Tag Archives: Accountability

The Advocacy Tax

The Advocacy Tax

Did you miss this excellent piece of journalism, exposing the oversimplified story of how conflict minerals are being stopped by international countermeasures such as the Dodd-Frank law (also see this INGO’s response)? My recent work touches upon the issue. A client’s project needs to be reshaped because its theory of change is based on a causal link between gold mining activities and conflict in DRC, a link that has grown questionable.

Underneath IRIN’s story of minerals, violent exploitation and INGO self-interest is a story to which we humanitarians might pay careful attention because it is a story of agility and adaptation. It is also a story of how institutions perpetuate themselves, and how this self-interest (unfortunately) helps militias to be better militias, but does not help advocacy teams to be better advocates.

The humanitarian sector has invested in a plethora of largely similar advocacy guidelines. (In itself, a small example of how self-interest – my wanting to feel that I am contributing to the good – produces extraordinary levels of duplication and churn).  Advocacy forms a core part of our oft forgotten and misunderstood protection work. We know how to develop strategic goals, core problems, SMART targets, stakeholder analysis, etc., etc., and then implement a plan of action.  Good advocacy can result in quite some achievement, with the enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act’s Section 1502 a prominent example.

But what happens when you tax people for turning left?  They turn in another direction.  The aid industry’s advocacy sector functions much like a tax on ‘bad’ behavior.  It imposes a cost. Noise, diplomatic pressure, public finger-pointing – if done well these can create a disincentive.  In Congo, did it make the bad guys go away? I’ll leave that question for the Congo experts. But the ‘tax’ on conflict gold does seem to have shifted militari-economic exploitation to other minerals/resources and/or regions (either that or it generated more sophisticated bribery and disguise).

The first mistake here is seeing gold mining as a monolithic cause or driver of the conflict, as opposed to an interchangeable one, easily replaced.  In fact, it is difficult to think of it as a driver at all – it operates more as a method of doing business for those with a gun. The second mistake is underestimating the bad guys and overestimating our importance. These are battle-hardened predators.  It’s not as if they lack talent when it comes to circumventing the law.

Partly, this reflects their skill.  Partly, this reflects our Achilles heel. The simplified narrative on which our advocacy industry is based (end exploitation of blood gold/diamonds = end massacres and conflict) is a donation-spinner, and maintains its narrative power long after it has lost its accuracy. We thus establish inadequate responses because we have not yet learned (not yet been taxed so as) to produce narratives that reflect the actual complexity.

Moreover, humanitarian advocacy structures rarely self-redeploy, as do the structures of exploitation and violence. The latter prove more agile and adaptive than us because they are products of the environment in which they act.  We are not.  We, as is has been so often discussed of late, are products of the environment in which we ‘sell’ our actions.

Such a political economy of aid work or advocacy explains much about the shape of our sector. When I look in the mirror, though, I see the other shaper. Not a political economy but a psychological and spiritual one. I see in the mirror my personal investment, my addiction to the humanitarian identity, my individual drip feed of self-esteem.  Advocacy campaigns run on passion, on a genuine immersion in the cause, in the righteousness of hurling even one small stone at the forces of unconscionable brutality. How do you tax that?  You don’t. Perhaps we should consider a healthy dose of blood-spilling greed?

Let’s Ideate … Part II

This is Part II (apologies, but sequels never live up to the original thing). If you have no idea what I am talking about, please read the previous blog for an explanation. If after that you still have no idea, join the club.

  • Ask Angola. Repeat after me: You’re not poor, we’re not rich. You’re not poor, we’re not rich.  You’re not poor, we’re not rich.  What to do about the (self-fulfilling) belief that certain nations are rich and should therefore fund international aid while others are too poor to worry about crises beyond their borders?  Perhaps so-called poor nations should take note of poor people, who routinely prove themselves extraordinarily generous when crisis strikes. Leaving aside all the questions of economic self-interest and geo-political soft power, why did one group of nations evolve with the belief that it should take care of others who are far away? It is a good question, and I suspect the answers lie as wrapped up in our superiority complex, graduate student surplus, “white man’s burden” and (neo) colonial guilt as they do in generosity or compassion.  The better question is why places like Ireland or Portugal have foreign aid budgets while places like Angola and Uzbekistan do not.  I say, every time there is an emergency somewhere, let’s go to the Angolan government and ask them to fund humanitarian operations.  Let’s keep doing it until they take some of that oil money and put it into a foreign aid budget.
  • Yes/No vote. An NGO finishes a year of working in a community on a project.  The NGO writes a progress report to the donor. (See Translate It, in Part I). The donor offers another year of funding.  And then comes then comes the opening of the seventh seal. Not so fast!  Accountability (power) to the people. Not some complicated mechanism of consultation – who has time for that? How about a simple yes/no vote?  A bit brutal, but then referendums and self-determination do not have to be pretty.  Majority decision.  Yes and the NGO gets the money.  No, and another organization gets a chance to do a better job. (Or, better yet, the community gets the money and they can hire themselves an NGO, but that was somebody elses idea.).
  • The smiley face / frowny face vote button thingamajig. Want customer feedback? Are you ready to admit that placing suggestion boxes in an IDP camp full of peasant IDPs may not be the most effective way to seek out customer feedback (and, judging from the emptiness of those boxes, may actually be designed to fill a different box, the one you tick so your donor will be satisfied that feedback mechanisms have been put in place)? How about one of these?

