(The Humanitarian Social Network)
I originally posted this piece on my blog www.louiseahogan.blogspot.ie
Last Friday, Joe Costello, Ireland's Minister For State for Foreign Affairs, launched the 2011 annual report of Irish Aid- the official foreign aid apparatus of the Irish government. Irish Aid is highly regarded in development circles, both by aid recipient countries and independent evaluators. As a small, neutral nation, there are rarely strings attached to Irish Aid and it has also targeted its funding to specific countries or areas, to try and ensure some continuity of development. Irish Aid was ranked second out of twenty one donors in its commitment to African development by the first global survey carried out by the Centre for Global Development in Washington D.C. Plus some Ethiopian farmers I met in Addis airport last month, on their way to China for an information exchange trip focused on new agricultural technology, said they liked Irish Aid. A lot. So there.
Despite the fact that Irish Aid is, by all accounts, run professionally and transparently, Minister Costello felt the need to pledge increased accountability in how Ireland's development aid is spent. Now, this is largely political posturing. Ireland is making bailout repayments to the Troika, social spending is being cut, new taxes are being introduced and public anger is high. There may be some who question the reasoning behind providing development aid for countries abroad, when important social services in the country are being cut. Minister Costello's comments are most likely an appeasement of such critics.
But it does point to difficult issues which plague those who work in development; How to provide time and cost effective accountability and transparency measures. Donors (rightly) wish to know their money is being well spent and properly utilised. In making such demands however, some of their money is wasted on time consuming reporting and costly evaluations, which all drive up core costs such as staffing, making it difficult for charities and NGOs, big and small, to stay afloat. Since the recession, donors have been giving less money and making more demands, squeezing the third sector even more.
Those of us in the third sector can whine about the endless reporting and receipt collecting we are forced to endure by those heartless donors who pay our wages but that's not productive. What would be productive is a dramatic restructuring of traditional donor-recipient relationship. Some donors have already recognised this. A number of considerably large, private donors I have come across have incredibly thorough application processes for grants. All projects and staff, past and present, are vetted and evaluated and numerous stages of proposals, presentations and interviews are required. Once approved however, the recipient is given a substantial grant to do with it as it wishes. The money must obviously be accounted for but the donor does not stipulate what it is to be spent on. After rigorously selecting a trustworthy recipient they then trust in their judgement to spend the grant wisely, whether it be on core costs, project costs, etc. This leads to a genuinely trusting, apprecative relationship on both sides and such an approach often allows recipients to cut down on the admin costs that result from endless reporting to donors.
Other donors are insisting that similar third sector groups amalgate or at the very least work together, so as to make money donated more effective. For example, one relatively small Irish city has numerous LBGT rights groups working exclusively from one another. One donor organisation I know of who prioritises LBGT rights has insisted any group it funds demonstrate it is working in partnership with other, similar organisations so that there may be real, city-wide, effective campaigning on the relevant issues.
Having spoken to colleagues about these issues, the feeling I get is that private donors are largely restructuring their systems to try and overcome some the issues highlighted above. Governmental agencies however are not. Again, this comes down to politics. European countries in particular are in a difficult position. With the Euro Crisis dominating domestic politics, any money spent on aid must be rigorously justified. They are not the only ones however. A colleague of mine calculated her office devoted at least fifty hours to one grant from a particularly zealous Asian government agency- between proposal writing, email correspondence, reporting, etc. The grants was only for $6000. It literally was not worth the work that winning the grant neccesitated.