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Funding development cooperation: Time for donors and local people to unite

Posted by / 17th November 2014 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , , / -

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Earlier this month a report was published by GRAIN on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s expenditure and impact. The research shows how little of its roughly €3bn funding has gone to local initiatives, with roughly 80% of grants spent on European and North American organisations. The Gates Foundation refuted some of the conclusions from the report , but its factual claims remain uncontested. The fact that the development sector in general spends most money on itself- rather than on its supposed “beneficiary populations”- is nothing new, and the Gates Foundation is not an exception in this regard. The most relevant and urgent question for donors such as Gates is how their mission statements and overall objectives are best achieved. Is this by stimulating a strong development sector and spend money on governments and institutions, or by more direct support of local populations and thereby cutting out the sectorial or governmental middleman?

The answer is increasingly clear: effective human development requires local-led approaches. The development sector is too administrative, too institutional, too focussed on process and procedures, and too obsessed by internal evaluations to have the impact one would expect from such a billion euro industry. But most importantly, outsiders are not very good at knowing what is needed on the ground. Funders need to change tack if they are serious about achieving their own organisations’ objectives.

People have questions, needs and ideas. Foundations and other funders can- and want to- help them answer and achieve those.  This requires not only greater focus on Southern organisations and people, but a move away from the development sector in its current form. In order to effectively achieve stated objectives, less money needs to go to sectorial actors, administration and institutional support. More needs to be spent on direct support of local ideas and initiatives.

The current situation

Just like the answer provided above, the basic facts are clear: the development sector spends more money on itself than on people outside of the sector. Funding goes to NGOs, experts, evaluators, government institutions, expatriates and a whole host of other such typically “Northern” destinations. Take the typical NGO or institution receiving those funds, and their own expenditure reflects a similar pattern. Even those who claim low “overhead” – i.e. central office expenditure, administrative costs, etcetera – conveniently ignore that overhead does not tell the whole story. The remainder typically goes to sector experts, sector evaluators, sector expatriates, local sector employees, and very little actually ends up in the hands of the groups they aim to serve.

There are three general reasons why this may not be a bad thing. Firstly, money needs to be spent on those who do the best job, regardless of whether they come from Seattle or a village near Lusaka. If it is a non-monetary service that needs to be provided, then it is logical that the funding goes to the expert providing such a service, regardless of origin.

Secondly, unlike other sectors, development cooperation does not have natural adjustment or correction mechanisms. In private sectors, both shareholders and consumers exert daily pressures on companies and service providers to act effectively and in accordance with overall objectives. The development sector does not have such natural adjustment tendencies. It therefore requires, or so the argument goes, significant internal evaluation and assessment.

The third reason given for current approaches is that even though it may not be perfect, there is no practical way for donors to approach non-sectorial actors in an effective and meaningful way. Human development requires significant insight into people’s daily challenges. Donors themselves have neither the infrastructure nor the desire to spend significant amounts on developing such expertise themselves. There are just too many potential targets to support to do so directly, and therefore it needs to be contracted out to partner organisations and experts. These then become responsible for interacting with local communities and individuals that the funder wants to support.

The meaning of impact

GRAIN writes that ” of the $669 million that the Gates Foundation has granted to non-governmental organisations for agricultural work, over three quarters has gone to organisations based in the US. Africa-based NGOs get a meagre 4% of the overall agriculture-related grants to NGOs”. The Gates Foundation replied by stating that “the central assumption is that only organisations located in Africa can benefit African farmers – and we think that is incorrect.”

This is often true of course. Most organisations working on these issues will have some positive impact on local farmers or other groups. But the word “benefit” covers a wide range of results, from minimal and inefficient outcomes to significant success and effectiveness. Moreover, it does not cover the longer-term dynamics related to this issue. The sector is continuously and rightly criticised for ineffective behaviour and for not offering sufficient bang for the buck. The sector’s tendency to look inward rather than outward is one of the main reasons why: by supporting itself rather than more directly supporting local ideas and initiatives, its eventual benefits to local groups are much less than they could be.

Sector-heavy approaches tend to lead to administrative deliverables rather than true local improvements to people’s livelihoods. They are designed to focus bureaucratic patterns, rather than on the outcomes for targeted people. This problem is almost inevitable given the scale of the development industry, and can only be avoided by micro approaches in which the target population becomes the client of a service provided, rather than a beneficiary who is supposedly being helped. Only then will systemic dynamics start revolving on the right kind of human impact, rather than intra-sectorial results.

Development’s original sin

The origins of the development sector are one of “aid”, rather than “outcomes”. This is still visible in current thinking. National and local governments as well as NGOs are supported in their efforts to help target populations. As long as that help is visible by means of awkwardly named “measurables”, “deliverables” and project evaluations, funders tend to continue their support. Sectorial organisations, especially of the northern kind, are very good at providing their paymasters with such numbers: the number of children gone to a newly built school; the number of tools provided to organic farmers; the number of seminars given on gender equality. This is both because of decades of experiences as well as due to high comfort levels with process and procedure as opposed to outcome. The content and impact of these numbers, however, are much harder to quantify and qualify. Hence the typical ineffectiveness of such measures. To make matters worse, when asked about their levels of satisfaction, local populations have little incentive to be critical; better something than nothing at all.