And my best (a relative term, to be sure) idea? Perhaps it is this one:

  • Corruption-buster. At the Design Theory workshop, the facilitators covered the walls with the stories of actual aid recipients, prompting our empathy. I was struck by how many of these stories contained complaints of corruption. Poverty wears you down. Injustice eats you alive. The one that boiled my blood was this story of humiliation, as aid agency staff forced refugees to sign receipts for $20, when in fact they were given only $2. You see? So on my side I will be forced to accept. So you are ripped off in front of your eyes and there is nothing you can do about it. These are things that are happening. The aid workers forge numbers. I was not born a refugee, I have to come out of this kind of life.

Take a place like New Orleans, where nothing works.  Take any city where nothing works.  What is the one exception to this golden rule of incompetence and inefficiency? Ticketing for parking violations. That works. That always works. Spend two extra minutes in the shop and there it is, fluttering under your wiper blade. Those parking meter bastards work harder than any ten civil servants because they aren’t civil servants, they work for private companies that collect a percentage of the fines collected, and each of those bastards gets to smile at the ka-ching of personal gain every time he or she slips a ticket under the wiper.  So why not do the same in the aid world? Forget some sort of hyper-bureaucratized ombudsmanship. We need unannounced visits of a private firm that is paid nothing. They get a cut (20%?) of any corruption uncovered.  Ditto for fat rewards for any refugees whose tip leads to a bust.

So, are you now feeling ready to ideate?

Let’s Ideate Our Way Out of Here

Constructive deconstruction. That is the label placed on an intriguing initiative led by HPG/ODI.  How could I even question the value of disassembling the humanitarian system?  I jumped in. The process is based on design theory, a recently-arrived savior of humanitarian action, in case innovative phone apps and cash don’t live up to their advertizing.

And in that previous sentence lies a clue to design theory’s promise. As a humanitarian no longer in the field, I am drawn to the ills of the sector before those of the people in CAR or Syria.  I am hardly alone in that regard.  To fix that proximity bias: design theory.  Because one doesn’t design a new sofa with the furniture sector in mind. The trick in design theory is to immerse oneself in the user experience; to empathize with them.  The other trick is to prototype, to churn out new ideas, see how they fare, adapt them, see how they fare…

In one exercise, we were asked to ideate. That involves said churning of ideas without the brakes of affordability, feasibility or desirability. I churned. My small group astutely relegated these ideations to the ‘kill’ pile. The beauty of having my own blog site is being able to re-animate them here, for you, even at the risk of generating the ideation equivalent of false news. (This blog not to be confused with a few of my legitimate ideas). In no particular order:

  • Ban innovation. That seemed like a contrarian place to start.  Remember the kid who couldn’t dribble a basketball, couldn’t shoot it, couldn’t play defense, but spent a spectacular amount of time perfecting his alley-oop slam dunk?  That’s the humanitarian system’s relationship to innovation.  As donors dump money into innovation and we all drink the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid of gadgeting our way out of crisis – as the system devotes ever more resources and effort to innovation – it seems further away from getting the basics right.  Here’s an innovation – deliver emergency aid to people in crisis.  Here’s another innovation – engage in protection work as part of your efforts.  And another — ensure that the needs of people determine what you do.  Get those right and maybe we can start celebrating the latest phone apps.
  • Translate it. Mandatory – in the form of contractual obligations to donors, technical agreements (or regulations) with host governments — translation into local language(s) and community-level dissemination of key documents, including project proposals, budgeting and progress reports.
  • Invoice it. More than once at last month’s DRR conference (see previous post) did we hear that governments refused to invest in disaster risk reduction because that was ‘for the internationals’. Yes, that old issue – aid undermining responsibility and building dependency. But it is not just that we perform/replace the work of governments, armed groups and communities. It gets much worse. Take South Sudan, where an MSF hospital might get burned down and looted a few times over the course of a decade. Or where the government has managed to transform international goodwill, billions of dollars and the joy and hope of millions of South Sudanese into violent catastrophe.  That much destruction and squander takes dedication and it takes talent. It takes intent. So why does MSF rebuild its hospitals?  Why do humanitarians continue to provide healthcare when the government didn’t even try, but instead looted the goods? Why do we feed people who were driven into man-made famine?  Well, because that’s often what humanitarians do. That’s our job. But why don’t we do something more?  I mean, something other than shaking our finger and holding press conferences to declare that we are deeply peeved?  How many hundreds of millions has the international community spent in South Sudan due to the gross negligence and wilful misconduct and criminal behaviour of those in power? I say, send them the invoice. Hire some clever lawyers. Get a judgment. Garnish their wages.  Freeze a few bank accounts.  Invoice it even if you never get a cent back. Invoice it out of principle.
  • Context testing. Everyone working in the aid sector in a foreign country (for longer than six months) must pass a test to show that they have grasped the basic history, geography, culture, economics etc. of that country. They must take an induction course run by a local business or university. They must prove that they are capable not just of being neutral (read: completely disconnected), but of being contextual.

