Posts Tagged ‘donor conditions’

How did homophobia become the most important development issue of the day?

Oh Museveni what have you done? Of all the problems that Uganda faces, is the ‘wrong’ kind of sex really the most pressing? (More pressing, say, than having a minister who thinks there is a ‘right’ kind of rape?!?) You state you are concerned that “many of those recruited were doing so for mercenary reasons – to get money – in effect homosexual prostitutes”. So now you are legislating to shut off some people’s route out of poverty? Much better to focus on your implied root cause – poverty – which everyone agrees in a widespread ill in Uganda than to veer off on this sideshow.

But let’s not kid ourselves too much. With his regional (East African Community) leadership ambitions thwarted, M7 wants to be re-elected as Ugandan president for another term (or at least ensure his placeman gets the job). As I understand it (sorry cannot locate link), M7 was under pressure that if he didn’t sign the law then he wouldn’t get the political support he needs, and his veto might have been over-ridden any way, undermining his authority.

The fact that Western leaders then resorted to megaphone diplomacy really didn’t help, instead making M7 out to be ‘a son of the soil’ hero to millions of Africans across the continent. Yes many Africans are also anguishing over the hate-filled bill, but they are the liberal intelligentsia, a tiny minority. Blame it on Western missionaries and evangelicals if you will (I do), but the reality is that most Africans are pretty homophobic. So whilst they may feel free to ignore my advice on such matters, surely Western leaders should listen to those many African voices urging caution (e.g. this).

That all said, however, Museveni and his fellow homophobes’ own standard of debate leaves much to be desired, especially in the framing of the debate in anti-neo-colonialist terms.

“We Africans always keep our opinions to ourselves and never seek to impose our point of view on the others. If only they could let us alone.” [Museveni again]

Leaving aside the ridiculous hypocrisy of this claim (made in the moment that they impose their intolerance on gay people throughout Uganda), I reject the notion that the West is imposing its values on Uganda. Receiving aid is a privilege, not a right. Every day providers of charity across the world choose who should receive their largesse based on a range of issues, many of them ethical. There is a reason why the government of North Korea receives no Western aid (other than emergency food relief in times of famine).

Nonetheless, I am worried by the closing of Western ranks, even in apparently neutral bodies. For instance the reasons given by the World Bank for publicly postponing a $90m loan intended to boost Uganda’s health services do not ring true, but instead strike me as Western liberals seeking inappropriate economic arguments for a fundamentally moral question. Why should Ugandan mothers-to-be and new born babies suffer for their political leader’s ignorance and intolerance?

Uganda has enacted a truly odious bill, but the debate around it on all sides is muddled and dominated by domestic political concerns that do the noble cause of international development a serious injustice.


It’s Our Money

How much should donors get to have a say in how their money is spent?

African activists fighting for the rights of homosexuals have issued a strong statement opposing David Cameron’s threat to cut aids to countries that mistreat homosexuals that I blogged about yesterday. A common theme that cuts through both the initial Ugandan journalists’ response that triggered my post, my own thoughts, and the activists’ statement is the question of what say do donors have in such matters. I want to talk about some generalities first, and then get back to specifics on this issue.

Firstly, international aid is a voluntary act by donors. Depending upon your point of view, it may or may not be entirely altruistic, but it is not an obligation under international law or any such like. (Conceivably this could change under a climate change agreement, with rich countries compensating poor countries for all the CO2 they’ve already omitted, but expect the rich countries to fight this one tooth and nail.)

This voluntary nature means that the donors really do get to decide how and where they want to spend it. That is how the world works. Sensible donors will give due attention to how they can be of most assistance, and try to structure their aid accordingly. Those donors that do not may be stupid and/or complete hypocrites, e.g. Bush’s restrictions on PEPFAR money usage, but it is their mistake to make.

Advocates of good aid (including me!) understandably get frustrated when they see donors trying to get too demanding about exactly how their money should be spent, especially if it is spent badly. However, one thing that I’ve picked up repeatedly from non aid cogniscenti, is that developing countries (and their advocates in donor countries) ought to show a little bit of gratitude from time to time for receiving some of the donor country’s taxpayers’ money. We too can easily slip into a position where it sounds like we have presumed that developing countries are entitled to aid (as opposed to simply deserving), and, by implication that we, their advocates, are entitled to help spend some of that money. (I suspect I have been guilty of such multiple times on this blog.)

