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So our NGOs cannot handle HIV funds?

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It is a devastating verdict but not surprising at all: out of 63 local Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) only three have been accredited to handle money from the Global Fund to help in the fight against HIV and Aids.

This is very shameful to us as a 52 year-old nation. Firstly, we were stripped-off the status of a Principal Recipient (PR) of the Global Funds kitty. PR means that when the Global Fund sends its money, the PR is responsible for disbursement to players on the ground. The PR is also supposed to ensure that the funds have been used for intended purposes. This process involves scrutiny of the recipients on the ground, their governance structures and track-record in having annual audits by professional and certified auditors.

That status was being held by the National Aids Commission (Nac) for many years until last year when the Global Fund got fed up by mediocrity with which the funds were administered. The status was then taken away from Nac and bestowed on two international NGOs: Action Aid (AA) and World Vision (WV).

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This alone was enough embarrassment to the nation as it was a vote of no confidence. Here we are, almost all our NGOs cannot handle donor money for a crucial undertaking such as Aids fight.

We stumbled before we fell

Naturally, patriotism prompts us to be angry with WV and AA for telling us the unpleasant truth that we are so irresponsible in managing donations that are meant to benefit us. But we need also to check where we stumbled, instead of just focusing on the spot where we fell.

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It is standard practice, even in village economics that one can only stake their money when they are sure that the recipient has capacity to take good care of it. It is not surprising, therefore, that AA and WV demanded some levels of credibility from our local NGOs. Among other issues, the PR wanted the NGOs to produce: two audit reports, a concept note and other documentation. On the surface this then means that our seemingly credible NGOs failed to produce these documents.

There were so many corners that Nac cut in its capacity as a PR. This is what has come around to haunt us. Some of the CSOs that managed to get Nac funding were so questionable as they did not have any track record and presence on the ground. There were rumours that CSO leaders would give a kind of commission to Nac officials for facilitating receipt of the grants. The questionable image of such CSOs and lack of impact in their jurisdictions lent credence to such rumours. But these can only remain rumours as in such kind of corruption, parties have mutual benefit.

But we all know that Nac never cared about the capacity of a recipient. That is why it would give grants to my Malaphi-dancing folks for a night of merry making and remind each other in the morning that there is Aids. Nac also stretched its imagination by extending a hand to BEAM Trust to enable it rid swamps of malaria-carrying mosquitoes which would prey on HIV positive individuals.

Apart from that, Nac would arrange auditors to check the books for such recipients. So, basically the CSOs did not have to hire any auditors to do their books.

Then there was an issue where Nac allegedly gave resources to the then ruling party to be used in its campaign trail. Some of the cars were involved in accidents just as those given to some other drunken religious leaders did.

AA and WV should have a heart

Despite all these glaring shortfalls in Nac’s PR role, the local NGOs are floating a few conspiracy theories against the current PRs. They believe that there is a deliberate move by western powers to sideline and disempower the locals in the affairs that concern Malawians.

They claim that they presented all the necessary documentation but AA and WV decided to fail them with an aim of facilitating entry of international NGOs. They also allege that one of the AA has raked in K1.8 billion on administration alone from the Global Fund.

But to be fair to the locals, AA and WV would have taken cognizance of the fact that the locals have gone without funding for a good four years. This entails that the NGOs have scaled down on their activities, significantly. It also means that a lot of members of staff have either resigned or have been off-loaded along the way. One would not expect such an organization to easily hire auditors.

AA and WV would have been considerate. They should have checked the track-record of the NGOs: how they performed in the past and their reach and impact on the ground. Where gaps are identified, the PRs would have done capacity building for the prospective beneficiaries.   

After all, the new PRs have been quiet since their appointment to their current status only to ambush the local NGOs with a litany of requirements.

Rise up and go

There is urgent need for the PRs and the NGO Board of Malawi to explore ways of addressing this challenge. It is totally unacceptable that 22 years in the NGO movement, someone should come from the blues and tell our NGOs that they are not good enough.

These are the activists who have taken the country from the one-party era of dormancy to the present-day vibrancy. This is the liveliness that has attracted and enabled the Global Fund of this world to operate in Malawi. WV and AA should be able to appreciate that the local NGOs who they are despising are the ones that laid the bed for the PRs to sleep in.

There are some good aspects in our locals such as presence in remote areas and appreciation of cultural values. What the PRs are doing is to throw away the baby together with the bath water.

That said, this should be a lesson to our “native” NGOs. They should wake up to the realities of global politics and stop suffering from self-pity.  No-one will give us money simply because we are poor; but because we have shown potential to handle such money.

The NGOs must follow rules of the game. They should have governance structures that can pass the test, not the current scenario where an executive director has powers to hire and fire the board. They should learn to hold AGMs where audited accounts are discussed and approved.

As they wait to put their house in order, the “natives” should mainstream HIV and Aids activities. One can still do the basics such as spreading the message about HIV, and not spreading the HIV itself, on an austere budget.

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