The Truth About Foreign Aid

NGO Cartoon

…That could be the title of a new 3-part BBC podcast, “The Truth About NGOs“. This documentary explores whether and how should NGOs be politically involved, as well as the consequences of having a large international NGO sector in a developing country. The first episode begins with a focus on Malawi, and how the LGBT rights movement has been buoyed by NGOs and their foreign donors. It’s an interesting piece, though this is not about “NGOs”, per se – it is also about the powerful influence of donors on their grantees, and even in this podcast, the politics of state-level aid are discussed. NGOs, the actors on the ground, are only one part of the puzzle.

The podcast is probably nothing new for NGO policy wonks – the discussion of whether organizations are influenced by or beholden to their funders and donors is an age old discussion. Same goes for failed, poorly designed and implemented development projects that never see the light of day and/or disappoint and anger communities. Or the notion that some NGOs only pay lip service to the notion of “participation” (the podcast actually defines “dragonfly skimming” and “helicopter consultancy.”)

In spite of going down some already well trodden paths, the podcast raises some interesting points concerning the role of NGOs in perpetuating the poverty they seek to alleviate. (I can already hear my aid/development colleagues’ feathers getting ruffled, but bear with me.) While this probably merits much more than a few sentences on this blog or a few minutes in a podcast, one of the more interesting notions explored by the podcast is the idea that international NGOs are “depoliticizing” poverty. ” I thought this line, by Firoze Manji, editor in chief of Pambazuka News, was spot on: “If the NGOs participate in the process of alleviating the nasty parts of becoming poor, they are actually colluding. It comes back to saying being brave enough to take on the “politics of impoverishement”. Either you fight that, or you’re part of the problem.”

The question posed at the end of the podcast is whether NGOs should focus on “on advocacy, on leverage, rather than delivery of aid.” What do you think? There are obviously circumstances where this might not make sense, in particular in emergency situations where NGOs provide life-saving aid. But beyond that, is advocacy, rather than aid delivery, the future of NGOs?

Listen to the podcast here.

Three Cups of …

threecups

An interesting controversy is erupting around Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, founder of the Central Asia Institute (CAI). A 60 Minutes investigation is alleging that part of his story in Three Cups of Tea is fabricated, and, that – more damningly – CAI has not accomplished all that it says it has and that the organization has been plagued by financial mismanagement. The 60 Minutes investigation sought to interview Mortenson, who declined. Apparently, though, they only contacted him at the very end of the production process and “ambushed” him after a talk to speak with him. In any case, this is bad news for Mortenson, who has been hailed as an inspirational figure for many years for his efforts promoting community-based education in some of the world’s toughest spots.

I don’t have cable and I can’t get 60 Minutes content in Canada, so I might not be able to watch it, unfortunately. There is no doubt in my mind that Mortenson’s organization is not perfectly managed. CAI’s 2009 financial statements show that $1.5 million was spent on advertising, while roughly $3.5 million was spent on actual “overseas projects” (H/T Saundra and Cynan). The statement also shows that only $35,000 went towards teacher salaries – with about 145 schools, if my math is correct, that is about $240 per year, per school for salaries. Even in a poor country, even if there is only one teacher in each school, that is not a lot of money. There are other red flags. For example, the 2009 statement seems to be the only publicly available one, and the 60 Minutes investigation points out that schools that CAI claims it built do not exist.

All of these allegations are really damning for Mortenson and CAI.

Here’s my two cents. I hope that there will be a real opportunity for Mortenson and CAI to explain themselves and offer reasonable explanations for the allegations put forth by 60 Minutes. This is also a great opportunity for the organization to improve its practices, and grow from the experience. Because, after all, while it may be true that some schools don’t exist (or, as this photographer notes, are not being used), while it may be the case that CAI has been badly mismanaged, the reality is that thousands of children in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been able to receive an education thanks to CAI. We can be cynical and critical, and demand that CAI explain itself and improve its operations and transparency, but we can’t take away these achievements.  I hope that we can take a positive, constructive approach rather than a hostile one. I hope that the outcome of the 60 Minutes controversy is a better, improved CAI, and not a ridiculed and shamed Mortenson.