Thus, even if they are counterproductive, some donor conditions are to be expected. For bilateral government donors these are likely to be substantially determined by the views of their own electorate. They are often intolerant of corruption, and so anti-corruption measures are often a strong part of aid conditionality (for all the good that they do). Human rights are another classic example of the intrusion of developed country politics into the international aid business.

And if you do not like the conditions then just turn down the money! In cases of bad aid conditionality it is often not only the donors who are at fault, but supine recipient country governments who have become substantially dependent upon aid. (Even where it makes up only a small proportion of the budget, aid often pays for a big proportion of training workshops, junkets and other in-kind benefits off which local civil servants feed voraciously.)

Back on to David Cameron’s threat:

  • The BBC news piece says that this came out of a review of the “future relevance of the Commonwealth”, which suggests that at least some level of consultation went into this.
  • The threat certainly reflects the views of a large chunk of the British electorate. Ignoring this issue may have ultimately generated an even bigger backlash against all aid.
  • Donor clarity on the nature of conditions attached to aid is a good thing. (See here and here for my previous musings on this.) Viewed from this light, Cameron’s threat could be criticised for still giving too much wriggle room.

On the debit side:

  • At least some activists clearly do not want this threat, and consider it counter-productive. They make some pretty compelling points. If I were Cameron I would give a lot of weight to this consideration.
  • Forces a culture clash when maybe one could have been avoided: on average as countries get richer homophobia seems to wane.
  • Homosexual people may suffer more from having aid withdrawn than from abuse by their government.

These are some serious potential downsides that I had not considered fully before I read the activists’ response. But if you ask me would I like my tax money to go to a government that locks up people just for being gay I would say no. No matter how you might try to qualify the original question by adding riders about pragmatic solutions and appropriate cultural relativism, it’s hard to avoid the simple moral clarity of the original question.

This leads me to a clarification. I don’t claim to know the finer points of the UK government position, but I do not believe this should be about foisting our views on other people. I do not believe we should be asking people in developing countries to like gays just because we’re giving them some aid money. Neither do I think we should be asking such countries to pass equal rights regulation similar to what we have in the UK; without broad civil-society support this would be empty legislation, unenforced and probably unenforceable. But I do not think it is unreasonable – unwise maybe, but not unreasonable – to ask such countries not to actively persecute homosexuals.

Thus, I return to my original stance, with a slight adjustment. All in all I think this is probably a fight that was best not picked. Now that it has been picked, however, I find it hard to disagree with. That said, if I were Cameron, I would make strenuous efforts to take on board the views of local activists (maybe some support the threat?), and at the minimum seek to ensure this threat did not set back their own position and efforts any further. Maybe, for once, a bit of diplomatic obfuscation around the exact nature of the conditionality might not be such a bad thing.

Homosexuality and development aid

A cynic might suggest that this threat by David Cameron is a ploy to wriggle out of the 0.7% GDP promise on the UK’s aid budget. (See here and here for my thoughts on this commitment.)

However, I was intrigued by this quote from Uganda Radio Network journalist, Charles Odongpho:

“I welcome any move to pressure our government to be respectful of democratic values and human rights but speaking as a Ugandan I think we have much more important issues to deal with than the rights of homosexuals.”

One could equally retort that given all the challenges facing developing countries such as Uganda, legislating to ban relations between members of the same sex should be the least of their worries.

