4 Jul

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.

* * *

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?

* * *

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.

* * *

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.”

* * *

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.

11 Responses to “Donor-Driven”

  1. Julia 4 July, 2010 at 1:22 pm #

    Thanks for that one. It is oh so true and there is nothing to add.

  2. Clive 4 July, 2010 at 10:02 pm #

    Oh man, you write a good article! Absolutely spot on.

    Would you say that, to a greater or lesser extent, all conscious human activity is driven by self-interest?

    If all organisations in the aid field had an explicit, visible, anti-earmarking policy so that surplus could be redistributed (perhaps to Afghanistan), I wonder how quickly public and private funding would dry up. And I wonder how quickly the organisations would redefine “surplus”.

  3. Linda Raftree 5 July, 2010 at 12:55 am #

    I agree that all donations are earmarked one way or another. I think private individuals (eg ‘major givers’) and corporate givers can be a pain in the ass in a different way because they speak a different language (eg., don’t know much about development or humanitarian aid most of the time) and are emotionally driven, brand-driven in the case of corporations, or issue/ methodology/ principle/ theme-driven in the case of foundations, whereas government aid is more of a business and is foreign-policy driven.

    Where I work, we restrict percentages received by any one donor in the idea that small public donations and those major gifts and bequests and foundation grants are likely coming with a different agenda than the USAID or DfID or EU or whatever government agenda, and somehow they can balance things out. Whether they do or not is possibly another story depending on who you talk to.

    In theory the fact that we have funds coming from so many sources helps to balance it. Eg., one major donor wants this, another wants this, USAID wants this, DfID wants this…. The first thing that has to be cleared is whether what any of these donors wants is something that is in the plans of the country that they want to do it in. Eg, if you want to do maternal health but it’s not part of existing plans in country x, then it can’t be done without a lot of negotiating with country x. This is true whether it’s government or private.

    If USAID (or DfID or EU or whatever) funds are available to ‘go for’ and they are not part of existing country plans, then offices are very free to say no (at which point normally the US, or UK or EU offices get quite annoyed). There is actually a ton of paper work countries have to do to modify their strategic plans and program plans to accept funds for programs that are not in alignment what they have planned to do based on local assessments, local realities and community consultations.

    Then we have a large percentage of non-earmarked private funds that fill in the gaps to be sure that the rest is what our country office has put together based on real needs pulled from community consultations. Countries have to get special permission to go above 30% grant funding. There are also strict rules around ‘matching’ funds to ensure ear-marked funding matches are not pulling funds away from a country’s planned programming.

    These systems have been set up in an effort to help us not be ‘donor driven’ by any one government agenda or any particular corporation or individual foundation or donor, or actually any one of our fund-raising offices (we have fund raising offices in several countries). They can be frustrating for different parts of the organization, and maybe I’m naive and they don’t work in practice, but I like the concept.

    Funny thing is that some countries or country directors get ‘bad’ reputations in the eyes of fundraisers because they are less willing to compromise and accept funding for things that they have not planned or that have not arisen as priorities in their local planning processes.

    Another funny thing is that some of the more innovative or effective programming sometimes comes from ideas that have not arisen directly in a particular country, but from working with a donor who has an agenda.

    So it’s always give and take.

  4. Linda Raftree 5 July, 2010 at 12:58 am #

    oh sorry, and how’s that for a comment that’s longer than the actual post.

  5. John 5 July, 2010 at 9:59 am #

    It’s a long holiday weekend back in the US of A and I’m positive that there is a “MythBusters” marathon running all weekend long on some cable station. Undeniably, the “Humanitarian Aid” world is in possession of it’s fair share of Myths.

    It certainly is trendy to view government grants, in particular those originating in the US, as more tainted and blatantly political than other sources. I personally agree with the authors argument. Myth Busted.

    Turn the argument around and restate it as “faith based” support is no more tainted (or not) as other sources, and *I* would be less quick to agree. Myth plausible or is it just me?

    Linda Raftree makes the argument that you can find “balance” by maintaining a diverse portfolio of donors that when fit together by various means add up to complete some vision of the whole. In a large organization you may be able to find this balance. If not, you can just zoom out the analysis to a multi-national, multi-disciplinary, inter-agency, Public/Private sector partnership (I could go on…) degree and find “balance” anywhere you want. Myth Busted.

    The Myth, as presented here and elsewhere, currently holds that the view from the inside-out is superior to the view from the outside-in. That the “Aid Workers” perspective is somehow “better”, more valuable. According to the myth, this is particularly true for “Professional Aid Workers” which may or may not have anything to do with if you are paid to do your job or not. The further down the organizational chart, the purer the perspective, and the more accurately you are able to represent the recipients needs. This holds true until you reach the level of short-term unpaid volunteer in which case you have to prove that you are not “idiocy personified”.

    Who amongst us has not looked down our collective noses at the donor “Site Visit”, wondering what insanity has resulted in such a massive waste of time and money? Who amongst us has not recoiled in horror at the prospect of an “independent third-party assessment team”? Who amongst us, if given the authority, would turn down and redirect funding, even if it is a perfect match, because our heightened sense of social responsibility tells us that the need is greater in some other place? Who would do the same if some other organization was capable of doing the same job only better? Yes, Yes, and No, No? Honestly? Myth Busted except for the short term volunteer part, which is confirmed.

    Conversely, many donors believe that Aid Organizations are whining, self-rightous, idealistic, know-it-all’s.

    The author opens his argument with these: “Don’t we dilute OUR ability to do EVIDENCE and NEEDS-based programming in the field?” and “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?” (Emphasis added by me)

    In any organization, humanitarian or otherwise, people define what is meant by “OUR” and chose what “EVIDENCE” goes into determining “NEEDS”. People describe what the “MISSION” is. Are there no biases or hidden agendas in these people? Are the people who determine these things less bureaucratic than the USAID people? Less biased than Bill Gates or Warren Buffet? Less self-serving than George Soros?

    It is easy to be self-righteous. It is really easy to be critical. It is harder to be humble. It is MUCH harder to be influential. Myth Confirmed?

  6. c-sez 6 July, 2010 at 7:55 am #

    Erm… that’s quite ranty there John.. but there’s a good point there at the end. Show me an agency that turns down all USG funding, and show me some evidence of their more powerful voice in their advocacy with/against the USG or in other fora as a result. And I’m not talking situationally (eg not taking USG funding in Blogistan while working on post-conflict advocacy in Blogistan) I mean globally (eg how taking no OFDA funding for drought response in Mali improves your advocacy position in Thailand). I don’t see it.

    Linda – 30%? really? (best monty python northerner voice) Luxury! Sheer looxury!

    • John 7 July, 2010 at 12:08 am #

      Yea, I know. I was (am) in a foul mood. Of course I can not provide an example of any organization declining US Disaster funding in one place strengthening it’s stance in some other. I don’t see it either because it doesn’t exist.

      What I do see right now is one large iNGO, a super absorbent funding sponge, that believes it’s competence is boundless. From where I stand (right next to a million, give or take, IDP’s) they are a purveyor of evermore pervasive mediocrity. If their budget was redirected to groups who actually understand how to work with the local authorities, build trust relationships with the local population (who tend to see any aid or advocacy groups as unwelcome intruders, almost as much as they see the affected peoples from across the border as unwelcome), there would be a lot of money left on the table at the end of the day.

      I know I am not going to be able to change the way USAID works, lengthen the political self life of US aid policies. I’d like to meet the person or group who can, we would rack up one hell of a bar tab. I don’t see the mass media stopping the fluff reporting about ignorant people drawing attention to themselves with some harebrained scheme to save the poor and wretched who they have never seen.

      What I can do is work harder at doing my Job better and dream of the day when donor restrictions are the biggest impediment to having a good day at work.

      (Oh, we used to dream of livin’ in a corridor! Would ha’ been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank on a rubbish tip – Monty Python)

  7. c-sez 8 July, 2010 at 4:06 am #

    >> What I do see right now is one large iNGO, a super absorbent funding sponge, that believes it’s competence is boundless.

    Err… Isn’t that all of them?

  8. Gbonda 12 April, 2011 at 6:08 pm #

    Most of us want to help the poor, but how can we? When EU, USAID, DFID and other funding agencies don’t fund start up organisations instead when you contact them they will ask you for financial statement. I don’t see when you are just a start up organisation can issue such statement with out been funded before. These people only fund people that they know and connected with and not grassroot organisations.

    Please we need funding support to help the poor. We have sent in several project proposal but no funding avaliable to us.

    We need attention please.


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