Veterans within Spain's non-governmental organizations (NGOs) say that they have never experienced such a prolonged and profound crisis in the sector. Most of Spain's humanitarian aid and international charities emerged in the years after the country returned to democracy in the 1980s. Over that time, the Spanish economy, with one or two blips, has grown steadily. But the depression that kicked in three years ago has hit NGOs hard. Government funding, along with support from businesses and private donations, has dried up. Even larger organizations, such as Intermón Oxfam and Ayuda en Acción, have cut their workforces of around 500 people by 20 percent and 25 percent, respectively. The smaller players say that they are near to closure, and are looking at ways to merge, while trying to find new sources for funding. A recent survey by the ESADE business school says that up to a third of smaller charities in Spain have already gone to the wall. Consuelo Vidal, who for the last 23 years has run Atelier ONGD, which works with women, describes the current situation as having gone from "critical to extremely critical."
Julio Rodríguez Bueno runs Paz Ahora (Peace Now), one of Spain's 5,000 or so NGOs. It has been working in the refugee camps of Palestine for two decades. He is a school teacher and says that in his history classes he tries to instill in his teenage pupils the importance of international relations: they enrich society and are a way of projecting a country's identity to the outside world, he tells them.
He says that this year he has found a hollow ring to his words. Given the sharp falloff in funding, which came principally from Madrid's regional government and City Hall, he can no longer afford to pay his staff of five, and must rely on volunteers. To make matters worse, a year ago the organization was evicted from its offices. According to the latest report by the ONGD, the body that oversees the country's charities, the depression has seen the 100 or so that work in overseas development lay off two out of three employees. These are hard times for international cooperation.
The majority of NGOs depend on the government for funding, which has been systematically cut over the last three years. The 2013 budget foresees further reductions in development aid, with the Foreign Ministry saying that for the coming year it will be spending 519 million euros to help poorer countries, 23 percent less than in 2012, at around the level spent in 1981.
Intermón Oxfam has cut its workforce of 500 people by 20 percent
The situation is unlikely to improve any time soon, which has forced many to ask whether it is time for a rethink on Spain's approach to charity. "I don't know any other country that has as many NGOs," says Fernando Mudarra, who has many years of experience in the field of international development, having headed the AECID, the government-managed agency for international aid, and who now runs a consultancy specializing in the sector. He says that countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have smaller numbers of stronger charities.
Intermón Oxfam says that a lack of funding means it will have to halt projects such as the training of 1,300 teachers, which will affect 6,700 school children in Mozambique, and a scheme in Morocco to help 5,000 women who work as strawberry pickers to defend their labor rights. In Haiti, a project that had already been approved to help set up a rice plantation, which would have employed more than 1,700 people, has been cancelled.
Around 100 projects organized by the 80 main charities working in international aid have been put on hold. Nobody has any answers as to how to get them going again, but most agree that alliances and mergers are one solution. Solidaridad International, Hábitat África, and IPADE have already merged. They started talking in 2010, and say that they will formally launch under a new name in a couple of months.
Already the three have joined forces on projects in Senegal, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. One such initiative involved improving the working conditions of more than 6,000 women working on an oil palm plantation. They have replaced the oil barrels previously used to reduce the fruit with specialist ovens that offer a safe working environment.
The majority of NGOs depend on the government for funding
But Ruiz-Giménez says that many smaller associations fear being swallowed up by bigger players, and says that many donors are wary too: "We have to defend the diversity that we currently have. Many donors feel more comfortable working with very small organizations, where they feel they have some influence over the decision-making process."
He has set up a campaign to increase awareness about Paz Ahora's work, but accepts that the coming year will be worse than this. "We have no money," he says starkly, explaining that current funding isn't sufficient to cover the cost of running one of the three projects in which it is involved. Over the last three years, the charity has lost one out of every four of its donors, while others have reduced the amount of money they give.
If there is little money for projects outside Spain, the situation closer to home is not much better. Silvestre Valero, the regional head of Catholic Church-run charity Cáritas in Castilla-La Mancha, says the organization is "on its last legs". It has had to close two soup kitchens in rural areas that provided meals for around 60 people. "One of the most difficult decisions we had to make was closing an apartment that had provided accommodation for 10 homeless people for the last 12 years. It cost us 35,000 euros a year to run."
Greenpeace and Amnesty International's funding comes exclusively from donations given by members: they do not accept state funding nor donations from businesses on principle. They both say that they are facing financial difficulties. Greenpeace's Spanish division hoped to raise 7.4 million euros this year, but says there will be a 600,000-euro shortfall.
Around 100 international aid projects have been put on hold
Mario Rodríguez, the head of Greenpeace España, says that the organization has more members than ever, but less money. A third of its budget goes on recruiting new members through awareness campaigns about key issues. "We have not cut back our campaigning because that is what we are really here to do, but we have had to cut back on the number of people involved in carrying them out. One area that has been affected is climate change and energy, where we have had to let two of the seven people on that campaign go," says Rodríguez.
So far, Amnesty International has not had to cut back on its campaigning. "Our priority is Syria at the moment, trying to pressure the United Nations to get both sides to call a ceasefire," says Concha Martínez, head of the charity's membership and funding division. She says that the organization will keep going, in part because of the credibility it has built up over the last 51 years. "Transparency is our main virtue. We are a democratic organization that our members take part in directly. We publish our accounts yearly as well as what we have spent our money on. This approach generates confidence and this keeps our members loyal, which helps generate funding."
Last month, Mercedes Ruiz-Giménez met with Spain's ombudswoman, Soledad Becerril, to discuss the failure by several regional governments and around 50 town halls to meet commitments to pay some 70 million euros to charities working in international development.
Spain's government agency for international cooperation and development, AECID, is unable to shed much light on future policy. "We are going through a period of change, and are putting together an overarching plan that will run for four years, and should be ready by 2013," the organization said in an email.
Charities have spread like a plague, and the time has come for a cleanout"
They may be called non-government organizations, but the vast majority of Spain's NGOs rely on funding from the municipal, regional or national government, which severely limits their independence, says charities expert Fernando Mudarra. "We haven't measured support, but these organizations are still necessary for pushing international aid programs," he says.
The depression is forcing the pace of change in Spain's NGO sector, something that José Ángel Sotillo, a lecturer in International Relations at Madrid's Complutense University and author of a recent book on the role of NGOs in development aid. "There are too many charities; they have spread like the plague, and the time has come for a cleanout," he says.
A cleanout may be required, but nobody is sure how best to go about it: two out of three of Spain's charities are more than 50-percent dependent on public funding. The challenge is finding a way to get members more involved, even if that means scaling down projects to be able to offer better results.
Ruiz-Giménez highlights the need for the sector to pull together at this difficult time. "It's not a question of the cuts bringing us together, but working together toward the same goals, and not competing with each other for projects. Until now each of us has worked in isolation. This is an opportunity to create alliances and to achieve our objectives."