Posts Tagged ‘DIY aid’

How many NGOs do we need?

Around this time of year one sees lots of ‘Away On Vacation’ signs up on blogs. Alas the reason for my lack of recent posts is just that I’ve been insanely busy. Plus a temporary internet outage for ~5 days interrupted my blog reading, and I’ve been struggling to catch up ever since. But I couldn’t let this piece from J of the ‘hood just pass by. He says:

“We need fewer NGOs.

I suspect he is probably right, but I think there is a lot more to it than just a numbers game. I think we need both more NGOs and less NGOs. We need the useless ones to die as quick and as painless a death as possible, and then we need new NGOs to keep the existing ones on their toes. As David Week points out in the comments:

“We tend to forget that Oxfam, WV, STC and MSF all started out as corner stores, a meeting in someone’s living room, a zero-budget, zero-org with not much clue to begin with.”

J works in emergency humanitarian relief where the NGO scene is several orders of magnitude more crowded than that in tropical conservation and development, so my heart goes out to him for sitting in interminable cluster meetings in a vain attempt to coordinate who is doing what. I’m also broadly with him on the need for professionalism in conservation and development. If some random guy knocked on your door and suggested you send your child to a new school he was starting up you’d be mighty suspicious and have a list of questions longer than your arm, so why anyone would think poor people in developing countries should be any different beats me.

But for me it’s the whole attempt at coordination that is partly wrong. Not that coordination is a bad thing – we do it around here, and with a much smaller number of NGOs it actually works reasonably well – but there is a limit to what you can coordinate without strong metrics for determination of success and failure. Communism had lots of faults, but one of them was the fallacy that some bunch of bureaucrat planners in Moscow could effectively and efficiently oversee the economies of whole countries. In contrast, in the West for the most part we contented ourselves with letting the market sort things out. The market works on the simplest metric of all; profit. It didn’t always work perfectly (Betamax was a better technical solution that VHS), but it sure worked out better than the Soviet Union (no consumer video recorders at all).

The reason we have so many NGOs is that rich dupes keep on funding the incompetent ones. That they may then deliver the equivalent of the Soviet Union’s cars that no-one wanted to buy is as impossible for the donors to determine as it was for Moscow’s Politburo apparatchiks.

But it’s hard to blame the donors as most NGOs’ fund-raising literature is all much of a muchness; the same themes keep on cropping up and there is little basis on which the non-expert can use to choose. This works for the useless DIY aiders but also serves to protect the established BINGOs against effective upstarts (DIYers who actually hit on a better solution). It can take a long time to get much recognition in the Aid world; no from-nowhere-to-world-conquering-heroes like Google. Neither, apart from the satisfaction of a job well done, is there much in the way of reward for non-profit social entrepreneurs: BINGOs are not in the business of buying out their competition.

Too often it seems people expect too much from Aid / Development / Conservation, such that reducing their myriad outputs to one or more simple metrics would be almost impossible, ref my recent plea for simplicity in environmental certification. Simple metrics will always be distorting, but the merits of simplicity for comparing two rival service providers are substantial. Hence why I was most tickled by Sam Gardner’s recent vision of development finance in 2021, in which he posited the Sphere standards as the basis for competition amongst humanitarian relief agencies. Sam imagined this as being used by big institutional donors like DFID, but why not by the man in the street too?

How many NGOs do we need? As many as can effectively compete for rigorously apportioned funding! No cartel for the BINGOs and no room for crassly ignorant distributors of SWEDOW.


Small is Beautiful

J over at the Tales from the Hood blog has recently been reminding us about how important professionalism is in development (1, 2, 3, 4). For the most part I agree with him: I find it incredibly frustrating dealing with well-meaning amateurs whose suggestions are mostly the opposite of helpful. But I believe that the drive for professionalism (including proper professional standards) needs to be balanced with consideration for what can be lost through taking such a focus.

Exhibit number one is to note that all the ‘professionalism’ of the donors, multi-lateral agencies and the big NGOs has not got us very far to date. The conservation and development industries may well have made life more bearable for millions of poor people around the world and mitigated some of the worst environmental practices, but both have fallen a long way short of all the promises they made.

It is true that many flaws of international aid have been pointed out by various commentators over time (see my blog roll for a small selection), and perhaps if all these flaws were addressed, the professional approach of all these various agencies would suddenly bear more fruit. But right now, we don’t know that for sure.

What does seem clear to me is that ‘professionalism’ generally seems to be associated with the established players who have the resources to hire the right people and do all the proper evaluations before embarking on a new course of action. I think this omits an important class of conservation and development initiatives.

Small is beautiful. I know it is a cliché, but there is a lot of truth to it. Firstly small projects can be a lot easier to manage; lack of complexity is certainly a virtue. Secondly small projects and organisations are a lot more personal; I think this element of personal endeavour can do a lot to ameliorate the charge of development work being patronising.

Small also allows for experimentation; where the sums are low, there often won’t be much lost if a project collapses for having failed to follow one or more pieces of best practice. Some of these holes can, and should, be filled in later before scaling up (if that is the goal). Bill Easterly constantly reminds us of the power of many different people making their own separate attempts to achieve their goals over a centrally-planned system. I think the aid industry could benefit from a lot more disruption from nimble, radical-thinking start-ups.

All in all, despite the manifest problems of DIY aid, if I had a donation to make, I’d far rather give it to a small local organisation I know well with relatively modest objectives and a long-term commitment to the communities it supports than to a BINGO.

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