The Truth About Foreign Aid

…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.

on entrepreneurship and NGOs

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.

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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?

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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.

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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).]

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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?

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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.

This & that

– On Monday March 1st, reports surfaced about violent incidents occurring in Liberia near the border with Guinea, allegedly pitting Mandingo (primarily Muslim) against Loma (primarily Christian) people. It’s absolutely impossible to understand what actually happened, as every single news story contradicts the other, and often are peppered with inaccuracies (as a side note, this speaks to the importance of strengthening local media organizations there, because their job is crucial, and people cannot possibly be well-informed when headlines read things like “Lofa Explodes – Religious and Tribal Tensions Burst in Flames and Death“). Shelby Grossman attempts to piece it together here. Sadly, the international media coverage simplifies the issue as Christians against Muslims – while this is obviously part of the story, it’s only one dimension of a very complex pattern of conflict and cohabitation between these groups in northern Liberia. Don’t be fooled by oversimplifications and intellectual shortcuts…

Continue reading This & that

Getting it wrong

A recurrent theme in international development is the issue of measuring and reporting aid effectiveness – this topic gets a lot of buzz, and rightly so. Especially in an age of fiscal constraints, it is ever more important to deploy funding to projects that work. There’s a lot of debate about whether official development aid is more effective than chanelling funding through small local NGOs, big international ones, or something in between. What I find baffling is that a lot of people are willing to say that one is the better alternative – personally, I think that there are some government agencies, some NGOs (large/small) that are good at handling aid money, and others that aren’t. Dismissing one model for the other doesn’t make any sense, given how heterogenous the group is. 

As the excellent blog Good Intentions are Not Enough points out, one of the main problems with aid agency/NGO reporting is the fact that negative findings are often swept under the rug, or spun into a positive narrative because these agencies are afraid of jeopardizing their sources of fuding. The problem is that funders often don’t have the capacity to closely monitor/evaluate the impact of their donation, and rely on reporting from their grantee… Which is obviously problematic, for a number of reasons. Even if the grantee outsources evaluation to a third party, the results that filter back to the donor aren’t always guaranteed to accurately reflect reality. There’s also the issue of overstating a crisis or situation to attract funding, another dangerous and unsustainable practice. Organizations and agencies that receive aid are all actually competing for resources – they are, after all, entities that employ staff etc. and whose own existence depends on the existence of a need, a crisis, a situation that has to be addressed. It’s no wonder that they tend to overstate, spin, or misreport the facts to their donors – for some, it is a matter of organizational survival. 

It makes it complicated to evaluate the effectiveness of aid in this context: not only do you generally have to contend with insufficient monitoring mechanisms at the project level, which make it difficult to know whether any quantifiable objectives are met, but there are also all these qualitative dimensions that come into play. The straightforward elements of evaluating aid effectiveness can sometimes be overshadowed by subjectivity – the reputation of an organization, who’s on the board,  its ability to serve beneficiaries at scale…etc. And let’s not forget the highly political nature of official development aid – the fact that Israel, Egypt, Colombia and Pakistan are the countries which receive the most American official development aid (ODA) is a telling fact (not counting Iraq and Afghanistan.) To genuinely evaluate the effectiveness of aid, we shouldn’t just be looking at the glossy quarterly and year end reports. For some well-entrenched organizations and agencies, the validity of their model, of their projects is barely questioned.

Interestingly, when it comes to ODA, there seems to be a correlation between the degree of aid dependency and lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the recipient government. (“The Open Budget Survey reveals that those countries performing least well in terms of budget transparency practices share certain characteristics, including lower income levels, dependence on foreign aid, reliance on revenues from hydrocarbon extraction, and weak democratic institutions.”) For a lot of these countries, ODA is their principal lifeline, and to stop the flow of funds would probably have catastrophic consequences for the population (actually, that is an assumption – would be interesting to find out what impact lower levels of ODA would have on a country like Liberia)

The whole “aid effectiveness” debate is rather obscured, in my opinion, by political and subjective factors – how can we effectively evaluate the impact of aid when aid disbursements themselves aren’t based on genuine levels of need, but rather on how well the agency, organization or government is able to convince donors of that need. Whether one looks at ODA, or funding for agencies/NGOs carrying out development activities in low income countries, we’re never going to be serious about “aid effectiveness” until we look at the full process, from needs assessment to expost evaluation.

