All posts tagged The Polis

Q&A with Isadora Loreto I Head of Research & Development

Posted by / 1st June 2015 / Categories: Polis / Tags: , / -

Isadora Loreto is Head of Research and Development. She joined the Polis team in June 2014 as a researcher and quickly afterwards became Head of R&D. Specialised in conflict studies, it is during her work as a jurist in different NGOs and research centers that she developed a strong interest for innovative approaches in international cooperation and development.

Hi Isa, could you please describe for us what the Polis Project is?

The Polis Project is a project which connects people’s initiatives and projects to the resources they need. Take a women’s group in Kenya who wants to improve rural development: they have the ideas on how to do it but they lack the materials and financial support. Through its online platform the Polis puts the group of women in touch with potential partners who can provide them with exactly this support. The women then choose the partner they think fits best their request! This is just an example of people that can benefit from the Polis Project and its simple method. Many more people are out there with brilliant ideas and initiatives and do not have access to what they need to turn their ideas into reality.

What lead you to become part of The Polis Project?

While focusing on peace building in the Middle East region for my research activities, I was astonished to see how many aid and development organisations would apply ready-made solutions to local problems without first listening to local voices. I started to develop a strong interest for initiatives and organisations promoting locally led development and I soon became convinced it was the only way international development could be effective. It is through my research on such organisations that I heard about ReSeT and the Polis Project. And as soon as I learnt more about the project, I knew that it was exactly in line with the way I was envisioning international development. I was given the chance to become part of the team first as a researcher and then as Head of research. To be honest, I could not imagine a project which would better fit my vision of what international development should look like: « local actors and global actors coming together to achieve a common goal: improving the lives of people, with local actors being in the driving seat. »

As Head of Research and Development, you are a core member of the project; can you describe your role and key responsibilities?

At the Research and Development department, our work is divided into two units: we work on the development of the project and on publications. The development of the project includes four types of activities:(1) researching and supporting the fundraising and communication teams;(2) researching similar initiatives (a market research);(3) researching relevant articles and papers for the Polis Project, and (4) developing the Polis method. The publications unit regroups all kind of publications the team is doing as well as the website content and the newsletter content. On top of that we coordinate the consultancy work the team does. To sum up, as Head of R&D I make sure my team researches and finds the information necessary to develop our project and acquire more expertise!

What is your favourite part of being head of Research and Development?

Everyday when I wake up I am excited about the things R&D needs to do because I know if we advance, the project as a whole advances and develops. Most of the time, I have a pretty busy day ahead filled with different internal researches and publications. But most importantly, I know I can count on my team to be fully committed and do their best to provide the relevant information and boost the project. Apart from the obvious fact that I very much enjoy working at R&D, the most valuable thing of my work is the team spirit we have, it is what makes us go beyond ourselves, achieve our weekly or monthly goals and be creative in the ways that we address issues and challenges we face!

What kind of publications does the Polis Project focus on?

Although most of our work is typically focused on internal researches directly linked to the development of the project, publications are also essential. They indeed demonstrate our expertise and knowledge on local-global relationships. This is why all our Polis publications analyse local-global dynamics. I guess your next question would then be: “but what do local-global analyses mean?” It means that we focus on cases where there are interactions between the global and the local level, where global actors’ actions have an impact on the local level. The local level can be understood as community level, regional level or even national level. With the Polis Publications, our main goal is to give our perspective on relationships between the global and the local level. Because this is what the Polis is all about!

How does research & development contribute to the other departments in the Polis Project?

Let’s say that we are like the backbone of the Polis team! All our activities have one common goal: supporting the fundraising and the communications teams. It can be the research we do on specific organisations related to fundraising or communications, our market research on similar initiatives, which is essential to expand our knowledge of others that work in a similar way, or some field research necessary to understand the demand for the Polis Project. But it is also feeding them with articles and papers, which are relevant for our work and project. The fundraising and communications teams know they can rely on us to provide them with the most accurate information they need. This means that all the Polis teams: R&D, communications and fundraising work together to make the project advance and develop.

