Posts Tagged ‘NGOs of all sizes’

Burying criticism

Chris Blattman thinks that NGOs are atrocious in the way they bury criticism. This was his opinion given in response to a paper showing NGOs were twice as likely to want to work with outside, independent academics who appear to have an a priori view that is supportive of the sector in which they work (microfinance in the study) than they would if the a priori view was critical.

I work for an NGO and largely agree with the Blattman. Indeed this blog has covered NGO unconstructive responses to criticism before (here and here). I also like the study design which reminds me of those experiments where identical CVs were sent out but with different names on top to test latent racist attitudes. But I think there are some important points to make in response.

  1. As pointed out in a comment on Blattman’s post, in the study the negative treatment email’s opening sentence of paragraph 2 is pretty uncompromising: “Academic research suggests that microfinance is ineffective.” This blunt approach, which mirrors exactly the positive treatment email, unfortunately does not conform to social norms in how we express disagreement, which is usually hedged in a way to give due acknowledgement of the correspondent’s position. In short the negative email approach does not make them sound like great partners.
  2. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. We all struggle to deal with countervailing views. Science is littered with examples of where prominent academics of the time have suppressed publication of a paper that ran counter to their view of the world, only for it later to turn out the author was correct and the bigwigs wrong.
  3. NGOs live, work and fundraise in the real world, not some idealised planet populated by homo rationalis. The robust battle of ideas that lies at the heart of academic life may be the anomaly, not NGO responses to criticism. Inaccurate or inappropriate criticism can do a lot of damage to an otherwise successful programme. NGOs may conclude it is better to do their learning behind closed doors, and then change direction if appropriate, than to admit their failures. Like it or not, I suspect many of the most successful NGOs are probably those which more carefully burnish their reputations by controlling the release of bad news about their work.

However, in my view, none of the above constitute sufficient justification for the lack of openness amongst many NGOs in the conservation and development sectors. The time has come for admitting failure and other exercises in honest self-assessment and humility. Though the road may be tough, eventually we will all be stronger for it.

The importance of choosing the right tool for the job

Duh! I mean obvious or what? Except, as is well known, people equipped with only hammers often see too many problems as solvable purely by use of a hammer. International donor engagement with Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) has long struck me a case in point.

The international donors come armed with their hammer, which is money to support the government in the recipient country. This is primarily what big international donors do. They work often through diplomatic or pseudo-diplomatic channels. Aid should be channelled to the host government; anything else could be construed as meddling in someone else’s country. This is a pretty good hammer for things that the host country government is already good at, e.g. building new schools all over the country: the more money you pour in, the more new schools get built.

CBNRM has been just one of the sexiest concepts in conservation for about 30 years now. Even Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES), including REDD, hasn’t fully displaced it, just been added to the mix, since rich folk much prefer to pay those poster children of poverty porn – poor rural communities of farmers – for protecting their local environment than a bunch of shapeless bureaucrats. So plenty of donor investment in conservation in recent decades has focused on CBNRM. Except that, as I pointed out previously, the same government officials who are charged with enforcing local environmental laws do not really make the most sensible agents of change when it comes to facilitating the development of CBNRM projects.

Now along comes a World Bank report critiquing participatory approaches to development. It includes a substantial section on CBNRM, which is certainly pleasing to see. The main conclusion is that the majority of CBNRM projects do not appear very successful; depending on how they interact with existing policies and laws they may even be counter-productive, helping the rich at the expense of the poor. Now I am familiar to some extent with some of the CBNRM projects they are talking about (or citing others talking about), and I noticed one thing in common: they were all classic international donor funded efforts, working through local government.

So yeah, I’m not particularly surprised by Messrs Mansuri and Rao’s findings, but I’m not convinced that it greatly undermines the theory of CBNRM so much as the practice in the context of international development aid. (Which one presumes was very much Mansuri and Rao’s starting point, given their employer, and is supported by their associated blog post. All of which is not to say the report is not worth a read.) Major donors, of course, employ some very bright people, some of whom have come to realise the same thing. Alas, while they would choose to fund us – a small NGO – if they could, the only thing their employer ever gives them is a metaphorical hammer.

How not to measure progress

In the run up to the UNFCCC latest Conference of Parties (on now, don’t hold your breath!), the Farming First coalition released this infographic (excerpt below) showing progress towards integrating climate change into agriculture policy around the world. It’s a good cause, but I think the authors haven’t been reading my and others’ warnings about differentiating outputs and outcomes. Either that or they were desperate to find stuff to put in amidst all the stalling in official negotiations at the CoPs. How else to explain their choice to feature not just the first but all four ‘Agriculture and Rural Development Days’* as important milestones?


World Whatever Days can be useful in advocacy, but we have so many of them these days I really struggle to keep up and/or care. More critically, when you feature them in an infographic like this, I really have to question who are you aiming this at? To me this kind of communication reeks of an NGO’s need to impress donors, saying in effect “Look at all the good stuff we’ve spent your money on!” rather than engaging with other stakeholders on the real issues.

All of which is a real pity because you would be hard pressed to find two policy areas, especially in international negotiations, which are more screwed up right now than agriculture and climate change.

* Renamed as ‘Agriculture, Landscapes and Livelihoods’ in its latest incarnation.

Accountability and Overheads

Mike Jennings isn’t the only one concerned (and blogging) about accountability. Chris Blattman is peeved about excessive administration costs in humanitarian aid:

17% is an unfortunate expense but a rather common rate for administration, and even low by many standards.

It’s a requirement driven not so much by the multilateral donors, but a consequence of the fact that the giving public and governments have close to zero tolerance for misuse of funds.

This drives a Byzantine and expensive accounting system which partly reduces risk of misuse, and partly gives the multilaterals cover (“we did the best we could”).

This discomfit with misuse gets amplified by the press who tend to tend to report on graft and mismanagement more than success.

So the root cause is the failure of the public and donors to think about the high cost of extreme accountability.

I agree with much of what he says, and have experienced this directly. Having won a biggish grant from a bilateral donor to pilot an innovative new community conservation project, we were surprised to find them apparently more interested in the upgrades to our accounting system that we had promised. At one point I posed them the question: “Did you set out to fund a CBNRM project, or an NGO capacity building project?” Their response was that they considered the accounting system a bottom line requirement for a grant of this size.

I can sympathise with them. The least whiff of a scandal has the minister for international development phoning them up to find out what is going on, demanding answers as of yesterday.

However, as Chris Blattman points out, cost-effectiveness just goes out the window. For a particularly excruciating example of this, see this bizarre episode we experienced last year. Unfortunately, in my experience, the byzantine accounting systems are at best only a partial protection against fraud. (I’ve heard of a couple of examples of money gone missing in bigger NGOs of late.) And I would be prepared to bet that well run small NGOs (you can spot them amongst their briefcase counterparts because they deliver real impact), are probably the least susceptible to such failings due to the strong ethos and commitment that will permeate the entire organisation. (Greedy people tend to work elsewhere where the salaries are higher.)

To me this demonstrates the shortcomings of the bilateral donors in particular. We find the large trusts and private funds much more flexible and understanding of the challenges faced by a small but growing NGO.

Dave Algoso acutely observed last year that “increasing accountability will increase your overhead, every single time”. It seems this trade-off is here with us to stay. But maybe not. Owen Barder recently wrote about the need to move to a ‘post-bureaucratic’ aid system. Aid that is conditioned on results not management of inputs, i.e. contracted like a business, could do away with a significant chunk of this accountability versus overheads tension. (I think it would be naively over-optimistic to expect it to do away with it all.) In a business relationship, you do not worry if, for example, there is a case of corruption in your electricity supplier; you just pay for the electricity you get, and it is the power company’s job to sort out its accounting failures, and ultimately the shareholders loss.

If donors saw themselves more as commissioning agents, doling out money based on results achieved (Cash on Delivery) then the issues such as corruption and the appropriate level of overheads become just something for the service provider to manage.

We’ve got a long way to go, but here’s hoping!

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.

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.

The man in the street donor

Caveman Tom reckons I was too kind on donors with my recent post on how many NGOs we might need.

To be clear for a moment, normally when I talk about ‘donors’ on this blog I am referring to the big institutions (government aid departments, UN agencies, philanthropic trusts, and the like) who recruit professional staff to help them determine how they should spend their money. But in this case actually I was more talking about the man in the street, Joe Public if you will, who is persuaded to stick his hand in his pocket for some apparently worthy cause, usually based upon some NGO’s publicity. Almost without exception this literature grossly simplifies the actual problems that the NGOs are trying to address to convert it into the only message that arguably matters at that point: by getting out his wallet or chequebook the man in the street is making a difference. Even if it’s a small difference, is the implication, if enough men in the street do it then they’ll make a big difference.

Tom says of these donors’ ignorance:

“No, it is not their fault, but they need to start asking more questions and received better education.”

To which I say: carry on dreaming! There are so many issues out there in the world that we are called upon to adjudicate, that is frankly not possible to come close to a decent understanding on more than just a few. Just think about all those ethical product labels one encounters in an average shopping trip: e.g. fair trade bananas or organic bananas? I’d take the fair trade ones any day, but there’s a whole tonne of issues to unpack in making just that one decision.

If many people vote in elections (if they vote at all!) simply for the party that their parents voted for (with little further analysis) what hope can we have that they will want to read up on effective means to alleviate poverty? All these NGOs marketing departments might be immensely frustrating to field staff (ref any one of J from the ‘Hood’s rants), but the guys working for them aren’t stupid; they know that a simple picture of a starving child works far better than a bucketful of prose on the developmental tensions between settled crop cultivators and semi-nomadic pastoralists.

So yes, while it infuriates me no end that big institutional donors continue to make the same basic mistakes time after time, I am rather more phlegmatic over the man in the street donor. If we want to influence their giving then, it seems to me, then we have to make it as simple as possible to differentiate between the quality of NGO’s work. Sam Gardner’s suggestion that the Sphere standards could form the basis for such a ranking in the humanitarian aid sector is thus particularly intriguing.

If we could truly all agree on such a rigorous method for comparing the achievements of different NGOs (with a cost-benefit ratio factored in), and then widely publicise that as a basis for making funding decisions, then that would be fantastic. But is it really in the interests of BINGOs who already have very successful fundraising campaigns? One can be optimistic, and appeal to the idealism of most NGO staff, and suggest that they should commit their NGOs to this now, but what will happen when the first big NGO gets a significantly sub-par score? Suddenly the excuses about the complexity of development will rain down thicker than ever.

Joe Public is often quite happy to be sold stuff that s/he knows is bad for her/him, e.g. a Big Mac, on the basis that it might taste good and any way all their peers are eating them. So I think one faces an insuperable task in attempting to persuade them that their do-gooding donation might actually do some harm. I would keep up the campaign against SWEDOW – as it has a simple message – but apart from that I wouldn’t get our hopes up too high. Sometimes we just have to accept things as they are. Institutional donors, on the other hand, deserve all the excoriation they get and more.

ps. That I previously suggested that appealing to the voter in achieving the necessary reforms to bilateral donors is another one of the contradictions in which we live.

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