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How do you break the mould around international aid? Try genuine trust

In search of a model beyond trickle-down aid.

This is a composite image. At the centre of the frame is a hand holding a hammer. Behind it is a circle gradient going from orange to red. Composite image using stock photo from Depositphotos

At an upscale hotel in a leafy Nairobi suburb, amid the hustle of an international development forum's lunch break, I overheard a jarring declaration from the buffet line: “Somali organisations are just cash fronts for warlords, from my experience,” the European woman said to her companion.

I wasn't particularly shocked. As the director of a Somali NGO, Iftiin Foundation, I have been hearing some version of this statement – albeit less openly offensive – over the past decade that I've worked in the sector: Somali organisations lack technical expertise; they're poor fund managers; they require rigorous oversight; they need hand-holding. Although these statements are cloaked in more palatable language, the underlying message is the same: You cannot trust local organisations. 

This buffet-line proclamation was a reminder of an entrenched development aid system riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. Local organisations are publicly lauded in international forums for their deep-rooted connections to the communities, for their insights into on-the-ground realities, and for their understanding of the local context. And yet they're rarely trusted with direct fund management or, in many cases, the actual design of programmes.

To be sure, some local organisations, particularly smaller ones with limited financial infrastructure, have misused funds. However, these isolated incidents are often magnified and used as a black mark against all organisations – including national entities that have decades-long track records of transparency and impact.

This trust deficit has given rise to a complex web of fund management firms; for-profit development contractors based in distant hubs like Geneva, London, and Washington; and regional branches of major international aid organisations – all vying for their share of the development aid pie, which in Somalia comes to $2 billion a year.

Ostensibly, their role is to ensure the responsible use of the funds and the effective implementation of programmes. They do this by acting as buffers between donors and local entities – of course, not without taking their cut, which is not insignificant.

However, far from amplifying the reach of aid, this system has created a trickle-down dynamic, squeezing the flow of funds to a mere dribble by the time it reaches local organisations, and creating interventions that are out of touch with local challenges. This is something I see first-hand in my work.

I believe [local organisations] could be more effective in programme development, financing, and helping those in need.

Within the first year of operations at Iftiin Foundation, I quickly realised that the trauma or poverty experienced by the communities I worked in was not the greatest challenge I faced – understanding and addressing their needs felt intuitive. Rather, my most significant challenges stemmed from navigating the complexities and bureaucracy of the international aid system, which at times posed barriers to the very heart of our mission.

Most of the funding we received was almost exclusively allocated for direct project activities rather than the core funding that small NGOs need to hire staff or keep the lights on – a common practice in the sector. While intermediaries – often big international NGOs – drew significant overhead funding to oversee our grants, I continually struggled with limited resources for critical operational needs. This meant, for example, that I couldn’t hire the type of talent or put in place the systems I wanted, undercutting our long-term growth and sustainability.

Another challenge I grappled with was the pervasive top-down approach that dominates the development sector in Somalia. The funding we often received came with pre-packaged programmes designed in rooms thousands of miles away – programmes I was forced to implement if I wanted the money. For example, I remember receiving support for a project to rehabilitate former child soldiers: The donor required that we train 200 in hospitality, even though there were only five hotels in the target community, and no one was willing to trust a former combatant – some of them known by name in the community – to man their front desk.

For this reason, on top of implementing peacebuilding programmes, I also campaign for the empowerment of local organisations: I believe they could be more effective in programme development, financing, and helping those in need. 

These efforts, which came alongside advocacy from other Somali organisations, started to bear fruit in 2020.

At a community consultation event, the Netherlands’ deputy ambassador to Somalia asked us: “We have money. What programmes do you want to implement?”

We were shocked at first – these sorts of events were often about the appearance of asking advice from local organisations, rather than genuine engagement.

But this question led to a two-year conversation that resulted in the creation of a locally owned and managed development alliance known as the Shaqo Platform, to which the Dutch Embassy has become the first contributor. It is the first Somali-owned and managed development alliance to be funded directly – there is no middleperson standing over our shoulder.

Although the main objective of Shaqo is to drive job creation for young people, it is also about shifting power in the development sector. It’s not merely a funding mechanism, but a movement that empowers local organisations by directly investing in their infrastructure and human resources. Through this platform, we don't just hand out funds; we build capabilities, we set up foundations, and we entrust local entities with the autonomy they need to thrive – no strings attached. 

So the big question is, does it work? Without a large intermediary organisation, do programmes unravel? Does money go missing?

For us, this model worked.

We just wrapped up our first year, and we've generated hundreds of jobs for youth in sectors from fisheries to agriculture to the tech sector.

We've managed to create jobs at a cost of about $3,000 each. How much does it cost for many development projects? At least $20,000.

No, we did not train ex-combatants as bellboys to be hired at non-existent hotels. Instead, we trained people in farming, gave them plots of land on which they are growing fresh produce to sell at local markets.

The projects we've developed are context-sensitive and built from the ground up, informed by local realities.

And when it comes to cost efficiency, our locally led consortium stands in stark contrast to the prevailing norms of the international aid system. We've managed to create jobs at a cost of about $3,000 each. How much does it cost for many development projects? At least $20,000, according to one estimate.

How did we do this? We did not fly in foreign experts to design our interventions – we tapped into our own local expertise. We did not spend vast amounts on market research – we partnered with local universities and businesses. And we did not have to cover the operational expense for offices in New York or London. Our approach is not just local: It’s lean, targeted, and, above all, effective.

We believe we are demonstrating a new paradigm for international aid – one that acknowledges and leverages local expertise and agency. The potential implications are important: Whether it is in Somalia or Nepal or Syria, by trusting local organisations to know what their communities need, and equipping them to act on that knowledge, we can achieve more sustainable, effective, and responsive results.

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