As R&D, you have contributed to the development of the Polis Postcards and Polis Perspectives, can you tell us a bit about them?

Both Polis Perspectives and Polis Postcards are recent initiatives by the team to strengthen our communication with our network.
With the Polis Perspectives, our idea was to give our perspective on a different article each week which one of us found very interesting. We also share articles we enjoyed reading and our favorite tweets of the week. It is a way for us to share what we find interesting and relevant and to connect the Polis Project to the broader development sector in a different way!

The Polis is all about access and connection being available for people at the local level, right? With the Polis Postcards, we wanted to give the opportunity to local people to present their initiatives and get some exposure. It is a simple idea just as if they were sending a Postcard telling us their story! On the top of that, it is a great way for us to get in touch with people that could benefit from the Polis Project and to envision potential further collaboration.

What are your ambitions with respect to research and development in the coming months?

My ambition is to see the Polis Project further develop and to continue making the work of R&D as relevant as possible! The coming months will be an intensive period for us so R&D will need to be at its sharpest and keep their eye on the ball. We will be focusing the team’s publications on today’s current global development issues, local realities, and local-global dynamics. Through our Polis Postcards and new weekly Perspectives, R&D hope to continue analysing, exploring and informing the public of our research and connection to the field!


Q&A with Joanna Klever I Head of Fundraising

Posted by / 7th April 2015 / Categories: Polis / Tags: , / -

Joanna Klever is Head of Fundraising. She joined the Polis team in June 2014 bringing in exactly what was needed for fundraising: a creative thinking combined with a willingness to do things differently! Her interest in innovative development approaches was born during her stay in the Dominican Republic where Joanna worked for the former German Development Service (DED/GIZ) and was exposed to the realities of current development policies.

What led you to become part of The Polis?

The moment I heard about the Polis project I was captivated. The idea behind The Polis is incredibly simple, yet efficient. It made me wonder how sixty years of global development work have not lead to the creation of a ‘Polis’ earlier! Being part of a creative, enthusiastic and experienced team was just as appealing as the idea of joining an idea that has the power to significantly impact people worldwide.

 As a core member of The Polis, can you describe your role and key responsibilities? Can you go into detail about your experiences as Head of Fundraiser for The Polis?

As Head of Fundraising, my role inevitably comes with a number of responsibilities! I joined The Polis from its inception, which is such a rare opportunity as I have been able to be part of the whole process, experience the ups and downs, make mistakes and learn from them. As any fundraiser will know, it is a challenging role, and I have definitely perfected the art of multitasking: from managing our new team, developing fundraising strategies, connecting with potential donors and researching the general fundraising environment in our sector. Admittedly, the sector is not an easy one – we have encountered a number of hurdles: for example, the nature of our model is particularly abstract, which is both its strength and its Achille’s heel. We have also had a very short timeframe, which means we have had an intensive period of planning, networking, researching… which as Head of Fundraising, is both exhausting and exciting!

What do you feel are the main strengths of The Polis?

Before joining ReSeT, I researched the impact of IMF and World Bank policy in Latin America, and it was very frustrating: everyone observes the problems related to developmental policy, everyone criticises it, but very few clear alternatives are put forward. Then I came across the Polis project, and that was the first time that I was involved in a project that approached these issues from a completely different angle. From what I had seen, it just makes so much sense to not make these local-global relationships about institutions or large-scale agendas, but rather about very simple, effective human contact. The Polis does that: it brings together actors from different parts, with complementary skills and abilities, without any interference by politics or institutional demands. And that is exactly what is needed.

 For the Polis fundraising team, what initiatives are driving the project forward?

We have recently made a few changes in our team and fundraising strategy that has really made a difference to our efficiency and drive. We have not only expanded the team, but we have created three new departments, each with specific strategies towards a fundraising goal. Our new team-members have brought a really fresh perspective to our project, and subsequently we have developed a very solid Polis fundraising approach. The boost this has given us has increased the pace, depth of research and accelerated the networking process even further, it’s a big leap for The Polis, and a momentous time to be Head of Fundraising!

What are you looking for in a funder?