Having foisted homophobia on Africa 150 years ago through the work of our missionaries it is perhaps appropriate that Britain plays an active role in trying to roll it back. As Odongpho goes on to say:

“This is your money and you know where you want to put it”

On the other hand, attitudes to homosexuality, highlight the clash of cultures challenge that we face in trying to actively develop poorer countries. Homophobia does genuinely appear to be an attitude commanding substantial popular support in many developing countries. Unlike the gender issue there is not even much of an economic argument to be had in favour of gay rights.*

Nonetheless, locking people up for engaging in consensual sex with other adults offends many Britons, and it is indeed our government’s money to dispense with as it sees fit. Like the fox-hunting debate of a few years ago in the UK, I think there might be more important issues on which to engage, but by my liberal values, both issues are simple moral questions, and on both counts the reactionaries are just wrong. If I were the UK prime minister I do not think I would have picked this fight, but now that Cameron has picked it, I find myself unable to disagree with him.

UPDATE: See the strong response from local activists here and then my refined thoughts here.

* On the basis that as a hidden characteristic sexual orientation does not greatly determine career prospects.

Life in upside-down land

This is not a post about living south of the equator, but some observations about the topsy-turvy world which NGOs inhabit, and the strange rules that govern their behaviour. You may choose to listen to Queen’s I’m Going Slightly Mad while reading it.

If, in running a business, you make a big sale you have a number of options as to what to do with the money. You might decide to invest your profits in delivering an extra good product to your customer in the hope of enhancing your reputation and winning further business. Or if business is fairly slack at the moment and the outlook poor, you may choose to hoard the cash and eke it out to see you through the hard times. Conversely you could use the revenue to drum up other business or otherwise invest in your company, confident that you will raise enough additional funds to ensure you deliver the promised product to your customer on time. In fact your biggest problem may well be cash-flow, and you may need to rely on bank loans to resolve this situation for you.

In contrast NGOs rarely suffer from cash-flow problems. Except for the most deluded donors, grant money is mostly dispensed up front, which is particularly important as small NGOs are not attractive organisations for banks to lend money to. But, bizarrely, operating under-budget is almost as bad for us as operating over-budget. Of the three broad options available to businesses above, only the first is a possibility for us. We cannot speculate to accumulate because grant acquisition is far less predictable than adding new customers, and donors scream blue murder if we use their cash for something else. Neither can we save our money for a rainy day. Some donors will allow for no-cost-extensions, but typically that may involve moving more money into the salaries pot (we have to pay our staff somehow during that extended period) and changing the budget involves difficult negotiations with the donor. In contrast businesses just commit to delivering on their promises at the cheapest possible cost to themselves.

Now, to be fair to the donors, the better ones at least are often prepared to be flexible, but, and this is the key constraint, everything has to be requested in advance and negotiated! Even for minor expenditure changes that should be frankly beneath their attention they raise queries if things have not been cleared in advance. However, these negotiations take time and energy on both sides, such that, despite the best intentions on the part of donors, NGO managers may be reluctant to make sensible adjustments due to the hassle involved. There is also an implication that somehow budget changes mean that either the project was not planned properly and/or has not been well managed since, when adaptability is a key element of good management and it is impossible to plan projects to the last detail in advance.

The classic result, of which I have recent experience, is an under-performing project that is nonetheless under-budget. This ought to be an oxymoron, and is often put down to lack of (absorptive) capacity on the part of the grantee. But I think it speaks as much for the upside-down way in which we are forced to work, in which managing the inputs has become at  least as important, if not more important, than delivering the promised outputs. I, for one, would feel much more confident about strategically re-budgeting funds to ensure a project stays on track if I didn’t fear aggressive questioning later by the donor, and if I could feel confident that successful delivery of key outputs (or progress towards them if the output is particularly challenging) would inevitably lead to further funding to fill in gaps later on.

Alas, instead I am trapped in a Goldilocks budget management system which frowns upon anything which is either too hot or too cold, or just a bit different from what was on the menu, even if it’s that much tastier as a result.

A hypothetical proposition

Discussing my previous posts on the lack of donor success in stimulating serious governance reform in developing countries a friend asked, “So what’s the alternative?” Here’s how I think it could work if donors abandoned their posse-ocracy and actually got their act together, i.e. a purely hypothetical proposition.

