“’I don’t care what they say in Kenya. Trust me, I know what should be in the project proposal!’ That’s what my Dutch manager said to me, even though I had just been in Kenya to ask my colleagues on the ground for their ideas and solutions.” This is Inemarie Dekker’s experience in the development aid sector. And, after working in that space for fifteen years, she decided to shake things up. It was early in 2020, but the global Covid-19 pandemic only helped speed things up. Now, she is trying to set the traditional system for cash flow and accountability around development aid projects in Africa on its head, with ‘iMPACT direct’.
Growing up in The Netherlands, Inemarie’s family was very aware of social issues: As a child she participated in demonstrations against cruise missiles. When she was eight, she drew up posters to fundraise for children in Africa. When she was only fourteen, she traveled to Senegal and Gambia on vacation with her parents. And that was the decisive moment: She would go on to volunteer at a primary school in Ghana and later she went to work as an intern for an organization that helped people living with HIV in Uganda, as part of her master’s degree in International Development. “As a volunteer –just after high school—I couldn’t really do much. Me being there even meant that I took the spot of a local teacher. When I became aware of that, I decided to go do something else at the school. I learnt a lot in that period, not in the least because I lived with a Ghanaian family for half a year.”
Direct donations to frontline African NGOs
As a young, idealistic graduate, Inemarie traveled in Africa regularly. But now she has the time and experience to reflect on the past fifteen years and wonders what all of her travel and work accomplished. “Only one percent of the Dutch budget for development aid goes directly to local organizations. For the other 99 percent, a Dutch organization decides what the money should be spent on,” she says about the traditional system. “And this happens while my colleagues who work locally are better able to assess what is needed over there. I can’t make a decision like that from my desk! When a colleague in Ghana asked me to donate to a local project back in March of 2020, I started to think of how I could give that idea further shape.” After a successful pilot with a charity in Kenya, she pitched the idea of sending direct donations to frontline African NGOs to her network. And she got a response. For example, from Isaac Waithaka, from Kenya, and Richard Yeboah, who is Ghanaian and Dutch. “I think that the Covid-19 pandemic helped us. The three of us had time on our hands, and a young designer offered to help us build our website. That’s how we were able to work out the idea for iMPACT direct in about six weeks only!”
From exclusion to equality and effectiveness
It took another seven weeks before they were able to find a bank that would support them in sending money to Ghana and Kenya, and a service to allow for donations directly from the website. “Financial institutions want to cover all their bases and risks related to regulation against money laundering and the financing of terrorist organizations. All non-profits that send money to Africa have to deal with these issues,” explains Inemarie. “This system is very subjective. According to research, small organizations of people of color have more difficulty accessing these services than larger organizations, or white applicants.” In the end, they were able to open an account with Bunq Bank and use TransferWise for the transferences. “The first campaign launched in the summer of 2020 raised € 1,116, helped us find two partners, and get supporters in four different countries!” says Inemarie.
The best solutions come from our complementarity
The iMPACT direct team has a standard video call on Thursdays. Their skills and experience are very complementary, as Inemarie says: “When we are coming up with an idea, Isaac is the analytical one. He asks the critical questions, with two feet firmly on the ground. Richard comes up with solutions, particularly for the technical side of our model, with the help of his extensive network.” And in practice, the tasks are divided according to where it would be most practical to carry them out, whether in Europe or in Africa. For example, the nonprofits that receive the money are selected in the country where they are located. Inemarie and more recent joiner Nicky Wakou promote iMPACT direct and are in charge of partnerships from Europe. “We have a very diverse team in terms of location, origin and experience, which brings different perspectives to the table and better solutions too.” As Inemarie recalls: “During a meeting with two different funds, I heard that the Ghanaian and Kenyan nonprofits on our website do not meet their criteria for funding. For me it is easy to shake that off, but my colleagues were quite taken aback by the conversation. They explained that these criteria already shut the door on local solutions, because they do not take into account the local context. An NGO in those countries will not make all information available on its website because security forces may raid their premises. And even if the government is in principle responsible for providing safe care and education to children, that doesn’t mean there aren’t children that aren’t helped by the system or don’t qualify. Are you then not allowed to help them?” This exclusion, based on criteria that’s refined at a desk far away from the daily reality of African countries is a cause for irritation, especially if you’ve been through that so many times before. And I’m still learning! I mean, I worked that way too for fifteen years!”
Trust in the local experts
And for Inemarie this is the added value of local experts and a local selection of nonprofits: “They are in the best position to assess what’s needed on the ground at the time. iMPACT direct sends 95 percent of the donations directly to organizations in Africa. And the donations are unconditional. These organizations know how to use the money in the best way, and this could also be staff costs. They do report their expenses halfway through the project and at the end of it and tell the donors how many people they’ve reached.” These reports are unedited and publicly available at https://impactdirect.eu/. “With iMPACT direct, we are able to work on many different topics,” explains Inemarie. “At our core, we seek to support frontline NGOs in Africa, and in so doing we want to contribute to improving the living conditions of the people who participate in the projects. But we also want to make this effort about the inclusion of African experts in development aid, access to funding and crucial access to financial services.” In the coming years, iMPACT direct wants to work with many more frontline African NGOs in different African countries and grow its donor base. “If you’re looking for a good NGO in Africa, let us be your first port of call,” says Inemarie proudly.
Interviewer and writer: Lisa Koolhoven
Translated by Alba León