Problems Resulting from Dependence on Foreign Funds

As resource dependence theory (see chapter 2) suggests, dependence on a limited number of sources of badly needed funds—especially when there are few alternative sources and much competition for the available funds— can put NGOs at a considerable power disadvantage in relationships with their funding sources, and there is some evidence (Michael, 2004) that African NGOs are particularly disadvantaged. The funds themselves are important, of course. But beyond this, funding from abroad can be a source of legitimacy and prestige that might be parlayed into additional resources. Several different aspects of this problem have been explored in the literature. These include the effects of funder priorities on NGO goals, the problem of “briefcase NGOs,” and issues surrounding proposal preparation, reporting requirements, and overhead.

Environmental NGO Goals and Funder Priorities

Existing literature from Cameroon (Fonjong, 2004, 2007b) and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa (Elliot, 1987; Vivian, 1994; Derman, 1995; Edwards and Hulme, 1995; Chaplowe and Madden, 1996; Neubert, 2001; Holmen, 2010; Sachedina, 2010; but see Bebbington, Hickey, and Mitlin, 2008) argues persuasively that NGOs can come under strong pressure to align their goals and strategies with those of their funders and provides a considerable amount of anecdotal evidence to support this claim. Nevertheless, the only systematic investigation of this problem we could locate, Beer’s (2012) Kenyan study, provided, at best, tepid support for it. There was some evidence that environmental NGO framings of the climate change issue reflected the interpretations preferred by their funders, but there was no evidence that receipt of outside funding either increased or decreased the chances of NGOs pursuing political advocacy, providing services, or engaging in disruptive protest. Indeed, many NGOs insisted that they were dedicated to their goals and local needs and unaffected by funder preferences. High dependence of foreign funding also subjects NGOs to the threat that funding organizations may change their priorities or withdraw funding from a country or program on short notice, leading to precipitous goal changes or the collapse of projects or the entire NGO.

We were especially interested in the extent to which the priorities of funders influence the projects and goals adopted by the environmental NGOs. This question is of clear relevance for the Cameroonian NGOs, but the international NGOs in the sample also faced this issue, as they received funding not only from their own headquarters, but also from other foreign sources.

One approach to answering this question comes from an open-ended question about factors that influence the NGOs’ goal selection (for full results, see chapter 6). Contrary to what some recent literature might lead one to expect, influence from funders, although tied for first place, did not emerge as an overwhelmingly important consideration among the long set of factors mentioned by either Type I or Type II Cameroonian organizations, and there was relatively little difference between them. There are, however, some indications that Type II organizations are less knowledgeable about the preferences of funders, as they are considerably less likely to try to align their goals with national or international trends and somewhat more likely to say that they set their own goals without any reference to outside pressures.

We followed up these open-ended questions with a direct yes/no question about whether “the preferences of the groups that provide funding to your NGO affect your goals.”1 As often happens in survey research, the percentage of “yes” responses to the closed-ended question was somewhat higher than the percentage of interviewees who had mentioned funding availability or the preferences of funders in their answers to the open- ended items. Fifty-two percent responded that the preferences of their funders did affect their NGO’s goals, although further comments suggest that some were responding more in terms of specific projects rather than broad goals. It is also important to remember that, in some cases, especially for Type II Cameroonian NGOs, the funding sources are within Cameroon, not international NGOs or aid agencies. A clear majority of international NGOs responded affirmatively, as did 53 percent of Type I and 38 percent of Type II Cameroonian organizations. In short, these responses suggest significant, though far from overwhelming, influence for the preferences of international funders in goal determination.

We followed up this question by asking interviewees who had said that the preferences of their funders did affect their NGO’s goals about how this occurred.2 Some of the responses indicated that the respondents interpreted the question more in terms of selection of specific projects than in terms of goal formation, and several respondents noted this directly in their response. Nevertheless, the responses do provide insight into how funder preferences and the availability of funds figure into NGO decisions about goals.

About a third of the interviewees who agreed that the preferences of funders were important qualified their response by stating that there were limitations as to how far they would go to accommodate funder wishes. Like the responses of those who said foreign funder preferences did not affect these goals at all, some of these responses may reflect the deep commitment of current staff, constituencies, and donors to existing goals. Indeed, several of the respondents cited the need to remain generally true to the NGO’s existing goals. One interviewee from a Type I organization, for example, said it would be less than honest to say that availability of funds did not affect his NGO’s goals, but went on to say that they could only shift their goals so far. In a variation of this theme, an interviewee from a Type II organization said that, although donor preferences do matter, the preferences and needs of the beneficiaries of their work in the field were more important. Several other respondents reported that their NGO’s strategy was to first decide what goals to pursue and then to look for funders—usually international—who would support projects in this area. The leader of one large international NGO told us that his organization goes in search of funding for a menu of projects that fit with their already determined goals. Funders do, however, significantly influence what his NGO actually does by what they are willing to fund.

The remainder of the responses were not qualified in this way; interviewees either simply acknowledged directly that funder preferences influenced them and/or gave examples of new goals or projects adopted in response to funder preferences. One interviewee from a Type I Cameroonian organization reported that funding organizations have their own agendas and will fund only projects that correspond to them. The funders send out requests for proposals, and NGOs must tailor their proposals to them. The leader of a small international environmental NGO told us that poverty amelioration was a key goal of his major funder, so this emphasis had to be included in his proposals, while the leader of a Type I Cameroonian NGO reported that a funding source pushed her NGO to conduct a particular project because it wanted to compare the results to a similar project in another part of Cameroon. She felt that she could not refuse because of the need to maintain a good relationship with the funding organization. Some NGOs had added new environmental goals, such as fighting climate change or promoting community-managed forests, because of the availability of funds for pursuing these goals. Others had added goals that were further removed from environmental goals. One interviewee, for example, was at pains to explain how fighting AIDS—an area his NGO had entered as a result of funding availability— could be integrated into preexisting nature protection goals, and another said that the interest of his NGO’s major funder in micro-credit loans for development had caused them to move in this direction.

