Life skills session in Nigeria Life skills session in Nigeria Photo credit: Chad International
Strengthening local actors in north-east Nigeria: a nexus approach
by Elise Baudot Queguiner, Jubril Shittu and Esther Christen May 2021

A strong and resilient civil society in Nigeria is essential to help address the needs of its most vulnerable populations. Even beyond the calls of the localisation agenda, the massive humanitarian and development challenges, particularly in Nigeria’s north-east,accelerated by the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, demand focused attention on increasing local response capacities and strengthening local actors to achieve their potential.

In north-east Nigeria, as well as other high-profile emergency contexts, local NGOs contend with project dependency, little or no unearmarked financing, high staff turnover, and limited institutional capacities, which all render their long-term development and sustainability tenuous. Yet, longer-term institutional capacity-strengthening and partnership initiatives that focus on Nigeria’s frontline responders are rare and local NGOs have few readily available support centres or resources to turn to.

The initiative Promoting Local Response Capacities and Partnerships (PLRCAP) in Nigeria, developed in 2019 by the Nigeria INGO Forum (NIF), Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and Ascenteum Consulting, helps redress some of these gaps. Through a longer-term integrated training, mentoring and partnering approach, spanning the ‘triple nexus’, the initiative builds on recommendations and opportunities highlighted in localisation reviews. It helps Nigerian local and national actors to construct paths towards organisational sustainability and increased humanitarian response capacity, and encourages new partnerships.

Stepping up to meet Nigeria’s humanitarian needs

North-east Nigeria continues to grapple with a complex humanitarian crisis now in its 11th year.  Against a backdrop of poverty and development challenges, it is predicted that 8.7 million people will require urgent assistance in the conflict-affected BAY states of Nigeria (Borno, Adamawa and Yobe) during 2021+1. OCHA Situation report, 4 February 2021.. Meeting the scale of these needs remains a critical challenge requiring enhanced engagement and a seamless complementarity between local, national and international actors.

More than 352 registered local NGOs serve on the frontline of aid delivery in the BAY states, providing critical assistance across all sectors of the humanitarian, development and peace nexus+2. As per current comprehensive civil society organisation (CSO) mapping being conducted in north-east Nigeria by NORCAP.. Several mapping efforts conducted over the years suggest that, while needs and funding have significantly increased the number of  local responders, many remain limited in reach and scope. Too often actors are either recently formed and new to humanitarian work or to the thematic area of response or are limited in surge capacities. Reviews also found institutional fragility marked by broad under-resourced ambitions and undefined strategic plans and operating models. Few had established or identified core cost structures or viable funding models.+3. See among others: Christian Aid, CARE, Tearfund, ActionAid, CAFOD and Oxfam (2019) Accelerating localisation through partnerships: recommendations for operational practices that strengthen the leadership of national and local actors inpartnership-based humanitarian action in Nigeria (www.christianaid.org.uk/sites/default/files/2019-02/Accelerating-localisation-research-summary-nigeria.pdf);  Workstream 2 (2019) Mission report from Nigeria: localisation workstream demonstrator country field mission (https://interagencystandingcommittee.org/grand-bargain/mission-report-nigeria-localisation-workstream-demonstrator-country-field-mission; Bioforce Institute (n.d.) ‘Improving crisis response by strengthening collaboration between international and national aid actors’.

In addition, capacity-building efforts were found to be fragmented and focused essentially on implementing programme objectives. Despite partnership discourse, terms and allocation of risk favoured funding partners and followed a subcontracting logic, with relations driven largely by operational objectives.+4. See for example: www.christianaid.org.uk/resources/nigerian-national-localization-framework and www.christianaid.org.uk/sites/default/files/2019-02/Accelerating-localisation-research-summary-nigeria.pdf Recommendations called for more equal partnership approaches, focused mentorship and longer-term accompaniment of national actors, as well as the promotion of self-assessment to generate evidence-based action plans.+5. See among others the Nigeria Localisation Framework (www.christianaid.org.uk/resources/nigerian-national-localization-framework).

Fostering organisational sustainability and partnership

The development of PLRCAP was initiated and steered by field-based staff of SDC and Ascenteum Consulting jointly with NIF in 2019 as a demand-driven, longer-term institutional capacity-strengthening programme targeting local NGOs working in humanitarian contexts. It was designed in consultation with local actors and NIF members (INGOs). The programme emerged from a desire to advance a promising opportunity to test a nexus approach in a pilot initiative to strengthen institutional capacities in response to localisation reviews and findings in Nigeria.

