Interview: Degan Ali

Asking uncomfortable questions. Degan Ali on NGO neo-colonialism

Somalian civil society advocate Degan Ali has a message for the international humanitarian aid system that is at once compelling and uncomfortable: local NGOs do much of the work but receive almost none of the funding. 

Degan Ali, Executive Director of African Development Solutions (Adeso)
Photo: Adeso

Ali, Executive Director of the Kenya-based NGO African Development Solutions (Adeso), was in Oslo to speak at Norad’s annual conference whose theme this year was the role of civil society.

“Local NGOs on the ground risk their lives every day. We are doing the heavy lifting, 80 per cent of the work, but we’re only getting 0.2 per cent of the funds,” she says in an interview with Development Today.

While 0.2 per cent is a ballpark figure, few would dispute Degan Ali’s description of a funding system that is notoriously lopsided. Indeed, at the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) earlier this year, donors and other participants agreed to increase local NGOs’ share of total funding to 25 per cent.

Adeso and other Southern-based NGOs had lobbied hard during the process leading up to the WHS to get a fixed target into the summit documents. But even as donors adopted the 25 per cent target, they readily admit that it will be very difficult to meet.

They give a number of reasons for this: There is limited administrative capacity to provide smaller grants. They would prefer to give grants in the millions of dollars that large organisations can absorb. Donors also worry about corruption issues and say they don’t know which local NGOs they can trust. Crisis situations demand rapid response; it is therefore natural that funding goes to well-known actors with offices nearby.


A review of Nordic humanitarian NGO funding by Development Today earlier this year revealed that Norway has the highest rate of “tying”, reserving 96 per cent of the money for Norwegian organisations. (See DT 10/16)

The Foreign Ministry in Oslo has explained the practice in this way: “Norway channels the lion’s share of its humanitarian funds for civil society through Norwegian organisations [because] the character of humanitarian aid requires quick responses and flexibility.”

Ali says the findings are consistent with her experience from the field. “It doesn’t surprise me. I see the practice on the ground. I see that Norway doesn’t fund anyone but Norwegian NGOs. I don’t see them funding British NGOs, or American NGOs, or Swedish NGOs. Whereas we were actually able to break through and get funding from Sweden.”

Yet even Sida, which allocates half its humanitarian aid to non-Swedish groups like Oxfam, Norwegian Refugee Council and Action Contre la Faim, gives virtually nothing directly to local organisations. For this, Sida says it relies on the UN country pooled funds.

Ali wants donors to be more “risk-willing” and change policies that favour rich-country-based NGOs. But the bias in the system is not only a result of donor practices. It is exacerbated by the NGOs themselves, which appear reluctant to give up their near-monopoly over donor money.

Ali says she often hears the argument that in conflict situations outsiders are in a better position than local NGOs to be objective and to uphold the humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality.

While she  gives full credit for the work done by Médecins Sans Frontières in many contexts, she calls this line of reasoning, championed by MSF, “neo-colonialist.”


“I am not saying that we should throw out the humanitarian principles. I am saying that it is very patronising and quite a racist assumption to say that because I am from Somalia, that somehow I cannot be objective and neutral,” Ali says.

Southern NGOs face other kinds of challenges from organisations like Save the Children and World Vision. They are actively fund raising in the South, in direct competition with local groups. “They are squeezing out money that has the potential to go to civil society in that country,” she says.

ActionAid and Oxfam are also NGO federations with branches around the world. Ali says these organisations have a more principled approach. “The have a real intention to do something good. They are not only going for the money.” Nevertheless, she says, Oxfam, which moved its head office to Nairobi this year, will be raising money in Kenya. “They are shrinking the market share and funding available for local organisations. I as Adeso cannot compete with the Oxfam brand or the ActionAid brand in Kenya,” she says.


Ali is proposing a new structure which, she says, will address the donors’ limitations and help to build up a cadre of Southern-based NGOs that could within a few years have the due diligence capacity needed to deal directly with Northern donors.

Instead of the current UN country pooled funds, which Ali says are too bureaucratic and inflexible to support smaller local actors, she is proposing country pooled funds that are tailored to individual countries’ needs. Adeso currently has ECHO funding to do research on the design of this new pooled funding network, and they are looking at pilots around the world. They are planning a humanitarian pilot in Syria, Somalia or South Sudan and one in a more middle-income pilot like Kenya, Bangladesh or Nigeria.

The fiduciary agent for these funds could be an internationally-recognised actor like KPMG or PriceWaterhouseCoopers, but the decision making and criteria setting would be done by local NGOs. The funds could provide small grants - in the thousands, rather than millions, of dollars - and capacity building support. By investing in organisations over five or ten years, they would be able to meet the due diligence requirements of outside donors and could “graduate” from the fund, making room for others.

Ali’s idea is that funding from donors like DfID, ECHO or Norad would ultimately make up only about 20 per cent of the resources for the country pooled funds. The rest would come from Southern national money, diaspora communities and the private sector. But she says donor assistance is needed to get these funds off the ground.

It remains to be seen how much support Adeso will receive from international NGOs for her proposal.

One of Degan Ali’s co-panelists at the Norad conference was Elhadj As Sy, Secretary General of the International Federation of the Red Cross. While agreeing with Ali’s argument that local actors need to be lifted, he warned against creating an “unhealthy competition or rivalry between the different types of organisations.” Instead, he said, “let’s make the pie bigger.”

Ali says that rich-country NGOs have benefitted from decades of government funding, allowing them to build up management systems that donors can trust. To put in place her proposed country pooled funds, she will have to convince donors to allocate some of the resources that currently go to international organisations to local actors. Though many have signed on to the 25 per cent funding goal, re-directing substantial amounts will likely be a hard sell.