A Case for Coordination and Accountability

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On 6 April 2009, Charles Dhewa introduced a thread entitled ‘Examining Donor and NGO Mindsets’, sparking an interesting exchange of ideas and lessons. The following is the discussion that took place:

Charles Dhewa:

There are over 20 Donors and NGOs concentrating in one rural district of Zimbabwe known as Chimanimani, doing various things, some of them conflicting. Last week I mastered the courage to question one of the donors why they are not moving into new districts but preferring to work in one area with many other donors and NGOs who have been in this area for years. The answer was: "We are spreading our risk. People who work with many donors and NGOs are less likely to divert funding to irrelevant things."

Is this the same approach in Asia and other parts of the world?

Irene Guijt:

Well, what an intriguing assumption, one I have never heard of. What is the evidence for this hypothesis about human behaviour? Having just come back from the Cairo Impact Evaluation Conference, where every talk mentioned the 'theory of change' notion, this donor would at least be asked to show what evidence he/she has of this really important assumption. If this donor is also deadest on ensuring they do an attribution analysis of 'their' funding then they are making life impossible for them by being in an area with multiple other funding streams and initiatives. Very interesting....

Amina Singh:

I do not understand what was meant by that statement. It is puzzling indeed. But I have seen the same thing happening in different parts of Nepal - one place was even referred to as the "INGO Bazaar". I have also seen different donors doing the same kind of activities without information from one another. I have indirectly asked the same question and to me it seemed simply lack of coordination and information sharing - they just were not aware of what the others were doing...or in some cases did not seem too concerned about it and there is some politics in there too...this was in 2007... since then there have been a few visible changes happening. Like the Association of International NGOs bringing together all INGOs for sharing and learning and the Donors working group. But I don’t know how functional they are right now. This is something that has always intrigued me....thanks for bringing it up.

Emmie Wade:

Thank you for raising this important issue. My concern is also the manner in which these communities are burdened with processes and jargon which they do not understand. Most of the time the donors themselves are conflicting and cause confusion. Some donors are responsible for the conflict among villagers. Conceptual processes and paper work required is ernormous, with new administrative procedures frequently being introduced and to be implemented by a lean secretariat hired from the community. Local staff members spend most of their time preparing and submitting reports and hardly have time to practice in the field. Why should introducing a community to Organic Farming require Log Frameworks, RBM, Evaluation Formats and several Reviews.? Besides the same local staff members are left out of important retreats when such processes and jargon are muted.

All this is carried out in the name of Accountability. These interventions often ignore the multidimensionality of poverty and have results so narrowly defined and are expected to be realised in a very short period of time. My take is that, for sustainability, donors should link their support and intervention to the investment and business objectives. Communities should utilize own talents to do business, realise growth, and source own technical expertise where required. Most people agree that AID is not the answer, but investment and business opportunity is what will eventually eradicate poverty in Africa.

Hege Hermansen:

In general, I think "donor coordination" is a major challenge for the donor and NGO community, and it is frequently hampered by factors such as - reverse accountability systems: donors and NGOs are typically steeped in external accountability relationships, so e.g. an 'international NGO' with a base in the UK or Norway is ultimately accountable to their donors in their respective home countries (which will often involve national governments, who in turn are accountable to their national electorates) - the usergroup in Zimbabwe (or any other country) have a secondary role when these accountability relationships come into play.

Donors and NGOs are marked by their own specific agendas, so even when they genuinely try to work together, they may run into differences in mandates and priority areas (e.g. one NGO has a specific focus on gender, another agency sustainable environment, a third on pro-poor policy), and by the time you try to combine everyone's agenda things can become very diluted and/or difficult to manage. There are also fads - after the war in southern Lebanon in 2006 'everyone' wanted to work in the south and the place was swarming with NGOs, while hardly no one wanted to go (or got funding to go) to the Bekaa, where some communities where in just as much need of assistance.

Unfortunately, this often drains huge amounts of resources from a country - at one point I think Zambia had something like 18 different donors working in the field of democratic governance - coordinating that amount of agencies, funding mechanisms and reporting structures takes significant resources on the part of national governments that are often in any case struggling with capacity issues.

Sam Lanfranco:

Having worked in this area for half a century (yep 50 years!) I would like to point out that the dual problems of (a) poor "on the ground" coordination between project and programs, and (b) the complexities resulting from accountability as defined from above (by donors) rather than accountability from below(by recipients) where there half a century ago and are still fully there today.

As the brilliant Guyanese historian and political activist Walter Rodney was fond of saying (before he was murdered). "Once is an incident, twice is a coincident, and thrice is a tendency". What we have here is a tendency that I like to call "persistent refusal to learn".

Persistent refusal to learn is a clear and present challenge to the KM community. If logic, evidence and ethics always point in one direction (coordination & accountability in terms of intent and implementation) and -in fact- that path is never taken, something fundamental is going on. The challenge(beyond just identifying and lamenting the problem) is to better understand why and better understand what to do.

A recent talk by a former Afghanistan finance minister recounted how he asked the IMF and World Bank for advice on how to run a good finance ministry. They have 50 years of existence (and hopefully some lessons learned). Beyond their standard structural adjustment advice (and the World Bank's flavour of the year sectoral focus advice) they had little to offer. He then tried to bring all the donors around the table to coordinate their actions - with little success. He did close down one US contractor that had spent millions and achieved virtually nothing. Within weeks, after stepping down as finance minister, the US contractor was back with a quarter of a billion dollar "no bid" contract.

To understand the tendency for a persistent refusal to learn one has to move the analysis to a higher level than a simple dialectic between learning, doing, learning and doing better. Something else is flawed, and the flaws are in the service of self interest at various levels and locations throughout the development assistance system.

Ueli Scheuermeier:

The core issue behind the disfunctionality that Charles brought up I believe has to do with accountability. The problem in my understanding is that donors - almost by definition - are not accountable to the beneficiaries of their benefaction. What I mean is that under "normal" circumstances where a state can take care of its citizens, the state is accountable to its citizens and mandated by them to manage public interests. But donors do not have this mandate and accountability. This lack of accountability to the beneficiaries makes them "donors" as opposed to government.

There are, I believe, very strong systemic reasons for donor organizations "not to learn" as Sam says. Being a donor is indeed horribly difficult in terms of wrongly aligned accountabilites. Would donors be accountable to the population they serve and would that population have the competence and political skills to control the donors, the population wouldn't allow the uncoordinated scandalous waste of money actually meant to be for their benefit. That would be a political scandal. But donors and foreign funded NGOs get away with it because their masters aren't in the population they are supposed to serve, the masters sit on other continents having their own agenda on which the benefitting population has zero influence.

This is the weird development aid system we are working in. My worry is, that often we actually sabotage exactly the competence and local political skills required to make sense of all the stuff that needs to be taken care of in a society. Without that skill there is a need for a donor (or a competent government, failing which there is again a need for a donor). But first of all a donor can simply follow his agenda and not worry about the complexities, or try to coordinate with the other donors and fail, a persistent phenomenon. But a donor easily survives that, and thereby can inadvertently sabotage the emergence of the governance skills required for not needing a donor any more..... - and organizations tend to operate in a way that perpetuates their raison d'etre. A nasty cycle.

Charles, I'm afraid I now understand what you were referring to. And I'm afraid my assessment is cynical and sarcastic: What you observe will not change. This scandalous waste of resources will not be cleaned up any time soon. The reasons are deeply entrenched in the systemics of "donor". Talk about bad governance and bad "donorance"? I have no easy solution within the prevailing system. Maybe outside.