Update, Monday 04/18: This document outlines the responses of CAI’s board to questions asked by CBS producers. To me, most of the answers reflect an idiosyncratic management and governance style, not unsurprising for a small NGO. Fair enough. Two things though really stood out for me. One, is the board claims that they are “unaware of any organization qualified to undertake” and independent assessment of their work. How is that possible? Mortenson and staff must have – at the very least – ran into NGO workers whose job is to evaluate development projects. The board is either dishonest about this, or they are very worryingly uninformed and oblivious. Two, is the fact that said board only has three members, and one of them is Mortenson himself. There is no excuse for not having a more established board, other than being obsessive about retaining control over “your” organization. With a budget in the millions, and nearly two decades of existence, it’s unacceptable to have such poor governance and oversight. (H/T Saundra for noting the size of the board)

Enumerating saddles

The Duke of Wellington was snarky

Nestled between the foreword and the introduction of this Andrew Natsios essay on counter-bureaucracy (it’s much more interesting than the tile suggests), is what I believe is the world’s first recorded instance of people in the field complaining about the bureaucratic demands from their colleagues at headquarters. I’m sure that today many field officers feel equally as burdened by reporting and short-term management constraints. The message is pitch-perfect.

Gentlemen,

Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the
approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been
diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by
His Majesty’s ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch
to our headquarters.
We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles,
and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s
Government holds me accountable.  I have dispatched reports on
the character, wit and spleen of every officer.  Each item and
every farthing has been accounted for with two regrettable
exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.
Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains
unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there
has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of
raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm
in western Spain.  This reprehensible carelessness may be related
to the pressure of circumstance, since we are at war with France,
a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in
Whitehall.
This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request
elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so
that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over
these barren plains.  I construe that perforce it must be one of two
alternative duties, as given below.  I shall pursue either with the
best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

1.) To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for
the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London or,
perchance…
2.) To see to it the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your most obedient servant,

Wellington

—Attributed to the Duke of Wellington, during the
Peninsular Campaign, in a message to the British
Foreign Office in London, 11 August 1812.1

on entrepreneurship and NGOs

The Niapele office in Liberia

This post is in response to – or rather, a disgression on – Tom’s post a couple of weeks ago on his blog A View from the Cave. These are my thoughts, unadulterated, on the topic of whether “one person can create change.” I’m sure there are plenty of contradicting, conflicting ideas you’ll read below. This is a topic I care about and think about a lot, and my thoughts are still evolving. Please, please do comment and challenge me where you think I’m wrong.

***

Tom, over at A View From The Cave, recently wrote a post pondering why it seems (and sometimes is) so easy for aid industry outsiders to enter the aid world. This is part of a broader discussion which has been unfolding for a few months on Twitter (and elsewhere since forever), about the role of volunteers and non-professionals in humanitarian aid and development.

I generally agree with J. from Tales from the Hood that development and aid should be left to professionally trained and capable people. I also agree with nearly 100% of what is written on the superb “Good Intentions are Not Enough” blog. In Tom’s post, he wonders why it keeps happening – why do well-intentioned but untrained people think they can create change successfully?

It’s an excellent question, one worth asking in the age of E-Z charity. One thing that I find striking, though, when I peruse the reactions of aid professionals, is the general unwillingness to believe in the capacity of individuals to have not just good intentions, but also a valid framework for taking action.

As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on whether small-scale, grassroots initiatives and NGO entrepreneurs are qualified or able to make a positive impact. I’m always taken aback by how aid professionals so easily write off these efforts. Particularly given the huge diversity that this field represents, and given that they are often the same people who are the most powerful critics of their own industry. If change is so slow to occur within the industry itself, what’s so wrong with working on the periphery of it?

***

There is a paradoxical aspect to aid workers criticizing outsiders, since they often are the first ones to pick apart faulty projects and obsolete mindsets in their own industry. Recent, select thoughts from industry insiders:

“INGOs may do many good things, but they are basically not structured to deliver effective aid to the poor. They are structured achieve and maintain their own existence. And while it is easy to want to point at the large household charities as examples, it is no less true of the smaller ones.”

“I don’t know of a major disaster where, six months later, commitments had been fulfilled and serious progress made. That alone should make it obvious that this is not a bug in the system, but a feature – and that feature is the persistent exclusion of affected communities even while the language of inclusion is spoken.”

Aid shares features with pretty much any other professional field of activity:

  • A powerful, resource-rich industrial complex exists at the center. It includes state actors (donor governments and development agencies) and non-state actors (large INGOs; the UN and its agencies). Together, they form the “establishment.”
  • The existence of a well-established industry inevitably give rise to reactionaries; people for who innovation and risk-taking outside the boundaries of their world are heresy because they threaten the status-quo.
  • People both within and outside the establishment are seeing cracks in the system’s architecture: whether it be ill-conceived projects, lack of transparency, mis-allocation of funds or outdated operating procedures. As a result, innovation (good and bad) occurs at the margins.
  • Interestingly, it is often the same people who are the harshest critics of their own industry who are also the ones who dismiss outsiders’ efforts to break free from the prevailing M.O.

***

I should be clear that I do not – at all, ever – condone amateurish work. Whether it be in aid or any other field, it’s difficult to think of instances where dilettantes are better equipped than trained professionals. I think we need large, well-established professional NGOs with the resources (financial, human, institutional and otherwise) to do things that no single person or entrepreneur can accomplish on their own. So, with this caveat, let’s talk about why I think entrepreneurship in aid is important and why efforts in that space should be encouraged.

Sure, no single person can create long-lasting change, and successfully developing an aid project or organization takes a special kind of person and a real commitment. But if we stifle the creativity and wherewithal of entrepreneurs before they even have the opportunity to try – and potentially fail – then change isn’t going to happen, at all.

***

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that when a bunch of crazy French doctors decided to create Doctors without Borders during the Biafra war, everyone around them must have thought they were absolutely off their rockers.

What about Henri Dunant, the idealistic businessman whose disgust with the horrors of Napoleonic wars lead to the creation of the Red Cross? (Did you catch that? Henry Dunant was a businessman with no experience in anything remotely connected to humanitarian aid)

There are several types of aid entrepreneurs; a fact that sometimes seems to get lost on critics and supporters of NGO entrepreneurs alike. Not everyone is an Henri Dunant, Bernard Kouchner or Greg Mortenson, obviously – there are also the Jasons of this world, the soles4souls and and one of my personal favorites, little pillow dresses. These are the types of initiative that are, essentially, purely fueled with good intentions. No research or real thought has gone into creating these initiatives. I have yet to see an aid professional be involved with one of these initiatives, and whenever they do chime in, aid workers are scolded for being elitist and belittling the pure motives of said initiative.

***

But then there are also many brilliant, creative, intelligent people who hail from various backgrounds and industries who have jumped into the fray. To name a few organizations who emerged from the efforts of non-aid workers but who distinguish themselves from the aforementioned amateurs by their quality:

  • Solar Sister: Founder Katherine Lucey was an investment banker for 20 years before starting to work on how to empower women through market based solutions
  • The GO Campaign: Founder Scott Fifer was a Hollywood TV and film screenwriter and former Wall Street attorney and U.S. Senate aide. The GO Campaign funds local, grassroots projects in Africa that have a direct impact in communities.
  • Forge: Founder Kjerstin Erickson started this NGO when she was a junior in Stanford. FORGE has implemented over 60 community development projects that have served more than 70,000 refugees in the four refugee camps in Zambia & Botwana. An official Operating Partner of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), FORGE works in Zambia, hand-in-hand with refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan.

***

This question of the value of NGO/non-profit entrepreneurs is something I think about every day and affects me personally. About three and half years ago, towards the end of my masters program, I spent two months volunteering in a refugee camp in Ghana (gasp! horror! are you still going to read the rest of this blog, or have I been catalogued as a poser?)

In spite of the fact that I had no training in community health, I was asked to create a health education curriculum for children ages 5 through 18 who were students at the Carolyn A. Miller school, the only tuition-free school in a refugee settlement of 40,000. I remember feeling ill equipped to handle the task I had been assigned, and that’s a real understatement, trust me. Thankfully, by relying on the expertise of local doctors, nurses, health workers and community members, I was able to develop a basic health curriculum that the school I was assigned to was able to implement. After two months living and working with this community, when I left, I felt compelled to continue being engaged with them.

The Niapele office in Liberia

I never set out to create an NGO; it wasn’t part of my plans. I wanted to find a way to continue working with a community that really touched me and I felt close to. I didn’t want to just give money and hand-outs; I wanted to avoid creating the situations of dependency which I kept coming across, over and over again, during my time there. Along with my friend Celina Guich, we set out to develop a model that would allow us to work with the community we had grown close to.

Fast forward three years, and I’m the director of a small international NGO, The Niapele Project. We partner with community-based organizations and local leaders in Liberia to help them implement programs that seek to improve the livelihoods of war-affected youth. You can learn more about our work here, here or here.

[It’s always interesting to see how people react to Niapele. A majority of regular civilians (read: non-aid/development crowd) are very supportive, and generally “impressed.” This is something which has been written about in Tales from the Hood before, but this feeling makes me a bit uncomfortable: I don’t feel like I’m a saint or really all that amazing or creative for doing this. There are tons of other people out there whose creativity, passion and talent exceed my own and are involved in some truly impressive projects on the periphery of the aid/humanitarian industrial complex (see the few examples mentioned above).]

***

What I’m asking for is that we, as the aid/development community, recognize that innovation outside or on the periphery of the established industry is a good thing. For every successful initiative, there will be ten really crappy ones. But that’s how it works – entrepreneurship is inherently risky, and it’s not because one thinks they have are a good entrepreneur that they actually are one. But we have to accept these negative dimensions to reap the benefits of change brought about by the entrepreneurs who know what they’re doing.

What’s the alternative?  Let it be known that even though the aid industry has profound flaws and is fundamentally unsustainable, innovation on the outside is discouraged?

Not every new idea is going to be a good idea, of course. There are plenty of duds out there, and stupid people with bad ideas aren’t going away any time soon. What’s apparent to me is that social entrepreneurship is a reflection of people’s desire to DO something, and do something more than write a check or send old shoes/blankets/books/etc. It’s also a product of (sometimes legitimate, but not always) frustration both within and outside the aid system. This is why we see ideas like 1 million shirts crop up. Well-intentioned people, but without the practical or theoretical knowledge needed to drive a successful initiative, will give it a go. This is inevitable.

***

The real question, for me, is how do we support the kind of innovation that does create positive change, all the while weeding out all the useless and potentially harmful amateurish initiatives?

***

I completely understand why aid amateurs irk the professionals. I’m lucky to have a vantage point at both the micro level, outside the humanitarian/aid/development industrial complex, and within it. I’m constantly surprised by how often I come across seriously flawed ideas, shoddy implementation and pure self-interest and aggrandizement. And let it be known that all this happens with large, established NGOs and the smallest initiatives.

On global hunger & food security

I just wrote a two-part series on the changing landscape of international food aid for UN Dispatch – you can read part one here and part two here.

Rice fields in Bong County, Liberia

Only a few hours after I filed my posts on food aid, I found out that Owen Barder’s latest podcast for Development Drums was an hour-long interview with Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, about their new book “Enough: why the world’s poorest starve in an age of plenty“. I was a bit nervous to listen to this after having written for UN Dispatch, but I was relieved that I seemed to have covered some of the main points these experts make in their book.

If the Development Drums podcast and my recent posts aren’t enough to satisfy your hunger on this topic, here are a couple links of interest:

Ending Africa’s Hunger, September 2009, The Nation. This well-researched, in depth article is a searing critique of the Gates Foundation’s work on agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s an interesting take on the way in which agricultural development is being pursued by philanthropic and private sector actors, and the implications of current strategies. I frequently refer back to this article, which I find offers a unique perspective on hunger and food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Smallholder farmers hold the key to food security, February 2010, Business Daily. Great piece on how smallholder, rural farmers have historically been overlooked by national agricultural and development policies, and how they could be leveraged to increase food security.

The podcast is here. You can also subscribe to it for free in Itunes. These hour long, in-depth discussions led by Owen Barder are highly recommend for anyone interested in development policy.

Change (ing the world)?

Interesting exchange this past week with @transitionland on Twitter. She asked:

“Does *anyone* really say “I want to save the world”? I’ve never said that. Ever.”

What immediately came to mind is that probably only Bono wakes up every morning to that thought. Actually, he probably doesn’t just think about wanting to save the world, but likely believes he is already well on his way to accomplishing that goal (but that’s a different story/rant).

Bono - saving the world?
Bono - saving the world?

This spawned a discussion about the different perceptions of the possibility of change – what constrains it, what fuels it and why. Mind you, all in 140 character bites. It got me thinking a bit about change and political systems – how different cultures understand change and evolution at the macro level.

In 2008, Americans elected Barack Obama, whose main campaign rallying cry was : “Change we can believe in”. Let’s not talk about whether things have actually changed since his election – rather, I wanted to touch on the way in which Americans construe the possibility of change. 

The belief in the “American Dream” rests upon the assumption that social, political and economic mobility is not only possible, but within the reach of each individual. As Alain de Botton put it in a recent TED talk, in individualistic societies – such as the U.S. – people own their successes as well as their failures. Knowing that your situation can evolve, that hard work pays off, is only as liberating as it is anxiety-inducing: when you struggle to make ends meet, or are on the verge of bankruptcy, it is distressing to think and be told that your failure to succeed is your own fault. There seems to be a pervasive notion in the U.S. that the principles upon which institutions have been founded are not only absolute and timeless, but also designed to create the most advantageous environment for individuals to thrive in.  The fact that the U.S. emerged from the 20th century as the dominant world power, and that, at home, incredible wealth was derived from innovation and entrepreneurship, gives credence to this idea.

Interestingly, though, this fervent belief in the malleability of one’s life does not translate in the realm of institutions – at least not American ones. Indeed, Americans are extremely attached to the structures laid out in the Constitution, as well as to the institutions that have shaped American life for over two centuries now. Since the Constitution was adopted in 1787, there have been a total of 27 amendments to it – 10 of them, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were ratified at the same time as the Constitution itself. The 17 amendments that followed mostly “expand individual civil or political liberties, while a few are concerned with modifying the basic governmental structure drafted in Philadelphia in 1787.”

(In contrast, France has known five Republics since 1789 – each with its own constitution. The last revision of the French constitution, in 2008, modified 39 of the 92 articles, created nine new ones, and repealed three constitutional provisions. Only 32 of the 92 articles have not been modified since 1958, when the Constitution was adopted. Compare this to the 27 changes the U.S. Constitution has known in 220 years of existence, and that gives you a sense of the trust Americans place in their system.)

I was an undergraduate during the time the U.S. launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I remember discussing whether “Western-style democracy” could take root in those places, and what would make this more – or less – likely. Almost invariably, arguments about a country’s prior experience of democracy would come up, with the implication that nations with a history of democracy are more amenable to introducing and upholding the institutional changes necessary for democracy to flourish. 

I always thought this line of argument was short-sighted. Democracy – or, rather, the democratic/liberal model – only truly began to take root in Europe following centuries of authoritarianism. The last two and half centuries have profoundly changed the way in which Western societies function. Without retracing the complex and rich history of Western political thought, the Enlightenment, and what Nietzsche called the “death of God“, had a lot to do with shaping the intellectual and political framework for monumental changes to occur in Western societies. 

The transformation of the West from authoritarian, dogmatic, stratified societies to what we have today took place over long stretches of time. Indeed, it takes decades, if not centuries, for profound changes like the ones experienced by countries such as France, Germany, the UK or the U.S. to take root. Which is why, when it comes to development and democratization, we have to take the long view and recognize that while it is possible for nations and countries to experience and sustain systemic political, economic and social transformations – as exemplified by the evolution of Western societies over the last 250 years – these processes take time. 

In the age of globalization, where expectations of instant gratification (and of instant everything) are the norm, it is easy to become cynical about our ability to affect change and make a difference in the world’s less privileged places. For those working in international development/aid/human rights, it can be particularly disconcerting. The changes which are widely recognized as necessary (for example, the empowerment of women worldwide) cannot – and will not – happen overnight, no matter how many millions of dollars we throw at the problem. It can be very disconcerting for people in this field to spend years working on a project that depends on fickle funding cycles, while they themselves dependent on whether the project or initiative actually delivers quantifiable, measurable results. 

While I strongly believe that monitoring and evaluation is absolutely critical for ensuring accountability, there are often externalities created by a project that cannot be captured in a convenient Excel spreadsheet. While in recent years there have been more and more attempts at measuring social impact at the Bottom of the Pyramid, it is very hard to estimate the long term benefits (or negative impacts) of work that seeks to induce change. Ultimately, we are only able to measure incremental changes in development. The very notion of development rests on the assumption that there is a linear path to follow, from underdeveloped (or LDC, least developed countries), to developing (or middle income countries) to developed (or rich, industrialized nations).

Considering how long it took for Western societies to evolve, we should have a more humble approach to this – clearly, no one, not even Bill Gates and his billions, can create immediate, systemic change overnight. This isn’t to say that we should therefore be despondent and that efforts aimed at change are meaningless. Rather, I’m inviting readers – particularly the more cynical, jaded ones – to mull over the fact that initiatives aimed at change can (and most likely will) take generations to succeed. And that there is value even in very small, marginal changes. It is precisely these efforts that, over time, create the conditions necessary for social, political and economic evolution (revolution?) to occur. We needn’t be impatient, but we should be humble and acknowledge that initiatives carried out today may not have an immediate, game-changing impact. 

For the past half century or so, and through various channels, the democratic/liberal model has been pushed upon the parts of the world which have yet to adopt it. In the early 1990s, Western leaders seem to have all read and integrated the lessons from Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History“, in which he writes that the defeat of the USSR in the Cold War signaled the victory of the liberal democratic model. The so-called Washington Consensus led the Bretton Woods institutions and Western aid donors to push the developing world to adopt politicies that create the environment necessary for unfettered progress: lower barriers to trade, privatize industry and an insistence on macro-economic stability – all at any cost.

Today this one-size-fits-all approach to development has all but been rejected. What’s interesting about the failed Washington Consensus is that it makes quite clear that a country’s political and economic model cannot be forced or expected to change through policy prescriptions, however comprehensive and far reaching they may be.