Local organisations are also becoming pretty good at this please-the-donor game, with many African and Asian NGOs popping up mimicking Northern language on both website and in grant proposals. Local experts and evaluators are becoming increasingly popular in the sector as well, especially among progressive development NGOs and north European governments. Admittedly, this in itself has two positive consequences. Firstly, it ensures that some more money goes into the local, rather than European, economy through expert and evaluator fees. In other words, if you are going to spend money on the sector, it is better to do it on those that actually live among target beneficiaries. Secondly, supporting local experts and evaluators strengthens local capacities rather than those in Northern countries.

Unfortunately, the main problem remains, regardless of where organisations and experts are based: those working in the sector are focussed on satisfying the sector. Evaluators do not write their report for the target population of the project, they write it for the responsible NGO or the foundation financing the project. This is a completely different exercise than evaluating outcomes for local populations. Similarly, grant writers do not send project proposals to funders based on what is best for the beneficiary populations; they write project designs so as to maximise their chances of success during the grant process. That does not necessarily lead to bad designs, but it is nonetheless a perverse mechanic that reduces effectiveness and impact.

Listening to the wrong people

In one project evaluation I carried out years ago, I had to evaluate its peacebuilding outcomes. This was the main stated objective of both the project and the funder, and the basis for the grant. The executing NGO did this through building a medical centre that was to be open to all the different ethnic groups present in the region. Many of these groups had until recently been at each other’s throat in a bloody civil war. During the evaluation it turned out that originally the NGO had- on request of locals- just wanted to build a medical facility without the political baggage. Because of lack of funds, it eventually rewrote the whole grant proposal to make it suit the funder’s peacebuilding agenda. Locals always knew that this would never work, and indeed: because of all the political infighting that occurred between towns because of the imposed multiethnic approach, the project eventually failed. No peacebuilding; no long-term medical centre.

As the GRAIN report argues, “it is hard to listen to someone when you cannot hear them. Small farmers in Africa do not participate in the spaces where the agendas are set for the agricultural research institutions, NGOs or initiatives, like AGRA, that the Gates Foundation supports. These spaces are dominated by foundation reps, high-level politicians, business executives, and scientists”.

These people from the development sector- as well as those hovering in its periphery- work in order to obtain funds. Without it, their organisation or their personal employment will be terminated. It is true that funders know this potential flaw in the system, and therefore impose a whole range of administrative measures to ensure compliance with their ultimate goals. This does not work, at least not in general terms. Not only does it make the sector slow and bureaucratic, it also makes it hopelessly ineffective in achieving desired outcomes. It is almost paradoxical: as long as the sector works to please funders rather than local people, the funders will not get what they ultimately aim for.

The Gates Foundation, as well as many others, is aware of this challenge: “The needs of millions of smallholder farmers – most of whom are women – are very much at the centre of the Gates foundation’s agriculture strategy. Our grants are focused on connecting farmers with quality farming supplies and information, access to markets, and improving data so that government policies and resources are in line with their needs. Listening to farmers to understand their needs, and to developing country governments to understand their priorities, is crucially important“, said spokesman Chris Williams.

Less oversight, more results

The challenge for the development is not related to changing general objectives or having better intentions. The problem is one of ineffective systemic patterns. Intra-sectorial ineffectiveness is not solved by greater administrative control or simply by employing more local NGOs or experts from Southern regions, even if that is a slight improvement by itself. No, the solution lies in making the relationship between funders and beneficiary populations as direct as possible.

Let the people who are referred to in foundations’ mission statements and governmental policy papers decide how to spend the funds that are ultimately supposed to improve their lives. Remove the middleman, stop encouraging the sector’s excessive administrative processes, and create direct connections between local people and financing. That kind of local-global alliance can then contract services from organisations and experts, instead of the sector contracting itself. This will not only reduce overhead and intra-sectorial spending, it will create a natural market mechanism in which all those currently trying to win favour with donors need to show outcomes to developing communities. Fortunately, if you are a foundation or a development NGO, this is a change that you will surely welcome. After all, your mission statement says that satisfying local needs is what you are all about.

Full disclosure:  the above article makes the case for ReSeT’s current Polis Project. Our team is setting-up such a local-global mechanism to link local ambitions with global resources. Bringing this project to life involves a lot of grant writing to please-the-donor. Local populations will have to wait. As always. 

