Regulation? Anyone?

16 Jul

This always happens:

I’m off the clock in some informal, social setting and the subject of what I do for a living comes up. There will be someone in the group, very interested and very eager to let me know that they’ve just donated what for them is a sizeable sum to an utterly useless INGO. I know the INGO they’re talking about because I’ve seen their programs in the field, received their promotional material in the mail, and perhaps even interviewed their would-be escapees for open positions on my team. The person will be clearly hoping for my approval and I’ll feel socially obliged to affirm them, even though I know that their donation was, at best, wasted. At worst, they may have helped to actually cause harm.

And I wonder if it’s time for an industry-wide conversation about regulation.

* * *

At the moment NGOs seem to be left to largely self-regulate within the context of some generalized “shame & honor” peer pressure from the community at large. Different large donors can regulate by stipulating the terms of grants and cooperative agreements, but this is only effective to the extent that their grantees are financially dependent on them. The UN cluster system sometimes regulates in relief contexts, but overall the cluster system experience is so vastly different from emergency to emergency that it is hard to see any real patterns emerge. And there are endless documents like the Humanitarian Charter, Sphere standards and The Good Enough Guide; endless sector-specific signatory working agreements, best-practice documents, and coalitions meant to promote this or that. All of which are “good things” in principle.

The problem is, they have no teeth. They only work to the extent that NGOs and other aid actors submit voluntarily to being bound by them, adhere to them, participate in them. But nothing really happens to those NGOs who don’t feel like following best-practices or participating coordination meetings. As I wrote in a previous post, there is currently nothing in the aid world comparable to what we call a malpractice lawsuit in the medical world.

* * * * *

We all know who they are.

They’re those INGOs who don’t coordinate or who incessantly implement bad development… and in some cases are even proud of it. We cringe when we see their advertisements. We roll our eyes when their newsfeed pops up on Maybe we even engage our gag reflex when their CEOs get airtime on national television following some high-profile emergency.

They’re there, on the periphery of every big disaster from hurricanes in Central America to wars and accompanying refugee crises inAfrica, Eastern Europe and the Middle East to earthquakes and tidal waves in Asia. The little opportunistic INGOs that almost no one has heard of, often very focused on a very specific sub-sector (e.g. in-kind small livestock loans) or a very specific sub-demographic (e.g. displaced Kurdish youth 12-17 in female-headed households in Eastern Turkey). Their mission statements are frequently internally contradictory, maybe talking about how they emphasize “charity” rather than “development”, but then with some vague language about the importance of building local capacity tacked on at the end. They’re the ones who come to coordination meetings about once per year. They cheerfully implement portfolios of projects modeled after the best-practices of 1975.

We often see evidence of their projects having created dependency in communities where we try to work; sometimes our projects struggle because they insist on working badly in those communities at the same time that we’re working there. We fight the urge to let the air out of the tires on their vehicles when we find them in the carpark of the supermarket or used bookstore.

In Kosovo it seemed that there were INGOs named after every imaginable vocation, translated into French, with the tag “sans frontiers” added. Tsuanmiland was a veritable feeding frenzy in early 2005: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to endure the immigration line in Colombo or Medan listening to a retired high school shop teacher or bright-eyed college drop-out enthusiastically regale me with his or her theory that the real key to “sustainable relief” is to import some specific kind of pre-fabricated, pre-packaged collapsible housing, rather than go with locally available materials, designs and labor. Myanmar was similar – and despite the fact the cluster system actually worked better there than in many responses, and specifically despite the fact that the logistics cluster worked like a dream (once it got up and running), I repeatedly overheard conversations in departure lounges in Bangkok and Singapore where the staff of these INGOs boasted about smuggling in pharmaceuticals, a single suitcase at a time, on the ground from Thailand. Iraq right now seems awash with small-shop INGOs of questionable philosophical virtue, bent on partnering in different high-profile ways with the US military, local militias or perhaps both. Only China seems to have avoided the onslaught of the small, amateur INGOs: it was simply all but impossible to get a visa to China following last year’s earthquake.

