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‘We are demanding change’: the Somali woman taking on international NGOs

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Saturday, March 26th, 2016
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Degan Ali taking a selfie: “We are demanding change ... be prepared to be uncomfortable.” Photograph: Adeso
Degan Ali taking a selfie: “We are demanding change … be prepared to be uncomfortable.” Photograph: Adeso

In a Geneva conference hall last October, at the last global consultation meeting of the current humanitarian reform process, the great and the good of the humanitarian world mingled and chatted over coffee and croissants.

The mood was collegiate and cosy – until a bespectacled Somali woman, in hijab and flowing robes, took to the stage and began to berate the humanitarian system. The establishment, she said, was failing local NGOs. International organisations had lost their moral compass and local groups were not prepared to put up with it any longer.

“We are demanding change,” Degan Ali, executive director of the Kenyan-based NGO African Development Solutions (Adeso), told the audience. “Be prepared to be uncomfortable.”

She wasn’t kidding. Over the last few years, Ali has led the charge of small, local, predominantly southern organisations – the kind who do most of the work, yet receive the smallest share of funding – against the northern humanitarian establishment. She has described the sidelining of local organisations as “grotesque”, highlighted the derisory 2% that local organisations currently receive directly of humanitarian funding, and accused the entire sector of racism.

Even if we fail, I can’t let this go. I’m an activist. Someone has to stick their neck out
Degan Ali

When it comes to making people uncomfortable, she has succeeded. “Power is never given,” she declares. “Power is taken.”

On paper, Ali is an unlikely revolutionary. Born in Somalia to a political family, the family moved to the US with her diplomat father when she was nine. When war broke out they stayed, and Ali went to high school, and then university in the US. Bilingual, educated, she cut her teeth as a social activist on the notorious south side of Chicago, but never lost sight of her desire to go back to Africa. So, with the offer of a job with the UN, she returned to Somalia where her mother had set up Adeso, then a small organisation.

What she found was a shock. “I saw my mother doing great work, but it was the most humiliating and depressing thing to watch her fundraise, to try and bang on the doors of the donor establishment, because she came from a local NGO,” says Ali.

“I left the US thinking I was going to leave behind a system of institutionalised racism. Unfortunately, I found a different form of institutionalised racism in the humanitarian system.”

Ali says she saw what Adeso needed was a voice who spoke the language of the humanitarian establishment. “I knew the western language and I knew what they wanted and what she was lacking, so I chose to leave the UN, to help Adeso put in everything the western donors respect.”

What she is highlighting isn’t new. The humanitarian sector has long recognised there’s a problem. Evaluations and policy papers alike have castigated responses and agencies for their failure to put local responders at the centre of any crisis response, but little has changed in practice. And little that might endanger the current balance of power.

But where the humanitarian establishment sees a technical problem, Ali and her colleagues see systemic failure – and a power struggle and a fight for recognition that has more in common with the civil rights movement than a UN working group.

Behind her anger is not just the lack of funding, but the powerlessness she and others experience of actually being a local aid worker trying to function in the international system. “It is humiliating to beg and plead to attend a meeting about your own country and people. You have to try and understand the jargon in a room full of white people – who say they know what is best for you. You are like a beggar standing outside, asking and pleading to get through the door.”

The reality is that what we are proposing is quite radical and revolutionary
Degan Ali

Nor, she says, is she alone – despite accusations that her views are not representative. Over the last few years, her suggestion that local organisations stop trying to reform existing NGO networks and instead form their own has snowballed. As the idea grew, Adeso with local network and support of donors has being organising a consultation process involving over 100 organisations, from over 30 countries, resulting in a proposal for an entirely new Global Network for Southern NGOs.

At the World Humanitarian Summit meeting in Geneva, a list of resulting demands was circulated, calling on donor countries to commit to providing 20% of their funding directly to local NGOs, pooled funds at country level exclusively for local organisations, proper funding for local overheads and a seat at the table at all levels of the system – global and at country level.

Fully implemented, the proposals amount to a dramatic shift in power at all levels of the humanitarian system – not far short of a revolution.

It’s strong stuff, and not everyone is as fearless as Ali. Many of the organisations in the proposed network fear the consequences of speaking out: many depend on international NGOs for funding and don’t want to bite the hand that feeds. Ali, by contrast, reserves particular criticism for international NGOs whose job, she argues, should be to support the marginalised – like them.
Less than 2% of humanitarian funds ‘go directly to local NGOs’

Suggest to her that she’s too outspoken, that her approach is counterproductive and alienates those who are trying to drive change more gently, and she pauses. “I vacillate on this, to be honest,” she says eventually. “Do I tone it down? Do I court those who are in-between? But the reality is that what we are proposing is quite radical and revolutionary. If you say I am demanding power, the group you are speaking to is not going to be happy that you are willing to verbalise that thought.”

She also points out that black women who speak up tend to be labelled “angry” and “outspoken” far more frequently than white men – even when they are saying the same thing. “There have been even more controversial things said by allies from the north including white men but they are not given this label and are accused as being counterproductive”.

Her answer, then, is that we should all be angrier. “I’m shocked that more people aren’t angry,” she says. “They should be angry! This is lives we are talking about. Billions and billions raised in the name of people in Bangladesh, in Somalia, in our name, that are mismanaged and used inefficiently.”

And anyone expecting her to pipe down soon is in for a disappointment. The Global Network of Southern NGOs is due to be launched in May, at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. And Ali doesn’t see herself slowing down any time soon. “Even if we fail, I can’t let this go. I’m an activist. Someone has to stick their neck out. And my mother always said: don’t run away from a fight.”

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