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South Sudan: Global Succes Despite Local Failure

Posted by / 27th June 2014 / Categories: Opinion, Polis / Tags: , , , / -

International cooperation is a permanent clash between broad, unspecified political goals and a system of narrow, actor-specific agendas using those broad goals to advance individual interests. This is true of transnational diplomacy, war, development cooperation, and any other such area. They all have in common that seemingly straightforward decision making hides the amalgamation of organisations, experts, schools of thought and political pressures that led to that decision in the first place, and that is responsible for subsequent execution. Such dichotomy often explains the failure of these broad goals, which tend to become hostage to specific interests. Not only does the mix of underlying agendas bias or even corrupt the formulation of general objectives, it also hampers implementation in subtle yet decisive ways. The broad agendas that do end up successful- such as the eradication of small pox in the 1970s, or the creation of the European Communities, guaranteeing long-term peace and stability on the continent- do so because they are consistent with the specific agendas, creating a natural path towards success of both. Such cases are rare. All too often, specific interests trump any general objective. One of the many recent examples has been the tragic case of independence and subsequent state building of South Sudan.

The independence of South Sudan was an event driven by international pressures. After the 2005 Naivasha Agreement, Western nations piled on to defend the right to self-determination of the predominantly Christian population. Not only was South Sudan on the African continent’s fault line between the Muslim, Arab controlled north and the Christian, pro-Western south, its creation was also a direct challenge to the virtually blacklisted al-Bashir government in Khartoum. Once the political door was opened to potential independence, UN agencies, NGOs, government representatives and the private sector joined the fray with an enthusiasm perhaps only surpassed by state building in Afghanistan. The broad goal was independence and freedom for the South Sudanese. The narrow goals in the background were those of the international state building and development sectors celebrating a new project to stay relevant and access public funds. The excitement among those licking their lips at the prospect of being involved at building a country from scratch was palpable. When the 2011 independence referendum came knocking, the outcome was a done deal. Years of Western money and political pressure had guaranteed success. The results, with 98.83% voting “yes”, may have been a percentage typically only seen in North Korea, but it did not matter to Western press or politicians: the people had spoken, freedom had prevailed.

Up to this point, broad objectives and narrow interests had coincided: many actors, both local as well as global, benefitted from independence. Local politicians saw the opportunity to seize power, whereas global politicians could claim once again to be arch angels of democracy and human rights. Local enterprise counted on an influx of foreign capital, global companies were hoping for large infrastructural and resource extraction contracts. Local civil society expected greater freedom to pursue their agendas, global NGOs were looking forward to an inpour of government funding and donor drives. And indeed, funds did come, accompanied by a bombardment of governmental development agencies and NGOs from all over the world. As a result, the process was generally considered a success by 2011, and with high expectations of a bright future. Political and funding goals had been met. Employment and budgets in both Juba’s governmental departments as well as those of the international NGO sector had increased dramatically, and UN and EU consultants were flying up and down at the cost of their usual, exorbitant daily fees.

Once independence had sunk in, however, broad and specific agendas started diverging. The general agenda of building a functional state had always been an incredibly long shot. Besides significant oil reserves, the South Sudanese economy mostly relies on unproductive agricultural activities. Basic infrastructure is among the worst in the world. The country’s weak political and social institutions are mostly driven by foreign support, rather than domestic expertise. The country is landlocked, heavily relying on its northern rival for its access to the rest of the world. Internal conflict, including long-simmering ethnic and economic tensions, were left unaddressed for much of the post-Naivasha period. In other words, for the Republic of South Sudan to ever become a success for its own population, a tremendous local and global effort would have been needed. Once the excitement surrounding the referendum had disappeared, global politics responsible for the broad objectives moved on to new focal points, leaving South Sudan in the hands of dispersed, decentralised and uncoordinated narrow interests. Funding levels and political support continued to be enough to maintain the Sudanese development industry that had been built up so eagerly, but were completely insufficient to reach a long-term, sustainable level of statehood and stability.

When in December 2013 civil war erupted, it should have come as a surprise to no one. The writing had been on the wall for a long time. Moreover, the responsibility of this failure lay firmly in the hands of the international community so eagerly pushing through an unsustainable agenda in the first place. In order to satisfy narrow agendas, they supported an unachievable broad goal. They- both the international private sector as well as the public sectors and the development industry- benefitted politically and financially, while doing so under the guise of human rights and welfare concerns. Now, they express disappointment at the failures and hardship suffered by the local population, but where are the mea culpas? Where are the statements from donors, NGOs and transnational institutions admitting that they got it wrong?

Last week, De Volkskrant published an article on how Dutch development aid to Sudan over the past ten years had been wasted. The Netherlands, one of South Sudan’s most important donors and advocates of independence, spent over half a billion Euros on local development and financial support. This was mostly steered towards social needs and humanitarian assistance, and very little was dedicated to more fundamental issues necessary to achieve the broad objectives of sustainability. The Dutch government turned its attention elsewhere after formulating the general aims, leaving policy making and funding decisions in the hands of narrow interests, i.e. those of specialised NGOs and experts. The broader vision was lost, and interested parties had free reign over directing the flow of the significant financial resources that had been made available. Any organisation defends the importance of their own field of expertise, regardless of the wider picture. When central coordination weakens, those with the best lobbies prevail.