It’s a form of  COD aid for GBS (that’s Cash on Delivery aid for General Budget Support for those not fully inducted into the development sector’s jargonology). You start by defining the general conditions under which you, a donor, are prepared to give GBS aid. You could do this based on national GDP, poverty rates, or following Andy Sumner’s recent conclusions (that most poor people are now found in middle-income countries), based on sub-national analyses. If you were sensible, you would define this on a marginal basis, like different income tax tiers that only apply to the amount of income above a certain threshold, so as to provide a smooth exit ramp out of GBS aid as countries (hopefully!) grow and reduce poverty amongst their citizens, although there would probably be a minimum amount ($10 million?) below which you just wouldn’t bother to disburse GBS aid to a country at all.

The important thing is that you make these same rules apply to all developing countries across the world, irrespective of previous national ties and other ‘strategic’ considerations. Thus any developing country with an interest in GBS (the juiciest form of aid) can instantly work out how much it could be in line to receive straight into their treasuries. Yummy! But, aid recipients have lots of different donors to bargain with, so you need to all agree on what are your conditions, and these should apply to all donors who join the system.

There could be certain minimum requirements, e.g. basic democracy; if you don’t meet these then no iced lolly, I mean GBS. But many other governance requirements could be handled through proportional reductions. E.g. if, as OECD DAC appear to, you really believe that a giant work of fiction entitled National Poverty Reduction Strategy is important, then you could say that not having one reduces the maximum GBS available by 10%. Such conditions could even have a temporal dimension, e.g. in year 1 you have to write the NPRS, so no reduction, but you lose 10% in year 1 if it’s still not written, and this could increase to 20% in year 2 etc. Of course, as any blogger knows, good story-tellers need to be kept in gainful employment, so you should also demand the NPRS be updated every so often (5 years?), and the penalties are reinstated if you don’t keep up with this process.

More usefully you could make sliding-scale conditions around financial management processes, audits, democratic oversight of budgets and the like. Some could even work in reverse; extra iced lollies for the best behaved! Some conditions will be general and widely applicable, others may be specific to the developing country concerned. E.g. developing countries who let big corruption scandals go unpunished in the courts would lose their GBS.

The big benefit of this system would be that developing countries would have a clear set of goals, and remove the usual messy negotiations surrounding renewal of GBS. Earlier this year Malawi had its GBS from the UK suspended due to increasing authoritarianism; with well-designed rules this might have translated into a gradual withdrawal, plus a clearer understanding on the part of President Mutharika as to the road that he was heading down and the implications of doing so. Like Saddam Hussein and his WMD, developing countries often believe they can snub their donors to little effect, and only discover too late when they are wrong.

Moreover developing countries would have a clearer view of how they are faring against their peers, with the knowledge that those who reform most effectively will get the most the cash. Conversely, if there are insufficient reformers, donors need to be strong enough willed to simply use the money to pay down their national debts, and stop the nonsense that just because money has been put on the table that it has to be used. All society is built around rules-based systems, and in every walk of life we see the benefits of this approach and the clarity it brings. Why should development aid be any different?

There are two big dangers I can see with this my hypothetical proposal. One, which it shares with the rest of COD aid, is the need for rigorous independent processes to determine when conditions have been met. For national level governance controls this is always going to be a politically fraught process, and there will probably be more grey areas than the simpler deliverables that mostly are suggested as targets for COD aid, but I don’t see that this has to be a show-stopper so long as the political will can be found, and donors do not break ranks at the first sign of trouble.

Secondly there is a danger of development by blueprint. The design of the various conditions would need to be smart enough to allow for local flexibility and adaptability in how they are implemented without compromising on the essential governance improvements that are sought. I would imagine the conditions would need plenty of tweaking as we went along. But arguably donors are already doing this, pushing things like the World Bank’s Medium Term Expenditure Framework, and the basics of sound financial management cannot vary much with social setting.

Finally, I would also note that such an approach might not be very clever in the most fragile states where political compromise is the critical criterion against which all policies will need to be judged, and where a certain amount of leakage through patronage networks an unpleasant but necessary price to pay for peace. As the recent example of Afghanistan shows us, determining when to move to a more normal treatment of such issues is a very tricky judgement call to make.

