Would Turkeys Ever Vote for Christmas?

There was a great article published by Louise Redvers on IRIN at the end of march. If you are interested in understanding what is preventing more locally-led financed interventions from happening, it is well worth the read.

On Saturday Federico and I also attended a “hack” day hosted by Development United looking to address the “collaboration” issue faced by NGOs (both international and local).

How are the two related? The reason why neither currently work, and will face challenges, is that it is not in the interests of the INGOs to make it work. Simply put, the combination of more funding going directly to local NGOs and more equal, and effective, collaboration in the delivery of aid, would signal the end of INGOs as we know it.

 

Caveat: It might seem we are “INGO haters” but lets get this out of the way. We are not. We believe there is a space in International Development for INGOs, particularly humanitarian response. INGOs can and do perform a good and vital service in massive emergencies mobilising resources to respond quickly. But, they are “guilty” of scope creep which has increased their size through a concerted focus on their own development at the expense of local actors who, as a result, have been squeezed out of the market. Critically, none have demonstrated an intent in working themselves out of a reason to be directly involved.

 

Funding

The depressing point of Louise’ article is that having “committed” to providing at least one quarter of humanitarian aid funding “as directly as possible” it seems they are now haggling over terms. It really should be a simple case of passing money through without taking a cut, but instead the debate is how to keep as much of it as possible. What is included in the 25%? What does directly mean? What does “as possible” mean?

While implementing the “localisation” of humanitarian aid has its challenges, they are not insurmountable. There really should be no need to even debate it. Many agencies started working with local partners (Brian Pratt’s Intrac briefing paper talks about some of his early experiences with Oxfam in Peru in 1977), acting as a “bridge”. Yet, 35 years on I have yet to see an INGO actively promoting a national partner it has successfully “capacity built” to stand on their own.

Agencies could start by promoting partners on their website as an alternative to themselves, or even endorse and re-direct their donors to that national NGO in that country.

If there was a concern about how money was spent or how a programme was delivered, they could second staff to be embedded in with their local partner. These could help establish “adequate” systems and develop staff capacity. Not as an external consultant flying in, but as you would, as a team leader, in any company from the inside, over time.

If there was ever an indication of INGO’s “self-interest” and the belief in their own self-importance, this splitting of hairs on terminology and calculations would be one.

Collaboration

Development United is a new social enterprise looking to address and simplify the “collaboration” issue. Understanding who does what where, who has what where, who needs what where, and giving NGOs the space to then exchange and share. All with the aim of reducing duplication, increasing impact and offering quality of service to the end user. I can sense the aid-workers reaching to type a response about the challenges of why it won’t work, the potential harm it could do, how social enterprise should stick to what they know, and how actually these sorts of initiatives do in some form or another exist…etc. But pause and think. It may work, it may not. But in doing something they are testing how it works, and hopefully they will learn via the process of iteratively improving what they offer. And if it works, how much better would aid delivery be?

As with the re-directing of finances, it will have its challenges, not least because there is currently limited incentive to collaborate. It half works in it’s own way, via different coordination groups, alliances and personal contacts. But it is exclusive, inconsistent and entirely dependent on either personal relationships or donor ‘encouraged’ conditions. In a sector where being seen to be first, to be seen doing the most, and having the evidence to prove it to generate more donations, collaboration is a hindrance. Real collaborative partnerships take time, a real sharing of resources and common objectives. Both parties need to feel it has benefit to each of them.

Two issues put INGOs in difficult positions. Having promoted their connection with “local”, their capacity building and training programmes, these questions about funding and collaboration raise questions about what have they actually been doing for the last 50 years. Who are your partners? Why are they not able to stand on their own? if they are, why don’t you promote them? If you don’t have partners, why not? If you don’t collaborate, why not?

Most INGOs when they started out probably never imagined they would become multi-million dollar, multi-national entities. Their aim was to help those in need, in the best and fastest possible way. But the ends no longer justify the means. In the same way that companies are re-examining their strategies and operations through a lens of shared value, INGOs need to do the same. It is not enough to be “getting it done”, they need to consider how they are doing it, what (if any) the added value of their direct involvement is through an honest and holistic cost-benefit analysis, and what the overall impact of their intervention is and was. It might not apply to all scenarios (e.g. emergency response to famine in south sudan), but it can and does apply to many of them.

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