One of the main lessons from the case of South Sudan is the importance of making sure that broad goals are consistent with specific interests. Moreover, global actors need to respond to local realities, and not attempt to set the agenda. If those criteria cannot be guaranteed, then the mission is doomed to fail. Complex human- self-interested- systems then take over, and start nibbling away at the foundations necessary to achieve the stated objectives. When De Volkskrant wrote that Dutch development aid has “gone up in smoke”, they only got it half right. It has gone up in smoke from a local perspective. In that sense the case of South Sudan has been a massive failure, with the Sudanese suffering the consequences. But large amounts of that €500 million ended up in the pockets of Dutch development experts and organisational overhead, to whom the operation was successful: it has provided employment and political relevance to such organisations worldwide. This divergence between broad and narrow interests has led to a conflict ridden country, in which the local population is paying the price for poor international decision making. Not to worry though, as Western nations will undoubtedly be sending their humanitarian experts and NGOs back to help the suffering locals once again in these times of need. After all, that is what friends are for.

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Peacebuilding and Transitional Justice in Syria: Assessing the Role of INGOs

Posted by / 28th May 2014 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , / -

The Syrian situation

The major human rights violations in Syria have created a wave of concern within the community of international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), and particularly among those INGOs that work on issues relating to human rights, transitional justice and reconciliation. This article aims at underlining the importance for INGOs to take into account the “lessons learned” from past (post) conflict situations. Indeed, over the last two years, many INGOs have developed programmes on peace building and transitional justice in Syria, but today many questions arise regarding the effectiveness and efficiency thereof. Do the INGOs take into account the particular needs of the Syrian civil society? Is there any coordination between the stakeholders present on the field? Are they willing to support initiatives that already exist on the ground? And, last but not least, do they develop mechanisms to empower the civil society in Syria?

While some INGOS establish programmes within a well-developed strategy, others just follow the “trend” to develop programmes on peace building and transitional justice without a clear objective and/or strategy. Three years after the beginning of the conflict, it is time to look at the way INGO’s are involved in the Syrian situation regarding peace building and transitional justice.

Peacebuilding, transitional justice and INGO’s

Past and recent experiences have demonstrated the challenges of post-conflict transitions. Peace building and transitional justice were firmly developed in the 1990’s, following conflicts such as the ones in ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda or South Africa. Today, both peacebuilding and transitional justice are considered essential tools in post-conflicts situations.

Peacebuilding is a holistic concept that encompasses programmes designed to consolidate sustainable peace, prevent disputes from escalating, and avoid a relapse into violent conflict. Transitional justice refers to the set of judicial and non-judicial measures that are implemented by different countries in order to redress the legacies of massive human rights abuses.

INGOs are often, if not always, involved in these processes of peacebuilding and conflict resolution. It is important to underline the core principles regarding peacebuilding and transitional justice that INGOs must take into account when operating in situations such as the one in Syria. INGO’s have often been criticised for the way they handle crisis situations, and those working in Syria and beyond should learn from criticisms the sector faced in Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and South Sudan.

Empowerment, coordination and long term strategy

INGOs have a role to play in conflicts situations: their expertise in reconciliation, peace building and transitional justice can be meaningful to civil society. However, they cannot work in isolation. Instead, they need to work together and be interdependent with local actors. If INGOs can, and must, take initiatives the development of joint programmes based on grass root initiatives needs to be the preferred approach since it has already shown successes in various countries such as Libya and Tunisia.

If possible, peacebuilding and transitional justice priorities must be determined locally. On the one hand, local actors usually have a better knowledge of the situation and, on the other, it is more likely that peacebuilding and transitional justice initiatives will succeed if citizens and groups are involved in defining the problems and articulating the solutions. This local based approach leads to empowering the civil society. If local initiatives are the basis of programmes developed by INGO’s, it become more natural for internal actors to be the drivers, or owners, of their own national peacebuilding frameworks and transitional justice mechanisms. Developing the capacity of, and giving ownership to, the local government and civil society should thus be the main methodology of all INGO programmes.

Furthermore, the need for enhanced coordination between external actors (such as donor governments, United Nations Country Teams, INGOs) on the one hand- and internal actors (such as governments, local administrations and civil society) on the other, is essential. Without enhanced and deepened levels of coordination, peacebuilding and transitional activities will overlap, duplicate, and potentially have limited impact on the conflict systems they try to stop.

Over the last few years, in order to strengthen the effectiveness of peace building, the international community has understood that there was a need for guidelines and particularly regarding coordination of all stakeholders. In 2005, the Peacebuilding commission was established by resolution 60/180 of the United Nations Security Council, and resolution 1645 of the United Nations General Assembly. The Peacebuilding Commission is an inter-governmental advisory body that helps countries in peace building, recovery, reconstruction and development. It has defined a “peacebuilding architecture”, composed of roadmaps on action that should be taken in order to improve the effectiveness of peacebuilding. The Commission insisted on the necessity of a local based approach.