Aid effectiveness and governance experts have probably already dreamt up such a system, spotted the flaws in it, and discarded it, but if so I haven’t read about it. (This says more about my reading habits than anything else.) But when even the normally upbeat Owen Barder is moved to say “The development sector is in a mess.” I am inclined to think that almost anything is better than the status quo and needed if we are to sustain political support for aid in donor countries. Unfortunately the status quo is real, and all of the above is purely hypothetical.

How bad do you want it?

Addict in need of a fix (Trainspotting)

A passenger in need of a giving-fix on the governance reform train

Matt Andrews has questioned in a series of posts (culminating in this) the imposition of best practice in governance by blueprint. He suggests that many such reforms fail at the implementation stage because essentially they were not wanted here. This is an important argument to make, but itself is a simplified narrative of what I suspect is often a complex and contested policy making process.

For a start, I suppose many if not most governance experts well understand the need for contextualisation and local adaptation, but since most governance reforms will be resisted by local political elites (as the reforms are likely to undermine their grip on power), the outside experts are likely to face a dearth of suitable local interlocutors to advise them on how, practically, to achieve workable reforms.

Secondly, just because local political elites do not want to undertake a given reform, does not mean there are no local stakeholders who do not desire best practice in governance reforms. The growth of civil society in developing countries, often sponsored somewhat by external donors, has created a powerful constituency in favour of improved governance. Sometimes they may even be sufficiently powerful to ensure some kind of reform actually sticks. More often, and more likely, they will complain loudly enough to prevent dodgy legislation from passing, but be relatively powerless to push for its full implementation.

Ironically, such actors, in declaring the best the enemy of the at-least-slightly-better, may not always appreciate the harm they are potentially doing to their cause. If the proposed constitution which Zimbabweans rejected in 2000 after strong campaigning by MDC had been passed, then Robert Mugabe would have reached his term limit last year; instead the MDC are still stuck with him. Nonetheless, as with the democracy versus authoritarianism debate, it is hard to tell such activists that just because their country is poor they cannot enjoy high standards of governance. That’s about as insulting and patronising as it gets!

However, there is an even stronger argument to be made here. Andrews gives us the example of the introduction of International Accounting Standards (IAS) in Bangladesh as a potentially classic case of reform by blueprint over-reach*. One argument advanced in favour of IAS is that this is important to attract international investors. Well now, businessmen are pretty much accustomed to following the money, so I would suggest that either they’re not that desperate for that kind of investment, or there are enough alternative investors close at hand (from India?) who are ready enough to invest in Bangladeshi businesses without demanding IAS. Meanwhile, if the donors want IAS so that they can have greater confidence that their grants and loans are being properly spent, well then they just have to set firm enough conditions.

To give another example, a complaint much heard these days with regards to the European sovereign debt crisis, is that of the tyrannical grip of the markets over proper democratic rule over nation states. The simple retort is that if you do not want to be dictated to by the markets, then do not borrow from them (or at least do not borrow so much), and, in the end, it is likely that most if not all countries in crisis will sooner or later undertake a good part of the reforms that the markets are asking for – with or without default – simply because if they do not, then the cost of future borrowing will be ruinous.

In contrast, international aid donors are much more forgiving. For all the pesky conditions they put on their money, they primarily want to keep on giving, because that is their function in life. Moreover, even if some donors eventually run out of patience and withhold funds, another donor often quickly steps in. It is true that the rise of non traditional (i.e. non-OECD) donors such as China and Brazil has made this problem harder, but nonetheless the firepower of Western donors (and strongly Western influenced donors like the World Bank) is such that I suspect they could seriously incentivise reform if they wanted it enough, and were prepared to stick together much more on these issues.

Thus, whilst the question for a Bangladeshi business seeking further investment is how badly does the business itself need it compared with the costs of implementing IAS, for the case of implementing IAS within the Bangladesh government, the question donors need to ask themselves, is how badly do we want it? After all, it is their money that they are giving out; they don’t have to give it if they don’t want to!

* Disclaimer: Like Andrews, I have no direct experience of development processes in Bangladesh.

Mainstream me

So I’ve been pondering a bit recently on the riddles of what gets mainstreamed and what doesn’t in aid, and how it gets mainstreamed. A lot seems to go wrong.


