Dutch aid groups: "A Sector Under Fire"

Dutch aid groups: "A Sector Under Fire"

27th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

These are turbulent times for Dutch NGOs. Under attack from all sides, the media, the public and the political establishment in The Hague, NGOs are being criticised for being too closed, too fragmented and too bureaucratic. So, what's wrong with Dutch aid organisations?

They were once highly regarded; for decades, Dutch aid organisations quietly worked in every corner of the globe, building schools, digging wells and supporting agriculture and health care institutions and no one questioned their work. Gradually, the number of NGOs increased and there are now between 250 and 300 organisations in the Netherlands.

Myriad changes

Author Marieke de Wal (pictured right), whose book A Sector under Fire will be published this week, says NGOs have had to cope with a huge number of changes over the last 10 years.

De Wal, who works for the independent consultancy firm Berenschot, studied the past, present and future of Dutch aid organisations. She says, "We see numerous crisis across the globe; the climate crisis, the food crisis, the energy crisis and now the economic crisis, aid organisations have had to respond to all of them".

There's also been a change in the political-economic power structure. Previously, aid travelled from the rich north to the poor south, but the traditional north-south divide is being challenged by runaway economic growth in countries such as India, China and Brazil.

Marieke de WalChasm
There have also been enormous changes in the Netherlands itself. Development aid is no longer the exclusive terrain of NGOs. Dutch nationals travelling in Peru or Mozambique start schools and orphanages and many companies see sustainability as part of their image and fund aid projects.

A Sector Under FireAccording to De Wal, many of the traditional aid organisations don't know how to deal with the newcomers.

Some organisations have set up offices to deal with information and subsidy requests by private individuals and developed partnerships with various companies. Max Havelaar coffee and bananas, originally launched by Solidaridad, are a good example of the latter, but generally, there's a huge gap between businesses and aid organisations.

Less money

The dismantling of the subsidy system has thrown the development sector into even more turmoil. Every four years, the Development Cooperation Ministry determines afresh which organisations will be subsidised. The previous minister stipulated that NGOs had to generate 25 percent of their income from private donations.

The current minister, Bert Koenders, has gone a step further; last week he announced that the number of organisations eligible for subsidies would be reduced from 73 to 30. The amount of money available has also been reduced from 525 million euros to 425 million euros.

Slow and defensive

De Wal says Dutch NGOs have responded slowly and defensively to the changes. They focus exclusively on what they do and pay little attention to strategy. A fierce debate about the necessity and effectiveness of development aid is raging, but NGOs are conspicuous by their absence. She advises the NGOs to map out a future strategy and make some tough decisions:

"If you're suddenly bombarded by 10 different things, you have to prioritise. Choosing is difficult and when it is about poverty, it's even more difficult because everything is more complicated. If you choose to do one thing and it means that another project falls by the wayside, that's very difficult."

The author does see potential within the aid sector. She has also studied other organisations but says she has never seen so many motivated, hard working people before.

"They are absolutely necessary. They have the expertise and can be lynchpins in an organisation. But they also have to be capable of forming coalitions with businesses, governments and private individuals. It's something that they do not do enough of. NGOs are needed in order to bring development cooperation to a higher level but they have to change".

Pieternel Gruppen

Radio Netherlands

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