“People think they are listening to the local community, but they’re not”

Geoffrey Dennis

Geoffrey Dennis joined CARE International UK as Chief Executive in April 2004. Before that, he was International Director of the British Red Cross, working in many war-torn countries, including Rwanda, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. He talks to Global about the value of local knowledge when dealing with both short-term emergencies and longer-term development, the challenges facing international NGOs and their relationship with local organisations, as well as revealing the benefits of working with big business. 


Global: CARE claims that when disaster strikes it is one of the first agencies to respond. How does CARE swing into action when a disaster or emergency-relief situation occurs?

Geoffrey Dennis: Normally we are already in the country. We now work in 87 countries around the world, so the chances are that we’re already in operation. A good example of that would be Haiti. When the earthquake hit, we had 135 staff in the country and immediately all those staff were transferred over to emergency work rather than the long-term development work we had been working on. Likewise [in] Pakistan with the flood situation. 

In the short term, after an emergency, we help with anything. In Haiti, we literally did whatever we could on the ground to help. The normal priorities are water, food, shelter and hygiene. 

Yes, we are there at the time of emergency, but the real emphasis is on building the strength of the communities to help themselves. I’ve worked for CARE International UK for seven years and the reason is because it’s not only about emergency work, it’s about the longer-term building of communities. 

How much of CARE’s work is responding to emergencies and disasters and how much is long-term development?

In the UK, about 35 to 40 percent of our funding, on average, is for emergency work. But even some of that is longer-term work within emergencies – like rebuilding shelters. The remaining 60 percent [is for] longer-term development programmes. 

There are two things I’d add. First, around 95 percent of our staff come from the countries we’re working in, which means that we understand the issues – political and social – and the best ways of actually working with communities. 

The second thing is that 90 percent of our money is spent overseas. [Only] a very small amount is used for financial and management controls in this country [the UK] and in the country that we’re working in. The rest is actually spent in the field, which I think is a very good record. 

NGOs are often criticised for the amount of money they spend on administration. Do you think this criticism is valid? And how does CARE manage to keep its operating costs down?

How does CARE keep its operating costs down? It runs itself as a business. We work very hard at keeping things like the finance and contract management group to the absolute minimum. If we have a major operation overseas, like Pakistan, we will usually allocate one person in this office who is responsible full-time for that, and they would travel and be in Pakistan most of the time. 

One of the reasons that a lot of people haven’t heard about CARE is that we don’t advertise – we don’t have posters or big advertisements on the television. I do a reasonable amount of media work myself

– I’m dragged all over the place. When I came back from Kenya [recently], I did something like 20 interviews on radio and TV. 

In answer to [the question] are there other agencies that perhaps spend too much money in this country? I would suggest the answer is yes. And if I’m ever asked “Why should I give money to CARE?”, I say, just have a look at the accounts of other agencies and you’ll soon realise which ones are being run efficiently and which ones aren’t. 

What are they spending their budget on? Advertising? Administration?

They’re spending it on getting stories into the media and advertising campaigns. I think there is a very strong need to do policy and advocacy work, but I think that has to be controlled and it has to be limited. So, for example, in CARE International UK, we have one person looking after advocacy who is absolutely worked off their feet, and one person looking after campaigns and that’s it. 

Critics in the UK have complained that even though India has its own foreign aid programme the British government is providing development assistance and organisations like CARE are still working in the country. Do you think they have a point?

I think the decision on India was absolutely right. The British government, and indeed CARE, have selected a number of states where there are real needs, and where there are people who are suffering.

Bihar would be one of those – it’s a very poor state and it’s got very high figures of malnutrition and infant mortality. 

[In Bihar], we’re funded by the British government to work on the health sector reform programme. The whole idea is that in three years we hand it over to the state government. That’s their project from there on. I think it’s fantastic work for us to do in the short term. 

Some international NGOs are increasingly forming partnerships with smaller local NGOS. Does CARE work in this way and if so, what are the major benefits?

If there is a local specialisation or an understanding of the community that we need to strengthen, then we do work with local partners. On the health sector programme in Bihar we’re working with two local organisations. 

