Time to call in the lawyers?

Mike Jennings suggests homeless Haitians should be able to sue international NGOs for leaving them in temporary tented camps for so long, and not providing more permanent housing. You do not have to know anything about Haiti (I don’t!) to see how this would be a spectacularly bad idea.

We can start off with a roll call of those countries with strict NGO regulations: North Korea, Burma, Sudan, Ethiopia … The list goes on but you get the idea.

Dr Jennings is a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, so may be familiar with the results of the growing litigation culture in the UK with respect to public services. It’s affected the health sector, but I know more people in education. There it has resulted in an extremely risk averse approach; pupils are taken on far less school trips because schools and teachers are scared of getting sued. Just the paperwork involved for the simplest trips can put teachers off organising them. The outcome is a poorer, narrower and less engaging education for our children.

Now let’s compare with humanitarian aid. At least in educating our children teachers and schools mostly know what they’re doing. Despite the odd ideological battle, we more or less know how to educate a large proportion of our children to become welcome members of society. In contrast, the long list of disappointing outcomes from various humanitarian aid missions and projects shows just how little we understand what makes for a good project.*

If NGOs were to be made legally liable for delivering outcomes to some minimum standard (as determined by whom??) then they would retreat into the least risky kind of projects. Instead of a tented camp for destitute refugees they might provide scholarships to study in the US and Europe – not much that can go wrong there, but only a tiny number of people (probably already middle class to have the necessary education to benefit from tertiary study overseas) and substantial cost per person supported.

Mike Jennings appears to acknowledge this problem when he says:

By their nature, efforts to alleviate poverty, suffering and vulnerability in some of the most economically, socially and politically challenging parts of the world are risky. But risky for whom? Risky for the organisations who may face financial difficulties or a loss of prestige? Or risky for the communities in which the intervention has taken place?

I’ve never worked in emergency humanitarian situations such as post-earthquake Haiti, but I would imagine for most beneficiaries their initial risk was very low, as they had lost a large part of what they had before, and were likely dependent on outside assistance for the most basic needs such as food and clean drinking water. In general, in the aid industry, we strive to ensure that aid dependency is only short term, but it can be awfully difficult for both sides to extricate themselves from that rut once they are in it. Compared to where they started I cannot see what the big downsides are for people so desperate. This is not to say that we should not aim to give them the very best assistance we can for a given input of resources, but it seems perverse to me to paint such people as ‘victims’ of the international aid industry.

My experience, however, is in non-emergency work, and actually I think poor communities can be quite good at risk management. Although, by nature, conservative (a sweeping generalization, I know) communities welcome most proposed projects with open arms even where they do not fully understand the project design. However, they do know they’ll get two things: investment into their community of some form or another, and participants will be paid per diems for their time. As project implementers we hate this requirement as it smacks of aid dependency; we shouldn’t have to pay people to be permitted to help them. But that’s the way it is, and that way the community can be assured as to some benefit even if the project peters out in a few years without ever coming close to achieving what it set out to do. The development professionals will move away to the next big thing / step up on their career, and the community got some pocket money. Plus ça change …

All of which reinforces the need for strong accountability and transparency in aid work – and not just to the donors – in which all aid actors perform poorly (don’t just blame the NGOs), that lay behind Mike Jennings’s proposal. Just please leave the lawyers out of it!

* Actually I think quite often we do know how to do a successful project, but either the donor wants to reduce the costs and cut the time available, and/or the recipient country politics constrain the list of options, but that still leaves a long list of things we still really do not know how to do, such as providing new permanent accommodation in a country with a completely dysfunctional land registry.

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