(The Humanitarian Social Network)
This is my response to the AidSpeak call for blog posts and articles about how to make aid better. As if being granted three wishes from a genie in an old lamp, I’m assuming that practicality is not a concern. These are three wishes that I can just make and they’ll come true.
For the sake of clarity, I’m assuming that the aid world pretty much knows what to do, technically – we know how to purify water, prevent the spread of HIV, run good food distributions, understand local and regional markets, do good stakeholder analysis, and all of that. But very often, for a plethora of reasons, we just don’t. We know good practice, and we may even preach it, but we often don’t follow it. I won’t be wasting my three wishes on some new technology or new technique.
I’m further assuming that this phenomenon of not so much doing what we know we should is primarily a problem at higher levels of the industry. Sure, there are the odd, clueless amateurs who show up in relief zones and do aid wrong. Sure there are experienced professionals who run off the rails. But more than anything else I see systems and structures and large relationships as holding aid back. And somewhat paradoxically I see getting through to individual people in those higher levels of structures and systems as the place to start.
If I could make three changes to the way aid is, my three wishes would be:
Every INGO international board of directors includes beneficiaries. Every INGO board of directors would have to include actual beneficiaries. Not some token proxy well-educated, lived most of his or her life in Europe, speaks five languages person of third-world origin. No - actual beneficiaries. If the organization promotes itself on ‘extensive work in Africa’, then their board of directors should necessarily include African villagers. Direct beneficiaries. If the organization does anti-trafficking, then its board would necessarily include a person who is now or who was trafficked, and so on.
Beneficiaries would be fully participative, voting board members. It would be up to the INGO to ensure translation, explaining to the beneficiary board members what was going on, etc. If nothing else, this should happen as a matter of principle: our talk about including beneficiaries in decision-making and governance is rather hollow if we habitually restrict them from those top-level forums. I also cannot help but believe that if actual ‘poor people’ sat in our board meetings and we were forced to explain to them why we argue about the things that we do and make the decisions that we make and use discretionary funds the way we do, and further, explain how it all links to increased benefit for them… well, I think we’d shame ourselves into doing better aid at the governance level.
And this is not even yet mentioning the value that beneficiary board members would add by bringing their own insights and perspectives.
Every NGO or INGO employee at or above the level of “Director” spends at least six months as a field-based program officer. If you want to make programmatic decisions (including strategic ones) which affect the lives of beneficiaries in the field, you have to have spent a minimum of six months as a PO on the front lines. If you want to make decisions about the use of donor funds, you have to have spent a minimum of six months as a PO on the front lines. If you want to make decisions about how to present your employers’ programs to donors, to constituents or to the media at any level, you have to have spent a minimum of six months as a PO on the front lines.
It doesn’t matter if you or eventually will end up as a finance officer or an IT specialist or a marketer. It doesn’t matter if you immediately move back to DC and spend the rest of your career in life-saving InterAction meetings. It doesn’t matter if you just left a senior exec role in the for-profit sector in favor of ‘giving back’ in the NGO sector: If you’re in the aid world and you want to supervise other staff, exercise financial authority, fill some externally-facing representation role, or have final say in decisions over “this, not that”, “here, not there”, “these people, not those”, you have to have spent at least six months on the front lines (not in a nice regional office in Johannesburg or Singapore) interacting directly with the core business of the aid industry. You have to have put in six months dealing firsthand with both the chaos and uncertainly of the field, as well as the realities of decisions made over your head which run counter to the obvious from your point of view. Before you sit in a cubicle and direct others, you have to have proven yourself capable of doing the basic, unsexy grunt work of helping programs run.
Sound strident? In the medical field you have to study and intern for years before being allowed to treat an individual patient unsupervised. To make decisions which affect entire communities, I think six months might actually be on the short side.
Some universally accepted/enforced standard of donor accountability. I’m the least clear in my own head on how this might work in practice, but nevertheless, here goes: To make aid better, we need to mainstream the idea that, just as NGOs are (and should be) accountable to donors and beneficiaries, so donors are also accountable to beneficiaries.
There needs to be a way of requiring donors to know the difference between good aid and bad aid and constraining them to support the former. There needs to be some system of repercussion for donors who support bad aid. Maybe a name-and-shame, maybe actual sanctions of some kind (withhold tax benefits, maybe?). At any rate there needs to be a distinct, significant down-side to the donor for supporting bad aid. This would apply to governmental donors like USAID or DFID, to big charitable foundations like Gates, to for-profit sector CSR, and allllllll the way on down to emotional individuals who text this number to donate $10 to that charity.
While this doesn’t erase the Menage a trois, it is the best way I can think of to even it out, to make the most of a challenging arrangement. Making good aid happen is the responsibility of everyone in the relationship. Donors have been let off the hook for their portion of this responsibility for far too long.