I’ve seen a lot of very poor development programmes and that is largely because people think they are listening to the local com-munity, but they’re not, they’re actually imposing their own ideas on them. This is why I think it’s so important that over 95 percent of our staff come from the countries we work in and we work, when necessary, with good local partners. 

What are the main challenges in working with indigenous organisations?

You clearly have to make sure that they’re not corrupt, that the finances are completely controlled [and] that they don’t have their own angle. We would make sure that they are not biased towards the government or a religious organisation. We have to be very careful to completely monitor how they are working over a period of, in some cases, months or years. 

How do you support and engage with these indigenous partners and how do you ensure that they don’t lose their independence and identity?

First of all, we do, as I say, monitor them very closely. But the other thing is that we work with them to build their skills and capacity. It is a fine balance because they need to be seen as local organisations, but they obviously are connected now with an international organisation. 

But because our staff are primarily from the countries we work in, we do understand the issues that they’re going through and we can work with them on that. [But] there are occasions where we have to say, “This is not working”. 

Are the local NGOs always the junior partners?

No, not necessarily. In some [cases], we set up pilots. We start working with the local state government and other internal actors, gradually we ease back and then at the end of it, we can pull away. 

In Bangladesh, we set up a village savings and loans scheme through a local partner [who] then handed that over to the local community to run. There was a lady who had a nine year old and a seven year old child, she lost her husband and there was no way that she could have gone to a local bank and borrowed money. She had virtually nothing, so she had to take her two children out of school and they became local rag pickers. She heard of the village savings and loans scheme and she borrowed, believe it or not, [the equivalent of] £9.15. I met her about six months later when she had repaid the loan and got her children back in school – she’d set up a little street kitchen selling rice cakes and fish cakes. 

It was a magnificent change to her life. Now that to my mind is what it’s all about. 

CARE has a number of partnerships with major international corporations. What are the key benefits derived from working closely with big business?

It’s all about building longer-term partnerships with these organisations. They have skills that we don’t, so we can work with them. I’ll give you an example. We have a partnership with Barclays and Plan International, implemented in 11 countries, where we’re working to develop access to financial services to poor people mainly through Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs). Barclays CARE and Plan can learn a lot from each other. Barclays brings its knowledge of the financial system and we have skill sets related to understanding and working with local communities. So they need us too. It’s a two way process. 

There is an enormous role for corporates to play. If they’re doing it in the right way, they’re actually helping strengthen communities, and that’s what we’re about. 

What do the companies themselves get out of it?

Part of the reason is that they do care. And secondly, quite often there is a commercial angle and, providing they are open and honest about that, we don’t mind. In some of the countries where the Banking on Change programme is implemented – Uganda would be an example – we are piloting linkage between VSLAs and Barclays branches. This allows people to have access to formal financial services and ensure the security of group funds. 

And, of course, they are doing something useful in the world and it’s good for their reputation. Anglo American mining company, for instance, are doing some fantastic work with HIV and Aids in Southern Africa. Initially, because some of their own staff had HIV and Aids, so it was in their own interests to stop more people being infected. 

Do you think that by working with these companies you actually can have an impact on how they do business in the developing world?

Definitely. Another example would be Starbucks. We started working with Starbucks in Ethiopia on irrigation and water-supply systems for the farmers they get coffee from. It’s not perfect, but we certainly moved Starbucks further in a direction that we thought they ought to go. You have to be professional about this – you’re not going to change some organisations overnight but you can do things to move them in the right direction. 

How do you choose which companies you work with and in which countries and on which projects?

We have a very strong due diligence process. So there are many [companies] that we have said no to. And we work with them very closely to make sure that even if we don’t feel that they’re perfect at the moment, that corporate responsibility is important too. So, for example, with Anglo American, we had a long discussion for months before we started working with them. 

As far as countries are concerned, the priorities and needs that we have in those countries tend to dictate where we work. And when we started working with Barclays, we looked at countries where we have a common interest and then we came up with a shortlist. 

But we have to be very careful. There are a large number of corporates that we have said no to. We don’t work with cigarette manufacturers. We don’t work with the arms trade. If I could stand on the [BBC] Radio Four Today programme and justify working with any of our corporates, then that’s the acid test for me, and I could do that with all of them. 

Interviewed by Elissa Jobson

About the author:

Geoffrey Dennis is Chief Executive of CARE International UK


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International