Does multiplicity help?

There has been some renewed interest in the blogosphere about the role of aid agencies in the elusive cause of aid effectiveness. From my little experience with an aid recipient NGO in India, I definitely agree with the views expressed by Barder and Harford.

This NGO is probably an approximation, a microcosm, of the aid architecture in place. From 7 donors in 2004 to 15 in 2007, the organisation was faced with the challenge of tracking different reporting guidelines, expenditure tracking systems, billing guidelines, auditing requirements, currency conversions, not to speak of a steady stream of donor missions. In fact, instead of helping, some local donors complicated matters further by insisting not only on new bank accounts, but also that the account be only in a public-sector bank.

Programme-wise, the NGO was big enough to withstand the lure of big money for new projects (for example, it clearly refused big money for HIV-AIDS work, choosing instead to persist with its focus on water and sanitation and watersheds). In my view, what suffered most was organisational learning. And there wasnt much any donor really did to help. One of the main weaknesses of the NGO was its inability to attract and retain fresh talent (or experienced hands) – an area where the galaxy of donors did precious little to help (there is tremendous potential for “technical assistance” at the micro-level, I think). On the other hand, anyone that could speak some English and put a report together was kept busy handling donor relations, which beyond a point, became a painful chore. And here, I am not even talking about multiple sectors of work – just multiple donors for the same sector.

Sure, it is not all bad. Some donors were excellent and the NGO learnt a lot about putting good systems in place and managing knowledge gathered from the field better. However, I have no doubts that the senior management of the NGO and those who were in coordinating positions (and not burdened with the rigour of frontline implementation) did not nearly learn enough from its own successes and failures and in fact, was primarily focused on fulfilling the minimum requirements of each donor and the organisation. As a result, the NGO lost out on most of their time and inputs on facilitating internal sharing and learning.

Meanwhile, the NGO made repeated attempts to create a ‘basket fund’ where the different donors would pool in their funds and ‘harmonise’, making life a lot easier for all parties concerned. These attempts succeeded with some donors, but most just stuck to their own rules and procedures.

I always questioned myself about how productive I was being in that system and the simple answer was always that I had a hand in keeping the machine moving. But what was the opportunity cost of the time I spent drafting and editing reports? And was there a better way of managing the NGO-donor relationship so more time could be found for working with field teams and other staff? In the haze of day-to-day activities, it is so easy to forget the need to look for an alternative – to ask how the system can be overhauled instead of oiling a new broken bit each day.

PS – I do not for once suggest this is a problem with donors alone. Just think of the multiple committees and sub-committees NGOs like to create in villages (sometimes in the same village where multiple NGOs operate, the same group of influential village elders and enterprising youth are found in every committee, give or take a few here and there) – for education wat-san, fisheries management, forest management farmers groups, women’s group, SHGs etc – all in an attempt to have a distinct footprint…

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