Monday, 10 December 2007

OWT's Christmas present

One World Trust today published its 2007 Global Accountability Report. It compares 30 intergovernmental, non-governmental and corporate bodies on measures of transparency, participation, evaluation and complaint handling.

The international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) under study (in order of best to worst performing) are:

  • Christian Aid
  • International Accounting Standards Board
  • International Save the Children Alliance
  • Aga Khan Foundation
  • Human Rights Watch
  • International Organization for Standardization
  • Medecins Sans Frontiers International
  • MERCY Malaysia
  • Greenpeace International
  • Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA)

The headline findings are:

  • Only 3 INGOs have transparency policies and two lack readily-accessible ‘contact us’ functions
  • All the examined INGOs make commitments to engage external stakeholders but only four have organisation-wide guidelines in this regard
  • Over half the INGOs have evaluation policies but only two commit to being open with evaluation results.
  • The overall quality of INGO internal complain handling is high but external complain procedures are where the sector’s accountability capabilities are least developed.
One World Trust are now carrying out their survey of 30 organisations every year. One suggestion: why don't they also include a review of a selection of previous years' organisations to see if they've improved or not?

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Something Is Being Done (SIBD)

Just finished reading Bill Easterly's 'Planners vs. Searchers' article - a gem.

Among many bold and fresh ideas there is one which stands out: that the world's international development machinery has become..."stuck on infeasible grand objectives like "ending world poverty"." They constantly come up with new plans, strategies and frameworks for achieving this massive goal, even though these repeatedly fail.

It struck me that instead of persevering with impossible efforts to change the lives of the most vulnerable and needy, we should try and do what we we know works, for those we can help.

The meaning of accountability

Here's a classic article on the meaning of 'accountability' as it applies to a range of players in world politics.

Grant and Keohane argue that forms of accountability of an institution can be split between
  1. Participation: performance is evaluated by people affected by use of power by the institution
  2. Delegation: performance is evaluated by people entrusting the institution with power
The authors identify three components of accountability: standards, sanctions and information. It is difficult to pinpoint the use of any of these components when it comes to international development NGOs. Neither the poor nor donors effectively hold them to account.

Institutional mechanisms are particularly weak in terms of information:
Crucial to the efficacy of an information system for controlling abuses of power is that control over it not be limited to power-wielders and the entities that originally authorized their actions. On the contrary, the system should be open to new groups, seeking to provide information relevant to the question of whether power-wielders are meeting appropriate standards of behavior—–and to make that information widely available...Furthermore, the costs of providing information through web sites are now so low that it is difficult to use cost or inconvenience as an excuse; people around the world are increasingly used to being able to get the information that they want almost instantaneously...NGOs must also be increasingly transparent if they are to remain credible.


Here's an interesting piece from the Economist on volunteer distributed computing. It discusses how the world's idle computing power can be harnessed for public good, by using them to work on time-consuming and repetitive tasks simultaneously.

In the past, these projects were only used for scientific endeavours - such as modelling the physical properties of proteins or scanning radio signals for signs of extra-terrestrial life. The numbers of people taking part is vast: 5.2 million people are registered with SETI@home.

A new set of volunteer computing projects is now emerging. They:
  • Tackle non-scientific problems: Africa@home and the World Community Grid are both dedicated to international philanthropy
  • Employ participants' brains as much as their computing power: The ESP Game and Herbaria@home get participants to do things which computers find difficult.
Africa@home will soon launch a project which will ask participants to look at satellite images of poorly-mapped regions of Africa and ask them to identify cartographic information, such as roads, villages and fields. If successful this would obviously have huge potential for governments, aid agencies and climate change scientists.

There must be plenty of other ways in which volunteer computing could be used for international development. Here are some ideas:
  • Identifying trends in local markets to help people know when they will get the most favourable price
  • Identifying trends in population dynamics and migration following conflict or disaster
  • Identifying trends in the way diseases spread amongst different groups

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Three-eyed monster

Let's have a closer look at the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (known as '3IE') which has been driven forward by Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development (the subject of the previous post).

In Bellagio earlier this year a group of development agencies decided upon the wording of a proposed founding document for 3IE. It will be a non-profit membership body which will commission 'rigorous' impact evaluations of development programs. The founding members are:
  • African Development Bank
  • Asian Development Bank
  • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Canadian International Development Agency
  • Center for Global Development
  • Department for International Development
  • European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
  • Millennium Challenge Corporation
  • Ministry of Finance, Lesotho
  • Ministry of Finance, Nigeria
  • Ministry of Finance, Uganda
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Netherlands
  • Ministry of Health, Mexico
  • Ministry of Trade, Indonesia
  • National Treasury, South Africa
  • Planning Commission, India
  • UNDP-Regional Bureau for Africa
  • William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
They should obviously be applauded for their insight and ambition and other development agencies (most notably INGOs) should be encouraged to join 3IE as soon as possible.
However, in the spirit of constructive criticism it is worth highlighting three crunch questions as a litmus test for the robustness of the organisation:
  • Will the evaluation standards be explicitly defined, rigorous and methodologically sound?
  • Will the process for choosing impact evaluations ensure that the right studies are conducted?
  • Will there be institutional safeguards to ensure that members' blushes are not spared?
I hope the answer to all three is 'yes'; time will tell.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Heralding a new dawn

Here's an interview with Nancy Birdsall, posted on the International Herald Tribune website.

I asked Nancy a question about programme evaluation and she kindly responded, giving details of the work of her Center for Global Development in this field.