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Why I quit my NGO

By Valeriu Nicolae  -  28.02.2013 / 03:45 CET
Donors, including the EU, should reform a funding system that rewards dishonesty and submissiveness

Donors and governments tend to look for good practices, and seek to replicate them. This seems like a good idea. But when failings are systemic, the idea turns bad. Donors imagine achievements, and over-rationalise them. What they should examine are the mistakes. What they should pursue is reform of systems – and that includes reform of the system of donor funding. 

Consider the beggar you pass in the street. We would perhaps all agree that begging is degrading, a sad but logical choice for people with no alternatives, sometimes accompanied by elaborate and grotesque deception and frequently by off-putting servility. Givers commonly feel disgust, shame and guilt. Rarely are they positively impressed by beggars; frequently, they believe that criminal gangs are behind the begging.

Now consider that begging is how most non-governmental organisations survive. The process is more elaborate, but the principles are the same.

The relationship between a donor and non-governmental organisation (NGO) is almost always unequal. Most donors behave arrogantly; almost always NGOs have to come to the donors. Donors can very easily impose their agendas; very few NGOs will dare to criticise wrong policies. Submissiveness is pragmatic. Criticism of policies becomes a problem: it looks bad for donors and officials. Donor institutions therefore react defensively to criticism. Donors prefer easy partners – and it is easy to find them, since competition for funding is tough. Project-writing is now big business, so most projects look more or less the same. It is, therefore, easy to filter out the potentially awkward partner.

Submissiveness pays off; so too does dishonesty. The incentives for dishonesty are great: funds (from the European Union and others) are generally badly designed, so honesty can become dangerous. Most funding is for short-term projects. Most projects do not include institutional support. Many require a serious co-funding component.

To cover the gaps in funding, NGOs cheat, use ‘creative accounting', or find other private financial resources. For most NGOs, the latter is an almost impossible feat. It is particularly so for Roma NGOs. The result is the perception that leaders of Roma civil society are corrupt and overwhelmingly inept. Sometimes that is the truth. Certainly, nepotism is rampant: most Roma NGOs that work at the grassroots level are, in fact, small and unsustainable family businesses.

The EU's structural funds have made such problems worse. Huge sums are available to national and local political elites. When the beneficiaries are leaders of Roma communities, the effect is to reinforce stereotypes associating Roma with criminality.

I know the personal costs of this system. For the past five years, I have led an NGO in a Roma ghetto. We have secured private funding and public recognition. We won prizes in 2012. We have played host to nearly 500 leading officials and politicians, including prime ministers, European and UN commissioners, and celebrities. Twice, I have been ranked one of the best 100 Romanian thinkers.

But there has been another side to this coin. Never has a donor come to me. I have had to beg constantly. I have covered funding gaps from my own pocket. A lack of money has made it all but impossible to find and keep well-qualified staff. To shut me up about what goes awry in Roma civil society or with EU funds, I have been threatened. For pointing out racism, I am deluged with hate mail. This is, of course, in addition to the realities that we try to improve – abandoned and abused children, drugs, crime – and the vagaries of national policies, police and local authorities.

It would help to have donors who understand, who come to you, who send money on time. But over time one realises that such donors are mirages. Instead, the realisation dawns that passion, honesty, hard work, ideas and results will not bring influence over a donor's decision; what matters more to a donor is a report that ticks boxes, the right image, and lip service.

Tell me, donor, that it is good to lead an NGO in an honest way, with all the risks that entails. Tell me, donor, that there are good reasons why I should carry on. And then think if you would do it.

There have been too many other frustrations – so many that, though I abhor quitting, I have decided to stop leading the NGO I created.

This does not mean I am quitting the ghetto – I still think I can change things there.

Valeriu Nicolae created the Policy Centre for Roma and Minorities, a non-governmental organisation whose work is concentrated in the Ferentari district of Bucharest.

© 2014 European Voice. All rights reserved.
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