Finally, in order to have a real impact on the situation, it is necessary not only to involve local actors and to have a good coordination between all actors but also to develop long term programmes of actions with them. Indeed, it is essential to share knowledge and expertise between local and international actors but this must be done within a framework which allows long-term benefits for local civil society.

In Syria, it seems that while some INGOs understand the necessity of working with local actors, others have forgotten the overall goal of developing programmes on peace building and transitional justice. INGOs working there should keep in mind that their aim is to strengthen Syrian civil society capacities and outcomes, and not their own.

This article is part of the Polis Project, a ReSeT programme focused on connecting local needs to global resources.

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International Development: Please Drop the Charity Act

Posted by / 5th February 2014 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , / -

International development cooperation is typically regarded as politically optional policy. It is the type of public expenditure that makes politicians and voters feel good about themselves during the fat years, but one that can be cut the moment that high national unemployment or budget deficits require sacrificial lambs. It is no surprise therefore, that in countries hardest hit by the economic downturn, such as Spain and Italy, the international cooperation sector is desperate. And, just like any other organism in this world, the sector is showing its true priorities: not the survival of local populations- the supposed beneficiaries- but the sector’s own survival. The survival of the structures, employees and offices in Madrid or Rome, and of job opportunities of expatriates all around the world.

Such a quest for survival is a natural process for any organism that is threatened, and human networks, organisations and economic sectors all across the world mimic these Darwinian instincts. The problem is that the development sector pretends to be something else, something morally better. It pretends to be a source of righteous charitable acts, one in which individuals selflessly dedicate their time to the betterment of humanity. Unlike other economic sectors, or so the pretence goes, development cooperation exists for poor African children, for remote Indian villages or human rights in general. It does not exist for economic profit, but for the greater good. It justifies donor drives, asking ordinary people to contribute to making the world a better place.

This is highly disingenuous. The development sector is just like any other, with its own strengths and weaknesses. It does not deserve any special ethical consideration, neither internally nor from the outside world. If it is to survive, the sector needs to drop the whole charity act and face up to reality: international development cooperation is a service sector, similar to other service sectors in a global, capitalist system, and currently with clients and systemic pressures often completely separate from local “beneficiary” populations.

The demand for international cooperation

There is a true, natural need for international development cooperation in today’s world. Technological and financial resources are bountiful in some places, yet scarce in others. There is a genuine desire among societies worldwide to share parts of their economic wealth, and to balance the immoral income disparities that are formed through amoral systems. Moreover, from a state perspective development cooperation can, and should, be a win-win situation. After all, it is called “cooperation” instead of the supposedly antiquated “aid”. Governments can influence global and local politics through economic support and push forward their agendas through peaceful means.

It is a testament to the state of denial the sector is in that even acknowledging such a simple fact often causes protests and accusations of neo-colonialism or worse. But whenever the terms of reference of a development project mentions “democracy”, “gender equality” or “income equality”, the donor is pushing a particular, non-universal agenda that uses economic support as leverage. Even “universal” human rights are non-universal in practice and take many different shapes and mutations depending on the local circumstances and the donor’s agenda. Without knowing details, the concept is similar to pushing through a for-profit economic agenda; both promote individual, subjective sets of interests with complex origins and consequences.

Moral evaluation can only happen in practice, when specifics are identifiable and outcomes can be assessed. For example, a faith-based organization may have a genuine focus on redistributing income to the poor without ulterior motives. A priest or a nun living among local populations for decades is likely to be an example of that. However, as anyone who has ever visited large African cities knows, many faith-based organisations are simply present in developing countries as part of a continuous battle to convert souls and swell income. Similarly, post 9/11, the US government invested significant resources in development projects throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Much of that money had a positive impact on local populations, but the overall objective was the destructive War on Terror, not development in itself.

The development sector itself is just as guilty of ulterior motives, especially when it comes to its own success, growth and survival. Many donation drives exist primarily to keep NGOs or foundations afloat, and not because of specific concerns about local populations. These two things are not necessarily incompatible, but the difference does need to be recognised. In all such cases, ethics can only be evaluated at a practical, specific level. Conceptually, development cooperation is driven by amoral clients.

If the two types of clients of the development service sector are those with either a genuine interest in income redistribution or in using development as a tool to advance other agendas, what about local populations? This is one of the areas in which the sector is most confused: beneficiaries of development cooperation are those working in the sector, and their clients, i.e. donors. Direct beneficiaries are not local populations, despite claims to the contrary. The fact that local populations can, and often do, benefit does not take away from the basic client-supplier relationship that exists between donors and the sector.

The client-supplier relationship is key. The client in our capitalist world will always be those providing the finances. Parallel to that there is an honorary type of client, the “local beneficiaries”, who mysteriously appear in documents all across the development industry but never seem to change provider or ask for a refund. They hardly ever complain, do not demand higher quality products, and do not ask for input-outcome effectiveness. When a development project fails they do not sue anyone, and they hardly ever start Facebook campaigns denouncing their contractors. Why not? Because they are neither clients nor do they necessarily benefit. The direct beneficiaries are donors (clients) and the development sector itself, and local populations are used to keep that relationship flowing.