Well, there are three different types of funders that we’re looking at. The first are those whose role it is to support innovate and daring development projects, such as certain foundations and company sponsorhip. The Polis is highly replicable and relatively simple to implement while still being very ambitious. On the other hand, the problem that I am personally encountering a lot is that funders often look for something directly tangible, rather than invest in a model. A school is easy to fund from an administrative perspective; but a new way of working, not so much. So that means that we need to play around with that, and actually link it directly to existing local realities in specific regions or between specific local/global relationships.

The second category is actors (agencies, NGOs and certain companies) that are interested in specific aspects of The Polis, rather than the model as a whole. This includes specific local connections and expertise, consulting and research on local/global relations, and methods of matchmaking.

Finally, we are talking to social investors. Even though we are a not-for-profit organisation, The Polis generates its own revenue after the initial start-up period for local connections, which means that we combine the best of both worlds in my view: financial sustainability and social impact.

Most importantly: we do not look for funders who will only provide money or resources. We look for partners who are ready and willing to engage in a relationship in which we progress together and advance The Polis. We want to partner with organisations that can significantly strengthen our work and impact.

Together with the funders, global resources and local communities, what will be the full impact of The Polis in five years?

In five years The Polis will be a running project, fully operational in lots of local communities in several countries across the globe! We will look back at a history of successful connections in which the Polis model has served local communities and their ambitions. The Polis will be that springboard local communities use to implement their ideas, find their voice and prosper.


Q&A with Ivanka Puigdueta | Head of Polis Development

Posted by / 2nd February 2015 / Categories: Polis / Tags: , / -

Ivanka Puigdueta’s background lies with environmental sciences and issues surrounding climate change and pollution (Université de Rouen, 2007). After working as a lab-scientist for several years, she decided to mix her expertise with social and developmental issues, studying International Relations and African Studies at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Her focus has since been on development issues in sub-Saharan Africa, with research and consultancy in Guinea-Bissau.

Did your experience in Guinea-Bissau lead you to The Polis?

Yes, it very much influenced my thinking. In Guinea-Bissau I had the chance to discover all kinds of different projects financed and organised through international cooperation programs. Observe them was interesting, often encouraging, but also painful at times. A lot of effort goes into improving social and economic conditions in that country, with amazing professionals- both local and expatriates- working on important and difficult challenges. But unfortunately there were also a lot of things that went wrong, often caused by systemic failure. Like most people employed locally in the development sector, it made me feel a strong urge to find more effective ways to have an impact. It was obvious that work needed to be much more locally focused; that was one thing that was crystal clear.

So what do you like most about The Polis, when you look back at your personal experiences?

The Polis method answered my doubts (and ambition) about how to turn international cooperation into a local led path. That was the very first thing that attracted me about The Polis and the one that still amazes me. It uses a radically local led approach, and it ends the often well intended but ultimately mistaken interventionist impulses. It recognises the importance of local populations to choosing and designing the projects and their impact, and also the ways in which these projects will be done. External intervention only enters in the system when it is requested by local people and according to the basic terms they themselves set.

Could you please describe your role in The Polis? What do you do exactly?

As Head of Development my role is to design, improve and implement different aspects of the Polis model. Our model depends on various local and global actors, each with a specific role in the process of creating Local Led Connections. It is my role to develop each step in the process, starting at the local idea and finishing with a connection. I focus on understanding what makes local led processes successful and adapting this knowledge to different situations and realities.

And in doing so, which types of organisations inspire you?

There are many. For example, PUM’s expert services to local entrepreneurs, Peace Direct’s work with local peace building initiatives, or the BoP Innovation Center’s market inclusion methods. But it is not only from the development sector that The Polis takes its inspiration. The Polis is also inspired by many private sector initiatives and activities; we don’t just look at traditional development actors. To summarise in general terms: we take inspiration from what we observe works for people when it comes to connecting local to global and vice versa.

So how is The Polis different from these and other development projects?

We are not a development project. The Polis model simply connects local ideas to the resources they need. We don´t offer money and we don’t tell people what to do; there´s no developmental agenda. We just offer local ideas a platform so they can connect with organisations and expertise to bring their ideas to life.

