Over at Tales from the Hood J. asks a good question – should NGOs and aid agencies be more open when they fail? He’s asking the wrong people though. A readership of aid workers academics and students will have many interesting thoughts to offer but they’re not the people this question ultimately needs to be addressed to.
Instead you need to be asking:
People working in the evaluation of aid projects how confident they are that they don’t often get it wrong in their line of work too?
Tax payers whether they’re willing to let a small slice of their tax bill go to helping people in far off lands, even though it sometimes won’t work?
Politicians and journalists if they’ll be wise enough to separate the true aid scandals from mere mistakes and only seek to sell papers and earn political capital from the former?
Wall Street Journal Op-Ed writers whether they will be willing to defend their Libertarianism on philosophical grounds instead of selectively mining aid failures as ammunition in their war against taxes?
And you need to ask the donation consuming public: instead of purchasing atonement and a dose of ‘feel good because you fed the starving child’, will you really give your money in response to more complicate messages?
If the world of aid is to really become more open about getting things wrong, these are the questions that will really need to be answered.
Update: A few more thoughts…
Highlighting the challenges I listed above isn’t the same as absolving the world of aid from all the blame in the current situation. To date we folks working in development have done less than we could (even bearing in mind the constraints above). This has been the case for several reasons.
First, no-one likes admitting they’re wrong.
Second, development is often the battleground for warring ideologies – when you’re belief system is at stake it’s even more difficult to admit you got it wrong, especially when your intellectual enemies are crowing.
Third, and related to point 2, development work is located squarely in the realm of very powerful oughts: morally we ought to give aid, women ought to enjoy the same rights as men, people ought not need to work in sweetshops…When the oughts are this powerful they often eclipse is’s (aka facts of the matter). Often simply because it’s such a battle to get the ought all the way to the policy finish line and put it into practice (getting aid agencies to pay attention to gender, for example) that too few people stop to ask: sure we ought to do this, but can we? And too few people are open to admitting, after all that, that we can’t.
Marc Bellemare has an interesting contribution to the forum, but I have serious doubts when he writes:
Likewise, even though a nongovernmental organization (NGO) admitting failure might incur a small cost for it (i.e., some donors might decide to withhold their funding), something tells me that admitting failure is also pretty much all upside. In other words, there are many more donors who will applaud the NGO for admitting failure than there are donors who will withhold funding
My question for Marc is: you’re an economist, if that’s really the case why has this particular $5 bill being lying uncollected on the pavement for so many years?
I’ve always thought that admitting you’d stuffed up in development work cut the other way: if everyone did it would be easy enough to do but if you’re the first NGO trying to do it you’ll find yourself at the sharp end of a ‘first penguin to leap off the ice sheet’ type collective action dilemma (i.e. it’s the first penguin that has the highest chance of getting chomped by the sea lions). Who’s going to keep giving money to the one NGO that’s forever feeding journalists with stories of what it did wrong.
However, having said that I’m inclined to think that the world of development donors is diverse enough these that days that there is space for certain NGOs, with certain types of donors, to be open in their failures. I know I’d give more money to one which was.