Saturday, 29 May 2010

Fed up, not fed back

In lots of ways, going round the feedback loop is getting faster and faster.
  • Get Satisfaction gives you real-time feedback from customers on their experience with your products.
  • Five Second Test gives you real-time feedback from the public on how they interact with your designs.
  • Twitter gives you real-time feedback from your friends, co-workers, customers and stakeholders on all your actions and your thoughts.
But what's happening to the feedback loop in development?

William Easterly rightly says:

We need to be getting more and more creative about systems of decentralized evaluation and more informal kinds of feedback on aid projects, taking into account the real challenges such systems face so that they are accurate and representative of beneficiaries. The internet and cell phones make such systems much more feasible now. Some NGOs are already experimenting, like my pals at

Glasspockets, a project run by the US-based Foundation Center, is a project encouraging charitable foundations to be transparent in their giving.

They've got an excellent Grants Database that exerts subtle peer pressure on recalcitrant foundations. And they've constructed a set of performance indicators that international development NGOs and other donors could learn from.

Not yet expired

If you don't already read Owen Barder's blog, you should.

Here's his concise summary of the new aid agenda. Follow the links for the full presentation too.


Last month Martin Brookes, New Philanthropy Capital, argued for charities to be legally required to publish performance data. This is a great idea that I have highlighted on this blog previously.

The problem is there is effectively zero public pressure for this.

The Freedom of Information Act was only introduced after decades of campaigning by individuals and organisations philosophically committed and institutionally designed to keeping check on the state (aside: check out these fascinating first issues of the 'Secrets' magazine from 1984 onwards).

As long as there aren't organisations that represent charity-givers the government won't legislate in this area. What we need is an association that derives its legitimacy from a broad base of support among regular charity-givers. It would be dedicated towards improving the effectiveness of charities and advising members on where to put their money.

(New Philanthropy Capital is an interesting organisation but seem to be more of a consultancy for high-value donors than a broad association for all charity-givers).

In my opinion only a body like the one I've described could effectively mount a campaign for the legislation that Martin rightly calls for.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

back-door progress

This blog began in response to the reluctance of 8 British international development NGOs to reveal what projects they fund.

In the last year we have seen the World Bank, DfID and other governmental and multilaterial donors opening up their data and providing detailed breakdowns of their expenditure.

But despite a lot of promises, NGOs have failed to follow suit.

Increasingly I think that NGOs will only release their data if they are made to do so by either governments or individual charity-givers. Without significant external pressure, they simply won't do it.

Now there is place that this pressure might come from: concern about terrorist financing.

In 2007 the Home Office and Treasury conducted a review of charity rules that called for more transparency. But the response from the sector was so ferocious that they took that line no further.

Now fast-forward to March 2009: the European Council has just published the 'Stockholm programme' which is all about anti-terrorism.

One of the measures is:

"promote increased transparency and responsibility for charitable organisations with a view to ensuring compatibility with Special Recommendation (SR) VIII of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)"

The Financial Action Task Force is an intergovernmental organisation originally designed to stop drug trafficking and money laundering. After 9/11 it was charged with tackling international terrorist financing.

Its ominous-sounding Special Recommendation VIII includes:

"Non-profit organisations are particularly vulnerable, and countries should ensure that they cannot be conceal or obscure the clandestine diversion of funds intended for legitimate purposes to terrorist organisations"

Eurosceptics have been spooked. Statewatch have released a briefing expressing concern about NGO independence. It seems as if the idea of binding Europe-wide rules has been rejected.

It will be interesting to see if this goes any further. My hunch is that anti-terrorism measures have a life of their own. Despite his Euro-bashing, even David Cameron might adopt Recommendation VIII if there is another attack.

Then a step towards charity transparency would have been introduced by the back door.