Posts Tagged ‘aid beneficiaries’

On whose behalf do they speak?

How Matters recently featured a guest post by Scott Fifer on the need to listen to local leaders, especially when they say “Thanks but no thanks.”

As with the paper on which I commented yesterday, Scott was making one of those obvious points which are too often forgotten, and I found myself agreeing with just about every word he wrote. However, I was also a tad concerned that the excellent points he was making all depended on one critical question which was never fully addressed: to what extent is Scott’s local partner, Abel Barrera Hernández, actually a good representative of the people Scott and Abel want to help?

Us expatriate advisers often worry a lot about the extent to which we should speak on behalf of the beneficiaries we are seeking to support, but can suffer serious blind spots when it comes to our local partners. As far as I could tell from Scott’s post Abel has not been elected by the people of Guerrero, Mexico. Even if he is extremely popular, and has helped the people there a lot (Scott implies both), they might not agree with Abel when he argues against the GO Campaign providing funds to improve the local school with a new floor on the basis that this ought to be the government’s job.

“Admittedly, part of me wanted to say to Abel, the hell with the cultural traditions, and to hell with the government! These kids need an education. These kids want and need books and desks and chairs and a floor.  But that part of me shut up (mostly).  My years of grant-making have taught me to know that I don’t know it all. And if a respected leader and human rights champion is telling me my well-intentioned ideas don’t fly with him, then I gotta figure he knows more than I do.”

It seems that Scott and Abel came up with a solution that sounds sensible and will give the practical support to the communities they need, so, without knowing anything more about the situation in Guerrero, I do not wish to imply any criticism of this particular instance; indeed the conclusion they reached sounds praise-worthy. But we do not always get it so right with our partners selection, e.g. in Guinea-Bissau it appears IUCN put rather too much trust in their local partners when they embarked upon a community conservation initiative on the Cubucan peninsular.

Local partners are vital to the success of development projects, but just because they are local and they are your chosen partner, does not necessarily make them good, nor automatically entitle them to speak on behalf of your would-be beneficiaries. Both labels have to be earned, and sometimes you might even find that actually it is the international partners who do a better job of protecting the interests of the beneficiaries.

(Not) Speaking on behalf of poor people

While I was away my long-ago written contribution to Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like finally came out. For those of you who missed it, here it is again (slightly edited to restore the original intended meaning of the final bullet point). Those sensitive to sarcasm should stop reading now.


Avatar

“Please can you speak on our behalf?” (Image: Avatar – the ultimate white knight movie)

From time to time, every Expat Aid Worker will be asked to speak on behalf of their project, and, by implication, on behalf of said project’s supposed beneficiaries. This could simply be in a workshop, which is not such an issue. However, it may also involve fronting up to the insatiable maw that is the modern international media circus. It’s these circumstances that fill the newbie EAW with trepidation. Oh, the moral minefield through which she* will have to tread!

  • On the one hand this could be a great opportunity for the EAW to get her name out there. It could be just the career break she needs. Plus the oxygen of publicity can be great for Field Cred!
  • Except that all EAWs are justifiably wary of White Knight Syndrome. Being called a White Knight (or Lady!) instantly reduces the EAW to some totally insensitive boor.
  • Moreover, except for those EAWs who have utterly succumbed to the Dark Side, there is still a kernel of idealism that EAWs like to nurture inside their hard candy shell of cynicism. Falling into the White Knight trap is simply terrible for one’s idealist karma.
  • The veteran EAW will thread this needle by prefacing her points with the disclaimer that she really has no basis on which to speak for her project’s beneficiaries, but here’s what she thinks any way.
  • Unfortunately this will be cut by the film editor, and the EAW will have to tell everyone she knows how she hated being portrayed as the White Lady she is not. This makes a good excuse to let everyone know that she was interviewed by the media, even if it was only featured for 5 nano-seconds on an obscure piece put out during the graveyard shift on Crap Network News.

The smartest EAW, however, will realise that all of the above is utter tosh, and will instead write a snarky blog post about it, explaining the Lewis Carroll-esque contradictions of her position: that frequently in such situations there is nobody else in the room in a position to speak on behalf of her project’s beneficiaries, so if she doesn’t step up to the plate, they’ll be left entirely unrepresented.  Anyone agonising about such issues are therefore just spouting self-indulgent pretentious BS.

And who needs karma any way? If her project’s beneficiaries had even a fraction of their fair share, they wouldn’t need the EAW to speak on their behalf in the first place.

*All male EAWs are honoured to be called she or her, as nothing else quite demonstrates our gender sensitivity than not objecting when others get it wrong.

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.

Does demanding contributions from local beneficiaries work?

Here’s a question for all you development research types (especially the randomistas).

A lot of community-level capital development projects these days seem to involve a requirement that the beneficiary community make a contribution towards the development. Sometimes this is in the form of free labour, other times it is financial. So, for example, a new bore hole and pump may cost around $20,000; the donor will pay the bulk but ask that the community stump up $1,000*; communities that cannot or will not stump up do not get the new well. The theory, as I understand it, is that if the community have had to stump up then they will value the development more, be more likely to take care of it etc, and the development project will be more successful as a result.  Conversely also, communities who do not stump up are assumed to not sufficiently want a new well, and thus the money is better spent elsewhere.

The second part of that theory has the obvious flaw that some communities may simply be unable to afford $1,000, but still it is a very seductive idea for directing aid to those areas which will benefit from it and value it most, and also increasing the likelihood of sustainability. If I were in charge of a programme offering such capital development grants I think I’d incorporate the requirement in my programme’s design.

But, does it really work? Or does the requirement for a local contribution simply slow down disbursement, miss out some needy communities altogether, and save the donor a negligible amount of money (unless so few communities can afford the contribution they don’t even spend the entire programme’s allocation)?

In particular I wonder whether if the community had to pay $1,000 for the new well then they might only value it at $1,000. Such a valuation might not even be completely irrational if the community sees other neighbouring communities also getting the new well for the same price (i.e. the wider programme effectively establishes the local price), and, following previous practice by the same and other donors  in the area, the community may consider it a reasonable chance that if in 5-10 years time the pump is broken, some donor will offer to repair it for another token contribution of $1,000.

Moreover, assuming this is now a ‘community-owned’ well it is unlikely that it provides value to any one individual of over $1,000, especially when labour is so cheap, and the primary water fetchers (women) have less political influence, and thus individual incentives for maintenance may be dulled. Cohesive, well led communities can of course overcome these challenges, but they are the exception that proves the rule of the tragedy of the commons from which communal investments often suffer. And investing in local community governance is a long, expensive undertaking which does not sit well alongside a quick in-and-out capital development programme.

Has anyone ever done any research on this issue? The relatively long time periods required to judge sustainability might be one challenge, but I could also imagine how it might be possible to measure earlier proxy indicators of likely success within a couple of years of installation. Anecdotal  evidence of success in NGO projects is not without interest in this area, but it might suffer from a question of attribution in relation to this measure versus other forms of support that the NGO provides as part of the integrated package.

Please enlighten me in the comments.

* I’m not a water engineer. These prices may be completely unrealistic. The exact numbers are not important to my basic point.

Who you gonna call?

image

Ghostbusters: just more likeable than the Federal Bureau of Exorcism.

Musing further on  my post yesterday on the beauty of small projects and human resources constraints, it occurred to me that I left out an important additional consideration. It’s a major advantage of NGOs over government agencies: not only are their staff likely to be better trained and more flexible, they’re not also tasked with enforcing the law.

This issue occurs especially in community conservation projects.* Twenty years ago, if you were a wildlife, forestry or marine biology geezer working in a developing country then chances are you worked for the government. So when the community conservation revolution broke out many advocates naturally assumed that they’d have to retrain the government officials.

This is certainly not impossible; I’ve worked with some excellent current and ex-government natural resources officials who are capable of establishing great relationships with local communities. But I think they are more the exception than the rule. Picture yourself as a poor farmer: yesterday a game ranger turns up to arrest your neighbour for a naughty spot of poaching in the nearby national park, then today he turns up all smiles to preach to all of you that the national park is your friend, and that everyone can – and should – work together peacefully, and for the betterment of all. How are you going to feel?

Trust is absolutely central to successful community engagement in conservation. Despite our various more concrete achievements in the projects I help to run, establishing trust is one of our successes of which I am most proud, and frequently find myself returning to it when people ask us what they think is the secret to our success. Without trust, you’ll find community members just turn up to meetings for the per diems, with trust you’re often preaching to the choir (though they still appreciate those per diems, thank you very much).

I can readily appreciate how different the tropical conservation landscape looked 20 years ago, and that there might have been little alternative to working with government agencies and staff on community conservation. But with plenty of alternatives now available (in most tropical countries) I think a reappraisal is called for: if we were to design a system from scratch we would never dream of combining the role of policeman and community facilitator.

Donors should take note, and place themselves in the position of rural communities wanting to engage in conservation. Who you gonna call?

* Although I think the wider principles are more generally applicable to other community development projects: poor farmers may not have much respect for government-employed agricultural extension workers.

Paternalism in Development

Bill Easterly bizarrely posits feminism as the anti-thesis of paternalism, arguing that paternalism in development is a bad thing, and because he is against paternalism, he must be some kind of feminist. So I’m going to be a bit controversial and suggest that a bit of paternalism is almost essential in many aid projects. Hopefully no-one will interpret that to mean I am an anti-feminist.

First the obvious: paternalistic approaches are inherently condescending and patronising, and can rapidly descend into sexism, racism and probably a bunch of other undesirable -isms too. (Feminism can thus be viewed as a countervailing force to some aspects of paternalism, but that is only part of the story.) Paternalism also comes with a strong current of hubris, and misplaced paternalism explains many of the failures of the past 50 years of international development aid.

But … whilst respect for the knowledge and skills of the community is a minimum requirement for effective development work in any remote, rural community, we must also recognise the following:

  1. Said poor people want to become richer people, and to live lives more like ourselves.
  2. They tend to be very poorly educated and, as such, do not know much about how ‘our’ world works.

(These arguments hold much less water in poor urban communities who are more exposed to what a modern economy looks like.)

Hence these poor rural communities are often heavily reliant on us advising them and acting upon their behalf, often advocating to other elites what we perceive to be their interests. (A strong trust relationship with the communities we’re supporting is a prerequisite.) And if we’re not doing it you can be sure the various local and national government authorities will be doing so, often, unfortunately, with worse results.

Does doing this make me feel uncomfortable – yes it does! Is there an alternative? Yes, but it involves so much capacity building that it would take a generation before the community are really ready to take on the necessary roles, during which time next to no development would take place. (You can guess which option the poor would go for, though they certainly appreciate the capacity building too.) So in practice we have to make paternalistic decisions on behalf of the communities we support on a fairly regular basis. Sceptics are entitled to call us out for our hubris – indeed I think such questioning plays a vital role in keeping our paternalism in check – but practical alternatives are thin on the ground.

A good example of this in current conservation practice is the desire for full free, prior and informed consent before initiating land or resources based projects such as REDD+. The principles are incredibly important, but there’s a limit to how much you should sensibly invest in such a process before you need to move forward with a project. Anyone who claims a community was 100% fully informed before such a decision was made is deluding themselves; either they’ve over-simplified the situation, or not everyone understood, or (most likely) both.

Two more points bear making. Firstly, I suggest that it is next to impossible for a charitable donation between two people, or groups of people, who do not know each other not to be inherently condescending and tending towards paternalistic. So, if we do not want to dump the whole aid thing altogether, and thus cannot avoid one of the key downsides of paternalism, I think we should also celebrate the potential upsides of a certain degree of limited (!) paternalism.

Finally, is the rejection of paternalism on behalf of poor people not itself paternalistic? Who exactly does the paternalism sceptic think he/she is?

I now look forward to all the contrary comments from those who disagree with me …

Accountable to who?

Accountability is a big thing in development these days. Mostly this is in relation to governments (national and local) in developing countries who have a habit of appearing not always to act in the best interests of their citizens. However, the development sector has enough free thinking types to detect the whiff of hypocrisy when it arises, and, especially within the NGO sector, we are increasingly encouraged to be properly accountable for what we do, and in particular to be accountable to our proposed beneficiaries. If we are working for them, or on their behalf in some way, then we should have to demonstrate to them exactly how we are benefitting them, and justify our work (and salaries) as being value for  money. Most advocates’ of development, including this one, only acquaintance with a ballot box is as electors not being elected.

I, for one, am from time to time apt to bemoan the lack of downward accountability in donors and erstwhile ‘international partners’ (anyone who sends us money, basically) whenever they may (shockingly!) voice an opinion at odds with ours. But those who live in glass houses etc etc, and so it befits me to consider to whom I  am accountable.

How about, then, those communities we are supporting in our projects? It might not surprise you to learn that I and my colleagues would not be exactly over the moon about subjecting ourselves to rigorous value-for-money tests by our claimed beneficiaries. Why? Well, despite our modest salaries by western standards, we still earn more in a month than many of our beneficiaries do in a year. Our projects are complex, and need careful explaining even to well-educated types; how do we justify them and their complexities to people who have barely completed primary education? In short, what looks proportionate from one perspective, can look fantastically rich from another.

Perhaps, in a few years, by which time we hope our projects will be starting to pay off substantially for the communities, they might be more accepting, but for now we have to conclude it  would be one incredibly hard sell. Hence we have a number of proxy accountability mechanisms which allow us to get input into our evolving plans, but it is also true to say that we take steps in advance to guide those decisions in what we believe to be the right direction, which isn’t necessarily what you might think from how we describe these meetings and other mechanisms to donors and the like. And, since we pay per diems to community representatives to turn up to these meetings, you can rightly ask yourself, who is accountable to who?

The communities elect representatives to local and national government, who then employ on their behalf a range of officials to look after different functions. To an extent we are then accountable to these elected councillors, members of parliament, and government officials of various sorts. This accountability certainly matters because these guys can kill off our projects and organisation pretty quickly if they like, due process or no. But are they themselves accountable in how they wield that power? Do they exercise judgement on behalf of their constituents or on behalf of themselves? Unfortunately, the evidence is often for the latter, and thus, because we are pragmatic about things, we often find ourselves buying their support in one way or another, as well as making their decisions easy by doing right by their electoral masters.

Are we accountable to our NGO board, perhaps? They generally have a good grasp of the broad brush strokes of what we’re doing, and they are an important safety net should something go seriously wrong, e.g. a senior manager found guilty of corruption. However, they are also often busy, and their experience of running similar projects variable. We do not always have enough time to explain sufficiently issues arising, and hence decisions may not be fully informed. Sometimes we are secretly relieved that a potentially awkward discussion was quickly closed, other times it can be greatly frustrating when decisions go unexpectedly against us. The end result; full disclosure at all times is not always the best option (indeed senior board members have advised us this way) and we have to carefully manage our board. (The challenges which this in itself imposes would be magnified many times over if we had to go through the same process with our beneficiary communities.)

Accountable to our donors, then? Now we’re getting closer. We have to submit regular reports and accounts to our donors. They keep us on our toes with independent evaluations (although those consultants conducting said reviews are not always as independent as you might think). Our donors are either developed country governments (and their amalgamated creations like the EU), large trust funds, or their intermediaries (generally BINGOs). For the most part I assume most BINGOs are no more accountable to their boards and members in terms of day-to-day programme management than we are to our board, whilst governments’ donor agencies do not, in my view, pay too much attention to how most of their voters would imagine development should proceed.

In fact the critical accountability process is proposal writing. This has its own flaws and requires various platitudes. But if you can persuade a donor to fund you, then you have set the path on which you will proceed with at least part of your work usually for several years. We may present annual budgets to our board for approval, but they are governed by the budgets agreed with donors; if our board want to reject these budgets we’d all be in something of a pickle.

There are some NGOs, I assume every country and every sector has them, which are known locally as puppets of a/several donor(s). We like to look down upon them. Although it is all shades of grey, we like to believe that we are in more control of our destiny than these puppet NGOs, that we pick and choose what proposals we write, and that if a donor demands too many changes then we may even turn down the money. How, ultimately, do we make these decisions? What sets us apart from the puppets?

Our board is certainly important, but in some senses I believe my greatest accountability is to myself and my immediate colleagues. I do know that when my own performance does not live up to the standards I like to aim for, when there is just too much to do and too little time to do it, that I get stressed because of my own expectations. My auto-accountability often exerts the greatest pressure on myself. It is also the kind of accountability about being able to hold one’s head up high, and so is about self-imposed social pressure from my selected peer group of conservation and development professionals.

Finally we can bring this full circle by considering that our beneficiary communities, our partners in government (national and local), our board, our donors and international partners, have all bought into the story that we have put together as to how we believe we can succeed with our projects. They support the overall strategy (or at least the bit of it that concerns them) and for the moment seem prepared to give us their cooperation, moral support, time of day, money and technical advice respectively. Whilst operational decisions made by management are rarely exposed to the glare of full accountability, we are delivering the most important thing of all: impact on the ground. For this we are accountable to our own high expectations of ourselves, assessed by our peers, and generally accountable to everyone.

%d bloggers like this: