The Big Push Back!
Posted on 11 October 2010
By Rosalind Eyben
In my book Relationships for Aid, I wrote about the international aid culture that ignores power, relations, the partiality of knowledge and complexity, and pretends there are no surprises and unplanned consequences.
In the last couple of years, it has only got worse. British government aid (DFID) is now imposing extraordinary demands in terms of reporting against indicators of achievement that bear little relation to the manner and possibilities donor-funded activities have for supporting social transformation. Researchers and NGOs in other European countries report a similar phenomenon. And because the pressure is coming from international donors, we know that the same trend is being experienced all over Aidland.
Theoretical and contested concepts such as civil society, capacity or policy become reified and then numbers assigned to the reification e.g. ‘state the number of policies influenced’. Answers are required to absurd value-for-money questions in which institutions are considered as if they were motor cars.
Last year a government donor organisation asked me “what evidence exists of the relative cost, effectiveness, efficiency, impact and quality demonstrated by civil society organisations, in comparison to the UN or profit-making organisations?” That was the moment when I decided it was time for a big push back.
Last month, I organised a meeting for those increasingly worried about the donor trend to support only those programmes claiming to deliver easily measurable results rather than to support transformative processes of positive and sustainable changes in people’s lives. In my invitation, I wrote that many development practitioners cynically comply with the performance measurement demands, often with a nod and a wink from a sympathetic bureaucrat equally despairing of what is now required.
Compliance is accompanied by secret resistance. People carry on doing what seems most appropriate according to their own judgement. But compliance and resistance consume energy and enthusiasm. The methods demanded of us to be more accountable are actually having the effect of our becoming ever less responsible for seriously enquiring of ourselves how we can most usefully contribute to transformative social change and be held accountable for our actions in that respect.
My invitation struck a strong chord. One senior official from an international development organisation phoned to say ‘We negotiated for several months with [a government donor] and they themselves knew it was ridiculous what they were asking for. In the end it comes down to money and for several hundreds of millions of dollars we had to agree.’
Of course, the trend is more widely manifest. Someone in Australia e-mailed that ‘The front line local government community development workers, bushfire reconstruction teams and indigenous workers all face exactly the same issues’. A community worker in Ireland wrote ‘This year so far we have had 8 different external evaluations…. Each one is as useless as the next and I am forced to play dumb number games. Apart from retaining most of our funding by dancing their mind-numbing jigs, there has not been one added insight or benefit to young people from this mountain of paper’.
But the problem is accentuated in the international development sector. Aid has been around for a long time and there is increasing pressure for quick ‘wins’, particularly with the current shift to the right in European politics that puts aid flows at risk. There is also a reality gap between citizens in the North providing the money and those in the South who are meant to be benefitting.
People apparently have little appetite for complex messages. Consequently donors and those they fund have been complicit in pretending development is simple. Because NGOs are competing among themselves for financing they comply with donor requirements and thereby confirm and reinforce the trend.
More broadly, the prevailing neo-liberal ideology of everyone supposed to be pursuing their own self-interest has created an environment of suspicion; the desire for quantitative data arises when there is a lack of trust. Agencies or individuals seek to cover their backs through spurious statistics. The cultural values and behaviour of the international finance sector (and look where that has got us to!) have permeated into development work. Multinational accountancy companies are now running programmes for strengthening civil society and jostling to be the watchdogs of aid.
Participants welcomed the possibility of collective research and action to dialogue with donors and create more space for transformative development practice. The Participation, Power and Social Change team at the Institute of Development Studies is currently exploring how to take forward collective advocacy, communications and knowledge sharing among an informal network of practitioners and researchers pushing back against this devastating trend and pushing forward to make aid work better for people living in poverty.
Rosalind Eyben is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change team at the Institute of Deveopment Studies. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.