When I left the govt funding environment I had many criticisms of the bureaucracy and top-down approach to setting program objectives and indicators. I thought a privately funded environment would allow program staff to set goals based on need. What I’ve discovered is that we are beholden to 50,000 donors far less informed than the USAID contracting officer…Without the accountability of an audit from an informed donor privately funded organizations have no motivation to improve program quality by asking tough questions or increasing transparency. In fact the motivation seems to push in the opposite direction. If a largely uninformed, well intentioned donor-base is the principle source of funding for your organization your marketing and communications will tend to reflect their intentions and your programs will begin to reflect your PR.
Part of my problem with William Easterly and his associated ‘Aid Watchers’ is that, in their haste to create and hermetically seal the case for libertarianism, they misattribute (not to mention overstate) the problems of aid, which they often portray as stemming from the moral failings of aid bureaucrats and boosters.
Aid’s boosters and its bureaucrats do, of course, have their shortcomings (they’re human, in other words). And this does contribute to worse aid. But that ain’t the real story. The real story is that they’re working with the money of, and are accountable to, a particular type of master. Typically, neither individuals who donate, nor taxpayers who fund government donors, think or know much about aid. Which is fair enough, they’ve got lives and problems of their own. But it’s also something that creates a particular set of challenges.
For NGOs it means they’re in a market of people who are:
1. More likely to donate on the basis of emotion than consideration. Which is why we have ‘poverty porn’.
2. More likely to believe in the effect of small scale change. Which is why we have child sponsorships.
3. Liable to only ever hear about aid in the media when it’s to do with the next big thing or the last great scandal. Which leaves them with an unduly pessimistic picture of aid as it was and also more likely to give money to people who promise to have hit on something different and new. (An easy promise to make when your audience isn’t particularly informed).
4. Keen on double duty. The appeal of emptying the garage while saving the world explains why in-kind aid lives on despite all its problems.
And in the case of both NGOs and government donors:
5. Prone to not donating or being put off donating if they think there’s any risk of failure. Which is why aid organisations are wary of too openly discussing what’s gone wrong.
In the case of government donors additional problems include:
1. The fact that aid takes place overseas, which provides politicians plenty of leeway to do things such as give aid in a way that benefits powerful constituents of their own.
2. The fact that as civil servants, one way or other, they’re prevented from speaking out against the misdeeds of their political masters.
3. The fact that, in the public imagination, civil servants can do little good anyhow. Which gives politicians even more leeway to play up – because they can always offload at least part of the blame.
In saying this I’m not suggesting that aid can’t be improved, or that it doesn’t need to be improved. Nor am I slagging off ‘the public’: until a few years ago I myself would have fit the descriptions I’ve given above. All I’m saying is that, if all you’re really doing is “just asking that aid benefit the poor” you need to start by asking why that aid which is poorly given is poor in the first place. The bad news is that you won’t get to laugh at Bono so much, but the good news is that you won’t have to travel so much either, because many of the interesting questions are actually about what takes place in our own countries, and the beliefs and understandings of the donation givers and taxpayers who live in them.