A tale of two realities

I attended two entirely different Washington D.C. aid industry events yesterday.

The first was a Society for International Development panel entitled, “M&E in the For-Profit and Non-Profit Sectors: Differences and Shared Advantages” and the second was “Be bold! Risk and reward in U.S. Foreign Assistance” hosted by Oxfam America. (You can take a look at my live tweets from the first event using the #MandE hashtag and the second using #ReformAid.)

The contrast of these two events could not have been more stark. The first focused on the means of fulfilling “contractual vehicles” i.e. servicing donors’ needs and minimizing risk, while the Oxfam event launched their new report, “The Politics of Partnership: How donors manage risk while letting recipients lead their own development.”

As a worker in the aid industry, I believe our most pressing challenge is to ensure a more inclusive discourse that genuinely listens and responds to those the system is claiming to serve. Therefore, we must change our understanding of what we value (ownership) and what we measure (social change).

Only one of these events hit the mark for me yesterday and got us closer to fixing the problems that continue to plague and perplex the aid industry. You probably don’t have to guess which one.


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  1. I am from a Grass root NGO.We are constantly trying to make the donations stretch out as far as humanly possible, maximizing the utilization of the funds received.
    In my nearly twenty years of experience I have found that despite all the surveys and Needs Assessments we do, we still come to the realization that the only person who who knows what he needs and who can solve his/her problem is the person with the problem. Thank God! I ahd learnt some TA to have the humility to understand and accept this.All I can do is to facilitate the process by helping him/ her help themselves.
    What I need is a Donor willing to risk his/her money in our NGO. We can promise that we will make the best use possible of the money donated within the constraints we have to work in.We work on Integrated Health, Education and Development projects aimed at empowering women and adolescent girls and safe motherhood and Child survival.
    Our accounts are an open book available for instant inspection.
    Siddhartha Vatsyayan,
    Director AIDS Awareness Group AAG)

  2. Anonymous

    I’m a little jaded on this “ownership” principle. On the theory, I’m with you. But in practice, the aid agencies just use this as a way to get money out the door. Typically, you see battles between managers who feel the political heat to disburse and technical staff who feel obligated to follow their professional ethics and standards. But the reality is always that money needs to be spent to justify future flows of money. To do that AND have successful projects is difficult, but not impossible. But managers got to their position not by successfully executing projects, but by papering over failed projects and declaring victory. They’re like brand managers. They’re not interested in the technical aspects of the projects – it’s much, much easier to say a few buzz words, show that you’re concerned, and publish brochures of happy kids in front of a “successful” development project.

    Just think about the events you attended. They’re all about risk. Why? Because it’s a huge problem. But having an event doesn’t say that you’re actually managing risk. It’s a marketing ploy telling all stakeholders, “We take risk seriously.” But do they? Hardly.

    Don’t get suckered into their buzz words, like “ownership” because they don’t really care. You need to pay attention to the real problems, like the skewed incentives in the development industry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGiHU-agsGY

  3. @Anonymous I disagree with the argument that the industry’s “incentives” are the core problem. We all know there is a large discrepancy between the resources that are mobilized or acquired by donors, governments and international organizations for global development, and what percentage of the money actually reaches communities and families. If we want to face this reality, important questions remain:

    Do we have the courage to battle the modernist viewpoints and racism that still plague international aid? When will accountability to beneficiaries and local implementing partners come first? How can funding and reporting mechanisms be altered to shave the layers of bureaucracy that each take their share of the funding before it reaches the community level?

    Do we question the sources of power in development enough in our day-to-day work? Do we acknowledge and challenge the policies and practices that marginalize and demotivate people, especially local activists? In all of the seemingly mundane acts of planning, coordinating and monitoring development projects, do we acknowledge the deep and profound difference between social change and service delivery? And if the development industry, as a whole, remains divorced from this, are we missing the whole point?

    One can dismiss “ownership” as another passing buzzword, but the nature of our changing world requires us to get serious about putting real resources behind local initiatives and efforts to overcome obstacles, rather than continue the “old-school” macro-discourse that can objectify human beings’ lives and strip away dignity.

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