Naturally, when marketing itself, the sector never talks about the sources of funding. It always points to positive impact on those that they call beneficiaries. And indeed: objectives in terms of reference do not tend to state “promoting a self-congratulatory Western agenda of keeping the system afloat”. But that is what it does come down to.

From a local population perspective, the best kinds of donors are those that create mechanisms for local populations to steer the dynamics and be in control. But most of the time, the sector and the system focus on satisfying the donor, not the local population. Project evaluation reports are normally written for donors, not for locals. This is all too common: What matters to the system is that the donor believes that the money has been spent according to plan. The supposed beneficiaries should simply be happy being used in order to achieve that plan.

Development cooperation is not ethically above other layers in society. It does, however, have a greater ethical responsibility because it works within an environment of power asymmetry. Typically local populations have neither the legal nor the financial means to defend their interests; they depend on the professionalism of the development actors and the goodwill of donors when it comes to development projects. By acting as if local populations are actually the sector’s clients, development cooperation only adds insult to injury. It creates a perverse charade in which locals have to be grateful even when they are often not the true beneficiaries. To make matters worse, all too often donors simply do not take their own client role seriously, instead focusing on whether administrative conditions are met: Logical Framework established? Check. Money spent? Check. Evaluator satisfied? Check. Feeling good about ourselves? Check.

This leaves most influence and responsibility in the hands of service providers- i.e. the development sector- who are in deep denial about their own purpose. Anyone working in the sector knows that in the end, satisfying administrative conditions is the easiest way to guarantee future funding. And thus the sector is swamped with bureaucratic checks and balances to secure its own survival. The actual outcomes of the work is a secondary issue. Such perverse tendencies are reinforced by the idea that the sector has a charitable basis, something which oddly means that firing people, incentivising people or even simply assessing people’s outputs is frowned upon.

Too often development sector employees claim that they “could be earning double their current wage in the private sector” but they stay because of a drive to make the world a better place. Needless to say, this is not necessarily conducive to a healthy working relationship between employer and employee. It creates a strange, difficult relationship with respect to purpose and consequently with finances. Money is an issue that is not easily discussed, and people are not allowed to think of their work as financially or motivationally driven. Development sector employees are uncomfortable with the fact that they themselves benefit from their position, and employers are loathe to take action when employee performance is subpar; after all, they are all there for charitable purposes. In other words, cooperation actors all too often feel that the justification of their work comes from their very nature, their existence, rather than from their outcomes. Funding for ineffective fundraising campaigns, central structures, networks and administrative dynamics often go unquestioned. Or rather are periodically questioned but, after long processes of introspection and self-evaluation, remain unchanged.

Of course it does not help that most clients and donors are government agencies, themselves not particularly effective in outcome focussed thinking. Nor does it help that a lot of money is to be made by those who know how to play the system. In the shadows of those working pro bono or at minimal remuneration, thousands of consultants, transnational organization employees and governmental diplomats earn more than they could ever receive in other sectors. As an example, the European Union typically pays between 600 and 800 Euros a day for technical assistance and project evaluations by external experts. These are not necessarily elite specialists, but directly benefit from a culture in which money often goes unquestioned, and which is obsessed with systemic and administrative pressures rather than with input-outcome effectiveness.

The irony is that if the development sector were to embrace its true identity of being service providers rather than a charity, it would benefit everyone involved. The sector would become more outcome focussed, with clearer purpose and drive, by simply acknowledging the self-evident basics: they provide a service to clients, and those clients are sources of funding. Currently they include the old lady in the street who gave her last euro to charity, as well as governments with budgets of millions to promote geopolitical interests, but typically not local populations.

Shifting the balance towards local clients

Only if the donor is willing to cede control to local beneficiaries- effectively making them the clients- would the sector’s client-supplier relationship change. Unfortunately, and for obvious reasons, development organisations are not particularly keen on that. Nonetheless, responsible donors need to go down this path. After general objectives and amounts of funding are established- preferably because of local demand- the donor needs to withdraw from the process and let the execution, evaluation and any follow-ups occur through true beneficiary-supplier dynamics. Ideally, this would lead to donors not being in touch with the development sector itself, and instead support local populations in enforcing accountability of development services rendered. An additional advantage would be that donors need to show their colours more clearly: if they have ulterior motives such as geopolitical or industrial agendas, these will need to be negotiated with local populations and cannot be hidden under a generic term such as “international cooperation”. Sadly, that is also the reason why so many donors will never change their current ways.

Interestingly, this change in systemic relationships would allow the sector’s organisations and employees to be much clearer about their own responsibilities. They would be less burdened by administrative hassle and could much more easily monitor their methods and outcomes. In essence, they would compete with other similar organisations to gain favours of beneficiaries, and shift the burden of administration to donors and their local counterparts. By throwing real dynamics out in the open, light can shine on best and worst practices in ways impossible under the current cloak of delusion.

