There are lots of critics of the international development sector, and in many cases, their criticisms are justified. Without a doubt, there are changes, adjustments and improvements that need to be made to strengthen the effectiveness of development programs. Most development experts and experienced aid workers will agree that local ownership and engagement are the keys to long-term sustainability and stability. Yet when talking about local ownership and engagement, most people are talking about governments, communities (where the program will be implemented) and organizations. Recently, I realized there was one group missing from the equation: local employees of international NGOs.
I know many locals who work for international NGOs in Haiti who don’t feel qualified to make a real contribution to the organization in which they work. Instead, they often feel disrespected and disenfranchised, comparing their work experience to slavery and prison. I understand why such dramatic comparisons are made, because I’ve seen firsthand how some local employees are treated by their employers. That’s why I firmly believe that an international NGO should be judged in part on how it treats its local employees, and not merely on the fact that it has local employees or more local employees than expats.
I think many international NGOs are simply using local employees as props to generate funding and to support their claims that they’re building local capacity. But the truth is, many of these organizations do not properly equip their local employees with the training, resources and mentoring they need to succeed and eventually hold leadership positions within the international development community. If you’ve ever been to a cluster or similar type meeting, then you know most of the attendees, presenters, etc. are expats, and not Haitians. Much like not involving local governments, communities and organizations in the planning, development and implementation of aid/development initiatives leads to unsustainable, ineffective programs with lackluster outcomes, so does the mistreatment and/or failure to train and develop local staff.
Clearly, some NGOs working in Haiti need to make more of an effort to train, mentor and retain its most promising employees. In so doing, a stronger, more competent workforce will be developed; one that can handle its own country’s problems long-term.