Tag Archives: Aid effectiveness

The 1st Annual Primetime Devie Awards!

You know when you see it in action.

A development practitioner who excels at what they do.

This development practitioner is the first to admit that working in the sector is complex and doing meaningful work requires navigating this complexity. This practitioner isn’t afraid to advocate for change and try new things. They understand success is rare, and admit when work has failed. This practitioner knows their biggest contribution often involves stepping back and creating space for others. And they spend most of their time investing in their peers and colleagues. Continue reading The 1st Annual Primetime Devie Awards!

Accepting flaws and doing good: Some thoughts on cognitive dissonance

This post is the second in a series of responses to Jonathan Favini’s recent piece on cognitive dissonance. Stay tuned as the conversation continues, and share your own thoughts in the comments.

By Erol Yayboke

Jonathan’s post on the “cognitive dissonance” required to work in development aid concludes with a series of broad questions that can loosely be translated into: how do you (i.e. “older, wiser” development practitioners) sleep at night? Though not an entirely fair translation, his broader aim to question the “development industry” is well taken. Most of us have had similarly awkward encounters with our barbers, taxi drivers and cousins that left us wondering whether we deserved such praise.

Before offering my “sage” responses to the valid questions every development aid worker should ask of him/herself and others, there are a couple points I’d like to make about the arguments that led up to Jonathan’s questions.

First, the “development industry” is a totally theoretical construct that includes countless non-profit, public, private and multi-lateral players, all with competing resources and agendas. We (including yours truly) overuse and abuse it regularly. Also, “development” as presented in the article is heavily skewed towards how “we in the West” have an impact on “those in the rest.” It’s important to note that part of the complexity of development is the fact that this West-centric viewpoint is simultaneously paternalistic and not entirely accurate.

Employees at India’s Ministry of Environment don’t see themselves as working in “development” per se; much like my friend at the U.S. Department of Energy, they’re working within the bureaucracy to improve their country. In other words, there is simply no utopian singular entity called “development” – it is a complex web that doesn’t even begin to understand itself (just ask any UN OCHA employee).

In spite of this, some groups have shown remarkable successes in health, food security and generally getting people to care about things outside their own communities (which I posit is better than the isolationist alternative).

I recommend focusing on criticising and offering improvements to specific sectors and programs based on concrete evidence, as opposed to chastising “development” as a whole.

Second, some of Jonathan’s article relies on one unfortunate tacit assumption: that the Peace Corps is a “development” organisation. Despite claiming that it “[sends] Americans abroad to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world” and work towards “sustainable change,” at best, the Peace Corps is a diplomatic ideal; it was arguably set up as such by Kennedy during the Cold War.

An admirable service organization that has undoubtedly “helped people build better lives,” Peace Corps is nonetheless one whereby, in practice, (mostly) young, energetic, bright Americans who often lack relevant technical skills (how many of us have met a health volunteer who didn’t know First Aid?) ingratiate themselves to communities that would otherwise probably never meet such aliens (double entendre intended).

More realistically (and acknowledged by the organisation itself), Peace Corps service is a time for self-discovery – as was the case for the volunteers Jonathan knew in Senegal – a time for Americans themselves to grow in compassion, worldliness and resilience. All noble outcomes, none of which have anything to do with “development.”

Now to the “sage wisdom.”

On reconciling the “industry’s flaws” with my own professional identity, I’d say that we live in a flawed world where nothing is ever perfect. Only by understanding and experiencing these flaws can we improve ourselves and the world around us. As professionals, we should constantly be in pursuit of more efficiency, effectiveness and impact. It’s important to establish meaningful metrics for your project (NGO, sector, industry, etc.) and for yourself, referring to – and learning from – them often.

I’m a believer in having opinions based on evidence and in the value of real, long-term, first-hand experience topped with healthy doses of skepticism (of which Jonathan lacks not). Ultimately though, we all must strive to first, do no harm – even the best of intentions have the potential for unintended consequences.

On recognising problems while continuing to work in this field, I’d challenge Jonathan to find a profession that does not toil with this (somewhat existential) question.

To most (in our “industry” at least) who look hard enough, the systemic flaws are readily apparent and littered with political, financial and sometimes even nefarious roadblocks. The challenge (and great reward if you succeed) is to find solutions that are politically supportable, administratively feasible and technically correct. If you can manage to do that, give yourself a hearty pat on the back and scale up!

As for motivation on those ever-present tough days where doubt creeps in? This is a very personal struggle that we all face at points, even while working on the most impactful of projects. Am I truly doing no harm? Am I actually “making a difference?” Alas, there is usually no black and white answer; there rarely is in life. However, the pursuit of impact should drive us to better understand and continually refine our efforts.

This desire for more evidence has even spawned a research-based “industry within an industry” (J-PAL, IPA, EPoD, Evidence Action, etc.) whereby some of the smartest people on the planet (full disclosure: though I work for one of these organisations, I am not one of said geniuses) study the most intransigent development issues. We’re learning more about our impact than ever before.

So, for an inquisitive mind like Jonathan’s, never was there a better time to lace on the boots and head to Busia. Along the way, try not to get overwhelmed with the scope and magnitude of the problems, but to break them into smaller, much more manageable (and ideally measurable) pieces.

My last bit of advice for Jonathan is to accept his barber’s praise. He chose to work in development in order to make a difference, something at which he will undoubtedly get better over the course of his career, as the “dual tides” of experience and healthy scepticism drive him towards greater impact. Jonathan – feel good about what you’ve done, and use the praise as motivation to improve the aid world, or whatever small corner of it you decide to call home.

