Posts Tagged ‘Sphere standards’

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.

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.

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