Small may be beautiful but is easily overlooked

CGD’s Connie Veillette and John Norris have some proposals for rationalising (and trimming) US AID’s budget. Included in some eminently sensible suggestions was the vignette that Belize apparently receives ~$20k each year from US AID, and, in Norris and Veillete’s opinion, this probably does not justify the overheads involved in managing it, and so it would make sense to cut it to focus on bigger things.*

If I were a senior manager at US AID I expect I would be pretty convinced by this argument for rationalisation. Except that I know I’ve also heard from time to time talk amongst BINGO staff to the effect that while a certain project may be one of their smallest / cheapest but it may also be one of their best. Such small projects often have very limited ambitions but may fulfil them exceedingly well. Not trying to be something more than you are can be a real virtue in such circumstances. Thus my message to US AID is that that $20k you send each year to Belize may just be some of the best $20k you spend each year, so if you’re thinking about cutting it in the name of rationalization please ensure there is someone else to take on funding the project before you pull out.

This brings me on to a related point about project sustainability. Some projects nearly but never quite succeed in graduating from donor / BINGO support. This can be frustrating for the donor / BINGO who want to move on, and always intended their project should reach self sufficiency. Indeed this may have been central to the original concept. If the project has not succeeded in its wider aims then it should certainly be canned, but I have also heard the odd suggestion from donor / BINGO staff that patience is running out with more successful projects. I find this attitude rather myopic. Given the failure rate amongst conservation and development projects it seems to me crazy to junk a project just because it still needs a few thousand dollars a year in support and technical advice.

So this is a plea to all those aid planners out there in search of the big win: please do not forget the various little ways you may have already discovered to make a small difference. They may not add up to the end of poverty as we know it, but they all count, and are probably a helluva lot more cost effective than those big daring programmes that too often fail for trying to be just too ambitious.

* I am amazed the US doesn’t fund Belize more, but it doesn’t matter to my argument if this particular detail is wrong.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Some of the best aid organizations and/or programs I know devote a certain percentage of their budget to administering small “responsive” grantmaking mechanisms. These are not tied to any specific sectoral activities, e.g. health or agriculture, but rather are a pot of money to address priorities identified by community leaders. Though now largely discontinued, the former corporate aid agency I used to work for had this as a part of each of its country programs. Grants were US$500 or less, had an open application process, needed two positive independent references, and required only one-page proposals and reports.) Many colleagues talk about these small bits of money as some of the most memorable, impactful and fun(!) projects they ever supported. Consider the relative risk of “losing” US$500 was nothing if compared to the waste within the aid system, with each layer taking its cut before funds ever reach the ground. But more importantly, these small grants were easier and less costly to administer. Wouldn’t any taxpayer be pleased with that?

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  2. […] Blogroll « Small may be beautiful but is easily overlooked […]

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  3. Absolutely agree! Although one point of caution: could that effect also be because these micro-grants brought your colleagues closer to real aid recipients rather than faceless big programmes in the same way that people like to fund child sponsorship (see Terence’s recent post http://waylaiddialectic.wordpress.com/2012/03/30/child-sponsorship/)?

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  4. […] my last two posts I queried how donors may fail to sustain otherwise successful projects that cannot make […]

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