The initiative uses a personalised integrated learning approach, combining training, twinning, and mentorship to advance organisational sustainability+5. The programme defines organisational sustainability as the ability to deliver the organisation’s mandate in the face of short-term challenges. and promote partnership between local and international NGOs. Drawing on Nigerian private sector and development expertise, the objective was to equip Nigerian NGOs with additional skills, knowledge and social capital to better survive and grow amid changing aid dynamics and the complex context of north-east Nigeria. Stakeholder consultation lasted throughout the initiative, including through surveys and interviews. Exchange was regularly fostered.

The pilot phase included 13 Nigerian NGOs and a recently formed local NGO network for women-led organisations, their international partners and capacity-building experts. Participants were selected through a competitive application process. Criteria for selection included proven humanitarian footprint and experience, clarity of organisational ambition and development needs, and legal registration. International twinning partners were INGOs with large operations in north-east Nigeria that had a particular interest in supporting the localisation agenda. The selected facilitators and experts, 14 in total, were largely drawn from the donor community, academic and training institutions and the private sector. All were well versed in working with NGOs and small- and medium-sized enterprises in Nigeria.

Facilitating learning and knowledge sharing

Training courses and subsequent tailor-made mentoring sessions were founded on the needs and requests of participants and best practices in strengthening NGO sustainability and organisational development. The approach was grounded in the NGOs’ desire to grow their institutions and expand their financing to become, as said explicitly by some, ‘equal or better than the INGOs’. Courses were tested through pre- and post-learning assessments, satisfaction surveys and individual interviews.

In terms of course and mentorship content, emphasis was placed on several key thematic areas, including strategic planning, financial sustainability, project development, communication, governance and management. The subsequent mentoring session proved invaluable in providing an opportunity to practically import the learning. The programme concluded with a training module in the Bioforce/Oxfam ‘Taking the Lead’ methodology, providing a tool for organisational self-assessment and action planning to support continued growth.+6. www.bioforce.org/en/taking-the-lead-local-stakeholders-back-at-the-centre-of-crisis-response 

One of the key areas of focus was strategic planning, and how non-profit organisations can develop and implement successful longer-term strategies. For many of the NGOs involved, strategic planning was either seen as a luxury or meant documenting broad ambitions and programmatic activities. In contrast, the programme sought to build strategic planning as an essential leadership tool to navigate complex, dynamic environments and effectively manage and build scarce resources. Using tools like PESTLE+7. The PESTLE tool analyses the macro-economic environment, including political, economic, social, technology, legal and environmental factors, helping to set out trends and likely impact on the organisation. and ‘strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats’ (SWOT) analysis, participants sought solutions to current challenges, including decreases in humanitarian funding, increased national NGO competition and access constraints. For some, the intended course of action was to limit the breadth of activities and increase quality and reputation, while for others it was to expand their sectoral focus and  funding opportunities (e.g. in Covid-19 community awareness-raising) and tighten links with international partners and donors.

Over the course of the PLRCAP engagements, we have had to reflect on a number of operational standards and procedures, as well as our structure. Particularly, we revised our organisational structure to depict an agile supported environment where functional staff are dedicated to generalist cross-functional teams to encourage agile delivery of project deliverables (Nigerian local NGO working in the north-east).

Another key area of focus was financial sustainability through better financial management as well as diversifying resourcing streams. The challenge for most was securing unearmarked funding and covering core costs: few participants had analysed, budgeted or developed resourcing plans to cover core costs. With no reserves, few if any could survive project breaks, let alone invest in their growth. Through the project, participants were guided on better management and budgeting of core costs and given ideas on how to better present and justify these costs to donors.  For many it was an eye-opener that an NGO could engage in revenue-generating activities. Participants were supported in idea generation and analysis through the use of the basic tools of social enterprise, including Effectuation+8. https://innovationenglish.sites.ku.dk/model/sarasvathy-effectuation and Business Canvas Modeling+9. www.strategyzer.com/canva.

