Why NGOs in Africa must respect village headmen, hierarchies

Guest column: Thomas McNamara

ALMOST every global development body, from the World Bank to small, single-issue NGOs, claim to listen to or work with “the community”. In many African countries, particularly rural villages, community engagement involves meeting and consulting with chiefs.

Yet, even practitioners who go to great lengths to engage with chiefs often treat “the chieftaincy” as homogeneous. In this view, chiefs are either dedicated developers with exactly the same interests as the (equally homogenous) community, or they are barriers to development who must be educated.

But how do these chiefs or headmen view the NGOs? And how do the NGOs’ efforts hinder or help the chiefs in consolidating their own power? In a recent study, I explored
these questions. I examined how traditional leaders in several Malawian villages attempted to use NGOs’ presence to solidify or change their relationships with their
constituents, including how NGOs influenced what “development” meant to villagers.

These are important issues to consider in the context of Malawi. Small, foreign-funded NGOs dominate the country’s rural areas. The nation is one of the world’s poorest and
40% of its recurrent spending is provided by donors, often distributed through small NGOs.

These organisations maintain offices in areas that are too remote for larger NGOs. They claim that their competitive advantage lies in their closeness to the community –
and the village’s chieftaincy. This means liaising with the traditional authority in the form of the leader who controls hundreds or even thousands of villages, each with their own village headmen. Traditional authorities are typically wealthy and urbane. Village headmen, on the other hand, are as poor as their constituents.

I found that the mere presence of NGOs, no matter their size or aims, inadvertently reduced the legitimacy of local village headmen, often through encouraging villagers to link development to wealth and westernisation.

Headmens’ experiences

I used the pseudonym Vsawa as a collective name for the villages I observed. There, two small NGOs maintained permanent offices and two others had full-time staff. These
organisations were wealthy compared to the communities in which they operated and, through donor visits, these NGOs inadvertently implied that development was gifted into
the community by (western) outsiders.

This was challenging for headmen, who often maintained their legitimacy by presenting development as occurring through communal cohesion under their leadership.

For instance, one village headman attempted to persuade his constituents that he had special influence over the NGOs. He attended every NGO meeting, told his villagers that
the development projects he organised were inspired by the NGO and took trees from its forestry project to plant in front of his house. This tactic was initially successful. But then the NGO failed to extend a no-interest micro-credit programme in his village. This dented his authority among his constituents.

Another headmen took an entirely different tack. He did not participate in events with the staff of a similar small NGO that had a permanent office in his village and would
not reward villagers who worked with the NGO to “develop” his village. This approach backfired when villagers attempted to abduct an NGO employee accused of witchcraft. The
NGO manager publicly reprimanded the headman and used her superior connections with the government and police to have some of the alleged kidnappers arrested.

As one villager told me:

The chief was angry at Katherine (the NGO manager) so he tried to stop her, but she shouted at him and he was afraid. Now the people are angry and we go to the chief, but the chief is quiet, so we go to Katherine, but then she shouts… she shouts to … the MP and to the government … The NGO wanted to show us that the old ways were over and
that Malawi is developing now …

Village life altered

What is striking about these and other stories I gathered during my study is how unimportant the specific development projects’ stated goals were to their impact upon
intra-village understandings and hierarchies. Simply put, it didn’t matter what work they were doing. Their very presence affected village life by altering what development meant, and implying that headmen could not provide it.

Equally important, each NGO had permission from what it understood to be “the chief” to operate in “the community”, but did not understand how power and authority was held and diffused through the chieftaincy.

These findings are important as small NGOs and private donors grow increasingly important to rural African development. Such organisations need to be aware of how they influence the values and understanding of the communities they operate in.

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