A much smaller number of responses mentioned goals or projects that had been discontinued because funding for them ended. One NGO, for example, had first entered and then exited the area of HIV/AIDS counseling because of shifting funder priorities, while another NGO leader complained that international funding organizations were pushing for projects on climate change but would not fund work on soil erosion, a much more immediate problem for people in his community. While these examples of funder influence are dramatic, it is important to remember that only a third of all the NGOs who responded to the direct question about funder influence gave unqualified “yes” responses. Almost half completely denied such influence, and the remainder significantly qualified their “yes” responses.

Additional information about how the availability of funds and policies of funders influence goals is evident in responses to questions about goal changes from two different parts of the interview. The first of these was a general question about goal changes over the NGO’s history and a follow-up question about the reasons for the changes (see chapter 6 for full results). Some of the NGOs were quite new, had set goals initially, and had not yet changed them. Nevertheless, 28 organizations reported that they had changed their goals. Nineteen reported adding one or more new goals without deleting old ones, while nine reported both dropping old goals and adding new ones. Five of the nine organizations that had dropped a goal cited financial reasons, reporting either that the goal or project involved was too expensive or that funding to pursue it had been discontinued or exhausted. Five organizations, however, represented only about a tenth of the 49 organizations for which we obtained responses, so it appears that being forced to drop a goal by funding constraints is uncommon. The availability of funding was infrequently cited as a reason for adding a goal, ranking behind other responses, such as perception of unmet needs. These responses represented only 18 percent of the NGOs that reported adding a goal and 10 percent of all NGOs—suggesting again that availability of funds is not a major factor in adopting new goals.

In another section of the interview we asked more direct questions about whether (1) changes in the priorities of the organizations from which the NGO got its funding had ever caused it to change to new goals before the old ones were accomplished and (2) the availability of new sources of funding ever caused the NGO to add new goals or change old ones.3 Only 21 percent of the responding organizations said that changes in funder priorities had caused them to adopt new goals before old ones were accomplished. Interestingly, several interviewees took the question as an opportunity to reaffirm that they remained committed to their selfdetermined goals, regardless of the priorities of funding organizations. Allowing for differences in wording (answering yes to this question does not necessarily imply that the old goals were dropped completely), these results parallel those reported above by indicating that funding issues rarely cause the NGOs to abandon existing goals.

We also included a follow-up question, which asked interviewees who had responded with “yes” to elaborate further. About half gave only general responses, saying that they had to pay attention to the priorities of funding organizations; however, a few cited specific instances in which the withdrawal of funding had led to changes in their goals (or sometimes specific activities). One international NGO leader reported that funding cutbacks by a major aid agency from a Western country had caused it to curtail its efforts to fight poaching. The leader of a Type I Cameroonian NGO in a remote region recounted the story of how his NGO had been decimated when a major funder that had been providing 80 percent of its funds suddenly withdrew its support, and another leader told us that two of three communities they had been working with to develop community-managed forests were left in the lurch when the funder of the project precipitously withdrew its support. Clearly, then, sudden changes in funder priorities can have damaging effects on particular organizations when they do occur.

Just under a third of the NGOs from which we obtained data responded affirmatively to the question about whether the availability of funding had ever caused them to add new goals or modify old ones. Once again, this direct question elicited a higher percentage of “yes” responses than the percentage of interviewees who cited funding availability in the earlier open-ended question about why they added goals. Nevertheless, the percentage remains relatively low.

When we asked interviewees who had responded affirmatively to this question to elaborate on their answer, about a fourth merely reaffirmed the general principle that funding opportunities can affect goals without giving an example. The remaining responses provided specific examples. Some of these responses involved NGOs moving into areas that were consistent with new trends, such as climate change, fighting HIV/AIDS, or monitoring genetically modified crops. Other NGOs mentioned writing proposals and starting projects in specific areas, such as well digging or protecting turtles in the forest, specifically because funds were available. Another interviewee made the interesting comment that it is not that the funding organizations tell them what to do. Instead, there can be subtle steering when requests for proposals and preliminary conver- sations/feedback make it clear that the project needs to pay attention to certain topics. For example, one of his NGO’s major funders now emphasizes supporting local NGOs, so they are adding this to their proposals.

These responses should be interpreted, however, in context. Over two- thirds of the organizations said that their goals had not been affected by the availability of funding. Moreover, several interviewees took this opportunity to reaffirm that they stuck to their goals rather than responding to any and all funding opportunities, although a couple of these went on to say that the preferences of funders could lead to minor adjustments in their goals or activities.

In summary, our results suggest that the availability of funds to pursue specific goals or projects and the preferences of funding organizations do sometimes influence environmental NGO goals and projects; however, there is little evidence that the NGOs are simply instruments or captives of international funding organizations. A significant number, usually poorly funded and weaker groups, operate without foreign funds, although many of those aspire to obtain them. About half of the NGOs deny that the preferences of funders, whether from inside Cameroon or abroad, influence their goal choices, many have not changed their goals since their founding, and, apart from a few NGOs that were forced to drop a goal when funding expired, most goal changes cannot be traced back to the availability of funds. Moreover, the responses suggest that this factor is often combined with others in making decisions about goals.

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