Erol Yayboke is a Program Manager with the Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) team at the Center for International Development at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a member of the Board of Directors of the Andi Leadership Institute for Young Women. He holds a Masters in Public Affairs from the University of Texas at Austin and currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can check our his blog and follow him on Twitter. (Erol’s views are his own and do not represent the opinions of these or any other organisations.)

Featured image by Tippy Tap.

MissionCreep #4: Arseholes, perceptions and books

Your hosts, Brendan Rigby, Carly Stephan and Weh Yeoh, are back with episode 4 of the MissionCreep podcast, bringing you fresh and frank voices in global development.

This time, Weh wants to know why there are so many egotistical arseholes working in development (it’s not law, after all!). Plus, Carly responds to a bureaucrat who doubts the effectiveness of aid, and Brendan asks about aid workers’ reading lists.

Join the conversation! Let us know how you deal with the arseholes you encounter, and send us your book recommendations. Leave a comment here or on Facebook, e-mail us at info[AT]whydev.org, and use the hashtag #MissionCreepDev on Twitter. We’ll respond online or on the next episode of the podcast.

Runs 37:39.

You can also listen to the podcast here or download it on iTunes.

Brendan Rigby
Brendan Rigby
Carly Stephan
Carly Stephan
Weh Yeoh
Weh Yeoh





Articles referenced throughout the podcast:

Why competing over funding is killing development (and how we might improve)

The troll slayer: A Cambridge classicist takes on her sexist detractors

This is the No. 1 thing that holds most people back from success.

Essential reading on foreign aid

How humanitarian aid weakened post-earthquake Haiti

Putting our money where our mouths are? Donations to NGOs and support for ODA in Australia

Jihadists buy Islam for Dummies on Amazon

Book recommendations from the podcast: Thinking Fast and Slow, Made to Stick, Rohinton Mistry, The Power of Now, A New Earth, Daring Greatly, The Big Leap, Emergency Sex, Zen under Fire, You Are Not So Smart, Development as Freedom, The Bottom Billion and War, Guns & Votes.

Jeffrey Sachs answered questions on Reddit, here are the highlights

by Rebekka Bond


Recently, the online community of Reddit provided us with yet another great opportunity to question one of today’s top minds in a social-convention-free zone. On January 15th, Jeffrey Sachs took part in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session where hundreds of Reddit users were able to ask him educated and insightful questions about his work, beliefs, and opinions. If you’re wondering what Sachs could possibly be doing on Reddit, or what Reddit even is, be sure to check out this great article by Rowan Emslie which should help to clear that up.

Part of Sachs’ motivation for doing the AMA was likely to promote his upcoming free online university course ‘The Age of Sustainable Development’. This 14-week course begins on January 21, and if your interested you can learn more or register for it. Sachs encouraged many of those participating in the AMA to take the course and “join the generation-long quest to achieve sustainable development”.

For those of you who may not have the time to read this entire (rather long) article, here are some of the main takeaways from the AMA:

  • The importance of public health and environmental sustainability dominated the discussion
  • Sachs stood adamantly behind his views about foreign aid (as expected)
  • He often used the AMA as a vehicle to help plug his main causes and give them more exposure

Over the course of the AMA, Sachs also expressed his opinion on some topics you may have not expected, including the recently leaked draft of the TPP´s (Trans-Pacific Partnership) Environment Chapter, how automation and robotics will affect development, and even Sachs’ favourite novels. While these were definitely interesting insights, below I will focus mainly on recapping the main themes and top comments for anyone who missed the AMA.

What is Sustainable Development?

“We’ll discuss that at length in class. I am using the term “Sustainable Development,” meaning a holistic approach that combines economic, social, and environmental goals.”

Enough said.

Global Health as the Key to Development

Public health and economic development have always been a key components of Sachs’ policy and academic work. He makes it no secret that he views global health as the first stepping stone towards development.

Prioritizing development goals:

“I’d start with the health goals, since those are life and death. And then (or simultaneously) the hunger goal (obvious reason) and then education. Of course once people are alive and properly nourished, education becomes the KEY!”

On strategies to end poverty while increasing sustainable development:

“I think that the key to ending poverty and increasing sustainable development is ‘investment-led growth,’ with investments in people (health, nutrition, education, training), plus investments in infrastructure (such as low-carbon energy), plus investments in ‘smart’ systems using information technologies.”

The Great Aid Debate

As a champion of foreign aid and constant presence in the great aid debate, it was inevitable that the effectiveness of aid would be questioned and that some of Sachs’ top critics would come up in the discussion.

On Dambisa Moyo:

“Unlike Dambisa Moyo, I believe that aid is needed and can be organized effectively and respectfully. I am very happy with the successful scale up of aid for public health in the past decade. It has saved millions of lives and helped to promote economic development.”

Describing his relationship with William Easterly (with a passive aggressive smiley):

“There are days when I’m happier and days when I’m less happy. We’re colleagues and friends, but sometimes I’m simply amazed (and not happy) when he declares that ‘aid has failed.’ This is simply NOT RIGHT!!! :-)”

On ‘The Great Escape” by Angus Deaton:

“I did not agree with his very blanket statements against aid. In my view, such statements are contrary to the evidence. When somebody declares so categorically that all aid fails, raise your doubts. Such generalizations are not accurate. Much aid is very important. We need to understand why some aid succeeds and other aid fails, so that we can improve the design of aid programs.”

The Millennium Villages Project

The Millennium Villages Project has become one of Sachs’ most controversial endeavours, and has been the source of heavy criticism. This contentious debate arose following the first independent evaluation of one of the villages, and erupted in a series of online articles and duelling editorials. This past September, the commentary resurfaced with the release of Nina Munk’s book The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. Despite this, Sachs is quick to challenge any criticism and stands firmly behind his project.