Similarly, governments would need to make a choice. In a demand-driven cooperation sector- rather than the current supply-driven dynamics- governments and international agencies would need to be clearer about whether they are client or donor. If they are donors, they need to negotiate with local populations. If they are clients- for example interested in strengthening ties with local industries or promoting Western values- they will work with development organisations or other suppliers of services who, in their name, could negotiate with local populations. Funnily enough, the idea of NGOs negotiating on behalf of governments will shock many, but it is what the development cooperation is already all about in today’s world. The problem is that no one labels it as such. Naming and institutionalising this already existing dynamic would create a natural transparency, clarifying purpose, that is so obviously lacking right now.

The sector is in deep trouble, being threatened by economic austerity, political populism and valid long-standing concerns about its purpose and effectiveness; its Janus faced identity is now uglier than ever. Scrambling for funds to stay afloat, the general public is being asked to fund survival of large chunks of the sector through donation drives, street campaigns and internet-based crowd funding, but without any significant information about input-outcome effectiveness. This is especially true in a country such as Spain, in which international cooperation was until recently funded through a well-meaning but rudderless public purse. The relatively young sector is unaccustomed to surviving without government funding and is now, after draconian budget cuts, in full-scale panic mode. The kneejerk reaction has been to scramble for funds anywhere possible. Hopefully the longer-term outcome of the current crisis will be one in which the sector evolves into mature, accountable and professional service providers with critical as well as ethical donors who cede responsibility and evaluation to local populations.

Such change would also make working in development cooperation a happier, more satisfying prospect. Potentially the sector can be an amazing employer: one in which people are in touch with global dynamics affecting practical and real social change; one in which highly skilled professionals are paid competitive wages while being inspired by the impact that they have and working together with local experts and leaders to achieve common goals. In order to get there, the sector first needs to recognise that it has a problem unrelated to lack of funds. It needs to acknowledge who it works for, and with what purpose. Only then can true cooperation towards cultural, financial and social wealth for clients, employees and local populations prosper.

 

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What is Civil Society?

Posted by / 5th February 2012 / Categories: Opinion / Tags: , / -

There seems to exists a general agreement that international development programmes must be based on the support of local organizations and frameworks in the countries and areas where the projects are implemented, rather than the direct work of the international agencies and NGOs. Most of international cooperation projects are carried out following this approach, giving an increasingly leading role to local actors. The main goal is to strengthen the local counterparts and their ownership of development actvities in order to ensure long-term sustainability.

Within this context, the term “civil society” is used continuously in forums and seminars. Bold statements abound about the work of this or that organization mainly supporting civil society in this or that country. But civil society is not homogenous, and therefore to announce overall support to civil society is too simplistic and hides an important question facing international organizations: Who is actually being supported?

In the case of structural support to governmental bodies, either local and regional or national, the answer is simple: governments are legitimate and recognized actors- regardless of whether they have been democratically elected or not. However, most NGOs – and also governmental agencies in some cases- prefer to work with civil society’s organizations for moral reasons. In fact, NGOs are civil society’s actors and therefore it is reasonable they look for cooperation with similar types of actors.

Yet civil society is heterogeneous and their organizations have several interests, frequently with multiple agendas and lack of coherence. The legitimacy of the local counterparts can not be extrapolated further than the one held by the members of those organizations. This in spite of those statements assuming that working with one organization of a country’s civil society means working with its overall civil society.

In addition, the problem at the time of choosing the “twin” organizations is increased according to the level of advocacy associated to the programme: in a project of, for example, improvement of irrigation techniques in an agricultural area, it is not that important whether this is done through the organization A or B. At least as long as both are impartial, fair and good managers in general. However, in a project also looking for improving the agriculture policies in an area, the question about who is supported gains greater significance.

In the case of advocacy projects the goal is not only the strengthening of local organizations, but also, and above all, to legitimise the political requests. Most foreign NGOs do not see themselves having enough legitimacy to influence the political agendas of another country or region. This is blatant hypocrisy, as by supporting one group or another- or defending one political position or another- they are already playing a role. International NGOs often argue they only give funds and technical support to civil society to fight for their goals. However, as stated above, civil society is not homogeneous, so this discourse is flawed in most of the cases.

Indeed, international NGOs cooperate frequently with the development of political agendas of those “theoretical local civil society representatives”. Besides it only being part of the story, to affirm simple support of civil society is mistaken. In most of the cases, at least, there is a collaborative aspect in the work. Obviously it is not about international political intrigue by the NGOs: political agendas of NGOs are basically about the rights to access to minimum social services for those in need. So, why are they so worried about demonstrating that they are not an actor in the political arena of other countries?

