Monthly Archives: June 2013

Is Results-based Management worth it? 

This blog post looks at the penetration of RBM in donor policies and asks if it actually pays off. Interestingly, a concern raised is the loss of ‘big picture’ perspectives, with a prevailing interest of donors to track their individual contributions. While wanting to track contributions is understandable, and needed to be accountable to one’s own taxpayers, it perpetuates sector-and portfolio thinking. This inevitably limits the effectiveness of results. I am not a big fan of big declarations, but Paris, Accra etc. were needed, and supposed to change that. Unless we are willing to let go of our individual area of interest and agree to pool our efforts to achieve more, results are not going to get better. 
On a different note – seeing RBM being looked at purely from a donor’s perspective is unfortunately common. While RBM was pushed a lot by donors for better upwards accountability the real objective is surely better results – i.e. downwards accountability, to the people. And this is where we see lack of complementarity (a main tenet of RBM), and continuation of sector and donor silos that do not look like they are going to go away soon. So is RBM paying off? And for who? It seems for now it has mostly improved upwards accountability for individual donors, a far cry from what it could achieve. 

‘BIG DATA’ – useful in humanitarian response?

I just read this article on Big Data in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. While reading, I wondered if there is something we can learn for IT in humanitarian response. I can see some potential in getting information that is helpful for early warning or even actual response from using big data in addition to specific assessments and surveys. An example I can think of is correlating mobile payment stats (mobile money is now pretty universal in countries like Kenya and used by virtually everyone) with livelihood early warning systems, as it could give an early indication of livelihoods changing (e.g. more money being sent from the city to the countryside could indicate a worsening situation).

Real Time Monitoring – fixing all the problems of Monitoring?

I was just sent the link to this blog post on RTM. For a long time we have tried and piloted technology driven ‘real time’ systems for monitoring. SMS monitoring has been around for some time now for example, so have electronic systems in health clinics etc. that feed big monitoring databases. Is this going to fix the issues of monitoring in general – i.e. poor data quality, insufficient frequency etc. At least it should fix the timeliness of data collection, right ? But is it going to help with all the other issues ? Will it encourage better monitoring practice ?

Granted, we need electronic systems, quantitative methods and statistics skills to process data, but the basic human skill of observation (look and listen) is still the most important on the ground – and is so often not used to its full potential. In that respect, real time monitoring definitely leaves a gap – that of someone ‘checking things out’ which is always much more powerful than just collecting data. We need both, and we need to stop treating monitoring as primarily being a data problem – data are part of it, and needed, but nothing can ever replace simple observation.

Data quality in remote monitoring – a comparative analysis

Together with Mona Fetouh, now at the UN Office for Internal Oversight, and Christian Balslev-Olesen, now with DanChurchAid, I have worked on remote monitoring in Eastern Burma, based on our experience in Somalia. Mona presented this experience at the 28th ALNAP meeting in April 2013 in Washington, DC – links to the materials are below.

Both environments are characterised by heavy reliance of by international aid organisations on local partners. Because of this, and other factors hindering direct access for monitoring visits, real-time testing was developed for a number of familiar and new channels to collect and validate monitoring information in remote management situations. The presentation was made from a practitioner’s perspective, and learning from testing new channels for collection and validation was offered.

These are the links to the materials:

ALNAP 28th Meeting

Humanitarian Assistance in situations of poor access

Today, humanitarian organizations are repeatedly faced with situations where their staff cannot directly reach those they intend to help, or only under severe constraints. At the same time, the humanitarian imperative demands that every effort is made to reach those most affected by conflict, natural disasters, or a combination of both.

As a consequence, staff of aid organizations are putting themselves into harm's way. Every year, aid workers are abducted, injured, or killed in the line of duty. Worsening this trend is an increasing humanitarian dilemma, where aid organizations find it harder to remain neutral and
objective in their assistance. Intent to provide aid to those in need no matter what, organisations may get pushed into alliances with parties to the conflict and loose their neutrality. Military forces mix security and aid, and are often required to provide protection for non-military aid missions.
This blurs the lines between parties and non-parties to a conflict and heightens the risk for aid workers. While this has triggered a global debate on the role of aid in conflict zones, no clear solution has been found for the dilemma faced by many organizations, to either meet the humanitarian imperative and put staff at risk, or not fulfill this fundamental obligation to safeguard neutrality and protect their workers.

Increasingly, remotely managed humanitarian operations are seen as a solution to maintain the humanitarian imperative while shifting the direct risk towards local organizations. While a shift to remote management at first may seem as if the lives of expatriates are valued over those of local staff, there is sound reasoning behind the re-allocation of risk.
Firstly, locally based organizations are often linked to strong community structures and hence in a much better position to protect their staff and their interests. Secondly, harming foreign aid workers has additional incentives, an example being the increase in kidnap-for-ransom or for political gains in a number of countries in recent years. Targeting local or community-based organizations does not provide the same gains. As a consequence, local organisations are generally less at risk and therefore an altogether safer option to provide assistance.
However, removing well trained and experienced staff that can access funds, make high-level financial and operational decisions, and can mobilise assistance, from direct aid delivery has consequences for quality. It has been observed that the mind-set of aid workers changes when they are removed from direct involvement. They are more likely to prioritize process over results when they are not directly in touch with what the needs are on the ground. Also, if aid workers because of a remote management set-up cannot even get to understand the local environment and the operational details on the ground, they are more likely to make bad decisions or unnecessarily avoid manageable risks and hence reduce the effectiveness of their assistance. Remote management, while allowing organizations to remain engaged in crises, has therefore severe consequences for the quality of assistance.

While the immediate risk of harm to staff is reduced, other risks therefore increase. Being removed from their implementing partner on the ground significantly reduces the opportunity for quality assurance and timely corrective action for aid organisations. This can lead to bad results (i.e. the risk of programme failure, of not reaching those in need or, in the worst case of doing harm instead of good), or the inefficient use or even loss of financial and other material assets. It also removes the crucial interface between experienced global aid staff and staff of locally based organisations, restricting learning and knowledge transfer. This can hardly be substituted.
Quality assurance, however, is usually substituted through a variety of remote monitoring or verification measures, replacing direct monitoring visits by organisations ' staff.

Using third parties who are not involved in delivering aid but have the same advantages as locally based organisations is one option. Such third party monitoring or third party verification of delivery can be overt or covert, depending on the sensitivity of the situation. The use of third parties can also be appropriate in politicised situations where international aid organisations are concerned about political affiliations of local partners. They can make use of third parties to validate the aims and institutional ties of new partners before entering into a relationship.
Remote management situations often bring up the discussion about humanitarian accountability. In traditional aid delivery there is a theoretical interface between those who provide aid and their beneficiaries. It may not necessarily be used to express the beneficiaries ' view on the suitability and timeliness of the assistance, but can be explored for this purpose. In remote management situations this relationship is severed. To counter this, the use of technology is increasing. Mobile phones have revolutionised communication in developing countries, and are an excellent tool for those who receive humanitarian aid to feed back to those who are providing it. Several initiatives have been successful in providing such channels that can ensure better humanitarian accountability and better targeting and design of aid based on real rather than assumed needs.
Other channels that have been tried in traditional development assistance can also be useful for remote management situations. For example, schools are a usual centre of organisation in rural areas and often attract a group of interested residents who manage and supervise their proper operation. Teachers and school committees are therefore a organisational structures that have an interest in the development of their community and could take up a role of quality assurance of other assistance to the community.

Remote management situations are clearly a disadvantage for all concerned. However, they have triggered a more focused thinking on how to ensure quality of aid delivery under very restrictive conditions. The discussion about humanitarian accountability has certainly benefitted from attempts to include additional sources of verification into monitoring systems and thus opening up direct channels for beneficiary feedback. Therefore, while they should be avoided whenever possible, they breed innovations that will benefit the quality of more regular aid operations.

How holistic – converged – complementary are Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience building programmes?

The drive for DRR and Resilience building has now been around for a few years. There is good literature on the topic – for example this recent book on Resilience that I find very good. I find, however, that inevitably the literature goes into sector-specific measures. I find this potentially risky, as more often than not projects end up covering specific sectors, either because agencies/government departments are specialised in sectors or because of sector-specific funding. Is it not necessary to look at a holistic approach to resilience and DRR and then determine what is needed to really fix it rather than building DRR/Resilience into sector-specific work which seems to be the common practice?
We often end up in this tunnel vision where we look at the country where we work as having special needs or being a special case. I don’t think with most topics this is the case. When I look at the work of local government in say European countries I see generally a holistic approach to disaster risk management. Of course there are sectors, and there are sector budgets, but most of the time there will be a group of people making the decisions as per the actual needs and gaps, and not externally driven. This is the benefit of having tax revenue which is not earmarked – and at the same time a strong argument for making sure that these groups (councils, committee, etc.) have the decision power and the funds to act for the good of the community. In this respect Kenya is a very interesting case – while they used to have the DSGs, District Steering Groups, to coordinate relief and development, with devolution they will now have real county councils with tax revenue that can be much more holistic in their approach. It is going to be interesting to see how they will perform – and how the development partners will support them. If we continue to offer them earmarked funds we will effectively block the potential they have to really strengthen community resilience to shocks.

An interesting addendum: Oxfam’s paper “The post-Hyogo Framework: What’s next for disaster risk reduction?” ( ) points firmly to a holistic, people-focused approach to DRR to mitigate the practice of working in silos.

Are ‘regular’ IMS/MIS useful for monitoring humanitarian response ?

I have just concluded an assessment of national monitoring capacity in countries currently or likely to be affected by natural or man-made disasters. A lot of these countries use Management Information Systems/Information Management Systems that have been supported by the international community, and these are most common in Health and in Education. How useful are these for humanitarian monitoring, especially when it comes to monitoring response (coverage, timeliness, adequacy) ? Is it just a matter of adding more indicators ? What about capacity (human/technical) limitations ? Do they collect data frequently enough ? It seems that while there is potential, when it comes to crises these systems are not capable to deliver the necessary frequency and range of data.
Also, electronic systems, while they are attractive in terms of speed of transmission and standardization of data, leave out a lot of interesting information. To start, the “client satisfaction” with humanitarian assistance remains under-explored, and while systems for getting feedback from beneficiaries of aid are increasingly used, most people still have no easy way to feed back to those providing assistance on its adequacy.
We should therefore be cautious in relying too much on the systems, and focus a lot more on what information we should be using. Which, granted, ultimately can feed into an information management system.