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Accountability in the aid industy

18 May, 2009

Earlier this week I attended an inspiring 2 day workshop at the Berlin Civil Society Center.

I wrote an overview about the workshop on my blog, but would like to share it also with Culture Matters readers, as it concerns the development industry about which anthropologists have quite a bit to say.

The topic was “Exploring Mutual Accountability“ and some of the top CEOs and program directors of the large development INGOs (Oxfam, Terre des Hommes, Care, World Vision, Welthungerhilfe etc.) were present, as well as leading civil society think tanks from AccountAbility and Active Philanthropy to Humanitarian Accountability Partnership and Keystone.

Accountability to whom?
For Civil Society Organisations „accountability“ usually means the accountability of organisations receiving funds to those who provide the financial inputs: their donors (governments, corporations, foundations or private individuals).

One of the discussion strands at the workshop concerned how the many different, often conflicting, accountability regimes which different donors demand from organisations and whose fullfillment costs them millions of Euros, can be simplyfied and made more effective. There was a consensus, that there exists a lot of „toxic accountability“ (as Simon Zadek from AccountAbility called it), doing more harm than good.

One prominent ongoing attempt to standardise this kind of accountability is the INGO Accountability Charter, which was presented at the workshop by Jeremy Hobbes, Executive Director of Oxfam International.

 Yet from my perspective, the really important discussions concerned a different accountability: the accountability of development organisations not to their financiers (which consists predominantly of rather technical and financial stuff, such as management procedures), but to the people they are supposed to serve: their clients, i.e. the poor and/or disadvantaged. 

The reason why aid has failed
I have argued 
again and again (or rather, repeated the wisdom of others…) that the main reason six decades of development aid have failed has to do with the fact, that aid organisations are NOT sufficiently held accountable for their performance. And all too often programs are badly designed and/or executed.

What do donors know about the quality of the charities they support? Some, of course, know a lot, as they are involved in volunteering for a specific organisation. But the majority, don’t know much about how effective a development program has been.

This is a result of the huge power imbalance between NGOs – mostly Western organisations with millions to spend and their clients – often poor, illiterate and badly organized. The latter simply lack a voice. They can’t say what they need, nor complain if the services they recieved were inadequate or even harmful.

In order to empower the poor they need voice, yet this would automaticall take power away from the organisations.

As Burkhard Gnärig, former CEO of Save the Children and Director of the Berlin Civil Socitey Center writes: 

Many civil society organisations talk about partnership, many talk about human rights, children’s rights and self determination but very few grant their local partners and beneficiaries tangible rights comparable to the rights they have to grant their own donors.

One of the results is, that in many non-Western countries, development organisations are considered less trustworthy than corporations: 

  1. This is especially significant as CSOs spend hundreds of millions of Euros/Dollars in Asia and Latin America for the supposed benefit of the local population. The discrepancy between resources allocated and trust obtained indicates a strong lack of accountability, with a resulting lack of appropriateness of the projects CSOs run.

Give your clients a voice
Only beneficiary feedback can redress this situation. And some of the participants were very frank about badly run projects of their own organisations or that of others. Nevertheless there seemed to be a real gulf between the large INGOs and the participants representing leading think tanks and expert organisations.

Whereas the former acknowledged: yes, the situation is bad and we definitely need to incorporate more feedback from our „primary constituents“, the latter tend to look for more radical solutions.

The key questions revolved around: How much power are you willing to yield to others? How much voice are you willing to give to others, which – very probably – will challenge your work?

Thinking about it, it seems unlikely that INGOs will change fundamentaly. It seems very difficult to truthfully incorporate negative feedback, without completely undermining an organisation. „What do you do“, asked one participant, „if in a beneficiary evaluation, you find out that 85% or more of the recipients state that your organisations work has been useless or even harmful to them?“ Giving truthfull feedback might hugely undermine an NGO brand.

Yet, as the concept paper of the workshop rightly pointed out:

Empowering beneficiaries to seriously hold their donors accountable will do more for raising the average quality of projects than any other single step.

Here I obviously get very, very excited about the potential of and our web of trust. Because already now recipients can give feedback on services recieved. If the intervention they receive is on, they can post a statement as a visitor or advocate (well, the terminology for these roles will have to be rethought, as a refugee in a camp is hardly a „visitor“) on the project page.

So far only a few do so, such as the Namibian Benson Muramba, who wrote a visitors statement about what the funds received meant to him. Or the palestinian project Cinema Jenin, were (so far) 15 advocates, among them a number of local inhabitants, and 3 visitors voice their interest in the project and follow its realization. 

But it is not hard to imagine, how this feature can be used for massive real-time reporting.

Better capital allocation
Thus it is with great excitement, that we are planning a cooperation between 
Good Root and Keystone International, with the aim of bridging the power gap by giving more people a voice and thus making it possible for donors to get a much more reliable impression of project quality. The result would be that more money is spend on those projects which deliver effective social change and that ineffective projects would feel the need to change their approaches. This is hardly as easy as it sounds, as social change is often difficult to measure. Still this is no excuse not to use those state of the art impact tools which sit around, waiting to be implemented. 

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 18 May, 2009 5:30 am

    This sounds really exciting, and I’m obviously all in favour of increasing accountability to individuals, but I can’t help wondering what affect this could have on government accountability. Would it just encourage the mentality that NGOs and not governments should ultimately be responsible for service delivery?

  2. 18 May, 2009 7:52 pm

    Hi Lee,
    I would argue that, whoever is responsible for service delivery should make sure that the services are good (and that accountability is not a mere formal managerial procedure). I think that for some areas governments are the ones which should carry responsibility (such as installing and enforcing the right legal and financial frameworks to encourage those approaches which work in poverty reduction and social justice), but we see that in many fields, social business solutions may be more appropriate and effective.

    I am very excited about the whole social entrepreneur scene (Ashoka, Schwab foundation, Acumen fund etc.)and developments like companies targeting the bottom of pyramid market, as covered by such blogs as next billion:

    At the above mentioned conference there was an exchange about the impact of the large NGOs, with one participant asking: does it really matter, what you – the large NGOs – are going to do? Will it matter to the poor in Africa? And the answer was: no. Solutions to poverty will come from elsewhere.

    This is not to say that some of the large NGOs are not trying very hard to embrace a new culture of acciountability and change their corporate culture. But here they face the same difficulties as all large organisations: that the forces securing the status quo are very, very strong.

  3. Alexander Roberts permalink
    20 May, 2009 10:35 am

    I would recommend an essay called “Our Greatest Fear” from the recent release “In the River They Swim: Essays from Around the World on Enterprise Solutions to Poverty.” The collection of essays is quite fascinating but I particularly enjoyed the referenced piece as it really is an insider discussion about where aid fails, not only the people it’s trying to serve, but the people in the field itself who are trying to impart a difference.

  4. 21 May, 2009 10:06 pm

    I just tried to order In the River They Swim a few days ago, but was told it is unavailable! Thanks for pointing out the reference, I’ll try to get the book some other way.


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