Time To Listen (2): Introduction of Business Principles in Aid

ImageThis is the second post on the Time to Listen report, a book focusing on giving a voice to those on the receiving end of development aid.  You can find the first post here.

The adoption of business principles and practices is a strong trend in many aid providers, illustrated by focus on ‘value for money’ and ‘evidence-based’ programmes.  Information such as the number of people that have been reached, or the amount invested per child to reach a certain outcome are important criteria for success.  It is primarily motivated by the aid providers’ desire to be more accountable both for funds spent and results achieved.

However, this adoption has been markedly selective. While corporations depend on the satisfaction of the end users of their products and services for survival, aid agencies depend on donors to whom they “sell” their projects and programs to provide aid to recipients.  The main concern of aid providers is the satisfaction of donors, rather than the poor receiving the aid. 

Aid agency field directors say that they are promoted and respected if they “grow” their portfolios or budget every year and gain little recognition when they manage to save money for their agencies. Aid donors urge implementing agencies to monitor and maintain the “burn rate” of funds to keep on schedule. When aid budgets are under-spent, donors consider this practice “bad management” and often cut future funding. By contrast, in many businesses, cost savings can be rewarded by bonuses.

“We need strategic, long-term partnerships with donors. The impact doesn’t come overnight. We need to know that we can rely on their support not only tomorrow. If they want to make a change that lasts, they need to start taking longer breaths.” (Coordinator of local NGO in Lebanon)

“Donors only look at the ratio of expenditure to number of beneficiaries, so several of our proposals were not funded by donors. I suggest that donors should adjust selection criteria … donor interests and needs of people do not always align…. Even if the number of people is small, they still need aid as they are very poor.” (Secretary of a community council, Cambodia)

Attitudes and actions of aid recipients are affected by a focus on delivery. To many, this is one of the most disturbing results of the delivery system.  Even though most are clear that they do not want to need aid, they tell how—as aid recipients—they develop skills focused on getting the most aid they can, rather than on developing without assistance. Entrepreneurs become experts in proposal writing, not in running businesses; others become good at manipulating the system by appearing to meet the poverty or other criteria they know will “qualify” them for aid.

Many feel that the delivery system objectifies them. Some feel that international actors use their poverty to raise funds, and many say that more precise policies and standardized procedures among aid providers have reduced the space for them, as recipients, to be involved in considering options, weighing alternatives, and developing strategies for their own development.

People in recipient communities in every location said that, instead of being in the business of delivery, aid providers should be “present.” Many ascribe great and positive changes to the single idea of presence, noting that if “donors spent time with us,” they would “understand our realities,” “provide appropriate things,” “reduce corruption,” and be able to develop respectful, trusting relationships. Listening Teams were struck by the universal and repeated call for aid providers to be “present.”

International and local staff of assistance agencies (and their bosses!) frequently say that they “do not have time” to simply listen to and talk with people because their agencies expect them to focus on “project activities,” programmed around delivering aid on time and on budget.

“Local NGO staff suggested that it is important not to come into a community offering goods but to spend significant time building a relationship.” (Listening Project Report, Cambodia)

This is one of the determining advantages of having one’s office with the partner (in my case a teacher training institute). Contact with the teacher trainers is frequent and gradually, I believe, we have managed to build trust and a respectful relationship, in which they can express their concerns and frustrations, and we can communicate our limitations and donor needs.  I do agree though that building such a relationship takes time, requires knowledge of the local language and is under pressure of needs for reporting and (increasingly) communicating (with the donor public).


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