Until we are able (willing?) to do so, we’ll have to accept a certain degree of inefficiency when it comes to aid. It’s not a perfect system, far from it, but the fact that such vigorous debate exists around development aid – in all of its forms – is a hopefully a sign that, as time goes by, we’ll be much more sophisticated when it comes to efficient aid allocation, monitoring and evaluation.

Apparently, World Vision in Liberia didn’t get that memo.

A disturbing example of large scale corruption within NGOs just emerged in Liberia. Astonishingly, 90% of World Vision’s aid to Liberia went missing – they lost $1mm as their project managers were selling food and using construction materials that were supposed to benefit Liberians (World Vision was a sub-grantee for food distribution and food-for-work projects.)

World Vision calculated that $884,681 worth of food was missing, with a total loss, including ocean freight expenses to ship the food to Liberia, of $1.45 million. 

The United States spent an additional $300,000 for construction materials, most of which were never used on the intended projects.

Unfortunately for World Vision, it means that their fundraising will suffer as a result – while this is obviously too bad for them and the beneficiaries of their other, functional projects, there is no reason why donors should not sanction World Vision for its lack of oversight. World Vision apparently employs 250 people in Liberia, which is quite significant – besides other international organizations or the government, there are few employers of this size in Liberia (hence the 85% unemployment rate…) and they’ve been operating there since the early 80s – it’s quite unbelievable and unacceptable that it took them 2 years  to uncover this massive fraud. 

I honestly have no idea how something of this scale could have occured – how is it possible that no one realized that 34 of the towns intended to benefit from this project didn’t exist? It really says a lot about WV’s management capacity and how (un)rigorous their internal monitoring mechanisms are. In addition, in a context of poverty, how could over a million dollars disappear discreetly? 

Quite apart from the fact that their Community Resettlement and Rehabilitation Project ended up being a massive failure because of this fraud, it’s also worth noting that their model of importing food from the United States for aid is a flawed approach – why not purchase locally and support the Liberian agricultural sector and its small-holder farmers? Owen Barder recently wrote  that instead of importing food aid to Ethiopia, cash transfers would be more effective in combating hunger (which makes a lot of sense, by the way: in doing so, you would reduce the cost of providing food aid). I suppose the risk here is that people may not use the cash for its intended purpose – but the counter-argument is that if the person would naturally use the cash for whatever is their greatest need, which hopefully doesn’t involve getting drunk at the local bar…(more about purchasing food aid locally here, and more about untying food aid here)

I have serious beef with this World Vision drama: not only did they fail the people of Liberia by botching the design and execution of its CRRP, but this is also going to contribute to increasing the distrust for organizations doing similar work. The “public relations disaster” mentioned by Kleinman is not limited to WV, but will have repercussions for other NGOs. Shame. 

Warning: shameless plug

As for The Niapele Project’s School Nutrition Initiative in Liberia, we just received a small grant from the GO Campaign to cover the start-up costs of the project. While we certainly don’t have the ability to operate at a scale quite like a large INGO, we’re still planning on feeding 600 kids/day during the upcoming school year. And we take monitoring seriously – in addition to having trustworthy program coordinators, we track the impact of the program through regular medical assessments. We’ll also be sourcing food items for the project from an agricultural co-op in Central Liberia which is run by a local grassroots organization, Malaya. While we don’t have the enormous budget, staff and long standing experience of World Vision in Liberia, Niapele’s work in Liberia is guided by an honest assessment of needs at the community level, and we believe that our small-scale impact will be long lasting. 