Sachs’ response to those who criticize the Millennium Villages Project:

“The project has had enormous positive impacts, way beyond the villages themselves. Governments have taken the successes of the villages as a basis for national policy, e.g. the control of malaria and the scale up of community health workers. There were originally 10 countries in the program, but its so useful for governments that the program is now operating directly or indirectly (through policy advice for example or as a template) in 23 countries. Please see www.millenniumvillages.org By the way, there will be a comprehensive evaluation of the project, and a comparison with other places nearby, in 2015, to be reported in 2016. It will be interesting for all, including of course the project participants, to learn from these results!”

On the Millennium Villages Post-2015:

“The MVs will be evaluated at the end of 2015, and we will make course corrections and improvements as needed in several national programs underway to scale up the MV model. So the basic notion of using community-based rural development will continue past 2015, for sure. It’s working in many powerful ways, but will have even clearer evidence in 2015 on many important detailed issues.”

The Global Fund

In 2000, Sachs worked with then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to design and launch the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria and has worked to support the organization ever since. Last month, Sachs called to task many developed countries for failing to come up with the necessary $5 billion to maintain the momentum of the Fund. He continued his campaign to gain support for the Fund through his AMA.

On using empirical studies to evaluate aid programs:

“We need to be smart in our aid policies, using knowledge, experience, and EXPERTISE outside of economics (such as in public health). The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, and GAVI are examples of aid success. We should measure and evaluate programs, but use methods that are appropriate to the circumstances. There is too much of a one-size-fits-all strategy to evaluation these days (too much on randomized trials, excluding other means of evaluation).”

On the continuation of the Global Fund agenda:

“The Global Fund is still trying to close the $5 billion. I’ll be speaking with several governments over the next few weeks as well to help close the deal. The name of the game is PERSISTENCE. It takes time to convince governments!!!”

On getting governments to work in the interest of their people:

“I believe that aid can be designed in ways that promote accountability and transparency. This is how the Global Fund has worked most of the time. It’s been a good and successful model. Yes, we should promote a high degree of transparency. Remember that much of the corruption starts from the side of the rich countries and their companies.”

Throughout the AMA, Sachs maintained his idealistic persona and most of his responses had an upbeat tone to them. While he frequently spoke about the success of his projects, he often rebuffed any commenter who brought up critiques of his work. One thing that I found particularly interesting was that Sachs often lumped those who disagreed with his work into the same category as those who simply didn’t ‘understand’ or ‘get’ his work and ideas. A little condescending don’t you think? That being said, what really shined through for me was Sachs’ talent as a campaigner, as it’s undeniable that he is quite effective at garnering support and drawing attention to his principle causes.

So what did you think of Sachs’ AMA? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments section below!

This post originally appeared on Development Internwhere two writers  are going to be taking the new course from Jeffrey Sachs and will be blogging about it. Check Development Intern in the coming weeks for more information.

Impact investing: an idea whose time has come

The success story

“Corporations rule the world,” the old saying goes, but perhaps, not anymore. In the 21st century, investors and customers alike want and do channel their money according to their beliefs and moral principles. One way that this can be achieved is through impact investment.

Impact investments are investments made into companies, organisations, and funds with the intention to generate measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return. Public sentiment today is clearly on the side of impact investment, despite its shaky financial performance, and that is what makes impact investing so promising.

The global population of today is both highly interconnected and highly aware of each others’ problems. We demand equal pay for women, we buy fair trade products to show our support for both local and overseas farmers, we care about human rights violations and the developing world’s lack of access to clean water and education. We want to see communities invigorated, and we have the ability to share information and our opinions almost with anyone who is willing to listen. We have, in short, the power to influence corporate behaviour.

Again and again impact investing is heralded as “an idea whose time has come.” On June 6, 2013, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, addressed the audience at the G8 Social Investment Forum with the following words: “We’ve got a great idea here that can transform our societies, by using the power of finance to tackle the most difficult social problems. Problems that have frustrated government after government, country after country, generation after generation. Issues like drug abuse, youth unemployment, homelessness and even global poverty. The potential for social investment is that big.”

The market size of global impact investment is estimated to be $8 billion (2012) and is projected to grow to $9 billion by 2014, with money going towards several different industries, according to J.P. Morgan estimates (2013). The table below summarizes the various sectors that received capital from impact investors in 2013 and their respective weight.

Table 1
Impact Investments by Sector Allocation (Source: CGAP, 2013)

The table above shows both the good work impact investing has already done in the development field as well as what it could do if impact investment expands further. What if organizations like KOMAZA, which provides sustainable economic opportunities to smallholder farmers in Africa, or Husk Power Systems, an Indian social enterprise, bringing renewable energy to remote villages in Bihar, received more of and the right kind of impact capital?

Areas for improvement

Forbes, Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal, alongside many niche publications all praise the brave, new industry. “Call It What You Like — New Investing Approach Gains Followers,” reads the title of a recent Bloomberg News article. Nevertheless, despite the tremendous progress impact investing has achieved in a very short time, a recent survey from the Certified Financial Analyst (CFA) Institute demonstrates a sobering truth: 66% of investment professionals are unaware of impact investing. How these two contradicting phenomena came to coexist is excellent food for thought and a good starting point for analyzing the main challenges that impact investing is currently facing.

I have identified five major areas where policy reform is not only urgent but could also produce the most Return on Investment (ROI): definitions and standardization, legal framework, taxation and other financial regulations, financial intermediaries, and financial innovation.

How Britain did it

One of the key ideas introduced by the Cabinet of Prime Minister David Cameron was that of Big Society. The program aims to empower communities and give power to the people, meaning that government will “step down” and let communities around the country self-organize and come up with their own solutions and action-plans to solve local problems, which will be mainly carried out by community-led organizations supported by the government’s reforms and funding. The British coalition government launched Big Society in 2010. The goal of empowering communities is very much in line with the mission of social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship strives to develop effective and sustainable solutions to the most pressing social problems, and employs a ground-up approach. Big Society supports this approach and uses impact investment as its main tool. In this instance perhaps the stars have aligned in Britain.

In everything else however, the UK government is doing nothing out of the ordinary, but simply follows by-the-book strategy of policy implementation.

Table 2
Framework for Action in the Social Investment Market (Source: Cabinet Office, 2011.)

 In 2011, the Cabinet Office, with the help of industry experts, devised a thorough strategy and vision and contributed significant funds to establish a market champion, the Big Society Capital bank. This bank publishes a progress update report every year to illustrate not only what it is doing, but also which approaches work which do not in developing the new industry. This comprehensive vision provides a well-rounded support for the rapidly growing impact investment sector, including legal and financial reforms, tax incentives for investors and social entrepreneurs, development of financial intermediaries, ongoing research, financial innovation, and, of course, considerable, though not exorbitant, financial support. All of these interventions (with appropriate modifications) can be replicated in the US and elsewhere.

The US

The US, in fact, already has a strong impact investing industry and its government is trying to jump on the bandwagon. In 2012, the Federal Budget allocated US$100 million to Pay for Success initiatives. That same year, the National Impact Initiative was announced in front of global audiences during the G8 Social Impact Investing Forum. However, more often than not, such announcements are followed by the words “job creation”, “economic growth”, and “global development” –  overly populist terms that take the spotlight away from “social entrepreneurship” and “social impact” – the true stars of impact investment.

While economic growth, job creation, and even global development are all positive social outcomes that come with impact investment, when developing a new industry, focus should be laser-like. The US government does yet not seem to have it and should pay closer attention to the progress being made in Britain and the voices of impact investment industry leaders at home.

For development practitioners, impact investment carries a good deal of promise primarily because it strives to build a bridge between profit-seeking investors and the work that development organisations do. It is a happy medium; something that can really help people do well while doing good. If you are still not convinced, look at the Development Impact Bonds, a new mechanism for financing development projects, being explored by the American Centre for Global Development and the UK-based Social Finance. Now if you think of financial innovation, know that it is not always evil.

Aid, trade, and foreign policy: a natural fit or a recipe for disaster?

To what degree should foreign policy shape foreign aid? Could we see the end of aid through trade? Does an emphasis on trade sideline the poorest of the poor?

These are not new questions in the development sphere, but the restructuring of Canada’s aid agency means they are being asked with new fervency in the country, along with another related question: What is the role of mining companies in development?

Recently, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) was merged with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), creating the Department of Foreign Affairs, International Trade, and Development.

This requires us all to become comfortable with a new acronym, DFAITD, but all told we’re down one government acronym, so that’s definitely a win.

DFAITD Minister John Baird. Which portfolios will he get next? How long will the acronym grow to be?
DFAITD Minister John Baird. Which portfolios will he get next? How long will the acronym become?

It’s not the first change for these departments. In 2006, international trade was merged with the Department of Foreign Affairs, and in 2012, CIDA began to prioritize public-private partnerships in development, and particularly partnerships between NGOs and mining companies. Together, these shifts demonstrate how aid, trade, and diplomacy are increasingly being conflated.

(Although perhaps that is an unfair claim; certainly those of the realpolitik variety would point out that aid has always been influenced by governments’ foreign policy, and thus this merger does not represent a substantial change in that regard.)

What’s actually going on here? What are the Canadian government’s motivations and what does this mean for those that receive Canadian aid?

Cheerleaders, critics, and mining companies 

CIDA spent about $4 billion in the world’s poorest countries and has had a tumultuous past few years, with some dodgy funding decisions, a spendthrift minister, and other various missteps.

CIDA funded the work of many Canadian NGOs, which have reacted to the merger with mixed feelings. World Vision Canada released a statement expressing that it is “extremely concerned,” while Plan Canada declared “cautious optimism.”

Academics and development practitioners are similarly divided on the move.

Lloyd Axworthy, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, called the change “welcome and needed,” while Scott Gilmore, founder of the social enterprise Building Markets, asserted the merger would strengthen Canada’s aid program.

Gilmore and other supporters of the merger argue it is good for these reasons:

  • it will increase coordination between development officials and diplomats and increase the coherence of our foreign policy
  • it recognizes that trade is an (or even the most) important way to alleviate poverty

Gilmore, whose organisation builds markets and helps entrepreneurs in developing countries, points out that foreign direct investment into Africa is now larger than aid transfers. He argues that “This increased trade, much of it coming from Canadian mining companies, is what is winning the war on poverty.”

(Note that mining keeps coming up, as we’ll return to that.)

Critics counter these assertions by saying:

  • foreign policy coherence won’t be achieved by making the CIDA minister subordinate to the priorities of the foreign affairs minister
  • the change means Canada’s prosperity and security, rather than the prosperity of the country receiving aid, will be the driver of development assistance,

Though it is too early to really tell, it’s possible critics’ concerns are overstated. One of DFAITD’s priorities is to “Lead Canada’s international effort to reduce poverty in developing countries and provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable people in crisis.”

The goals it includes under this priority do seem to be about the poor rather than Canadian foreign policy. Goals include “increas[ing] food security in developing countries,” which includes initiatives like encouraging food security funding by donors, promoting school feeding programs, and strengthening national and regional food reserves, and “secur[ing] the future of children and youth in developing countries,” which includes an emphasis on child and maternal healthcare as well as a focus on ensuring access to education.

Yet another one of the department’s goals, “Work with the private sector as partners in development,” lends credence to critics’ objections that Canada’s own economic well-being will be the motivating driver of its aid. It raises further red flags because in Canada, talking about the private sector’s involvement in development means you are mostly talking about mining.

You likely didn’t know that 75% of the world’s mining companies are headquartered in Canada. For all of the interest in China’s mining activities in Africa, it’s actually Canada that dominates.

The government’s new emphasis on public-private partnerships means mining companies have become big players in the Canadian development scene. As one example, in 2012 CIDA gave out $6.7 million in funding to World University Services Canada, Plan Canada, and World Vision Canada for projects with Rio Tinto Alcan, Iamgold, and Barrick Gold.

Too bad Canadian mining companies’ human rights and environmental reputations suck. Seriously, they’re just terrible. So it’s understandable that many donors have been leery about these partnerships.

mining tibet
A protest in Vancouver over mining in Tibet. Via Flickr.

As Samantha Nutt writes, “The central tension is whether these NGOs are serving as bagmen, advancing Canadian mining interests with taxpayer funding by appeasing local communities with gifts of health care and education, or whether they are simply piloting a new model of co-operation that might positively influence corporate behaviour overseas while simultaneously addressing development gaps.”

The same tension exists with DFAITD. Is this a new model for coordination between aid, trade, and foreign policy, or is it just NGOs advancing Canadian trade and foreign policy interests?

Lots of questions, few answers

So, is the merger of CIDA with DFAIT a good move? Will it make Canada’s foreign aid more effective?

Your answer to that question likely depends on your answer to a few other questions: how much should aid be influenced by a country’s foreign policy? Is trade the most effective way of alleviating poverty? Do the economic gains outweigh the human rights costs of the abuses occurring in mines headquartered in Canada?

Though the merger has its cheerleaders and its critics, for now I suspect there are many more of us somewhere in the middle, waiting to see what the impact of this change will be on the ground.


The underlying particulars of aid ineffectiveness in Afghanistan

Massúod Hemmat is a Political Science and Public Administration student at the American University of Afghanistan. He has worked with several international aid agencies since 2006. Please feel free to contact him at massuodhemmat@gmail.com.

Thinking up and doing new things has been my blueprint for building my country, Afghanistan, and other post-conflict and poor countries in the world. But then again, I beat around the bush and don’t want to join the Afghan government until things are put the way they need to be put. I love to work in the private and public spheres, but rarely think of becoming a figure in the Afghan government. I have three stories I would like to share about aid ineffectiveness in my country.

Changing of the guard

Once, there was a leadership change in one of the Afghan ministries. I was requested by my superintendent to go to the minister-to-be and present him the achievements that were completed in the past years and reassure him that he would receive votes of confidence from the Members of the Afghan Parliament. ‘I don’t want to focus on what has been done in the past; I have my own leadership style and I will focus on things that I will do’, he said.

Thinking of whether he may or not receive enough votes of confidence the next day, he couldn’t focus on anything at that moment. He frequently asked his colleagues that had sat beside him since the morning of that day to draft a speech for him. He excluded what has been done in the past in that ministry. This was very upsetting for me as one of the youth who, indeed, wanted to learn from such figures. He was sworn in as minister the next day with a new bureaucracy, new staff, and a new mindset. He didn’t know, perhaps didn’t want to know, that the international community spent US$16 billion to draft the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) and set benchmarks for each of the Afghan ministries from 2008 to 2013. He wants to do things his own way.

Development scholarships to study Oceanography

I used to work with an aid agency and we were supposed to conduct a needs assessment workshop to identify and then to develop a comprehensive proposal to fulfill those needs. Part of our discussion with the ministry involved the provision of scholarships for Masters and Doctoral positions in Australia. Our point of contact informed us that we have been sending our qualified staff to the foreign countries, but it hasn’t had any impact to our present ability to do things.

By the end of the needs assessment, we found that the scholarships that the ministry received in the past were offer- and not need-based. For instance, it is very superstitious to send Afghans to receive training in Oceanography given the fact that Afghanistan is a landlocked country. Added to which, we supposed that the ministry should send some of its staff to be trained as public administrators rather than reinforcing their professions. To give a hint, the hospitals around the country were full of doctors but lacked public health managers. Unsurprisingly, nobody was sent to receive training in public health management.

An infrastructure for infrastructure databases

My diary also remembers another story; the time when we wanted to develop comprehensive infrastructure tracking databases at the seven ministries of the Afghan government. I don’t want to write about all the ministries, but will mention the case of aid ineffectiveness in only one to represent the others. In an effort to identify the stakeholders that operated within the ministries, we conducted stakeholder analysis surveys and found out that as many as four reputable donors agencies worked on the same thing in a different way rather than doing five different things.

  1. The World Bank had funded the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) to develop an infrastructure database.
  2. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) had developed another infrastructure database to support the ministry.
  3. An office of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had already funded development of an infrastructure database; while the other office wanted to fund creation of another infrastructure database within the ministry through a different implementing partner.
  4. The Asian Development Bank had built some capacities within the ministry to develop the same database on their own.
  5. And finally, the Ministry of Finance of the Afghan Government had developed a database for all the ministries which encompassed infrastructure tracking as well, and had handed over it to this other ministry as well.

We tried to create a database working group to integrate the efforts of donors towards building a comprehensive infrastructure tracking database. However, it was late and we were faced with opposition from those who wanted to spend their funds for the sake of spending money.

I blame myself in that I think I have understood this incorrectly. But, when I narrate this to my friends, they not only wonder about their own future but also about their children’s and the country’s future.

More than 50 countries have been assisting the Afghan Government since 2001. They have been spending billions of dollars, not in a need-based manner but in way to record in their reports that they have spent money in Afghanistan. Until when I ask? Is it the fault of the Afghan Government or the fact that the international community is so weak at collaborating on the effective spending of the aid money?


Why your non-profit CEO needs to be the M&E officer

Your eyes might not be shut, you might not be snoring, or drooling on your pillow, but that glazed look in your eyes tells me that you’re definitely not as into this subject as I am.

Why not? Well everyone knows that monitoring and evaluation is tables, indicators, log-frames, databases and statistics and that those weirdos people who work in M&E just can’t get enough of those excel spreadsheets. Let’s face it: that’s boring.

But is that really what monitoring and evaluation is about? I don’t think it is. All those tools and methodologies are really just that, tools and methodologies. M&E is the questions that those tools and methodologies seek to answer, and that’s not boring at all. In fact it’s the most important thing your organisation should be doing, and it’s something that needs to come from right at the top.

M&E is essentially about asking three fundamental questions:

  1. Are we doing what we said we would do?
  2. Are we making any difference?
  3. Are these the right things to be doing?

These three questions look at internal validity, our ‘impact’ and finally at our relevancy. Within this come questions on our specific approach. Are we efficient? Are we focusing on the right partners? Donors? Most crucially, are we meeting communities’ needs? Part of these questions is learning from our experiences to improve our work, and this is what M&E is all about.

Too often M&E, much like communications, and (insert your area of work) is seen as an add-on, a luxury, or a tick-box exercise to appease funders. But M&E is not a technical issue. M&E is an organisational change issue. It is so much more than log-frames and indicators.

Monitoring and evaluation necessitates an organisational culture that is open to questioning the very fundamentals of its work, approach, and very existence. Many organisations are not ready to question these things, and therefore the true value of monitoring and evaluation is lost, and it is used mainly for accountability to donors with indicators that do not reflect the reality of projects or outcomes. We are all familiar with that version of M&E.

But if an organisation’s main use for monitoring and evaluation is learning and organisational change, then the possibilities for improving our work are immense. This requires a culture that is open to admitting failure, which embraces constructive criticism and strives for excellence. Most importantly, it requires strong collaborative processes during the planning and design phases for projects.

M&E is about learning and changing. It needn’t rely heavily on statistics, indicators or log-frames. None of that is valuable without the right culture. In fact, it is meaningless without the right culture.

To use an extreme example, it is far more valuable to have an organisation that sets informal meetings and asks these questions without any data collection methods than to have one that has elaborate data collection processes without seeking to truly answer these questions. This is where the importance of organisational leadership comes in to play.

Emanuel text box

What does your boss do?

A CEO of a non-profit has two main roles. Their first role is to look at the internal running of the organisation, which is essentially M&E. Their second role is external relations, which is essentially networking.

nonprofit donor loyalty primerLooking internally – M&E for learning and change

The real role of any CEO in a non-profit is to provide leadership, to facilitate planning and to work with the board to set strategic goals.

This person facilitates discussions on the organisation’s strategy that should be wholly based on a planning and learning process. But how can you do this?

That means creating an organisational culture that enables staff to talk openly, and candidly, about everything that comes under the scope of the organisation, where no topic is taboo. That means challenging salaries (gasp!), where we work, how we work, and with whom we work. It should all be on the table. It means creating a culture where constructively evaluating everything that you do becomes embedded in the organisation.  It becomes ‘just the way we do things around here.’

Strong, clear processes need to be developed and formalised to ensure that this culture leads to constructive change and planning, that prohibits over analysis and paralysis but that creates avenues for change. Once this happens, the relevancy and the contribution that your organisation makes to social change will skyrocket.

But because your eye is not just on making a difference but also on the bottom line, here’s the second reason to embed this M&E culture into your organisation.

Looking externally – M&E for communications

Getting the money in… It is the biggest worry for most senior management teams. But what tools do we have? Networking, communications, external relations and fundraising. That difficult sales pitch. But aren’t these things all pretty much about the same thing? Aren’t they just about telling good stories?

The reality is that storytelling is what makes or breaks an NGO in terms of funding and this has a direct link to monitoring and evaluation. In fact, it is an essential link.

Monitoring and evaluation provides you with those stories, with the information that is key, not just for looking at relevance, learning and change, but for delivering your message.

By integrating M&E and communications into the very fabric of the organisation’s culture, you will be able to generate incredible content and be able to use that content to tell stories. It can be as simple as something like including Most Significant Change in approaches to projects. But what is truly remarkable is that M&E and communications are not often thought of as going hand-in-hand.

It is true that you need a great communications team to craft the right messages for your audience, but good communications staff can do little without information. That is why investing in M&E that can bring out successes, challenges and stories is so important.

Two customers

Most NGO’s are dinosaurs. We all know that if NGO’s had to compete in the private sector they would very quickly cease to exist. This is mainly because of the fact that NGO’s operate in a unique and conflicted way.

In fact, NGO’s serve two customers with radically different needs. The first customer group are the beneficiaries of our work, the reason for the existence of the organisation and where our focus should always be. Unfortunately most organisations cannot work with only this group; they also have to work with the second customer group.

The second customer group is, of course, the money. We can all feel like slaves to donors and the funders of our work. Both these groups expect different things from an organisation, and inevitably, because of the basic need for organisations to survive, we focus on the second group.

