Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Knowledge is power

As someone famous once said, "knowledge is power".

New Philanthropy Capital is an organisation which mostly works on charities working in the UK. But this interesting article by their Head of Research on the sparsity of information released by charities could well be applied to international development.

Let's build the aid architecture

A few years back, when I was taking a post-graduate course at university, one of my fellow students managed to confuse himself in the most bizarre way. We had just had a seminar on the different agencies which donate, manage and deliver aid - something often referred to, in typically opaque language, as the "architecture of aid". He must have got completely the wrong end of the stick because he seemed to think this "architecture" was something you could actually build. In all seriousness he then attempted to persuade the rest of the group that it would be a worthwhile exercise to actually construct a 3-dimensional model of the "architecture of aid". No-one knew quite what to say.

But anyway, I thought I would point readers towards an article written by Donald Kaberuka, the President of the African Development Bank Group. He writes about the "aid architecture" and notes that:
aid to developing countries is delivered via more than 150 multilateral agencies, 33 bilateral members of the OECD/DAC, at least 10 non-DAC governments and a growing number of global Vertical Funds. The number of donors per country has multiplied threefold in two decades. Some developing countries have more than 700 active (sometimes very small) projects and receive more than 400 missions a year, each with its own specific requirements...

The question that is challenging to all of us and is urgent is - how do we find the right kind of framework that accommodates the increased generosity by the foundations, the significant role likely to be increasingly played by the new official players within the context of real additionality, best practices, innovation and accountability to those who give and those who receive by ensuring we are effective and get sustainable results.
I suspect the answer, perhaps counter-intuitively, is not more aid co-ordination. Instead, we need more aid competition. The "architecture of aid" needs to become significantly more transparent about 1) who is funding what and 2) how effective it is. Improved aid will be the result.

Monday, 29 October 2007

New kid on the block

Douglas Alexander, the new Secretary of State for International Development, has written in DfID's Developments magazine about his recent trip to Afghanistan:
I think we can do more to make sure the public understand what development is about and to take pride in the UK’s role in it. I wish I could have taken a group of tax payers to the school in Afghanistan that I visited last week, and introduced them to the headteacher who taught for many years under trees in the garden of that school, and then later under canvas but is now teaching in a fantastic school building. I wish people could have listened, as I did, to the schoolgirls there who had been denied an education under the Taliban, but now told me how they aspired to be doctors and engineers. I don’t think I’d have any difficulty convincing people that their money had been well spent, and that it was the right thing to do. It’s part of my responsibility to share those stories with the public.
But it is not good enough to strive to 'share stories' with the public - since, if politicians (and some development agencies) have their way, these will always be stories of success.

What's needed is a more determined effort to share the successes and failures of development interventions in a way that lets professionals learn from mistakes and the public keep spending in check.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Small place; big idea

Look at this cool website called MicroPlace. It allows members of the public to select 'investments' in microfinance institutions around the world and directly invest in them. It's a great idea because it puts donors in the driving seat.

This is the way the whole development sector must go. People in developed countries want to have control over their donations and see exactly where it is going. They want to read an evaluation report of the specific project they are supporting. They want to read the honest opinions of the project's beneficiaries on the website.

The first step in building this kind of system must be greater transparency on the part of governmental and non-governmental development agencies.

Taking a scientific approach

You may have heard recently about the idea to use randomized field trials to evaluate the success or otherwise of develoment interventions. It's a great idea to add rigour to the evaluation process and there's obvious potential here for finding out (to use a horrible phrase) "what works".

But the problem is this. If development agencies and donors are not forced to publish their results and be transparent about their failures then the lessons from set-backs will not be identified, let alone shared. At the moment they face no incentive to let the world know about their failures because, they imagine, this would only lead to reduced donations and funding.

As ever, political factors get in the way of progress.

Hobbs on accountability

The Herald Tribune recently published an interview with Jeremy Hobbs, the executive director of Oxfam International.

In it, he teasingly says: "...if NGOs take over public responsibilities then they would have to be accountable to the public they serve."


Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Innovate this

Why is innovation such a big deal in business but so difficult for government and the third sector to get to grips with?

It's because NGOs and the state don't face the same incentives as business does. The main priority becomes fulfilling contracts and getting more contracts - not addressing the problem in fundamentally new ways.

This isn't a problem which is easy to solve, but (you guessed it) increased transparency would certainly help. If donors were totally candid about their successes and failures then there would be more of an opportunity to piece together what works and what doesn't. Someone, somewhere, might even come up with a better way of doing things.

Another way to inject some innovation would be to flip the funding model on its head. Instead of paying development organisations for what inputs they say they will deliver (as in the normal contract model), they could be payed for the outcomes they achieve (as in the prize model). Several renegade philanthropists are now operating in this way. It makes you wonder: if the promise of a large prize can galvanize engineers into designing affordable space travel, what could it do for development?

Monday, 22 October 2007

Nestle v Oxfam

In March the One World Trust published its Global Accountability Report, which compares various measures of accountability between 30 intergovernmental, non-governmental and corporate bodies.

It scores each organisation in various ways – and one of the indicators is transparency.

This indicator is formed of six ‘components’ which focus on whether the organisation has a “policy on information disclosure” and “systems to support transparent practices”.

This is how well they did on that measure (p.26):

That is, international NGOs were the least likely of the three groups to have a transparency policy and commitment to transparency. Both Nestle and the World Bank, frequently on the wrong side of INGO criticism, scored more highly than all the NGOs, including Oxfam, IFRC and World Vision. Only ActionAid bucked the trend.

This is what these organisations should do:

  • Introduce a policy that guides its disclosure of information and ensure it includes:
    • A commitment to respond to all information requests
    • A timeframe for responding to information requests
    • Narrowly defined conditions for nondisclosure
    • An appeals process for denial of information
  • Ensure the organisation’s leaders assume responsibility for oversight of transparent practices and compliance with information disclosure policy
  • Develop training on the information disclosure policy
  • Disseminate the information disclosure policy to external stakeholders and translate it appropriately
  • Include a ‘contact us’ function on the website

The 2007 Global Accountability Report will be launched on 3 December 2007 - so stay tuned!

The toothless dog

Andrew Mitchell, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development has pushed Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for that department, into creating a DfID watchdog but rightly identified his proposals as being "toothless and weak".

As Mr Mitchell points out the proposed Independent Advisory Committee on Development Impact (IACDI) is to only to have the power to comment on DfID's ability to evaluate itself - but not to commission independent evaluations itself.

He is also right on the money to label DfID as operating with a "culture of secrecy" when it comes to giving out information on how money is spent on development programmes. Few details are available on where and how DfID's money is spent and whether it has been effective.