Category Archives: Aid Systems

Driving change, differently.

Very recently I have been venturing into corporate social responsibility work in agricultural products. While this is somewhat outside my core expertise I am thoroughly enjoying the experience and it gives me a lot of thought about aid systems (and development without aid). I have now spent some time training young extension workers in a Southern African country on two occasions and just have to write about how optimistic this makes me for the future of this region. I have encountered extremely smart individuals that think so easily outside the box that it is mind-boggling. They have no hesitation to say what they think, and come up with all sorts of good ideas and insights and perspective that are just so important to drive change in their country. They are genuinely committed to improving lives, and while they work for a commercial company which some of the more purist of my peers would put up their nose at, they will be as much drivers of change as those working in development ‘proper’. And you know what, working in the private sector, they actually represent the power to just drive such change. Their impact will be across the country on hundreds of farms, they will over the years change attitudes and practices, bit by bit and in line with corporate policy, but change they will them. So as far as I am concerned there is nothing wrong with that – this is as much development as is aid programmes – with the advantage that it is dynamic, responsive, and focused while never losing sight of the economic side of things – which the more purist development work sometimes does not so well. Because let’s face it – if a farmer can’t make good money from a harvest (s)he is unlikely to pay decent wages, unlikely to care about educating the worker’s children, and unlikely to invest in a healthy environment for workers and their families.

Aid, what Aid ?

I had a chat with someone at a party the other day, about work and careers. During this conversation I mentioned that I tend to have my fingers both in development aid as well as in humanitarian aid, and seeing the person’s surprise got me thinking. We still like to tuck things nicely into drawers, and play in pretty separate leagues – the humanitarians in one, and the development workers in the other – are we not ? We eye each other – sometimes somewhat suspiciously – across an artificial divide (what divide?). Even those that give the money are often still divided (several bilaterals come to mind), as is the UN, really (with one or two notable exceptions of agencies that do both). And then we wonder why exciting stuff like Resilience is so difficult to grasp. Because it happens right on the divide.

The world in 2016 really brings it home. Europe is desperately clutching at straws to find solutions for the refugee crisis, everyone is (again) calling for ‘addressing the root causes’ and quickly money is pumped into ‘new’ programmes to do just that. At the same time we are staring helplessly at some of the worst humanitarian atrocities of our lifetime happening in Syria, and generally don’t know what else we can do other than pouring more aid into programmes – humanitarian or development (whatever?)

But we are still not connecting the dots, we pour money from separate pots into separate endeavours and wonder why there never seems to be much progress. So why don’t we team up for real and make this one aid system, no matter what happens ? Let’s face it, at the end we are trying to help people to a better life. There are many ways to do that, but the worst of options is to save their lifes, then go away (because the drawer system makes us) when we have achieved that, only to come back another day (when things are normal again) and start development programming. Or the other way round, when things go haywire we pull out the development funding, only to come back with humanitarian cash some time later when things have really gone bad.

If aid was a listed company it would have gone out of business a long time ago. The efficieny losses we incur by separating humanitarian and development aid are enormous, both in human and in real capital. I know, it has been tried (do I hear ‘early recovery’?) and of course now there is resilience programming. But deep down inside the divide remains, and we will continue to have conversations where we discover that people we meet in our line of work are either development workers or humanitarians, very rarely both. Unless that changes, and unless that changes also between institutions we are not going to improve people’s lives for real. Really.

The thing about middle-income countries

So for the first time ever I get to work in a middle income country (MIC) on programming, and it is very interesting indeed to get my head around the differences to less developed countries. What I realised pretty much immediately is that the generally accepted MIC classification is pretty one-dimensional (it is based on GNI/capita) – it does not say anything at all about what the wealth distribution in the country is. And then, of course, there are also differences in what I would call the beneficence of the government. Where I am now, they are pretty generous, and get the money down to the people – there is very visible investment in schools, clinics, social protection programmes; and government staff get their salaries and all that. So very different from a lot of countries that classify as MIC but have less benevolent governments and do not invest as much in public services. So the numbers don’t tell the story. What I also find interesting is that with the rise in (monetary) status comes a withdrawal of international assistance. Donors and the UN reduce their budgets, and have to seriously think about their role in such countries (especially in those where the government is actually concerned about their citizens’ wellbeing). And with different roles also comes different capacity – you can’t have big offices when there is no big budget, and you will have to work very differently by much more subtly influencing government to further improve its social investment. Different skill set altogether, while having hardly any funds to actually pay for staff to work in these offices. This is really the point about aid systems, how do development partners work differently in MICs, and how do they work much more together than in those large programme countries where the burn rate dictates the work, and coherence and convergence are not really thought about? There is a very interesting article on this by Andy Sumner who has very much turned the concept of the “bottom billion” around to point out that increasingly the poor live in middle income countries and are the ones that are left behind by GDP growth. To reach these (or rather to help benevolent governments to reach these), as he argues, is an altogether different challenge that, under the circumstances of reduced resources for development partners in such countries requires a very different way of working. This certainly rings very true here, and it will be interesting to see if it is possible to have very different programmes in such circumstances that actually reflect this reality.

How do we measure performance of humanitarian funding?

I recently analysed the performance of humanitarian funding from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) for a client. The CERF provides an interesting insight into performance monitoring of humanitarian money. It is managed by UNOCHA, who over the last years have gradually improved monitoring of its performance. All the data is publicly available and can be used by anyone to get a very detailed insight into the mechanics of humanitarian funding (CERF Performance and Accountability). This is important as the purpose of the CERF is to provide immediate, kick-start assistance to humanitarian operations, and its contributors should really be able to know whether this ‘spirit’ of the CERF is adhered to on the ground.

What is interesting, though, is the very specific focus on cash throughput (to be blunt). Which is important, as apparently a number of recipients are struggling with spending CERF money as fast as it is provided. The CERF itself actually excels in the fast provision of funding: I found that the time between the application for grants under the Rapid Response window reaching the CERF secretariat and disbursement of the funds is in most cases around a week. Which compared to other humanitarian donors is very fast. The recipients, directly only UN agencies, and indirectly NGOs, then have to use the funds as soon as possible, but within six months of disbursement. This is often a bottleneck, and there are lots of examples (as can be seen from the publicly available data) where agencies have not spent the funds anywhere near the speed they were approved and received. So, ‘burn rate’ monitoring definitely has a role until there is faster expenditure across the board.

What so far seems to be lacking though is the output-level and outcome-level performance monitoring. Not so easy to achieve and measure, as it begs harmonisation of indicators, it basically comes down to what each agency reports for each grant. So for one grant the individual agency reports can differ markedly, both in level of detail and degree of quantification. One reason for this is that the CERF due to its limited volume only contributes a very small proportion of an agency’s total funding for a particular response, and is often mixed with other funds to support one joint response. So it isn’t quite so easy to isolate the contribution of the CERF to a particular part of the operation.

Standard indicators would be an option, i.e. on application an agency would have to commit to which indicators they would report against (they could ideally be SPHERE indicators). But this needs prior agreement, there may be negotiation, and this will delay the currently very fast disbursal. Also, some agencies cannot in their systems isolate the contribution of a particular grant if it is mixed in with others, effectively rendering them ‘blind’ to what a particular pot of money bought in a particular operation.

There is a long way to go therefore, in the process of humanitarian evolution, and the harmonisation of systems for managing emergency response, to allow a better understanding of what humanitarian money actually and specifically achieves on the ground. For now, we only really know what each agency achieves (which is good and valuable), but not whether the ‘spirit’ of the CERF was preserved and its funds were really spent on the most immediate and pressing needs in any particular emergency.

How to not coordinate

This is a little piece of fiction – based on true events but for all involved it is better not to name the location or the actors. There is this smallish, pretty aid-dependent country that has always been somewhat of a darling of the international community. Lots of aid coming in, and all the good stuff being done – supporting government to do things themselves, strengthening systems, building capacity. There is this particular sector in this little country that has really made progress in improving lives. The numbers of those in need in this sector are going down steadily, and it looks like our little country is on track to get rid of one major problem bogging it down in a few more years. All good, until one looks at how this is all going down. It turns out there is a bit too much coordination going on – to the extent that the lay person may get the impression that coordination is the main occupation for everyone. Let’s see – there are 8 sector committees – one for all, one for the Executive, one for Parliament, one for the donors, one for the donors and government, one for the NGOs, one for. . .  ?  (forgot that one). As one can imagine there are many many meetings that – surprisingly – the same people go to all of the time. Especially the government people who are running all these actually very productive activities hardly get any time to actually do any running – besides running from one meeting to another. Is this what we call aid effectiveness? Certainly not the most efficient way of getting things done. And i have this sinking feeling that my little country is not the only one down there? Dare I ask if things could go even better if people had the time to do their job? I wonder. . . 

What happens to sustainability when donors don’t trust the government anymore?

I am trying to get my head around to what happens to a cooperation programme when donors refuse to give direct funds to the government. One big argument of funding government to do good things is that it builds capacity and hence leaves something behind – in theory at least.
When donors refuse to do that, and insist that development funds can only go to NGOs, it becomes really difficult to continue to support government capacity – and how is that going to leave government more capable to handle services by itself down the line (at one point)? Funding NGO projects can easily just get everyone into a cycle of aid dependency, and certainly won’t build better government.
Is this the moment where one should go all the way down to the community level? And where does government start, i.e. where does support have to stop not to violate donor conditions? It certainly is not a very straightforward situation, and needs careful – and some really good creative – thinking to not make blocked aid a more serious problem than it already is. . . .

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. 

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.