Slowly but surely, the way we work is affected by this focus, and it skews our objectives and goals. It hampers our very ability to effectively put our first set of customers, the beneficiaries of our work, in charge.

This can change. One of the main reasons that real M&E is not part of almost all NGO’s cultures is for the fear of alienating or upsetting this second group of customers. But the fact is these customers should, and would, embrace this culture. This is what they are looking for.

It just requires leaders with enough insight and confidence to implement this kind of culture in their organisations and the results would be remarkable.

Monitoring, evaluation and the search for ‘impact’

It is hard for anyone, be it the general public, donors, governments or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) not to want to commit resources to saving lives. Who wouldn’t? There is nothing more rewarding than knowing that you have contributed towards the preservation of human life, what could be better than something so worthy? Big foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and NGOs such as Medecins Sans Frontieres celebrate their achievements of saving lives. In fact, it is tempting for any organisation working in development to want to show that they are making a difference.

The football player Didier Drogba, Bono, Nike CEO Mark Parker, RED boss Susan Smith Ellis and Global Fund CEO Michel Kazatchine are all saving lives with football boot laces.
The football player Didier Drogba, Bono, Nike CEO Mark Parker, RED CEO Susan Smith Ellis and former Global Fund ED Michel Kazatchkine are all saving lives with football boot laces.

Due to an increase in calls for accountability in international development, and for direct results from investment to be made clear, the aid community and governments have been trying more and more to show value for money in their projects, to show that there is a true ‘impact’ to their work.

Hence the incredible growth over the last 20 years of monitoring and evaluation in international development; seeing the introduction of the much maligned log-frame, a results-based mechanism for measuring project milestones; and the search for the ever elusive impact of development projects.

Whether this is done by displaying giant pie charts on NGO websites showing that 99% of funds received are spent on programme costs with only 1% spent on administrative costs, surely the worst way to judge a charity, or by claiming that a project supporting vocational teacher training in Manila’s impact was poverty reduction in the Philippines, we are surely summarising achievements in the worst possible way.

It is no coincidence that the largest NGOs by funding are also the best at marketing. ‘Saving lives’ is an easy sell. But let’s think a little more about what it actually means to save a life, and the impact of an aid project on someone’s life.

For instance, if a child is vaccinated against measles, in an area where this is a common disease, could he be grouped into a category of children vaccinated, his life seemingly saved by the reduction in the number of measles cases contracted in this area? This attribution shows some logic, and this is why organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation make videos and campaigns about saving lives.

But let’s take a step back. What about the development of that vaccine? The countless researchers who worked on this? The other researchers who influenced them? If we look at investment in research itself, can we attribute this to a life saved? What about the manufacturer of this product? Are they also saving lives? What about the government that invested in the research? Has their investment saved this life also? Here the attribution starts to break down.

As an end supplier of a ‘product,’ it is easy for a development organisation to claim that they are saving lives, but it took a complex system to develop and deliver this vaccine, and that causality and attribution is something that is much harder to show. Ultimately what all of these actors are doing is contributing towards a reduced chance of mortality, which is hardly sexy. In reality these actors are all part of a system contributing towards a much greater whole.

I’m part of something much bigger?
I’m part of something much bigger?

Measuring impact, which by definition is forceful in its nature, is the antithesis of development, which is never successful as an imposition.

Making less grandiose and glamorous claims will also help us to put development work into perspective, no longer singling out certain parts of the system for recognition, but instead acknowledging a much greater and more complex chain of events and processes that contributes towards development, and the small but significant contribution that development projects and funding play within this.

We need to stop focusing on ‘impact’ because it encourages vertical programming and dramatic marketable programmes with easily attributable end results. That is not to say that we shouldn’t be measuring what the contribution of our work is, but that we need to stop looking at how we ‘impact’ but instead what our contribution is.

This will lead to more intelligent programming and a system-based approach that ultimately makes a much bigger contribution towards development.

Systems approach to development

This could be something as simple as adopting new measures such as contribution mapping or outcome mapping (a more commonly used approach).

If we design and measure our work in terms of our contributions, we will start to understand and see our work in different terms, and this will have a profound and positive effect on development approaches. It might be a tough sell to donors and to the general public, to whom donors are ultimately answerable, but we owe them the truth.


Good intentions are enough – to ‘nearly kill’ a local kid

By Anonymous

Given the nature of today’s anonymous post, WhyDev is unable to verify the details of the story below, but we believe it is valuable to publish given the ethical questions it raises. Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

What does ’saving‘ a child really mean? Ask 10 people and you’re liable to get 20 different answers.

Here’s a situation where this question was implicitly asked but I’ll let you decide whether or not anyone was ’saved.’ As extremely discomfiting as this situation is for me, I’m putting it out to the wider development community with hopes of starting a conversation about how we can stop similar occurrences in the future.

I am currently affiliated with an NGO that works on health systems strengthening in East Africa. Pretty standard stuff – malnutrition, maternal mortality, village outreach, and the like. Recently, the founder turned the formerly-secular NGO into an explicitly-evangelical one, and with the shift came missionaries dedicated to ‘soul harvesting’ and ‘crusading.’

But ultimately, this is a story about an 11-year-old boy, Micah (not his real name). He was found by the side of the road one evening and was brought to the nearby health centre, where one of the missionaries happened to be working. We don’t know exactly how he ended up there, though the working hypothesis was that his mother tried to poison him and left him for dead. We’d later learn that this is almost certainly not true.

Whatever string of events led Micah to the side of the road, he was in rough shape and alone at the hospital. The missionary wanted to help, made phone calls to community members, and became involved in his case.

