I don’t mind admitting that I have certainly done my fair share of suckling at the USAID nipple. I don’t have an issue with government grants, per se.
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In every NGO aid work job that I have ever had, there has always been a kind of tension around public (government) funding and private funding. The gist of the issue is that because governments fund foreign aid almost always as one mechanism of their foreign policy – i.e. in order to achieve political ends – any aid agency or NGO who accepts government funding become a de facto instrument of that same government’s foreign policy.
I have colleagues whose brows furrow at the mention of my extensive current USAID/OFDA portfolio. Are we selling out our souls, they ask rhetorically, and in the process becoming too beholden to the larger objectives of an American foreign policy agenda? Do we not simply become unwitting (or perhaps witting) pawns in a game of global domination and power? Don’t we dilute our ability to do evidence and needs-based programming in the field? By accepting USAID funds, are we not inherently complicit in US debacles abroad or at home, from the Iraq war to the American financial crisis? Don’t we open ourselves up to the meddling of government bureaucrats in our HR, financial and technical systems, and by so-doing erode our ability to fulfill our organization’s mission?
“Donor-driven” is a term that gets used pejoratively against government funding in these discussions.
Private funding, by contrast, is seen as more pure. There’s no politically-motivated foreign policy objective associated with private funding: these donors just want to help the poor out of the goodness of their hearts. Implementing a privately-funded portfolio supposedly allows an NGO to be more true to it’s purpose of helping those in need, as the Code of Conduct reads, “…regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the recipients and without adverse distinction of any kind.” Those privately provided dollars whether via the CSR departments of large corporations or from little old ladies in South Dakota (or New South Wales), some argue, free us to help those who need it in the best manner possible, untainted by the ulterior motives of states and governments.
Some NGOs set internal limits at the proportion of public grants that they will allow in their global financial portfolios. And there are a few – we all know who they are – who refuse any public funding at all. But does this make them less donor-driven?
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The notion that privately funded programs are less donor-driven than publicly funded ones is yet one more of those aid myths that needs dispelling.
We need to understand that every single donor has an agenda. And we need to remain conscious of the fact that we agree to be part of that donor’s agenda any time we accept their support, whether that support comes as cash, as gift-in-kind, as voluntary service, or in some other form.
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I remember in late 1990’s waiting for the USAID Child Survival RFAs (Request for Applications) to come out every fall. And then, once they were out, feeling annoyed that countries with some of the worst child and maternal mortality statistics on the planet were routinely left off of the eligible country list. Countries like Myanmar and Somalia. While Child Survival was meant to accomplish some very good things, the systematic withholding of support from some places while at the same time providing it to others felt – and I still feel this way – like a rather bald-faced use of aid by the American government further foreign policy objectives. And so, in that sense, the Child Survival grant program definitely was and continues to be donor-driven.
But what about private support? Less donor-driven?
Think about this: Even after removing public grants from all governments from the calculation, private support alone to the Haiti earthquake response is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Most serious NGOs active in earthquake response in Haiti have private revenue for that response in the tens of millions of USD. And it continues to come in. That is an amazingly large amount of money to raise in private support in an amazingly short period of time for a single country. And I am not at all saying that Haiti is somehow not deserving. Quite the contrary.
But what about, say, Afghanistan? My employer is one of the more adept when it comes to raising private funds. We’re up to our ears in a gazillion dollars for Haiti. And yet, finding a measly $10,000 to spend on some very basic disaster response training for our Afghan team and to stock a corner of a warehouse with supplies to respond to local disasters – the hard, freezing winters that happen every year, and the spring floods that invariably follow – is all but impossible. It’s easy (and accurate) to complain that government grants for poppy eradication are “donor-driven.” But it seems as well that the ordinary citizens of wealthy countries have voted with their wallets when it comes to Afghanistan. The utter absence of support for one place, and the glut of support for another is but another kind of “donor-driven.”
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In almost twenty years of NGO work, I cannot specifically recall a single instance in which a donor’s support came with no agenda, with no need of the donor to be serviced, or with no restrictions or requirements on how that donation could be used. There is always an expectation that funds or stuff or service will be used in a particular way or in a particular place or within a certain time frame. There are almost always reporting requirements, whether those are formal financial and impact reporting, photographs of beneficiaries receiving something, or a form letter of thanks on agency letterhead with the signature of the CEO.
There are always strings attached, regardless of who the donor is and how large or small the donation. And what we do as NGOs and as aid workers is simply to chose which sets of strings we feel like dealing with at the time.
And while it is all trendy in latte-sipping aid circles to complain in principle that USAID (or JICA or AusAID…) programs are politically driven (they are), the reality for those like myself who spend at least part of the day working with the sides of our organizations responsible for that supposedly less fraught private funding is that that private funding is not much better.
In fact it’s often worse. The amount of time that I sometimes spend explaining to a rep so that he/she can explain back to “their” donor why the donor’s idiotic aid idea will never work is appalling. Similarly appalling are the lengths we go to accommodate a “process” for considering ideas or donations (usually GIK of some kind) from a private donor, when we’d simply text a flat “not interested” were the exact same offer to come from a public donor. “Go/no-go” decisions on even the most contentious public grant opportunities take two days to make, maximum. But to stop dead even the most obviously bad aid idea can sometimes take weeks if it’s coming from a private donor.
Obviously there is no perfect solution. In my opinion the best option is to strive for a diverse funding base, and to not be naive about the implications that inherently accompany support from different sources.
But don’t even try to tell me that privately-funded programs are less donor-driven.