Keeping Up with Activities, Staff at DDI amidst COVID-19

Adamu Garba

Diamond Development Initiatives is a not-for-profit organisation that complements the role of development agencies, donors and other funding organisations by providing technical assistance in the design, planning and implementation of various development initiatives. With Adamu Garba as its Executive Director steering the affairs, the NGO is upping its game in achieving its aims across the country. As several firms continue to lay off workers since the COVID-19 pandemic, Garba shares the strategies adopted to managing an NGO, keeping up with its 75 staff members, and forging ahead with activities in this interview with Rebecca Ejifoma

Managing an NGO comes with many challenges especially in a country like Nigeria. How has DDI driven its aims, vision, and mission successfully over the years?

There are several challenges. However, the challenges are not insurmountable if you have your eyes on the ball. We have been running with a clear-cut mission – to build a society that provides equitable opportunity for self-actualisation through economic empowerment and sustainable livelihood initiatives. To actualise this mission, we came up with organisational philosophies to guide our operations, which have become our core values. For instance, we are committed to the ideals of participatory development – ensuring the active involvement and commitment of those people who will be affected by, and have a vested interest in our implemented projects. We know full well that development projects are most likely to succeed when we allow groups and communities to control their destinies including the decision over what and how development activities concerning their livelihoods should be pursued. That way, they own it from the get-go!

We also have in place well-defined financial policies and procedures, as well as effective controls over, and accountability for, all contracts or grant funds and all property and equipment acquired with grant funds. In our dealings with our stakeholders, we ensure that we maintain a high sense of integrity and business ethics. Among other things also, we do not take lightly, issues of financial accountability. As a result, we have obtained a clean bill of audit health for the past eight consecutive years. Besides, we have maintained a functional organogram – while the board of trustees, as the governing body, provides policy direction and oversees the organisation’s activities, the management team oversees the day-to-day operations of the organisation.

What was your reaction and that of your workers to the news of the pandemic and lockdown?

In everything, preparedness and relevant information are key. And since no one was prepared for a pandemic, we needed to balance the scale between panic and carelessness. We kept our eyes and ears keyed on the guidelines from the NCDC, Federal Ministry of Health, and other local and international authorities – and with our alliances with international bodies, we had access to timely information, guidelines, and instructions. We, therefore, ensured it was disseminated to everyone. So, as an organisation, there was no panic; not from me, not from any member of staff. And even before the first 14-day ban on all movements in Lagos and the FCT on March 30, we had already shut down our offices and ensured constant and structured online communication among our staff members.

I understand you have about 25 staff members and some volunteers. How many were laid off by reason of the pandemic to be able to cope?

We did not have to lay off any staff. We had projects running all through the period, and all we needed to do was to ensure compliance with the relevant guidelines and resorted to working remotely.

What are the strategies you adopted/are adopting to keep the NGO alive even when other firms are financially strapped and how have activities at DDI survived despite COVID-19?

The onset of the pandemic in Nigeria brought us into unprecedented times. First, it was clear that we needed to safeguard the well-being of our staff and volunteers, as well as provide assistance to the communities we serve and all stakeholders. It was also clear that we needed to be prepared to minimise or manage the inevitable operational disruptions and immediate and not-so-immediate financial implications. Although no one was prepared for a pandemic this year, we needed to deploy certain well-defined strategies to ensure a cohesive organisation and remain afloat.

We shut down our offices even before the government-imposed cessation of movement and immediately activated a mandatory Work-From-Home protocol. As part of the protocol, and to ensure a continuation of the entrenched team spirit in our organization, we expanded our monthly physical monthly meetings into a weekly Zoom interaction. We moved to an all-virtual work environment with an office-based culture. The virtual meetings took a less formal approach, as a recreation of the existing conviviality among staff members. We were able to carry out remote monitoring and due diligence processes of projects while we ensured that planned activities that complied with official guidelines were not only carried out but duly monitored.

We also ensured that we stuck with our accounting and procurement procedures, and not compromising on ‘staying-safe’ guidelines. This was also made possible by the cooperation of our staff members who instantly acclimatised with the ‘new normal’. There was a quick realisation on our part, of the need to retool and adapt quickly to be able to keep pace with Working-From-Home. And every other thing fell into place.

Also, quite significantly, we received enormous support from our international donor partner – the United States African Development Foundation (USADF), through its Capital for African Resilience-building and Enterprises Support (C.A.R.E.S) COVID-19 Program. The intervention was aimed at mitigating the devastating impact that COVID-19 would most likely have on the economy of Africa. It provided financial and technical assistance to enterprises and cooperative groups – to enable them to adapt to the effects of COVID-19. So, instead of abandoning ongoing projects because of COVID-19, they were empowered to forge ahead despite the pandemic.

How many states have benefitted from DDI-implemented projects and when will other states benefit?

A total of 29 states and the FCT have benefitted from DDI-implemented projects since its inception in 2002. As the implementing partner of USADF, as well as other donor agencies, there are always opportunities to expand the reach and scope of our projects to all the states of the federation. This is largely dependent on the peculiar challenges of the states, availability or readiness of government and private sector collaboration (as we already have in Lagos, Kebbi, Niger) as well as alignment of community needs with donor focus areas.

Empowering youths to improve their standard of living, enhancing the well-being of community members, and increasing earning capacity and profits are some of your focus areas. Can you throw more light on it?

DDI complements the role of development agencies, donors and other funding organisations by providing technical assistance in the design, planning and implementation of various development initiatives, including the financial and programmatic management of these projects, in a manner that facilitates the growth, development and strengthening as well as ensuring the accountability and sustainability of the projects. DDI also provides these communities and organisations with programmatic and grant management technical support to enable them to effectively manage such development assistance funds. We provide technical assistance to donors and grant beneficiaries in areas such as screening of grants applicants, pre-grant award due diligence, financial record-keeping, project and financial reporting, budget formulation and management, project monitoring and evaluation among others. We basically measure project impact using five metrics: improved revenues, multiplier effect of funding assistance, increased incomes, number of jobs created and organisational capacity development.

How is the five-year LSETF – USADF/DDI Employability program targeting 15,000 young people in Lagos State coming – especially amid COVID-19 and social distancing guidelines?

It has been a clear demonstration of project adaptability to suit current realities. For starters, the program was designed in response to the need to promote small enterprise development in underserved communities, drive community benefits through social enterprises, and establish sustainable development models, especially as they relate to youth and women-owned and managed enterprises. As you have mentioned, it was an intervention aimed at providing globally competitive, industry, and trade relevant skills to 15,000 youth in Lagos State over the next five years – equipping them to take advantage of employment and entrepreneurship opportunities.

This is the first year, and obviously, it wasn’t designed for a pandemic era, but COVID-19 has necessitated a shift in the implementation strategy. Fortunately, it has afforded us the opportunity to reconfigure the business models of enterprises so as to key into the sectors that provide immediate respite for the economy. We are currently working with key players in the healthcare and healthcare-related industries to improve the skills of the unemployed, recently laid-off workers and under-employed. The aim is to enhance their employability prospects by upskilling and reskilling them for the emerging opportunities in the healthcare industries.

In compliance with physical distancing guidelines which resulted in the lockdown of schools, and as people are daily adapting to online knowledge acquisition, we are also taking advantage of that surge. To this end, we are already piloting a training programme focusing on skills like 2D/3D Design, Interior Design, Cyber Security, Virtualisation, Cloud Computing, Software Engineering among others for about 1,000 young people in Lagos. Ultimately, the USADF-LSETF/DDI collaboration will contribute its quota to the unemployment situation in Lagos State by equipping young people with in-demand skills. After the training, we are already collaborating with industry players so that we can place graduates of the training programme in paid employment.

What has helped you effectively carry out your role as the ED of DDI?

I attribute this success in part to my breadth of training and experience in financial management – allowing me to not only work with data effectively, but also identify gaps in finance processes, develop best practices, and bolster the efficiency and growth of an organisation through training and knowledge sharing. I guess I have also brought to the table my understanding and insight on donor policies, regulations, and their application toward the administration of projects in Nigeria; as well as experience working with different funding mechanisms. Furthermore, working for both development and private sector industries helped provide a balanced perspective and shaped my career. Through firms like Ernst & Young, I acquired skills in consultancy, productive client interaction, stakeholder engagement, and established a reputation of integrity and professionalism. I have been working with a team of committed individuals who are skilled in the management of development resources and this has helped me to provide strategic, results-based guidance, and general technical oversight of the entire programme.