Typical development projects work the other way around; external ideas are created before locals come into play. Even development projects that use local led strategies get the order wrong; they don’t impose ideas, but they do still approach carefully selected locals with a bag of money in their hand and.

Can you expand on that?

Typically, projects either try to “pick winners” or look to create change based on specific political or ideological values.  Humans tend to have difficulties in controlling our impulse to guide others towards what we think is right. At The Polis we believe that this filtering is not compatible with what we understand by “local led”. It is not up to us to decide what a bad or a good idea is. Even those organisations that actually put locals behind the steering wheel fail to see this. Yes, they motivate local actors to identify their own problems and to find their own way, but they still put locals in charge of spending previously lined-up money.

And how does the Polis method deal with that problem?

We do two things: the first thing that The Polis does to turn the cycle around is that local initiatives come before any money or solutions come into play. The second one is that global actors don´t select local partners; local actors select the global partners they want to work with. This forces global actors to truly serve local agendas. After all, you can´t give initiative; it´s something people take. The only role of The Polis is to look for partners willing to support local initiatives. Global actors should see The Polis as a gateway to local opportunities, while for local actors The Polis is a bridge between their ambitions and the global tools they need.

What does that bridge look like on the ground? And how do people find it?

Through Local Connectors (LCs); LCs are trained local Polis representatives who listen to local initiatives and make them visible for the global community, something they typically lack.  So LCs are in contact with local individuals and groups and gather their project ideas and requests, only making sure that proposals are legal and feasible; they do not impose or suggest ideas; they do not write proposals. They simply make sure that initiatives are sincere and complete before they are presented to potential partners, and then they introduce these initiatives into the Polis platform.

What will The Polis look like by late 2015?

At the end of 2015 I want to see Local Connectors becoming integrated in our human infrastructure, and actively working with Connected Local Communities (CLCs) to bring local project ideas to the Polis platform and the global community. I also expect the Polis team to acquire a better understanding of local-global dynamics through the interaction with local actors, global partners, and other local led initiatives in our network. In doing so, I am convinced The Polis can contribute to making local led development cooperation more successful and widespread.

Last question: what are your ambitions with respect to your own future? Do you plan to go back to Africa, to Guinea-Bissau for The Polis perhaps?

Going back to Guinea-Bissau is definitely on the cards, but it may have to be to simply visit. The Polis doesn’t let non-locals work locally like that; it’s not the way we do things. A pity.



Q&A with Balder Hageraats | General Coordinator of The Polis

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

Could you please describe your role in The Polis? What do you do exactly?

I am the “General Coordinator” of The Polis Project, which means that it is my role to ensure that the rest of the team has the necessary conditions and right focus to be able to do their job. This means that my day to day work consists of giving support and feedback to my colleagues’ activities, and providing overall guidance and leadership with respect to the team’s objectives and agendas.

What does the Polis team look like?

We currently have four departments within the project: Polis Development- i.e. the strengthening of our model and its applications-, Research and Publications, Communications, and Fundraising, each with a full time person in charge. We then have dedicated subteams working on practical issues. These range from things such as model implementation and networking to analysis and publications. And, of course, the Polis team is supported by the wider ReSeT organisation.

And what about partner organisations or experts?

ReSeT has a wide range of existing partner organisations and external experts, some of which have already been involved in aspects of The Polis. Then again, it is early days and we are currently mostly focusing on further developing our local networks (The Polis is all about local connections, after all) in selected countries, and engaging potential “global resources” for the Polis, i.e. organisations and experts that can deliver services to meet local demands.

Where does the original idea for the Polis come from?

ReSeT itself is a relatively young organisation, founded in 2011, but it employs people with decades of experience in international cooperation and relations. One of the major issues that we encounter time and time again in development projects is that energy, time, effort and money tend to flow towards activities designed by international actors, typically headquartered in Western capitals, rather than towards ideas and solutions provided by local individuals or communities. Sure they are occasionally consulted, and may have some influence over outcomes, but the basis of international cooperation remains firmly seated in INGO boardrooms, government offices and transnational dynamics. Local populations simply do not have the systemic clout necessary to set agendas. This is a perverse problem and a fundamental flaw in the sector. It leads to sector dynamics that are on paper focused on so-called “beneficiaries”, but are in actuality serving the sector itself, rather than local communities. Administrative necessity trumps idealism any day of the week, unfortunately.