Not buyin’ it

From the Freakonomics blog:

According to this Reuters article, charitable contributions are down in the U.S. only “modestly” so far this year. But charitable giving, unlike the stock market, is a lagging indicator.

“That’s funny”, I thought. Because, from my perspective, charitable contributions have seriously decreased since September. If you actually read the Reuters article mentioned above, it becomes clear that the bulk of charitable funds available for non-profits is for programs in the US only. Which is fine, and it makes sense: hard times call for more solidarity with your compadres.

Not surprisingly, though, organizations doing work in the developing world are taking a hit – funds pledged are drawn out over longer periods of time, or have been retracted. In other cases, donors simply choose to divert their support towards domestic causes, or give a smaller proportion of their charitable contributions for foreign based programs. And, since I work for organizations doing work outside the US, I’m witnessing first hand the effects of this drop in funding: programs being cut, postponed, canceled.

It’s too bad, as a lot of work being done in poverty alleviation outside the US was reaping results – and, as these tough economic times are also affecting developing countries, support for vulnerable people and poverty reduction initiatives (broadly speaking) are ever more necessary.

(I’m curious to see statistics about charitable giving a year from now – the real plunge in funding began around September, and, as the article notes, there is a lag.)

On an unrelated note, this really struck a chord with me: we have a “macromyopia” problem.

The Elusive Poverty Line

The $1 a day measure is a standard catch phrase for development and aid practicioners. It’s also a hotly debated issue – while some argue that it’s a useful measure that allows us to objectively assess levels of poverty in a country, others say that it’s meaningless, as a person living with twice the amount (or a 100% increase…) is still trying to make ends meet with only 2 bucks a day.

Grossly, that’s the concept.

I was just reading this interesting post on the CGD blog, about the World Bank’s re-evaluation of the poverty line to $1.25. I can just picture the half dozen World Bank experts, slaving over this report, analyzing data, running regressions….to come up with that brilliant conclusion: $1.25 is a MORE accurate delimitation for absolute poverty than just $1. They also had this insightful conclusion:

Second, Ravallion and co-authors suggest that differences in different countries’ choice of poverty line indicate that the definition of poverty is in fact subjective and depends on the social context.

Oh, is that so? I’m glad that we figured this out in 2008 – surely, no one previously had put forward THAT notion. So, finally, I suppose, this means that from now on the $1 a day measure is going to be used in a more nuanced way, by integrating qualitative analysis and contextual substance. A step in the right direction that should be acknowledged, in spite of the fact of the fact it’s a realization that comes into the game a few decades late.

While I understand that objective, quantitative indicators and economic measurements are necessary to the development and analysis of policy and its effects, that $1 day a day measure (sorry, $1.25 now) really doesn’t sit well with me. Particularly when I stumble across ideas such as these, ie. that people living on between $2 and $10 a day represent a “middle class” in developing countries. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve only read the abstract of that paper, but regardless, while I see the rationale behind trying to understand

” the importance of relative prices in shaping consumption decisions or the power of norms/fashions in determining consumption”,


it seems to me that this type of discourse demeans (for lack of a better word) the experience of people struggling in the developing world.

Sure, people who live with $10/day ($3650/year) have infinitely more opportunities than those who live below the absolute poverty line – but they still do not have the type of opportunities available to a genuine middle class, like we have in the West. $3650 per year doesn’t allow for a lot of consumption choices, or choices in general, and definitely doesn’t allow people to save up for their retirement for instance. These people won’t get bank loans to get their kids to college, or a mortgage on their house, or have a credit card (or ten) that would deepen and broaden their horizons, their possibilities. I sure hope that a real middle class will emerge in the developing world – and here I’m thinking of the LDCs (least developed countries), since the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) of this world are already experiencing this.



For families struggling across the developing world, whether they have $1, $2 or $4 to spend every day makes probably makes a difference in the short run – you can buy more food, pay for your child’s school supplies, etc. However, in the long run, I believe these differences make only a marginal difference – and the lines between absolutely poor, relatively poor and “middle class” remain blurry.