How interventions in the "North" can jeopardise leadership in the "South"

Behind popular concepts, real imbalances remain

Working for a long time with European NGOs linked to Africa, I was often embarrassed by the unspoken vertical relationship, and by the imbalance that often occurs between an NGO from the North and a partner organisation from the South.

Northern NGOs, and funders, want to implement projects and programmes they care for and to answer problems they have identified as priorities by putting forward the answers they find the most relevant and urgent.  

Nowadays, there is a trend to consult southern NGOs and to get them to participate in the conception of projects, to create ‘ownership’… But funding still comes mostly from the North, and generally passes through northern NGOs. And when you are a southern NGO, rather than taking an original stance, or articulating disagreements, you tend to say whatever makes the fund holder happy.

A support that can be limiting and biased

With our ‘good intentions’ to ‘help’, we assume that southern NGOs are not able to give meaning to their action by themselves, which in turn becomes a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. If I don’t consider you to be able or autonomous, and this shows in the way I interact with you, I push you towards an actual incapacity or lack of autonomy, and therefore towards a lack of sovereignty. And all the while patting myself on the back, spouting words of empowerment, ownership… without realising that my model of intervention might bring the opposite result.

As far as I know, it is still unusual for northern stakeholders to initially take into consideration prioritise what southern actors really want to do to get things moving in their own territory. And even when they are mindful about this, these northern actors often arrive with their projects designed in the North, as these projects allow them to promote their expertise and to gain legitimacy. Southern partners are then scarcely associated to the initial technical and financial conception.

If the organisational support is implemented by the northern NGOs for their southern partners, it is often biased because it is orientated towards the
implementation of these projects.

I believe that this process contributes to the creation of an associative bureaucracy, a loss of commitment, and a weakening of associative leadership. We no longer need guts to create an NGO: we can open one like we would open a shop, to guarantee ourselves a job. We will identify which stakeholders we need to contact for funding, and we will adapt to what makes them happy concerning our territory. The alignment with values, with a vision for our country, may come after the need to get the NGO going, to ‘win projects’. We will agree with everything suggested by international donors and NGOs, for fear of displeasing and having to go out of business due to lack of funding.

Leaving our postures of ‘saviours’ and ‘savants’ to favour leadership

Today I am an OD practitioner. I choose to work in conditions which allow the organisation receiving support to keep its freedom and the responsibility of its choices and orientations, with the help of my facilitation. I wanted to lean towards real neutrality of support, favouring the posture of ‘walking alongside’ rather than that of the ‘savant’ making recommendations that will be poorly followed if they do not generate afull and complete agreement. 

However, in the context described above, I find it difficult to provide organisational support that is ‘liberated’ from this state of mind, because the organisations I work with have a tendency to expect this elevated posturefrom me; a posture of expertise, out of touch with the maieutic approach I bring. Even when clarifying this approach, and insisting on the fact that the organisation has the necessary resources to answer its own needs, a wait-and-see attitude is deeply entrenched. Even in an OD process that is meant to be neutral, I hear sentences such as “what do you expect from us?” Or when articulating the expectations of a workshop, “everything that you can provide us with”, “tell us how we should do better”…

How can we get rid of this limiting relationship?

At what point could we succeedin establishing equal relationships, with a true associative leadership in the south, that would allow local NGOs to take their rightful place on their territory?

And above all, are we on the right path to get there?


Manfred Aime Epanda – 6 March, 2020

These are questions and things to talk about in Africa and with those seeking solution for natural resource conservation for development.
It is clear that African have to take the leadership for their development and to keep working on what makes their originality. Not to copy occidental world. There is an African style which seem to be so original.
We should think each time on the perception of local people that some one coming from Europe or America will not necessary take into account. Let African raise their voice and provide money and capacity to promote development.

Mathilde Bullot – 6 March, 2020

@Manfred Aime Epanda thanks for your comment!
I was speaking from my point of view as a European practicioner, making the wish for a change of our practices. But I find it of course also relevant as you call attention on the African civil society’s part of responsiblity in taking the leadership in their own style. And to help that happen, I think there is a need to advocate for more funding available directly to African CSOs for their own projects and organisational development.

FON NSOH – 19 May, 2020

Dear Mathilde,
Thank you for this very interesting write up.
The issue you raised are real and deep, but also some not going to change soon.
With 22 years of working in civil society in Cameroon there is much we can share on this topic.
It’s a lot about vertical and horizontal power from the intuitive and perception stand points.
I will be please to work with you further on this topic in the broad context of organizational change and civil society ethics,



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About the author

Mathilde Bullot

Mathilde is a graduate in foreign languages and international relations, and holds over 13 years of international experience. She now supports CSOs in Africa and Europe as a free-lancer based in France. She joined Well Grounded as an associate consultant in early 2019.