SOS Sahel community tree planting project near Hawassa, Ethiopia in 2014. SOS Sahel community tree planting project near Hawassa, Ethiopia in 2014. Photo credit: Aaron & Lisa via Flickr

The SOS Sahel UK story: the journey from one international to four national NGOs

by Margie Buchanan-SmithNovember 2021

This paper tells the story of SOS Sahel UK,+1. Although the name ‘SOS Sahel UK’ became ‘SOS Sahel International UK’ at a later date, for brevity this publication uses ‘SOS Sahel UK’ throughout. an international non-governmental organisation (INGO) registered in the UK in 1983 in response to the devastating drought and famine that impacted much of the Sahel in the early to mid-1970s. Despite these origins, SOS Sahel UK was set up as a development rather than a humanitarian non-governmental organisation (NGO) and focused on natural resource management (NRM) in the drylands of the Sahel.

The hallmark of SOS Sahel UK’s work has been its long-term, participatory and locally owned approach to development. Much development work in the Sahel and elsewhere has been dominated by a short-term, projectised approach; however, SOS Sahel UK became known for its long-term support and accompaniment to particular communities and geographic areas. This paper describes how its approach to community-based NRM evolved through the 1980s and 1990s across four countries: Sudan, Ethiopia, Mali and Niger.

The paper also describes the pan-Sahelian aspect to SOS Sahel UK’s work, straddling East and West Africa, and its policy-level engagement with national governments. This part of the story – Chapter 1 – is relevant to current debates about development in the Sahel, particularly around governance and peacebuilding over natural resources, issues often discussed today under the banner of the humanitarian–development–peace nexus.

In early 2020, 36 years after it was created, SOS Sahel UK took the decision to close its doors. The reason? It felt it had worked itself out of a job, as its four main country programmes became fully functioning national NGOs, embedded in national civil society. The second part of the story – Chapters 2–5 – is about SOS Sahel UK’s pursuit of an agenda of localisation, long before the term had become common currency. Starting as a Global North-headquartered INGO, by the late 1990s it was exploring how to devolve management and control to its respective country programmes.

The process of decentralisation, familiar to many international agencies, was urgently accelerated when SOS Sahel UK hit a financial crisis in the early 2000s. This triggered its transformation from a UK-headquartered INGO running country programmes to a family of national NGOs supported and facilitated from the UK, accompanied by a significant shift in the balance of power. This happened at varying speeds in different countries, but having completed the process by 2019/2020, SOS Sahel UK decided to close, and to share this story of localisation.

SOS Sahel’s experience differs from many INGOs’ approach to localisation. It is about the wholescale transfer of power, resources and assets to national NGOs rooted in civil society in their respective countries, so that the Northern-headquartered organisation is no longer needed. This is highly relevant to current debates about decolonising the aid sector and offers valuable learning. How did four thriving national NGOs emerge out of an international one? This paper describes and analyses SOS Sahel UK’s journey, the challenges it faced and some of the mistakes it made, as well as the factors contributing to success.