[To be continued in a few days]

Accountability Redux

I feel bad for the concept of accountability.  Must be hard for such a serious concept to get so little respect. At ALNAP’s annual meeting last month – a 2-day discussion of how change works in the humanitarian ‘system’, and why it so often doesn’t – poor ol’ accountability was stuck in the role of sectoral punching bag.  Need an example of how the system overcomes agreement, well-funded initiatives and 20 years of effort in order to resist change?  Then accountability is your man.  We even have trouble even changing the way we think about accountability (see e.g., my last blog), with system-led development of a downward accountability mechanism more or less occupying the entire space.

My mother says I am always too negative, so I will stop right now and change hats.   As a humanitarian motivated solely by compassion for the suffering of the downtrodden (and certainly not even nudged by the Oedipal pleasure of critiquing the aid establishment), perhaps I can rally to the aid of that punching bag?  In the spirit of a few but not exactly earthshaking ideas:

  1. Think smaller. As I have written before, there “is a danger that we ask too much of accountability”; invest too much in the search for a magic bullet. Our internal efforts, long guilty of greater promise than reward, have nonetheless delivered improvements. To do it better requires framing these efforts within a more honest and explicit understanding of their limitations, diminishing their outsized sales claims reducing the risk that they pre-empt or displace other, dissimilar efforts. In particular, that they do not function to dissuade external efforts aimed not at bequeathing accountability to people, but empowering them to take it.
  1. Make existing accountability work better. Nobody ever talks about the demonstrated accountability most NGO executives show to their boards/trustees. We talk incessantly about accountability moving upwards to donors, but almost never mention boards. Why? Humanitarian NGO boards are filled with the great and the good, titans of the private sector, masters of communication, big shot directors of non-sector NGOs, noted academics and venerated politicians (or even royal family). What they are not filled with are titans, masters or even relatively knowledgeable persons when it comes to humanitarian action. Fiduciary responsibilities, market share, communications and duty of care receive dedicated, expert attention. Do operations comply with the dictates of impartiality? Independence? What about operations? Do boards ask hard questions as to their effectiveness or luxuriate in the sense that they are “great, really really super”.  Would it not be a relatively straightforward affair to insist that boards receive training in humanitarian action, and that Trusteeship more explicitly requires challenging the executive to deliver on downward accountability (not to mention the humanitarian imperative) rather than battle for higher fundraising results and profit efficiency? (Hint: I already have a day-long training mostly ready).
  1. Untick the box. Some donors now routinely require aid agencies to establish some form of accountability to local pops.   Donors have power and the system dances to their tune.  As with all such measures, though, certain features of accountability will soon become a tickbox exercise.  And there is a moral hazard here, as both donor and agency share an interest in having the project look good, a current weakness of upward accountability to donors (i.e., the fudge factor).  But we can still promote donor pressure as a good move. We should only require that we maintain clarity on one thing: This is not downward accountability to people, it is accountability to donors. Box not ticked.
  1. Paradigm shift. It is a mistake to ground downward accountability in the discourse of effectiveness. If accountability is justified because it will make aid more responsive to the needs of people and hence more effective, then avoidance of downward accountability can be justified on the same grounds. The sector has long reduced downward accountability to an option in service to effectiveness rather than allow it to function as a control borne in ethical obligation. Effectiveness allows avoidance via the domineering idea that taking time to involve people affected by crisis is outweighed by the humanitarian imperative to act now now now. Let’s be clear: some of these downward accountability measures appear awfully burdensome in terms of time and resources, especially at the early stage of a emergency response. They will slow humanitarians down. Loud voices will complain about bureaucracy killing people. Doors will be slammed. This is what the clash of paradigms will produce. Anger and self-righteous indignation. A new normative framework needs to be explicit: ethical obligation trumps effectiveness. So the response to complaints needs to be “So what!?” or “Don’t worry, we’re looking into that”, the same responses that the existing paradigm has produced in answering those who have been looking for greater ethical accountability. The trick is to dismantle this effectiveness-based critique prospectively, not wait for it to dismantle the momentum for change.

[Dear Reader: Please insert here a clever summation] [21 March: This post was updated (edits to mistakes and unclear phrasing)]