has a legitimate right to ensure that organisations operating here are carrying out their duties properly and that these objectives fit in with the plans of the country, like the Growth & Transformation Plan (GTP).
I have no problem with that. I think we have to align with that.
The main issue around the CSO law, where there can be some room for adjustment, is around the 70/30 rule of administration. That is not a fair level as we see it.
It is not that we have not been able to meet it. We have. Less than 30pc of our costs go towards administration.
But sometimes there is the problem of defining what exactly administrative cost is. You can take capacity building. This is very important and we want to do capacity building with local NGOs and the government.
There are some related programs, such as the alternative basic education program. It was pioneered by NGOs and then the government itself adopted it. So we have to set aside some money for capacity building. But, at this point, anything that comes as capacity building is taken as an administrative expense. So this needs to be reconsidered.
Considering the realities on the ground, there are some peculiarities in Ethiopia where the CSO law also tends to make things more difficult. This is related to the distance we have to travel to reach out to communities. We work in the rural areas. That means transport costs are high. Cars are exposed to poor conditions, so they do not last long. All transport cost, according to the CSO law, are included under administrative expenses. So, this is another area where we think there has to be some negotiation with the government.
Q: How has security provision worked, particularly after the adoption of the CSO law? We can take the Somali Region, where some NGOs have been banned, as an example. The government accuses some of the NGOs of collecting intelligence information to their governments and international human rights organisations.
The issue in the remote Somali Region, where I have worked a lot, is more about security. We understand that the government has to increase security. That is its objective.
What is of concern for us is there is a need to make sure that there is access for humanitarian work. If there is chronic food insecurity, we need to be able to penetrate those areas and provide food.
I have personally been involved in negotiations with federal and regional government bodies on these issues. Our position is that we want to see increased access, while the government’s concern with security is addressed at the same time. We are happy to say that the government understands these issues and they are more cooperative.
But does that mean all the problems are solved?
No, because there are still areas that are insecure and there are regular incidents that happen, like vehicles being shot at. We have to be very careful about working in these areas.
Q: To what extent have the NGOs been accountable? There have been some serious concerns about the way they handle the recruitment process. It has been observed that they tend to give rooms to nepotism. Some of their programs and fund allocations also do not square with the needs of the communities in which they work.
I think it is very difficult to fit all NGOs into one box. There are a huge range of NGOs. When some of these NGOs inappropriately use their funds, it becomes an issue of all NGOs, because there is a tendency to associate all NGOs with such practices. That worries us.
As far as we are concerned, Save the Children is an NGO that has learned through the years of the need to have standard practice of fund allocation and recruitment. We also understand the need to keep the organisational structure clean. Development work is often labour intensive, but we want to make sure that about 80pc of the money goes directly to helping the children.
We cannot speak for all NGOs.
Is there bad practice among them?
Yes. As far as our recruitment is concerned, it is fair and follows established guidelines. We have ways of tracking nepotistic tendencies and rectifying them.
But I believe we, the NGOs, also have to demonstrate that we legitimately carry out our objectives. The problem is that these things take place in the rural areas and those living in the urban areas do not see them. Maybe we also need to work more with the media.
Q: Some critics say that aid is really not working in Africa. These advocates say that assistance should be tailored towards ensuring development. They even accuse some providers of aid of being tools of Western interests.
It is understandable and I think no one denies that aid has to address the immediate needs of recipients. I also do not think any of the critics of aid would dispute the need to provide humanitarian assistance. But, at the same time, some of the aid directed towards making sure that resilience is taking roots will be reduced over time.
On the issue of economic development, I would like to say that it all depends on the kind of overall policy objectives of governments and the role of the private sector as well. I do not think we should pretend that NGOs should be doing all that work. We have to recognise the limitations of aid.
But aid is not about overall economic directions. Aid did not contribute in any way to the Chinese turning themselves into an economic giant. Where aid helps is in providing assistance in education and food and we have done that in China too.
I think it is good to have these critics and to have alternative ideas of what aid should and should not do. But all need to understand the reality on the ground. I just wish the critics were more sophisticated than they actually are.
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