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Q&A: “NGOs Are Here to Stay”

Aprille Muscara interviews SAM WORTHINGTON, president and CEO of InterAction

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 26 2010 (IPS) - InterAction is the largest alliance of U.S.-based NGOs, with over 190 members. Its head, Sam Worthington, spoke recently with IPS about the role of NGOs in Haiti, the U.S. and throughout the world.

Sam Worthington Credit: Courtesy of InterAction

Sam Worthington Credit: Courtesy of InterAction

The following is an excerpt. Read the full interview here

Q: As the focus in Haiti moves from recovery to development, what role will InterAction, specifically, and NGOs, more broadly, play in the reconstruction effort? A: The InterAction community has pledged 510 million dollars to the reconstruction of Haiti. InterAction has been actively involved with its members and other NGOs in Haiti to set up a steering group of the major NGOs involved in reconstruction.

This steering group is now in place, and it is responsible for selecting the NGO representative that will serve on the [Interim Haiti Recovery Commission]. The secretary-general will also serve as a liaison between the commission and the NGO community involved in reconstruction.

InterAction itself has been directly involved in mapping NGOs’ work in Haiti, including their planned reconstruction work. That map is now available and its data is linked to the Office of the Special Envoy as well as the United Nations.

Q: InterAction is part of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network’s Reform Within Reach campaign, advocating for a reform of the United States’ foreign assistance policy. Why is this kind of reform necessary, and what shape should it take? A: InterAction was a founding member of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, and has been actively involved in the reform agenda here in the U.S. In this capacity, we have advocated for a number of significant reforms largely because the U.S. foreign assistance structure is broken, with close to 30 U.S. agencies involved in foreign assistance and no clear overall strategy.

In this regard, we’ve advocated with MFAN for significant reforms. These include an adoption of a national development strategy by the U.S. government, which is an effort that seems to have been successful; a rewrite of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act, and we’ve been closely engaged with Congress on the details of what a new Foreign Assistance Act would look like; and a shift to ensure greater country ownership of U.S. Foreign Assistance.

It is important to understand that when we say ‘country ownership,’ we are not just talking about nation-states, but about broader societal ownership of the development process, which mean funding of government programmes but also significant funding for civil society efforts, public- private partnerships with businesses and active engagement by the international NGO community in partnership with local civil society in building local capacity.

All of these efforts have a significant momentum in the U.S., and we are witnessing one of the most significant potential reforms in U.S. foreign assistance in over a generation.

Q: What are your expectations for the upcoming Millennium Development Goals Summit? A: The high-level summit in September on the Millennium Development Goals will enable world leaders to take stock as to the overall unfolding of the millennium development effort. In many ways, we believe the summit will fall short in that a significant effort needs to be made.

We are in close contact with the U.S. government and know that the U.S. and other major donors like the E.U. will be focused on major new initiatives to advance specific MDGs. An example of this would be Feed the Future, focused on food security. There are other initiatives, for example, focused on malaria.

These initiatives will make a difference in advancing the overall MDGs, but we fear that the negative economic climate in the U.S. and in Europe and elsewhere will result more likely in a decrease of [Official Development Assistance] flowing to other countries. We will be making the point that NGOs actually raise billions of dollars of private development assistance and are a crucial actor in advancing the MDGs around the world.

Q: Kofi Annan once referred to NGOs as “the conscience of humanity”. NGOs have historically worked closely with the United Nations and its various sub-bodies. However, there have been recent criticisms that the relationship between the U.N. under Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and NGOs has been one of lip-service. For example, NGOs are now barred from access to General Assembly meetings and, most recently, were expelled from Arms Trade Treaty talks. What are your thoughts on this issue? A: As the world has dealt with globalisation and a wide range of problems affecting humanity, one of the phenomena of the end of the 20th century and the beginning of this century has been the rapid growth of many non-state actors.

These non-state actors – known as civil society or non- government organisations – have played a crucial role in advancing solutions to global problems both in terms of advocacy and service delivery.

Publics around the world have poured billions of dollars into these NGOs because of their high confidence that they deliver on their promises and that their missions are focused on human well-being.

The U.N. partnership with the NGO community is mixed. In some places, for example, in the humanitarian area, it is a very close working relationship that engages well on multiple fronts, such as in Haiti. In other areas, it is more of a critique relationship based on a concern by nation-states that non-state actors or NGOs are getting too much influence.

This tension will continue for the long run. NGOs are here to stay. They are part of the global infrastructure. As the world considers the overall aid infrastructure, it must acknowledge the tens of billions of dollars that private non-state actors bring to development.

These NGOs – whether international groups or foundations, like the [Bill and Melinda] Gates Foundation – are a significant part of how the world addresses its problems. And it is important that nation-states recognise this unique and important role that we play.

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