And on my most recent international trip, to Pakistan, I made the mistake of sharing my occupation and the name of my employer with the person sitting next to me on the trans-Pacific leg. … Someone who, it turned out, was high up in one of those little never-before-heard-of INGOs consumed with repackaging as their “niche” a particular development practice known for more than a decade to be utterly ineffective.  This person talked about bad development for the entire flight. I’ve never been so happy to get to Tokyo.

* * *

Painting with too broad a brush? Maybe. Or not.

Just so that we’re clear, for me it’s not about who’s cool or trendy or even necessarily about who’s doing the very latest thing and who’s not. I long ago subscribed/resigned myself to the “mystics, misfits, missionaries, and mercenaries” description of aid workers. We’re all one or more of those, I think, in some way or another, myself certainly included. I’m not down on anyone for not having the latest technology or wearing out-of-date clothing or using old jargon.

Neither am I talking about size of an organization or project. Over and above the fact that I have personally seen both large and small projects both accomplish amazing things and also totally fail, just in-principle I think there’s a need for both the large do-everything “department store” as well as the small, specialized “boutique” aid organizations.

Nor am I talking about the faith-status, political orientation or philosophical underpinnings of an organization, necessarily. Again, we’ve all seen both the success and failure of programs implemented by organizations of all origins. No worldview has a corner on market of helping the poor, no more than any worldview is immune to the pitfalls of poorly planned and executed aid work.

What I am positively against, though, are those organizations who whether knowingly or in a state of cultivated ignorance intentionally implement bad relief and development.

It makes me cranky to think that such organizations can implement such bad relief and development with apparent impunity. We all know who they are. And while we’re all usually too nice to call them out and say so publicly, in our hearts we know that they should be shut down now. They need to have their tax-exempt donations status revoked immediately (if they’re US-based), and their expats bodily removed from whichever countries they’re in before they do any more damage or waste any more money.

* * *

One of the things that attracted me to aid work as a younger man was the feeling of… well, freedom. And while that freedom may have been somewhat mythical, the fact that there really was (and still is) a degree of room for creative problem-solving is one part of what keeps it interesting for me.

I find myself naturally resisting any suggestion of more bureaucracy, more rules, more process.

But I wonder aloud whether the time is right to have an industry-wide conversation about regulation?

Not “coordination” – there’s already plenty of that. I’m talking about regulation with some weight behind hit. Regulation that carries with it the power to forcibly shut down bad development projects and perhaps even organizations. Regulation that can deliver the equivalent of a malpractice lawsuit against those organizations who repeatedly do it poorly.


Am I full of it? Has that second pint of “Harper’s Brown Ale” totally gone to my head? Am I wishing for the impossible?

Tell me why regulation is a bad idea.

11 Responses to “Regulation? Anyone?”

  1. Ian 16 July, 2009 at 12:54 pm #

    I share your pain with the abovementioned stories of poorly executed programmes and questionable NGOs. But I seriously doubt industry-wide regulation is the answer.

    I presume you saw the post on Bill Easterly’s aidwatch blog “Who’s in charge of Global Health” and the comments below which mentions a number of good reasons.

    Here are some of them:
    1. Aid is very fragmented – it comes from many countries and organizations including UN, IFIs, INGOs, Local NGOs faith based organizations …… and is spent in many countries in many different ways. So you have a massive problem of jurisdiction.
    2. What standards would be used? doubt it would be that easy to agree on common standards acceptable in all countries and circumstances.
    3. Who would act on complaints – would this require a new international (UN?) agency to oversee this. Surely there can’t be any problems with that😉
    4. Investigation – how would complaints be investigated and adjudicated – the sheer scope of aid make it impractial to imagine any body that would be able to do this, even if it had significant resources – and where would tose resources come from?

    However there are a couple of less ambitious alternatives that might help:
    1. Countries can and do domestically regulate the activities of NGOs just like they do with businesses. It might be good to add to this some kind of forum for governments to share experiences and best practices in oversight (and to share information on bad apples).
    2. Systems can be set up to promote greater transparency by NGOs and government sector donors. With current technology this is possible as never before. Examples could include support for independent monitoring orgs such as Givewell, Charity Navigator, Global Accountability Project etc. as well as professional groupings working together on standards such as ALNAP and IATI. Of course some of this transparency can also be part of national oversight such as the need to publish regular reports to a certain standard.

  2. Daniela Papi 17 July, 2009 at 9:23 pm #

    An “industry-wide conversation about regulation” is not going to happen until there is an “industry-wide conversation about honesty”. Why would you politely tell that person that you agreed with where they gave there money if you don’t? Here in lies a big problem, I think. Let’s all BE HONEST! When people ask us about NGOs that we don’t think are doing a good job, we NEED to tell them the truth, in the nicest way possible. PEOPLE NEED TO HEAR THAT! You say, “But nothing really happens to those NGOs who don’t feel like following best-practices or participating coordination meetings.” – If we all spoke up – there would be – popular opinion would go down; people would redirect their giving. We NEED to be honest! You say, “It makes me cranky to think that such organizations can implement such bad relief” – so start talking to us about WHAT you have seen! There are no real examples in here – TELL US THE STORIES! Let people learn from your experience.

    Example – a quick story I have already written about elsewhere: Where we worked, we encouraged people to sell water filters, which came with training, and the filters were sold at the market rate of $11.50. People were trained in the hows/whys/maintinace of using filters, many families were buying and using filters and health was increasing. A “professional” NGO came in and wanted to “help the poor people” and sold the filters at $3. The entire filter movement was crushed: mistrust, waiting for handouts, no education came with the filters so no one took care of them, etc.

    Tell these stories! Let people learn from you! THIS is what we need to hear – the hows and whys of why we shouldn’t do this or we should do that. YOU have lived it, so talk about those things – I personally would love to hear them. What are the 5 worst CONCRETE things YOU have seen done in development that failed. 5 best?
    Why do we sugar coat things so much around the NGO world? Just because they set out to do good, we think we can’t criticize them? Just because someone intended to do good with their donation, we feel like we have to pat them on the back and reaffirm their belief that they did, just so we don’t “hurt their feelings”? No, I don’t think that’s going to change anything! We need to tell them the TRUTH, or at least what we have seen of it and why we feel that way, so they learn, so they don’t give again next year… so they ask better questions… so they consider their impact, and so they give responsibly in the future. Those of us who know better are harming the industry if we don’t.

    I wrote a really long response to your last post but didn’t put it up as it’s sooooooooo long winded…. and here I go writing another long train of thought new response but a lot of the same messages. Why are we talking “professional” vs “non-professional”? When did YOU become a professional in the industry? When you got your degree in cultural anthropology? When you had worked the last day of your 5th year? No, probably not. Probably, when you started ACTING like a professional. When you “knew what you were doing”. You know this as well as I do: many “professionals” (PhD, INGO employees, etc) might have the right titles or more than the right number of years to get your designation, but are not ACTING in the right ways.

    I should surely be kicked out of Cambodia based on your designation. I have talked about this a lot with my coworkers and other people I respected and learned from, especially when we first started our own projects. Originally, when we partnered with a “professional” organization to fund them, we realized that it could be done better – we felt like they were acting like many NGOs do: build infrastructure, have a short term involvement in an area so we can increase our numbers and allow flexibility for ourselves, go on to the next project. No one in the area where we worked was investing in teacher training (often times that just meant being a connector, finding who was doing what and connecting the teachers). What is the use of a $50,000 school building if there is low quality of education going on within it?