Here’s what I reckon should get mainstreamed, in rough order of importance:

  • Aid Effectiveness. I mean if you’re not effective why do you even bother? And yet large parts of the aid industry seem to resemble nothing more than a giant job creation scheme. There was a good reason why all those structural adjustment programmes recommended drastically slimming down government bureaucracies that are now propped up by so many aid projects.
  • Sustainability. Oh yeah I’ve said this all before. Can easily be filed under effectiveness.
  • Good Governance. Governance is all about the processes we go through to achieve other goals, so tackling it as a separate item or bolt-on extra is surely nuts. Someone, however, needs to tell that to some of the government officials around here, who recently I overhead praising the importance of training on good governance … if you don’t know when you’re stealing from the very people you’re supposed to be serving then time to get another job!
  • Environment (including climate change). I’m an environmentalist so of course I’m biased on this one. But environmental issues impose important limits on what is and what isn’t achievable (and sustainable!), and externalities are often and easily generated that impose on other people, who are likely to be at least as poor as those you’re trying to help.
  • Disadvantaged Demographics (i.e. gender, but a lot more besides). I’m not saying it ain’t important, just I think the above are, on average, more important.

And here’s one that does not deserve to be mainstreamed in its own right:

  • HIV / AIDS. I mean if it’s a workforce problem then it falls under Aid Effectiveness (constantly ill staff = unsuccessful project). Or if it’s a critical constraint in the target community then what the **** are you doing trying to implement some other kind of project?

Of course, as my argument on HIV/AIDS demonstrates, all these are contextual. Most education projects are unlikely to be constrained by environmental issues or to generate much in the way of environmental externalities, so gender is probably more important to consider, and vice versa for infrastructure development projects.


How things get mainstreamed is equally important. Check boxes belong with job creating bureaucracies but rarely have anything to do with reality.

I was recently discussing gender issues with some colleagues and, at first, my natural suspicion of the gender-trumps-everything agenda kicked in, and I suggested that it isn’t particularly central to the work we do. But then just as I was moving on to the “But of course we treat it as important … blah blah …”, it occurred to me that the reason that it isn’t a big issue for us is that our excellent field team are all to some extent sensitive to problems of women’s marginalisation, and attempt to mitigate them at each step in their fieldwork. (Not saying that our practices in this area couldn’t be improved, just that they’re not too bad.) I.e. we had actually mainstreamed gender issues in our work. It gives us precious little to fill in those blank spaces on grant application forms that ask how we address gender issues, but it works a lot better in practice than some tokenistic additional practice.

Climate change seems to be the next big candidate for ubiquitous demands for mainstreaming. In tackling this I really hope that other donors follow the lead of Comic Relief (a UK donor) who, in tackling climate change, I gather have said they don’t want to fall into the same old mainstreaming traps, and instead want their grantees to really walk the walk.

Is it too much to hope that the rest of  the aid industry might finally mainstream good mainstreaming practice?

The psychology of giving and the corruption double whammy

An excellent post by William Savedoff and Nancy Birdsall over at GCD on Cash on Delivery aid got me thinking. Talking about proposed preconditions to successful COD aid they say:

“Similarly, conditioning a contract on adequate financial controls assumes that it is better to control the use of funds by tracking where they go than to control the use of funds by verifying what they yield. … Any further eligibility conditions are likely to undermine the restructuring of the accountability relationships or to simply delay implementation.”

They are absolutely right. Proposing such pre-conditions struck me as the classic aid mistake of focusing far too much on process, which able bureaucrats can spin out ad infinitum, as opposed to outcome, which is what we all want to see. Essentially donors are suggesting that they’d prefer to see none of their money stolen through local corruption than any particular outcome achieved, although given that money leaks even from the best aid projects, really all they are doing is prioritising the enforcement of controls – so that they cannot be accused of lax oversight – over effective implementation.

A good example of this which filters down even to small NGOs is procurement policies. A friend of mine experienced actual cost increases (never mind all the wasted staff time) when the NGO where he works was forced to implement a comprehensive procurement policy, and we have recently come under pressure to put one in place. Yet we all know the simple truth: trusting – and being able to trust! – your staff is easily the best, most cost-effective solution to dodgy procurement. I also have heard of big NGOs with dedicated procurement officers nonetheless paying suspiciously high prices for certain items.