We had built on already initiated conversations for socially sustainable ventures to support organisational operations outside the realms of donor funding. This was a plus for us as even though we had commenced talks of this nature, the PLRCAP initiative supported us with a compendium of knowledge, considerations, tools and tailored mentorship to guide us in this regard. We were able to use the Business Model Canvas to shape our thoughts and ideas and prioritise them so as to know how to fund them when opportunities present themselves (Nigerian local NGO working in the north-east).

Participants were also supported to draw up communication and branding strategies, which involved defining communication priorities and ‘telling an impactful story’. In addition, the effective use of social media and building functioning websites, including the mechanics of online giving, had direct practical import through, for example, the activation of ‘donate now’ buttons, content critique and development, and the application of free online tools to better ensure an active social media presence.

Finally, the challenges of human resource management were addressed. Coping mechanisms to deal with high staff turnover and lack of human resource expertise and systems were shared, as were future options for better addressing these needs through outsourcing and building innovative partnerships. Emphasis was placed on identifying critical posts, succession planning and effective use of volunteers.

The most mind blowing is the succession plan strategy in the human resource management training and importance of having a succession plan in place against unforeseen circumstances (Nigerian local NGO working in the north-east).

Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, all trainings and mentorship sessions had to be moved online. Although this allowed more participants from each organisation to attend the courses and an increased number of training and mentorship sessions, participants struggled with connectivity and felt that interactions between themselves and the facilitators were limited. To address these challenges, course recordings and materials were made available online. Certain trainings, especially the ‘Taking the Lead’ facilitation courses, were substantially adapted in terms of content and methodology, with greater emphasis placed on written materials and smaller breakout sessions.

Fostering partnership and coalition-building

The PLRCAP approach also sought to promote exchanges, build partnerships and encourage coalition-building between local/national and international NGOs and between local and national organisations. It is hoped that these new dialogues will continue. Partnership opportunities were also fostered with relevant networks, including the West African Civil Society Institute and the Global Fund for Community Foundations, offering further learning opportunities and support structures focused on key components of NGO sustainability. Opportunities were also arranged to enable sharing and learning among local and national actors working across the nexus in north-east Nigeria. Case studies and meet-and-greet sessions were organised with local NGOs who had attained greater financial sustainability through building alternative revenue streams, including Nuru Nigeria, Society for Family Health, the Hasske Foundation and the Sophia Essahmed Foundation.

Finally, the international partners of the participants (all NIF members) were invited to join the training sessions as ‘twinning partners’, to input into curriculum development and support their partnering organisations in coaching and follow-up. To what extent the twinning model has been successful and whether it will leverage future collaboration will be assessed in the final evaluation.

Looking to the future

PLRCAP has highlighted the demand for focused, longer-term institution building and affirms thatsupporting local actors is a nexus opportunity. The approach has shown the utility of combining the complementary expertise of the humanitarian sector with private and development sector competence in institutional strengthening and efforts to design locally owned solutions. It has also demonstrated the relevance of national private sector engagement in helping NGO leaders navigate the complexities of running their institutions with few resources in difficult dynamic contexts. The focus on agility and adjusting to changing external financing patterns and building alternative revenue streams was seen as timely and relevant, especially given an anticipated decline in humanitarian funding. There was also a keen interest noted in the skills and tools traditionally used by social entrepreneurs, an area that offers many opportunities for future development.

The initiative, co-funded by SDC and OFDA+10. OFDA is the former US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, which was recently incorporated into the new US Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA)., has just completed its pilot year. The second phase will involve scaling up and deepening its approach, including expanding its base of experts, fostering further partnerships with the development sector, social entrepreneurs and the private sector, and working specifically with local NGO networks. The next phase will be informed by lessons learned, an external evaluation of the pilot initiative and wide consultations with local actors. Longer term, PLRCAP also aims to broaden its donor base and link with development actors.  In addition to SDC, which is committed to maintaining its financial support to scale up the initiative to promote and advance localisation efforts, other donors have offered financial support, including two INGO consortia. PLRCAP looks forward to continuing to hone and improve its approach, and to serving as a helping hand to the national and local organisations that are so critical to meeting the needs of the most vulnerable.

Elise Baudot Queguiner is the founder and CEO of Ascenteum Consulting and currently the senior consultant working with the INGO Forum in Nigeria developing and leading the PLRCAP initiative. Jubril Shittu is the Deputy Director for Localisation and Development for the INGO Forum in Nigeria, leading their work on localisation since 2016. Esther Christen is with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and is Humanitarian Affairs Program Manager, Nigeria.