These observations made us go back to basic questions: what is needed for local and global actors to cooperate effectively to achieve common goals? What are the necessary decision mechanisms for that to happen? How do the various involved actors communicate, and what do they need to operate successfully?

The rather obvious answer is that projects designed and led by those who reap the benefits tend to work. On the other hand, projects that are designed and led by those who do not directly benefit from its outcomes do not tend to work. That observation then leads to the challenge of making sure that local people are in charge of projects, even if they typically require more powerful international dynamics and actors to be involved. These are often still needed to provide necessary capital or political cover. The Polis is our answer to that challenge.

Could you describe The Polis in your own words?

The Polis connects those with ideas to those with the tools to turn those ideas into reality. It does so by collecting ideas locally, collecting tools globally, and then matching them. Crucially, it does so in a way which always puts those with the idea- and who benefit directly from its implementation- in charge. They are the ones who make the decisions, while the Polis simply provides a matchmaking service.

On the website and elsewhere, the Polis team uses quite a few concepts that readers may be unfamiliar with. Is the model complex?

On the contrary, it is simple and very easy to understand. The three concepts to know are:

1. Local-Led Connections: This is the basic pillar of The Polis. It is the connection between local people and organisations and experts that support their projects.

2. Local Connectors: They maintain the Local-Led Connection, i.e. they bring local information to the Polis network and vice versa.

3. Global Connectors: People who have knowledge or networks to bring organisations and experts into The Polis.

That’s all really. Everything else about our model is just details on how local and global connectors operate. Those details would require more time to list and explain, of course, but they are not necessary to understand the essence of what we do.

What impact do you think the Polis will eventually have?

It is difficult to answer this with numbers or other concrete specifics, but given the simple and highly replicable nature of the model, in general terms I would expect at least two important outcomes: the implementation of a significant number of ideas and initiatives which otherwise would not have been able to come to fruition, as well as a strengthened understanding of, and approach to, international cooperation in the 21st century.

The former is obviously important because it directly, and positively, affects people’s lives in the here and now. The latter is important if you, like us at ReSeT, believe that one of the main challenges facing our world today is how to effectively connect the world’s abundant resources to human creativity and endeavour. We live in a globalised world with virtually endless technological and financial possibilities anywhere. The issue is how to harness such incredible opportunities. This question makes international cooperation more relevant than ever, and will require new and practical solutions. We believe that The Polis is one of those.

What makes The Polis different from other initiatives that tackle similar issues?

The Polis team continuously learns from many amazing projects that are being developed at the moment. 2014 is a very exciting time to work on these issues; new technologies and globalisation spur on creativity and activity never before seen in our field of work.  In that sense, there are many aspects of The Polis that are not unique to our model. A lot of good work in similar vein is already being done, especially at a relatively small scale. These range from the Siriolli Institute to more technology-based initiatives related to fundraising (crowdfunding, such as Kiva) and, for example, initiatives such as Elva. However, what is unique about The Polis is the effectively simple method in which local people are in charge throughout the process, and decide over their own future, covering the entire process from basic idea to eventual outcome. Then again, I’d be delighted to find out we weren’t unique, of course.

How do you envision the Polis ten years from now?

A vibrant community of local and global people and organisations being connected to bountiful resources, allowing local ideas and initiatives to flourish like never before. If this- together with similar initiatives elsewhere- pushes the wider international cooperation sector towards being true and effective service providers, all the better.

From our own think-tank perspective, we expect The Polis to be a source of information and knowledge on the realities of local-global relationships. Such knowledge will become ever more important in international affairs and in facing the great challenges of our time. We at ReSeT, like any think tank, are very excited to be able to play a role in that.


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

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


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.