What this highlights to me is one of the most pernicious effects of corruption: the layers of red tape that are imposed in an attempt to stamp it out; what I call the corruption double whammy. Unfortunately they rarely stop the leaks.

Donors ought to be capable of realising this and rising above it, but for their paranoia about best practices and being caught with their pants down. For most donors, I assume, this is basically a fear of the political process: tolerating a certain amount of corruption tends not to go down to well, and it is likely that the cacophony of condemnation will drown out more level-headed arguments. Indeed it is something we can all relate to: if you give some money to a good cause you’d prefer they suffered a glorious failure than that they’d achieved something with some of your cash, and then stolen the rest.

Is there a way forward? Perhaps some donors could set aside at least some of their funds for perceived riskier projects in which outcomes were prioritised over process? At least if the potential problems, but also potential gains, are acknowledged up front that might help draw some of the sting from the almost inevitable damning exposé when it comes.

My ideal donor

I just received a delightful email from a chap who was setting up a new grants scheme for somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. He had read my rant entitled Preposal Prepostery, and wanted to know what advice I would give to a donor wanting to do the right thing. My dream come true: a chance to design the ideal donor! Smile

Here are ten tips I gave him. Please suggest more in the comments, and I’ll pull the best together into a second piece.

  1. Offer funding that is presumed to continue (unless there is a bad evaluation or something) rather than presumed to stop (but where you can apply for follow-on funds). Obviously your ability to do this will be constrained by your own funder(s) – you don’t want to make promises you cannot keep – but maybe this is the kind of innovation which might make you more attractive if sold to them in the right way. This doesn’t mean promising to fund projects in perpetuity, but there should be a sensible strategy to achieve long term sustainability (handing over to the local government does not count!) either because need for the external assistance will eventually subside (e.g. farmers will have learned the new techniques being promulgated) or because alternative funding can be found. But these should be long term issues to be reviewed and gradually refined over the length of the project, not something to be dreamt up for the initial proposal.
  2. Give 100% funds upfront at the beginning of each year. If you feel the need to incentivise report production, do it through personal perks like invites to lesson-sharing workshops. Never let grantees suffer funding gaps!
  3. Keep budgets short. I reckon 10 different budget lines should generally be enough. Don’t demand ridiculous levels of detail in financial reporting, but do demand proper audits. Even ask to be consulted over the auditing process so you can ask auditors to look for specific issues of concern to you. (You might have to pay extra for that.)
  4. Don’t get too hung up on large proportions of budgets going on certain things. Maybe the grantee needs that. In particular a high % going on salaries might mean they are employing high calibre staff which is about the best indicator of success I can think of.
  5. Consider funding 6 month inception phases as a matter of course. After 3 months the grantee should submit a full project document setting out their plans in a lot more detail. This can be further negotiated, until satisfactory. Funds release beyond the 6 month inception phase is dependent upon a satisfactory agreement over the detailed project document. This can be repeated every year so long as the grantee has at least 3 months funds carry-over so they can keep on working in the meantime. Major asset purchases should be held off until after the inception phase. Inception phases are really useful where you’re not sure about an applicant: maybe they just don’t have the writing skills to prepare a good application, and you can offer support to the applicant to this phase, assessing for yourselves what needs to happen. Conversely don’t demand highly detailed proposals before the inception phase.
  6. Require applicants to complete a risk analysis together with how they intend to address these risks. This should be reviewed annually.
  7. Focus on impact / outcomes over outputs / immediate objectives. Grantees should clearly communicate what’s important; that way when things go wrong (as they always do) you can hope they focus on the impact and not on which outputs they promised to deliver.
  8. Beware of box ticking exercises. A logframe is no substitute for a clear strategy, and if you have a clear strategy the log frame is relatively unimportant. (Tho some people may find it useful in both formulating their strategy and communicating it.) Equally, SMART objectives are all very well but sometimes can get a bit silly, e.g. time-bound should simply be assumed to be by end of project unless otherwise stated. On the other hand they do force the indisciplined to get properly specific.
  9. Allow for free-form proposals with some suggested headings, making it clear applicants should feel free to add their own, and exclude any that are not applicable.
  10. Be very careful about your call for proposals: restrictive calls simply force people into straitjackets, writing proposals for what you want to fund rather than what they want to do. Even quite general restrictions can have this effect. E.g. I recently review applications for a small conservation grant which required applicants to include a local communications / outreach component. There were some good proposals which suffered from having this bolted on where it didn’t make full sense.

And here’s an eleventh I just thought of:

11. If you must demand certain issues be mainstreamed, then allow applicants to mark them as not applicable without that being a black mark against them.

Proposal Prepostery

We recently got a consultant’s report appraising a project proposal in which we’re a partner. The good news is that the donors are going to fund it, but they want a revised proposal. Apparently some fairly important issues were not clear to the donors which is fair enough. However, appraising consultants clearly believe they’re not earning their (very generous slice of) daily bread if they don’t write a long, involved report. So we’ve got a loooong list of issues to respond to, some of which are plain daft*, some querying things we were asked to do by the donors after they received the first draft, and others just go to show the consultants didn’t spend enough time checking issues, rehashing old concerns that were addressed a while ago.

But the biggest problem we had with the consultants’ approach was that it is VERY BUREAUCRATIC. We are constantly being told that they sense potential, innovative thinking amongst the partners etc., but then complain that it is not fully reflected in the project proposal. This seems to me to miss the wood for the trees. Surely, the point about this exercise is not to produce the perfect proposal, but to get the best project possible. If they think the partners have the right ideas who really cares about the project proposal? The consultants’ approach was exemplified in the following recommendation:

“Writing proposals for funding, and delivering to donors requirements, is an acquired skill, requiring recognition of the donors’ needs for accountability and monitoring. This proposal has clearly worked hard to achieve the necessary standard but some gaps remain. External support appears necessary to complete this proposal, and would also help [the  lead partner] and the partners to better manage future donor applications, reporting and partner relationships.”

Eh? Let me just get this right: you’re recommending we spend further lavish sums on you and your ilk so all the donors can wow themselves at our amazing use of the latest jargon and buzzwords? There was plenty more along these lines, e.g. suggesting one of our partners lacks the wherewithal to chair a meeting neutrally (so the consultants could do it for us!) which is just utter tosh.

On the other hand, we do have reason to be concerned as to the consultants’ expertise. One has negligible previous experience of the country in which we work whilst the other has never been involved in a project remotely like the one we were proposing.

So let’s be clear about this: if we want someone to give us some money then we need to explain clearly what it is for, that is self evident. Furthermore they have the right to hire an independent external evaluator to check on their behalf for any red flag issues. But, if a project has taken us months to plan, and incorporates lessons from a previous pilot phase, funded by one of the same donors, then in one week’s running around the country you are unlikely to understand every aspect sufficiently to offer detailed criticism. And it’s just plain rude to try making extra work for yourself when you’re paid so much more than the real innovators. Advice is welcome, self-promotion  and unfounded criticism not.

However, an equal responsibility lies with the donors who are responsible for the context in which said consultants are operating; if they didn’t demand such ridiculous levels of paperwork the consultants wouldn’t write reports like this. Donors could give more freedom and responsibility to in-country (i.e. embassy) staff to approve and support projects which they know are good without endless proposal tinkering. (Though for this to really work well, said embassy staff would have to stay for longer stints than 2-3 years.) They should also stop trying to influence small details in such projects (the consultants advocated a role for the donors on the project steering committee which is absolutely not going to happen), and instead have greater confidence in those they have chosen to fund. (Give them the rope to hang themselves if so be it.) No wonder developing country officials get so exasperated with donor meddling.

Sadly, I cannot imagine this situation changing very fast, so it’ll be back to that proposal in the new year …

* I’ve previously written about gender mainstreaming and conservation. Now, apparently, we have to mainstream health issues too despite the complete lack of relevance to the proposed project.

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