The answer can be focused on two aspects of the matter: on the one hand, the frequent neo-colonialism accusations about NGOs force them to simply support a homogeneous civil society; on the other hand, NGOs are afraid a more honest position may close doors to hampering its influence as well as putting at risk their own survival. And there are of course more reasons in each particular case that make international development organizations move on the edge of incoherent discourse in so many situations.

However, the biggest problem is not the danger of pretending; the main concern should be the fact of neglecting the question itself.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

NGOs and the Security Challenge

Posted by / 30th January 2012 / Categories: Opinion / Tags: , / -

In the past years there has been amongst NGOs, and in particular amongst humanitarian agencies, a rising concern for the security and safety. They are increasingly confronted with more and more dangerous and hostile environments. This is especially true since 2001 and the beginning of the global “War on Terror” initiated by the Bush administration and his acolytes which marked a new dimension in the evolution of an already existing trend.

For decades humanitarian agencies would mostly operate in contexts of asymmetric warfare between territorial states, in which the objectives of the contenders were relatively defined and unambiguous. Moreover, each conflicting party had a hierarchical structure that – in theory – followed or claimed to follow and respect the rules of war and the related international conventions. Nowadays, the number of different actors, their objectives and their low or limited military training and hierarchical structure, combined with the changes in the nature of the conflicts, represent a significant transformation in the working environment in which humanitarian agencies operate. In the majority of cases the new conflicts or war settings do not correspond to the traditional pattern nor they obey to an element of territoriality. This results in muddied objectives. The different actors and forces are decentralized and typically do not recognize (nor know, in many cases) International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Convention. As a consequence, this results in an increase of attacks against civilians and humanitarian workers.

Many of these attacks are parts of political strategies that have a clear message and intention. It is therefore essential to develop an understanding of the nature of the conflicts, to be aware of these changing realities and of the different interacting actors, as well as of their interests and strategies. Simultaneously, humanitarian agencies need to transmit a coherent image, and develop clear strategies to communicate their specific principles, role and responsibilities and the humanitarian objectives of their action.

In recent years, NGOs have developed security policies, manuals and procedures to facilitate and help a better management of their own security. The degree and level of these tools vary according to the organizations and their capabilities. However, one of the most frequent deficiencies is the lack of understanding and knowledge of the contexts in which they work. With the exception of a few, most of the organizations have not been able to develop a constant and methodical analysis of their area of operations, and of the risks it entails. On the contrary, in most cases they simply tend to apply a set of protocols and procedures that – without a good analysis of the particular context – cannot, alone, mitigate the potential threats and risks towhich theycan be exposed.

This obviously affects any strategies adopted to maintain operations in volatile and insecure settings.

On the other hand, humanitarian agencies have increasingly “militarized” their security. Such “militarization”, as a consequence, deepens even more the gap and their ability to respond with an appropriate strategic vision.

One of the most significant changes occurred in the dimension of the “Security Triangle” (Acceptance, Protection and Deterrence) which vary depending on the working environments, organizations and available resources. The acceptance strategy is the primary, and by default, security strategy used by NGOs. Despite that, their misconception of this concept on the one hand and, on the other, the new complex contexts of most of humanitarian interventions, are today for the vast majority of NGOs a major challenge, a pending cornerstone.

Additionally, in the current and increasingly changing environment there is some controversy regarding the current value and effectiveness of acceptance as security strategy.

However, should we really question acceptance as an effective security strategy, or does the problem reside elsewhere? Certainly the lack of knowledge and analysis of the given context makes the agencies more vulnerable than they, perhaps, should be. Itisthereforefundamental to understandthat:

a)Acceptance must be a proactive strategy, which requires specific resources and actions. In most organizations this does not occur. The vast majority of them erroneously assume the acceptance strategy passively.

b)Acceptance is the result of how an organization is perceived and it depends on several factors, including most importantly its official position and the behavior of its personnel.

c)Acceptance requires a high maintenance in terms of staff, time and resources that not all agencies have or can maintain.

d)Most of the agencies lack experienced staff and knowledge of the dynamics of the conflicts and actors.

Simultaneously, in the daily work of NGOs, security remains a marginal element. This in many cases is seen as an impediment or obstacle rather than an element that aids them in their work in conflict and insecure settings.

Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that there has been an improvement of the security situation of NGOs. Security criteria have been integrated into organizational criteria, resulting in the development of security policies, procedures and practices, and well as in the allocation of resources (financial, human, etc.). Despite these achievements, most of the agencies lack the necessary resources and strategies to operate in complex and insecure settings. The security management starts, and does not end, in the knowledge of the working environment, its dynamics and actors. The deficiency of knowledge and understanding of the context, the lack of rigor in the analysis of the threats and risks makes the implementation of security protocols and procedures weak and, in some cases, inadequate. In order to ensure that these measures are effective and thus guarantee a better security management, it is essential to mainstream the analysis of the conditions, threats and risks where NGOs operates. Moreover, agencies must ensure a constant, regular and methodical assessment of the given context as fundamental tool not only for their security but also for their interventions and re-adaptation of programs and activities.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail