What To Do

22 Jul

I confess that I was taken by surprise at both the volume and tone of responses to those contentious and by now somewhat famous-in-cyberspace posts on development tourism, volunteering and regulation of aid. While I did publish most reader comments, for the first time I moderated out a few that can only be described as direct hate mail. Interesting…

One result of this, though, is that I feel compelled to share a post or two with my opinions about what does work, what should be replicated.

So, here goes: a first post meant mainly for practitioners, with what I think are the obvious caveats – these are my opinions based on what I have personally seen and experienced in nearly two decades of continuous aid work. For the sake of this post, I assume that readers are on board with the value of community-led programming and community-based approaches. None of this is particularly new or earth-shattering, and much reflects or is somehow corroborated by my usual practitioner favorites: Saundra, Alanna and Michael (although they’re certainly not the only ones). I’d recommend that you read their back posts for additional concrete, practical advice about what to do:

Do real assessments: This is the foundation of good programming, whether you’re talking about relief or development. Do not skimp or cut corners when it comes to assessments. Bad assessments, whether because they were cursory, poorly planned, under-budgeted or just not done at all, is by a very wide margin the single most common mistake that I see in NGO work. While no organization is immune to doing lame (or no) assessments, in my personal experience, the tighter an organization’s discretionary budget, the less likely it is to do proper assessments. The reason for this is that most donors will not pay for an assessment for a project that they are also funding.

  • Pick a methodology and follow it through. Which methodology? Your choice should be based on the kind of program that you’re assessing for. The point is, if you pick “Appreciative Inquiry”, do all the steps for A.I. from start to finish. If you’re doing HEARTH, same.
  • Don’t faff around with assessment language. A casual conversation with three women in the market is not a “focus group.” Follow basic and well-known ethnographic and survey techniques. (These techniques are very well-documented and all over the web. You don’t need me to give you links.)
  • Budget the assessment adequately. This has to be a priority at every level in the organization.
  • Take the necessary time. One or two weeks is simply not enough for a development project or program. Schedule around Ramadan or Songkhran if you have to.
  • Have a qualified person lead the assessment. Doesn’t have to be a high-priced external consultant. But it needs to be led by someone who has done it before. Leading an assessment is not the right context for individual learning.

Do evidence-based programming: Base your project and program design, and also you selection of interventions and activities on what your assessment tells you the problems are. This is easily the second most prevalent mistake that I see in NGO work: the tendency, basically, to define the problem in terms of a project that the organization wants to implement. I’ve seen this more often among organizations that defined their niche as a particular activity. And from the outside it’s easy to see why: an organization that does mainly GIK shipments (for example) is likely to come to every situation assuming a need for GIK. Moreover, there are inevitably those situations where it feels innocuous enough to implement some activity that is essentially peripheral to actual need, perhaps because it offers opportunity for organizational growth or expansion into a new area or because there is what looks like low-hanging fruit from a particular donor. Resist the temptation to do this kind of project. It takes intellectual honesty and strong organizational commitment from top to bottom to do evidence-based programming.

  • Let a properly implemented assessment tell you what the problems, issues are (evidence).
  • Design your program based on that evidence (evidence based).
  • Perhaps most important of all: if the evidence indicates a problem the your organization does not have the technical capacity to address or requires core activities that your organization is somehow specialized away from, don’t do any project.
  • Resist the temptation to use backward logic. Don’t define the problem in a way that justifies what you decide a priori that you want to do.

Commit to the long-term: This one seems exceptionally basic to me, but I am repeatedly surprised by how many organizations and programs I come across that are but tentative flags in the sand in country or district X. Doing this requires substantial top-to-bottom organizational commitment. It can be all but impossible to resist the temptation to take an easy, short-term grant for a new thing or a new place. In my opinion, though, while geographic and/or sectoral expansion for an organization are all good and well, moves that are tentative from the get-go are very often doomed to eventual failure, usual with the recipient community bearing the brunt.

  • A three-year horizon is the utter minimum in my opinion. Some readers might even take me to task for making it so low. If your organization cannot commit up front to three years of solid programming in a new place or a new activity sector, don’t go for it.
  • This applies to people as well as programs. Obviously some positions, by their very nature, are exceptions to this. But your core team on any new initiative should be committed for this same minimum time-frame. This is the case regardless of where they’re based. Continuity is key, whether the person is grant support at HQ, tech support in a regional office, or direct program implementation in the field. Less than three years of continued involvement from the core team and the best you can hope for are lukewarm results. Even at three years, lukewarm is asking for a lot…

Put resources as close as possible to the beneficiaries: Again, the logic of this seems incontrovertible to me. But when it comes time to write a new program budget, there is always a battle. And yet again, organizational commitment is required. I won’t recommend any specific ratios or percentages here, but will simply say: The point of development work is to actually do things in the field – don’t look at grants as an opportunity to build up HQ or regional office capacity.

Participate in the Community of Practice: Many see participation in coordination meetings, attendance at InterAction forums (or other equivalent for non-US NGOs), sector working groups, etc. as huge hassles and wastes of time. I see these as very important on several levels: It keeps clear who the NGO actors are in a given place, time or sector; for technical working groups it keeps key issues on the table and moves technical discussion forward. If properly attended these reduce the possibility of overlap. If properly attended these can improve transparency and accountability among NGOs (basically via peer pressure). I am repeatedly surprised at the number of NGOs large and small who blow these off either because they’re inconvenient or because the organization feels it’s mandate doesn’t require it to know what anybody else is doing.

  • Make participation in coordination and technical working groups a priority, particularly at the field level.
  • Don’t just attend; actually participate. The value of working groups and coordination meetings is in direct proportion to the level of actual participation. Speak up – talk about your organization’s experience, challenges as well as success in sector X or district Y. Keep it professional, but don’t hesitate to speak up if your organization’s experience contrasts with that of a colleague organization.
  • Send the right person to the meeting. Too many times it’s an intern or underling who gets sent to represent the agency. To technical working groups, send someone who can speak to your organization’s technical approach in that sector; to coordination meetings, send someone who can speak for your organization on the spot. If there is simply not a person available who can adequately represent your organization at a particular meeting, send your apologies to the chair and participants as a courtesy.

Discontinue practices or interventions that do not yield results: Everyone in the industry, from the largest institutional and governmental donors, right on down tiniest little fly-by-night NGOs struggles with this one. Although I don’t know why for certain, I suspect that it’s ultimately an issue of intellectual honesty and probably closely related to where the organization is on the issue of evidence-based programming. Particularly if an organization specializes in a particular activity it can be very difficult to admit that that activity doesn’t work. I think as well, there is a strong tendency in some corners of the aid industry to define success simply as the absence of failure, one result of which is that many ineffective interventions and practices sort of slip beneath the radar.

  • Do solid evidence-based programming. Make sure that your initial and follow-up assessment are designed in a way that gets at the causality between your intervention and the changes in whatever indicators you are measuring. Simple positive correlations are usually not enough. Even if through qualitative means, make sure you have some way see the link (or absence of it) between what you’re actually doing and the effects you’re seeing in the community.
  • Organizational (and also personal) intellectual honesty. Much harder than it sounds, especially when budgets are tight, donors like a particular activity and want to fund it, or your organization’s raison d’etre is in question.


3 Responses to “What To Do”

  1. Oliver 22 July, 2009 at 11:34 pm #

    Again, I agree with most of what you say and I think you’re making useful and important points. Still, I’d like to add this:

    “The point of development work is to actually do things in the field” – yes, of course; but in order to do so effectively and sustainably, it needs strong organisations – and these need funding. So when you say: “don’t look at grants as an opportunity to build up HQ or regional office capacity,” I feel tempted to ask, Why not?

    I think it’s essential that we get away from the “overhead is bad” perspective. As you point out yourself, NGOs need to look at the long term, and they should be encouraged to try out new approaches, i.e. to take risks – even if this will often mean that less money arrives at the grassroots in the short term than would have been possible.

    • J. 23 July, 2009 at 7:35 am #

      Hey Oliver, many thanks for your comment. Seems that you didn’t just feel tempted to ask, “why not?” – you actually asked🙂

      I completely agree that good programming requires strong organizations. And I also completely agree that this industry has to get away from the “overhead is bad” mentality (future posts already partially written deal with that in different ways). But what I’m trying to get across there, though, is simply to not approach a new grant opportunity as an opportunity to build those higher organizational level capacities. Yes, (in my opinion) we can and should build adequate support at HQ and regional levels into grants… But that is not the purpose of doing grants. A nuanced distinction, perhaps, but one that I see as very important.

      • Oliver 24 July, 2009 at 3:21 am #

        Thanks for your reply!

        Yes, I see – that’s a good point.

        I look forward to reading your future posts.

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