Micah required a higher level of care, so the missionary insisted that he go to a better-run private hospital, all expenses paid by the NGO. The missionary then had the police hastily write up a note giving our organisation the right to take the child, so he went into surgery and came out with one less appendix and one additional eight-inch incision on his abdomen.

As he recuperated, the conversation shifted to what was going to happen to him after he was discharged; a group of at least six members of the organisation, along with one community member, tasked themselves with deciding Micah’s next home – with no single person responsible for the decision or for his care. Relatives were unreachable and the paucity of available information meant that no good option seemed to exist; orphanages were discussed, but shot down for not being ‘right’ and for taking too long to accept him.

And so the missionaries decided that, while they attempted to sort out proper placement, he would stay with us. They wanted to save a child. Please do not misunderstand me – all of them are extremely kind, caring people who only had the absolute best of intentions.

But, that’s exactly the point – as we all know, and as this story will show, extraordinarily good intentions can be extraordinarily dangerous.

Before continuing, it’s instructive to note a few things. First, a police report was never filed in a case of what was assumed to be attempted filicide; while we now know that it wasn’t, at the time that was the working assumption. In some areas, it would be commonplace to forego police action; here it is not. The missionaries did receive a handwritten letter giving them the authority to take the child to the private hospital, but that was the extent of police involvement. A suitable post-discharge plan was discussed but not seriously considered by the group of seven; many orphanages were available, but never truly considered as an option.

So, Micah was taken from his community into an NGO home that is teeming with foreigners and bereft of other children. He was placed in the care of people who neither share his language nor his culture. While it’s a little facetious to say that he was ’kidnapped‘ (technically, the police did give consent; whether it was theirs to give is a separate, but important, question to ask), it is fair to ask whether this was truly in his best interest or if it was appropriate to do.

If this was the end of the story, it could probably serve as the start of a good discussion on the promise and the peril of good intentions and whether these actions are ethical or advisable.

But it’s not the end of the story.

Micah arrived in the late afternoon and walked into a room full of foreigners. For the next hour or so, a member of a nearby church translated as the missionaries explained what was going on and asked a number of questions about what had happened to him. It was clear that he was extremely uncomfortable, and understandably so.

Micah became the ’house boy,’ and as no one was specifically accountable for his health and wellbeing, no one was responsible for him. None of us are able to speak more than a few words of his language, so we got by with a few hand signals. He warmed up to us, watched television, and ate.

But not in that order. By the time someone noticed how much food he was eating – including things he probably had never digested before, like burgers and chips – it was clear something was wrong with him. Micah’s a skinny kid, but he looked six months pregnant; he was eating too much and it was all staying in his now-distended stomach. With no one accountable for his care, this was allowed to slip by for far too long.

A day later, Micah was in extreme pain, so the missionaries took him to the hospital – the same one he had been discharged from days earlier. The doctor put an emergency nasogastric tube through his nose to reduce the distension; after the tube was in, the doctor said that his stomach ’deflated like a balloon.’

He later said that Micah’s stomach was dangerously near rupture, and that he was, unequivocally and without exaggeration, ’near death’ and ‘nearly killed;’ his stomach could have perforated or his abdominal distension could have put too much pressure on his lungs.

Micah spent the week writhing in discomfort, as the nasogastric tube kept him from distending. After myriad tests and consultations, the surgeon said that the valve between the stomach and intestines was not opening; this could require surgery to fix. But ’could‘ does a lot of work there – the condition could also work itself out in time.

In other words, a decision had to be made, but the medical officer of the NGO was out of the country, and we could not get a hold of him. He’s from the country but not the region, and had not been involved in Micah’s case in any meaningful way. Ultimately, the surgeon had to leave for the airport, so Micah didn’t have surgery that day.

This was a remarkable stroke of good luck, as the doctors were able to take the nasogastric tube out, and Micah began to eat. Bit by bit, his strength – and his smile – returned, and he was discharged days later, no surgery necessary.

He is back in our home once more, but this time one person is responsible for his health. I’ve had more than a few conversations with that person about the need to find him a suitable home as soon as possible, and it seems to have had an effect. I’m hoping he gets better, and finds a new home, soon.

So, uncharitably, it could be said that a NGO – with the best of intentions – took a child from a hospital and was the proximate cause of his immediate readmission and ’near death‘ experience. But even the charitable version leaves much to be desired: an outside group took ownership of a local child, failed to understand the risks of doing so, failed to take care of him, and – most importantly – failed to keep him safe.

There’s no question that his life was in a precarious situation before the missionaries intervened; he was a sick child who desperately needed help. But did he need help from his own community, or from outsiders who felt they were doing the right thing by removing him from it?

It’s possible that Micah’s community would have allowed him to overeat, or would otherwise failed to provide him the appropriate atmosphere conducive to convalescing. With a pyloric valve issue, it’s possible that, eventually, he would have returned to the hospital.

But would he have nearly died? Would major decisions about his health have been made by outsiders?

Are such situations simply unlucky or avoidable? Is this a one-time, isolated case of hubris, or is it proof positive for the broader claim that outsiders – even with the absolute best of intentions – are fated to cause more harm than good?

What if the child would have recovered as normal – how does that change conceptions of right and wrong? What if my organisation would have done a better job of taking care of Micah – then would it have been OK?

I don’t have answers to those questions, and am grappling with them myself. I only know a few things: this situation leaves me deeply uncomfortable, deeply furious, and deeply ambivalent about my tangential relationship to it, and it seems to me that no child was saved.

In this case, good intentions were enough – to nearly kill a local kid.