Shame on You, Funders

Gina writes:

Frustration has been building regarding this issue and it's time for a rant about it. I'll try to be sensitive and honest at the same time, as usual, but I apologize in advance to any that I offend. The idea that has been keeping me up at night when I allow myself to think about it too much is this: funders expect very little from the NGOs that they fund and the result is a far lower level of impact than is possible.

For many Indian NGOs, the situation is this:

  • the NGOs are funded by various international or national agencies (e.g. WorldVision, Save the Children, CARE)
  • these funders provide money for specific activities (e.g. training sessions, running a residential school, providing goats for poor villagers) or sometimes for a general aim (e.g. raising awareness about government programs, increased possession of land titles, improved quality of education at the government primary schools)
  • the NGOs complete the activities and report the results to the funders based on the funders' requirements (e.g. quarterly or semi-annual reports, specific templates requesting numbers data, stories of success and statements about change)
  • the NGO submit the reports on time and with no red flags regarding misuse of funds or lack of action and the funder renews the project for another 2-4 years

After partially understanding this system and reading some general analyses of international development, I thought that potential problems with this system were:

  • the funders expect very specific data regarding the impact (i.e. how the NGO's activities had changed people's lives for the better), which is difficult because a) long-term outcomes sometimes aren't evident until years after the activities take place and b) activities completed are much easier to measure than the change resulting from those activities
  • the funders templates for reporting relied on development models called logistical frameworks or log-frames that are difficult to truly understand and apply to the work at hand

However, now after working with and observing the front-line level of international development (meaning the field workers who actually interact with the villagers and their managers who compile the data and write reports), I've come to a far different and upsetting conclusion -- funders expect very little from the NGOs that they fund and the result is a far lower level of impact than is possible. The funders don't actually seem to care if the reports are well-done, capturing impact and displaying an understanding of why the activities make sense. My reading lately has discussed funders' increased focus on evaluation and impact, but I don't see it. Almost all of the reports that I've seen over the past 20 months do not really convey how people's lives are better as result of the NGO's work. This lack of accountability for the NGO has drastic consequences:

  • the NGO staff have no incentive to think about the impact of their activities; they just keep doing what they've been doing for years and assuming that the villagers will have better lives because of their work
  • the NGO staff have no incentive to think about whether X or Y activity makes the MOST sense, given the cost and given the expected impact
  • the NGO has no reason to work extra-hard to reach MORE beneficiaries; there are rarely expectations regarding specific numbers/goals (e.g. attending 70 village-level meetings per quarter, helping villagers to fill out 100 applications for new pensions per year)
  • there is never (that I have seen or can imagine) an overall evaluation of the work the NGO is doing in particular villages, asking how the residents' lives have improved because of X activities over Y time period costing Z money
Examples of the statements that are in NGO's reports are:
  • 28 villages were sensitized on their rights to food
  • 55 village women's committees met monthly and discussed things like drinking water and land rights
  • community tracking of PDS (subsidized food program) is going on in all 75 villages
  • 20 people attended the national convention on Right to Education
I would expect that a funder would react to these statements with obvious questions:
  • how many people were "sensitized" on food rights and how can you measure their increased understanding? what will/did they do with this new knowledge?
  • what changes have resulted from the formation of women's committees in the villages? do the committee members feel more confident as part of the committee? are there any unforeseen negative consequences from an approach focussing on forming MANY committees?
  • what information was gained from the tracking of PDS? how was this information used to affect change? what was the NGO's role?
  • what was the perceived benefit of the attendees to this convention? is this the MOST effective way to spend that amount of money?

It's easy to come down hard on the Indian NGOs. "Why don't they care more about the people they're serving?" "Why don't they want to do AS MUCH as they can to help AS MANY people as possible?" It's not that simple, though.

  • The NGO staff at the bottom, the field workers (and even the project managers compiling the reports) get paid a tiny amount, barely enough to support a small family. Why should they provide anything but the bare minimum?
  • NGO management is more often trained in development concepts and not leadership or personnel management concepts. It's difficult to expect them to know how to motivate their 50 staff working on their own out in the field.
  • Low-quality reports have been accepted without question for years, so why should NGOs work to improve them?
  • I'm hesitant to say this, but most Indians that I've met here in rural India do have a deficiency when it comes to analytical skills and critical thinking. The Indian education methodology doesn't encourage creativity or problem-solving, but focuses on rote memorization and knowledge of facts. So project managers, even with a degree in development studies or something similiar, often have difficulty thinking about the IMPACT of activities that their project completes, not too mention how to measure that.

So there you have it. I can't sleep because even my realist ideas of development were too optimisic. I think many Indian NGOs, including the 2 that I've worked with, ARE doing good work. But I don't think they're considering whether the activities that they've been doing for more than a decade truly make the MOST sense (or any sense) and I don't think the field staff are challenged to put their best effort into reaching as many people as possible.

I understand that development is hard. It's hard to do, it's hard to measure, it's hard to keep going. But there must be SOME way that the system can change to result in more impact and better use of funds. What that way is, I don't know. If you have any ideas, let me know, I could really use some encouragement...