• Thursday, May 23, 2024
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BusinessDay

Power dynamics in foreign aid: Marginalisation of CSOs in the global south by donors in the global north

Nigeria, foreign aid, and the dependency theory

Basic geography posits that there are seven continents in the world: Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, Europe, and Australia, although deeper research is showing that there might be other continents unknown to mankind. Notwithstanding, international relations and supremacy have soon labelled developed countries into different categories. There is the G20, which comprises Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, the African Union, and the European Union. There is also the G7, an intergovernmental political and economic forum consisting of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

However, there is another type of socio-economic and political categorization of countries in the world that divides them into the Global North and the Global South. While the former is made up of economically developed nations like Europe, North America, Australia, Israel, and South Africa, among others, the latter is made up of developing countries in Africa and other countries like India, China, Brazil, Mexico, and other regions. One sharp irony is that the Global North, which is no doubt wealthy, politically stable, technologically powerful, and advanced, has a strict posture towards population growth, while the Global South’s is getting out of hand. In more relational terms, the Global South is being controlled and indirectly ruled by the Global North in terms of international trade, politics, and economic growth.

Foreign aid has come to stay, as most countries in the Global South keep suffering from bad leadership, embezzlement and syphoning of public funds by leaders, and inconsistent political administration. While private sectors and other venture capital initiatives try to keep communities above challenges through corporate social responsibilities, civil society and non-governmental organisations have been crowned saviours of underserved communities. These organisations are saddled with the mandate to foster good living and advocate for enabling the environment for societies, depending on their focus on health, politics, education, and climate change, amongst other areas.

That being said, the relationship between civil society organisations (CSOs) in the Global South and donors primarily based in the Global North is a complex terrain marked by power imbalances, funding dependencies, and divergent agendas. While CSOs in the Global South are battling leadership and facing government policies, as well as maladministration, on the one hand, they also face multifaceted problems of marginalisation from donors in the Global North. It is ultimately a matter of who pays the piper and dictates the tunes.

Marginalisation in this regard means the structural exclusion or relegation of certain groups or entities to the surface of decision-making processes, resources, and influence. In the context of CSOs in the Global South, marginalisation manifests in various forms, including limited access to funding, a lack of autonomy, and the imposition of external agendas by donors from the Global North. This manifestation is not unconnected to the fact that donors in the Global North often hold the purse strings, wielding significant influence over the direction and priorities of development initiatives, knowing fully well that CSOs in the Global South often rely heavily on them to sustain their operations and implement projects. This dependency creates vulnerabilities, as CSOs often feel compelled to align with donor priorities at the expense of their own agendas, vision, mission, aims, and objectives.

A particular two-edged powerplay is that donors tend to set the agenda for development initiatives, determining which issues receive attention and resources, irrespective of the urgency informed by a needs assessment, on the one hand, while also attaching conditions or restrictions to funding, such as adherence to specific political or ideological frameworks, which constrain the autonomy and advocacy efforts of CSOs in the Global South.

One of the side effects of this level of systematic discrimination is that it undermines the effectiveness and sustainability of development interventions, as local knowledge, expertise, and ownership are undervalued and underutilised. In extreme cases of international conspiracy, governments in Global South countries enable and empower this discrimination as they get funding through foreign aid, which is embezzled and diverted into personal funds. By aggravating already existing inequalities, world power concentrates resources and decision-making power in the hands of a few dominant actors, further marginalising underserved communities and perpetuating cycles of poverty and exclusion. Where CSOs would have played a crucial role in fostering democratic participation, accountability, and governance, relegation weakens democratic processes by limiting civic engagement and constraining the space for dissent and advocacy.

Addressing this problem is a pressing need that requires concerted action from all stakeholders. Donors need to prioritise partnerships that empower local CSOs, ensure community participation, and respect local priorities and contexts. They need to establish transparent and accountable relationships with CSOs based on mutual respect, trust, and dialogue. Where accountability and transparency to promote inclusive and democratic processes are the order of the day, donors should go all out to ensure they don’t go behind the scenes in empowering and fostering governments that lack transparency and accountability. Although the Global South has a long way to go before it gains total independence and needs foreign aid, donors and CSOs can work together to create a more equitable and participatory development agenda that addresses the needs and aspirations of all communities.

CSOs have their work cut out for them in aggressively advocating for inclusive decision-making processes. This is the only way they can ensure active participation in communities by educating them to elect responsible leaders. Responsible leadership means an accountable government that will always put its people first in governance and provide basic amenities, which will ultimately lead to economic growth and development. If this becomes the focus of all countries in the Global South, foreign aid will certainly be a thing of the past for underdeveloped countries. The vital question would be, is the Global North ready for this to happen?

Ifenla Oligbinde is a Nigerian lawyer, writer, inclusion advocate, and politician with over 10 years of experience in project management and community development. She was the first and only Nigeria selected for the McCain Global Leaders program in 2023, and one of 700 African Leaders for the 2023 Mandela Washington Fellowship, to study Leadership in Public Management track at the Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.