    Big “professional” NGOs working in libraries were (and are) also doing the “get in get wet get out” approach – training a librarian for a day or two on “how to fix books” – but not working on a more systematic change: teaching teachers how to use books in the classroom, breeding a love of reading by connecting children to the right books which relate to their lives & are designed in their language with the words they know, which are the right level for them…. no one was doing this! And they still aren’t! And many times we would say to each other, “Are we ‘playing NGO’ here? We aren’t the right people to be doing this, we know this….” but we interviewed and we looked for “professional” partners, and you know what? They didn’t materialize. There ARE no literacy experts in Khmer. They just don’t exist. And that is the case in a lot of the areas we all work with. And the people who do exist are doing things in other areas in other fields with other groups. So let’s find them, learn from them, replicate their models, connect with them…. and you know what? Professional can be better, but even unprofessional people like me can do that, and sometimes have better results in learning and changing and community involvement than the “professionals” around them who aren’t taking the time to do it right because they are all about getting to the next project or increaing their numbers or working towards some poorly designed log-frame handed down to them by some big NGO that knows nothing about the area where they work…. Unprofessional people like me, and like you when you started, can take the time to learn, ask questions, ask for help, and admit when we are making mistakes and then work to change them. And if the “professionals” are NOT doing those things, are you really so sure you want to kick me and all those like me out?
    And a final point… about voluntourism. I am vocally anti-voluntourism in general. I don’t like calling what we do at PEPY that – and we removed it from our material for a bit, but it is what people search for, so we put it back on our page… because why run from a title: professional/non-professional, voluntourism/educational adventures… who cares what you call it! DO IT RIGHT! And don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater people…. I AGREE with you, Saundra & Tales-From-The-Hooder, in general, voluntourism is not changing the world. A lot of times it is hurting it. But don’t throw it all out until you have tried it all. If you take time to do it right, if it is designed to FURTHER ongoing local initiatives rather than take away from them, if it is designed to put the local communities and programs out into the world as “teachers” not “aid recipients”, it can do good things. I invite you both to come join us any time. Open invite. I don’t think we are doing it perfectly, maybe not even “very well” – but we sure are doing it a lot better than most, and we are willing to learn and change – come see before you kick us out.

    So many of the gripes i hear (and tout myself) seem to be on a “are you using voluntourism to raise money for your NGO?” line of questioning and implying that that is bad. ANYTHING is bad if you are putting it above the needs of the community, the mission of your work, and the trust/respect of the people you are working with. Voluntourism is just one of those things; grants/foundations can be just as bad! I have seen SO many NGOs take grant money that comes with so many strings that they basically stray so far from their mission to get their money, they might as well have not taken it at all. We design what we do around our mission, what the community believes in and is striving for, what we see working/not working in our education programs, and NOT what “sells”. People come on our trips, pay their fee, and also have a fundraising minimum which supports our work. We aren’t making up trips for people which are invasive into communities just so we can “sell more trips”. Our 8-10 trips per year though do bring in over $50,000 in fundraising at minimum, and then some of those people who have traveled with us turn around and give us $10,000 per year to support work they believe in. I don’t know if you have worked with big individual donors who believe in what you do and have seen the projects – but I have to say I’d take our $50,000 per year individual family donor over the large $200,000+ foundation donor we worked with anyday. Why? Because we are having a dialogue – it’s not about the “terms and conditions of the MOU” it’s about allowing the communities and the real needs which arise to be funded in ways that work and it is about allowing the things that AREN’T working to be stopped right away. If voluntourism (done right) and provide that opportunity, to fund projects with sustainable and flexible funding to be used on real needs and not as agenda-pushing grant makters deem worthy, it becomes a lot more attractive.

    So don’t toss us to the side with the rest. Their are exceptions to these rules everyone is screaming out into the world and writing books about. Rather than trying to set guidelines or say who should be kicked out and who should stay, why don’t we say HOW people can get better and do good. Tell us the stories. Tell us about the NGO that the lady in your first paragraph donated to – what did they DO that you don’t believe in?! I bet we can all learn from that story and I think those conversations are so much more productive.
    Let’s talk about how we need to act, what we have learned, and how we can all get better at what we are collectively trying to do. The “get out if you are not professional” message to me is missing a few words. “Get out if you are not willing to act professionally.” Get out if you are not willing to admit and learn from your mistakes. Get out if you don’t recognize that you WILL make mistakes, because it is inevitable. Don’t kick people out for making mistakes but help people learn from them and then stop supporting them and stop nodding kindly at those who are supporting them when an organization brushes their mistakes under the rug and doesn’t step up to fix them. The people who DO admit mistakes, learn from them, and make the organization and the world better for it – THOSE people, in my book, are professional. You too started out as a “volunteer” – which I am now taking to mean to you as someone who didn’t study development and is a newbie. We need newbies, and yes, I agree, they need to be put in non-major-decision-making-positions, but we need to help them learn – not tell them to get out.

