(The Humanitarian Social Network)
There's an interesting conversation emerging in the comments thread beneath Jennifer Lentfer's blog post about 'a new kind of donor'.
It's a very common critique of the aid system: that large bilateral and foundation donors, because of what they require in the way of documentation, reporting, etc., tend to exclude smaller NGO players, whether local or international. The frequently unspoken assumption here is that smaller is better, or that larger is not better.
My personal perspective tends towards simply an acknowledgement that while it's not everything, and not even the most important thing, donor accountability is absolutely part of our job.
I'm having difficulty formulating my exact question, here, but I think it would be along the lines of trying to suss out where the cutoff points are on both sides: donor requirements and regulations (which can tend to exclude smaller players), as well as NGO capability to respond to donor requirements (the building of which can tend to move NGOs from the "small" into the "less small", if not "large" category).
Where's the middle ground? How lax can/should donors get in order to accommodate smaller players with less administrative bandwidth? How lax would be too lax? And on the other hand, how much should NGOs invest in administrative and operational bandwidth to accommodate donor requirements? How much would be too much?
Keen to hear your thoughts!
From Rowan: "@LCD - that was sort of my point. Big donors don't want certain types of agencies to apply because they know it will come back to bite them in the ass. They want to fund middle-men who have small, local partners so they can take responsibility for problems. How often do you see the 'local network' mentioned in funder outlines these days?"
Well, yes, big donors don't want to get bitten in the arse. I wouldn't, either! I certainly think that this is an issue we need to think about and work toward addressing, but it's not a simple 'big donors are bad guys who don't care about poor people' narrative.
Imagine that you're working in a big bilateral donor with $30m to spend on a WASH project in country X. You know that community driven and owned projects are likely to have better, more sustainable outcomes, but your operating legislation requires that you satisfy yourself as to the capacity of every grantee to fulfil the terms of a complex contract, including financial and programmatic reporting, branding, local purchase agreements, being checked against lists of terror financing bodies, etc etc etc.
You are yourself governed by a complicated mix of legislation and policy, and have to ensure that every decision you make would come out smelling good to the internal audit team, independent evaluation wing, possible senate inquiries down the line, and the media in your country -- there are a bunch of journos just itching to bust the agency for another wasteful project.
You have 12 months to disburse the $30m. If you don't, it's unlikely that congress/parliament/whatever will give you the same next year. Aid budget shrinks -- or the $ gets redirected to another country where more political bang can be gotten for the bucks.
What would you do? Or, rather, HOW would you do something other than (big aid) business as usual?
I'm a dyed-in-the-wool NGO type with a predeliction for community capacity development, but I can't honestly think of how I'd start. Would love to hear what some people working for bilats (or multilats) have to say!
I don't work for a bi-lat or multi-lat. Just a large household charity. But I'll share my opinion anyway :)
I think it begins with the following (in order):
1) Recognition by us (aid providers) that accountability to donors is absolutely a legitimate part of the job, and by extension that it is legitimate to invest in capacity dedicated primarily or solely to this purpose. A common critique that I have of small startups (whether local or international) is that while they may have excellent ideas, good relationships, dedicated staff, etc. at the end of the day, they can't really say what they've done. "We put our energy into doing, not a lot of administrative overhead and reporting..." is a common mantra. And if that's truly the case, then they're - frankly - doing all that's required. Like it or not, reporting and reporting properly, running ops well rather than poorly, meeting implementation deadlines, and - for lack of a better term - actually getting things done, are all part of the job.
2) Building an awareness of the notion of donor accountability to beneficiaries in public consciousness. Easier said than done, I know. But right now, donors of all stripes basically think that it's all about them. That needs to change. We have to help them see that as donors, they have a responsibility to fund good aid, not bad aid, and to impose requirements which enhance quality and impact, rather than impose burdens.
More directly to your point...
3) Recognizing that the big aid is not necessarily bad aid, any more than small aid can be assumed to be good aid. There's a place for both, and both are subject to specific failings that we can identify.
I'm by no means expert but I am familiar with a big donor (multigovernment, eh a big one) who, to spend The money within The limited time, deals, on the one side directly with governments (budgetary support, indicative national programs, country strategy papers, LRRD initiatives and the like) and on the other side distributes funds via A) different international big NGOs (who thus then become PGOs- para-governmental orgs) who in turn spend it as they wish -but broadly following donor agendas and B) via the big donor emergency fund (who also in turn distributes to big PGOs doing emergency work). (ah it also channels funds via consulting agencies who don't count for anything but still are recipients of funds-forget them)
So the 30 trillions mentioned are spent through a wide diversity of programs and initiatives with buzzing initials that overlap, nobody measuring roughly anything of interest for accountability, invariably next budgets are prepared and talked about in shiny aircon offices, and in the end actually this big donor does not seem accountable to anyone and nothing actually changes.
Suffering from the same lack of self-critical analysis as the rest of the aid community, with so many (overpayed) jobs/careers at stake, and given that although being the biggest, the trillions moved economicaly represent only a tiny fraction of wider budgets, and politically represent a fly's shit, and given that indicators, if included, are never measured against anything, nobody in-house ever asks for actual results.
Not the taxpayer-citizen, lacking any info, worried about jobs and crisis and navel, dumbed by TV and football and just required to keep buying stuff, nor the recipient governments, most of whom sign whatever document needed in the name of partnerships then invariably proceed to steal the funds, nor the big donor officers who, most of them, don't know a shit about development or wider international relations, and when they do, the are deeply depressed and/or cynical, since nobody listens to them or actually asks them to keep quiet if they value their career.
ok after this rant :-) I just wanted to point out that, in my opinion, community-driven projects are not necessarily to be always seen as esentially better, more legitimate or more effective. I've nothing against them specifically, they seem to me one of the sides of aid, I see hope in them, as there's no point to do anything if the people benefiting from it do not really want it.
Community-driven is for me a way of conceiving aid work, one of them, but it should be subject to the same healthy criticism and questioning as any project in which there is a donor and a receiver and a power relation and expectations. But they happen at the same time as other forces in the aid industry (just described, somewhat subjectively, but still...) and thus should be taken with care and analysed within a wider context of interrelated forces.
I've been asked for a 4x4 (nowhere to be seen in any budget lines) by community-driven CSO's leaders as by government officials, always in the name of "partnership". I'm equally wary of big and small, community or government, and although I think community-driven is essential(all this is,ultimately, about the people, the individuals) it is necessary but not sufficient.
You can't grow mangoes on rock, so unless the macro side of development is considered in the analysis (security, governance, rule of law), the micro will remain, well, micro.
So it would be interesting for me to hear/read that people working in aid do not consider big or small NGOS/PGOs and their community-driven interventions as the only aid actors, as a significant part of funds in the planet is channelled through no-strings attached budgetary support going directly to governments each year, and no one ever ask them how they spent it and why it is not changing anything structurally for the better or reaching the actual individuals in any way measurable. And without considering this, we will miss out essential info, and our analysis will be flawed.
Wonderful point M. I agree on everything. For the first part I firmly believe that a combination of top-down and bottom-up approach are needed. This intermediary level, of which J. speaks of in the post below, can a decisive player in the game.
Regarding the second part: you just described in the beginning, people managing big budgets oriented to governments aren't the best persons to manage those programs. And I suppose is because the rationale behind this, from donor's side, is wrong. For the sake of state's building, stability, transition and marmelade eyes are kept closed. In my point of view it is where aid is most dark political side. I reckon that saving a life and rebuilding state's institutions doesn't require the same but it is evident of donors fail to meet this challenge. In post-war recovery most of the money is always given when recipients are less able to use it. From my point of view is where past LRRD interventions failed.
I strongly agree with the points 2 and 3 raised by J. before. If the concept of donor's accountability is weak I think it is also imputable to recipients of fund, NGOs included; in the end most of the times there will always somebody willing to do the job (and satisfy the donor).
3 big aid is for me as necessary as small aid. Otherwise country X will never get out of the crise. What has been destroyed has to be rebuilt, from a farmer livelihood to an highway. And for the livelihood of the farmer the highway could be as much important as the small grant received by the PNGO via the CBO.
Coming back to your essential question J. do you people think that multi-donor trust fund could be a step forward in the disboursing of aid? I think this kind of institution, if (if!) well engineered could accomodate both requirements of donors and of aid recipient, whatever they are.
Unfortunately the only experience I have with this kind of instituions is really poor. Great ideas in theory, horrible application in practice. But I think that reworked the concept can help a lot.
if we cannot change donor let's change consituencies, on both sides who gives and who receives
or let's quit aid altoghether and put our efforts in social entrepreneurship (like, ashoka) and/or rigorous analysis that hopefully one day will shape policy (like international crisis group for instance)...
I'm actuallly working on that shift...:-)
I think that there is often an assumption operating that the "layers" between a donor and the beneficiary minimize risk. Seems to me there's a bigger risk of poor quality programming by being so removed from realities on the ground.
"I think that there is often an assumption operating that the "layers" between a donor and the beneficiary minimize risk..."
Risk of.... what, exactly? My own operative assumption is that intermediate layers (ideally) shield beneficiaries from donor neediness and meddling, and make program/context/performance information accessible and intelligible to donors.
"Seems to me there's a bigger risk of poor quality programming by being so removed from realities on the ground."
Seems to me that's a pretty impossible statement to quantify. And anyway, if the intermediate layers work properly, this risk is effectively mitigated.
Indeed. And those household name NGOs can be an effective intermediate layer -- one of my favourite projects was run by a big org that fed money and support into SLoNGOs that would never have been able to deal with the financial and reporting obligations that the donor required. Sometimes those INGO/CBO with local networks partnerships DO work -- they're not all foils for dressing up bad aid!
One of the great things about this project is that it's contributing to an evidence base for a particular way of helping communities determine how money was spent within them, and on what. Even if the small organisations had somehow managed to get hold of some money and run the project themselves, that wouldn't have been possible without the intermediary INGO's capacity in M&E.
There's benefits to the intermediation.
Donor W with a budget of £10bn can't think properly in chunks of less than £100m. They don't have time, not without tripling their staff, and they've had a recruitment freeze for the last 2 years.
INGO X with an annual turnover of £300m can't think in chunks of less than £3m. They don't have time. Not without tripling their staff. And they've had a pay freeze for 3 years and no one really wants to work for them.
National NGO or NGO-network Y with a turnover of £100k can think properly about individuals, and can do things. And then CBO Z, knows everyone's grandmother's name and knows what to do, and don't have to bother themselves at all about what Donor W really wrote in their Strategic Strato-Strategy (2011-2035).
I'm grossly oversimplifying. Obviously there's inefficiencies in all this. But it's not completely without sense. Technology has the potential to flatten this a bit though, in some places, maybe many places. And they key people at risk of that are the INGOmediaries.