    You, and so many of the readers of this blog, have the stories those newbies need to hear. Stop being so polite, and tell us what you have seen. (Change the names if you like of course) – but tell us the truth! I’d rather hear that than have you smile and nod at me when I tell you I donated a lot of my hard earned money to a harmful organization, thank you very much.

  3. Saundra 17 July, 2009 at 11:27 pm #

    I lean strongly towards the need for regulation side of the argument. I too have seen far too many aid agencies – from INGO’s to start ups – implement questionable programs that have negative ramifications on both the aid recipient and the local government. I’ve also seen INGO’s and start ups lead quality aid projects. It wasn’t the size or age of the aid agency that mattered, it was whether they were really working to improve their agency and follow best practices. But without any body there to call them to task when they are not self-regulating, they can continue indefinitely the way they are.

    Ideally the host country would regulate aid within their own country, but they often do not have the laws, regulations, or resources to track, monitor and reprimand aid agencies. In addition, many aid agencies are not legally registered in the country and so are operating under the radar. When I worked in a Thai government office after the tsunami we had several aid agencies in our district leading questionable projects. When I asked the district chief why he didn’t do anything about it he said that it was because he had no authority, they weren’t breaking a law. All they could do was try to guide the aid agency and then mop up the mess after they left. My organization was hired by FAO to train fishery staff across six provinces to tracking aid agency projects, but it seemed pointless because the fishery offices lacked the staffing and resources to be able to do it. I’ve often thought that if a country had the resources to track, monitor and penalize aid agencies, they wouldn’t need to because they wouldn’t need aid.

    As for Ian’s suggestion of governments sharing experiences on regulating aid, this is kind of what is happening with IDRL led by the IFRC. However, it doesn’t cover all issues and is primarily focused on facilitating the flow of aid after a disaster.

    Having an agency that has the proper authority, systems in place, the right resources, adequate funding and prior experience would be of great help to the countries that are overwhelmed with aid. I’ve thought it would be nice if the cluster system was given the teeth it needed, but if they’re so hit and miss with each disaster then it may not be a great solution. I also understand the argument that creating a regulatory body would add layers of bureaucracy, but I’m not swayed yet as something has to be done.

    I also agree that prior initiatives to regulate from within the aid world itself have failed because they lack the teeth to enforce any standards they develop. In the end, I think it is probably going to have to be the independent watchdog groups helping donors make wise funding decisions. However, there will have to be some serious improvements in the way they rate aid agencies, and while everyone rails against standards, they’re going to have to rate the aid agencies on something. Aside from the problem of determining how to rate aid agencies, another problem will be scale. There are 1.5 million in the US alone, GiveWell recommends 6 agencies, and I believe they evaluated 50 (could be wrong) The ability of charity watchdogs to be able to scale up a meaningful evaluation system to capture most aid agencies will be difficult at the least.

    Educating and empowering donors would be powerful, because what does not get funded does not get implemented.

    Thanks for reopening this discussion.

  4. Paul C 19 July, 2009 at 3:43 am #

    “Tell me why regulation is a bad idea.”

    Regulation isn’t a “bad” idea, it’s just an idea that – in this case – can’t work without destroying the thing which you wish to regulate. I’d go further and suggest that regulation of the sector can’t work full stop – it simply can’t be done, and pursuing it is a fools errand.

    If you personally want to make an impact on accountability, you can start by naming names of the organisations that you refer to in this post: the idiots, the incompetents, the arrogants. If we genuinely believe that they cause harm to others, then what reasonable justification can we have for withholding their names?

  5. Oliver 19 July, 2009 at 5:44 am #

    You make a lot of good points!
    But like Ian, I doubt that regulation would make things better:
    What is good/bad aid? What are the criteria? And who is to decide?
    Also, aren’t lots of NGOs too risk-averse already? Not sufficiently prepared to experiment, try out new approaches? Wouldn’t regulation make them even more risk-averse?

  6. Steve Hutcheson 28 July, 2009 at 1:59 pm #

    I am not so sure regulation will be the answer. Having worked for small and large NGO’s, the UN and now one of the beltway bandits, I have come to the conclusion that it probably all matters if just applying funds is the answer. Where I draw the line is the how. I am sick of measuring what goes on by the deliverables. I want impact. For the most part there is none. We tend to hand out stuff and while often it is needed, it creates a sort of dependency amongst the beneficiaries yet if one morning we woke and stop delivering, there is nothing there. We have achieved nothing. I left Kosovo feeling like I was no longer servicing the needy, I was servicing the greedy. I was buying doors and bricks from Macedonia and Turkey while I did not have the money to get a factory going in Skenderaj that would have employed 200. Money came in, money went out and all they were left with was a house.

    The same can be said in Afghanistan where I am now. Almost every dollar that comes in in aid funding, goes out to buy imports. Nothing sticks.

    What we don’t do is build an economic base for sustainable recovery. Every place I have been over the last ten years, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Aceh, unemployment is around 40 to 50% and never changes, it never improves. The primary industry in Afghanistan is serving the aid industry or the military itself.

    It will only change when we change the way we do business. When we work at an economic recovery instead of just being a welfare provider.

  7. Daniela Papi 28 July, 2009 at 5:55 pm #

    Thank you for the addition, Steve H. I completely agree with you as to so much of what I see here in Cambodia. Come in, build schools, walk away. What is left? A pretty $50,000 building which is hundreds of times nicer than any building around it, but with no teachers showing up, a government with disincentives to support education further as our NGOs appear to be taking over, and little investment in the development of human capital or job creation. These are shifts we are trying to make in our own organization having realized that some of our programs are on the wrong side of that divide.

    Perhaps why people are not working this way: these real changes take TIME. In your example about not building a factory – the organization you were working with was perhaps looking at the short term, and the cost savings would not show in the short term, but wouldn’t a local factory lead to cost savings over time? Such is the case here, where funding is rarely an issue (teacher training for example being hundreds or nearly thousands times less than the cost of school construction) but those things take time. With funding coming in short term commitments, a fear that donors will move on to the next pet-project of the year, and that they want to show results right away, bricks and cement get more investments than people.

    “It will only change when we change the way we do business. When we work at an economic recovery instead of just being a welfare provider.” – agreed.

  8. Steve Hutcheson 2 August, 2009 at 5:32 am #

    I have to say, I am happy enough if I see a group of kids sitting under a tree and the teacher has a simple blackboard propped against it. Schools are not just buildings, it is about what the kids are learning so yes I agree, the teachers need to be trained before we start worrying about the buildings.

    One of the things see all the time however is this fear of profit, particularly by the NGOs. I was in Aceh just after the tsunami and we were in a meeting about the need for ice factories. Since they started making ice, it had been in the hands of private enterprise however no one wanted to fund the owner and figured that a cooperative would have been a better idea. I am sure that in a truly socialist environment it might have but this was not a socialist environment. What was necessary was that the owner needed funding to get his business back on track as much as they needed new schools. Without ice, the fishermen could not preserve their catch so the whole community was suffering because of this issue of support to an individual making a profit.

    I come from Australia. The whole economy is profit-centric yet in crisis locations people argue for socialism and the development of a welfare economy.

    USAID are the funniest in this regard. America has been built on small government, small welfare and the advancement of big thinking entrepreneurs however where ever they apply funds, Afghanistan for instance, it is big government, big welfare and prohibition of profit, all managed by government workers.

    Rearrange that thinking and then we might start to get somewhere in solving poverty instead of simply supporting it while we hold their hands.


  1. Good Intentions Are Not Enough » Blog Archive » Related articles - 28 June, 2010

    […] Regulation Anyone? from Tales from the Hood – discussing whether or not a body needs to be created to oversee aid. […]

  2. Good Intentions Are Not Enough » Blog Archive » How to get involved in aid - 29 June, 2010

    […] Tales from the Hood: Taxonomy of aid It only feels kinky the first few times The things no one tells you When not to innovate Welcome to Machine Regulation anyone? […]

  3. Q & A « Tales From the Hood - 13 August, 2010

    […] yes. The aid sector is unregulated. I’ve complained about this before. The only bodies really capable of regulating the actions of aid agencies are host governments, and […]

Pearls of wisdom

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: