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The coming age of accountability

There was such a great audience yesterday at the Brookings event on What Works in Development. (If you are a glutton for punishment, the full length audio of the event is available on the Brookings web site.)

In the end, what struck me was the passion for just having SOME way to KNOW that aid is benefiting the poor, which dwarfed the smaller issue of Randomized Experiment methods vs. other methods.

And extreme dissatisfaction with aid agencies who ignore even the most obvious signs that some aid effort is not working. (Example cited in the Brookings book: a World Bank computer kiosk program in India celebrated as a “success” in its “Empowerment” sourcebook. Except that the computers sat in places without functioning electricty or Internet connections. Critics pointed that out, and yet officials still defended the program as contributing to “Empowerment.” Abhijit Banerjee asked “empowered how ? through non-working computers?”)

It is awfully hard to get an accountabilty movement going that would have enough political power to force changes on aid agencies, say, away from forever mumbling “empowerment,” towards actually making computers light up.

Accountability is not something that anyone accepts voluntarily. It is forced on political actors by sheer political power from below. That’s what democratic revolutions are all about. Can we hear a lot more from people in the poor countries protesting bad aid (thank you, Dambisa Moyo) and praising good aid (thank you, Mohammed Yunus)? Can we hear A LOT more from the intended beneficiaries themselves? Can their allies in rich countries help them gain more political leverage with rich country aid agencies?

I don’t know yet. But there is a lot more awareness of the accountability problem then there was a decade ago. The dialogues of the blogs on making Haiti disaster aid work is one example.  The size, savvy, and enthusiasm of the audience yesterday was one more small hopeful sign.

Watch out, aid agencies, accountability is coming.

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  1. Sam Barratt wrote:

    Of course aid agencies know its coming. They totally rely on the trust placed in their supporters for financial support. If they don’t perform then the trust will dissipate. Digital is going to increase the scrutiny for all on this – which is welcome. The gap between communities that aid agencies work with is narrower which gives a chance for aid agencies to show the impact of their work and also enable the communities to express who they feel about this support. Oxfam will be piloting just such an initiative in the coming weeks in Haiti. This crisis has been revolutionary. If Obama was the first digital president then Haiti was also the first digital crisis. Nothing will be the same again.

    Posted January 22, 2010 at 4:10 pm | Permalink
  2. William Easterly wrote:

    Sam, and I thought I was optimistic! I am afraid the evidence so far for your proposition “if they don’t perform, trust will dissipate, supporters abandon them” is not too strong. Why did the World Bank insist non-working computers were a success. Because they know people don’t have information and information is a public good rather than a private good that one individual has an incentive to acquire. I share your hope that the digital age might bring some breakthroughs. But again technology alone is not enough, it’s incentives, motivation, political power to force change..
    thanks for your comment, Bill

    Posted January 22, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Permalink
  3. Ian wrote:

    I agree with Sam that “digital” enhances transparency and non performance can lead trust to dissipate. BUT:
    – that transparency isn’t here yet – it’s coming (see great media coverage of Saundra and Alanna’s blogs for example) but there is still a long way to go before it realizes its potential.
    – accountability works when it can affect the bottom line. If scrutiny has no impact on funding then there isn’t the same incentive to do better. Some organizations feel this pressure more than others.
    The downside to transparency though can be that agencies choose to do those things which look good to the public who funds them rather than what really works for devlopment. Saundra’s blog has plenty of examples of this.

    Posted January 22, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  4. Sam Barratt wrote:

    It’s true that accountability isn’t quite there yet but the huge sums of money coming in to haiti, the emotional buy in, the slow start (for good reasons) mean that the scrutiny on performance / impact / outcomes etc will be even sharper than the tsunami. I think that “Ushahidi Plus” models for real-time spend, feedback loops with communities and adjustment has to be the best practice models for agencies to consider. Ian, its no longer just about doing nice projects that look good on the surface, communities agencies work with can expose the shallowness through their own communication routes. Small corners of the world where big problems lie can have big lights beamed into them. This is a good thing for everyone concerned.

    Posted January 22, 2010 at 5:12 pm | Permalink
  5. Sam Barratt wrote:

    …and William it would be good to hear what you think “…t’s incentives, motivation, political power to force change..” could / would look like?

    Posted January 22, 2010 at 5:14 pm | Permalink
  6. Adam Vaught wrote:

    But how do you get intended beneficiaries to speak up when in most cases they are afraid that saying anything negative will result in them losing funding?

    Also, I agree with your comment on information. People don’t have the information because they aren’t demanding it. Donors need to be educated to start asking tough questions if we are going to see real accountability. There does seem to be a lot more chatter about where money is going in terms of Haiti, hopefully this is the beginning of a trend.

    Posted January 22, 2010 at 5:24 pm | Permalink
  7. Anne wrote:

    A warning against calls for greater accountability: the last time that happened, nothing improved. In the early-mid-90s, the shift to “results-based management” occurred and all it led to was confusion, burden, and an increasing attention to audit. We do not have results-based management so much as audit-based management. Managers in aid organizations are PENALIZED for taking risks precisely bc they get slammed for deviating from due process. Due process is emphasized so much as a response to re-curring attacks on how aid monies are being spent. So while this blog and aid criticism is well-intentioned – it also fails to learn from the failures of past ‘calls to increased accountability’. There is a LOSS of freedom and nimbleness. Aid agencies (not talking about WB, talking about the smaller guys) end up in straight-jackets and end up as SCAPEGOATS when things go wrong. Everyone thinks they could do better without wondering if maybe aid agencies are doing what they can considering the insurmountable bottlenecks they work with. They say don’t judge a man till you’ve walked a mile in his shoes – I think if you haven’t worked for several years for an aid agency yourself in a developing country – you have no idea why aid doesn’t work and tongue tsking is just sounds annoying.

    The truth is…calls for aid accountability from the public just won’t come in a consequential way. Why? Because, as Jack Nicholson shouted back at the end of a Few Good Men “You Can’t Handle the Truth!”

    What is the truth? The truth is that distorted visions of “aid interventions” being something sufficient enough (even at their best and most efficient) to end poverty are the childish fantasies of Westerners in a post WWII world. You want real change? Of course it’s not going to come through aid agencies! It’s going to come from things like halting arms sales, halting the continuous dessimation of fish stocks/forests/etc, halting exports of our garbage and toxic wastes, halting over-demand for blood-products (diamonds, minerals for our cell phones, etc). Going to come through things like FAIR trade. Also going to come through things that have historically brought about change: bloody class conflict for instance. All things that well-intentioned aid critics and well-intentioned micro-donors are not ready to support in any real way. Sure everyone is all for fair trade in theory – but not if your food prices rise. Who’s going to give $30/month to support an aid agency that supports local riots and uprisings?

    Who can really expect a results-based logical framework analysis to tackle centuries of poverty? It is NOT a matter of “will”. We are talking about a crazy complex world that can’t be generalized and can’t be socially engineered by a handful of offices scattered around the place.

    Aid agencies and aid critics alike would probably make more of a contribution to the overall good by lobbying under the motto of “DO NO HARM”.

    At the end of the day, we are all rather inconsequential in the macro scheme of things. One day 200 hundred years from now after some major apocalyptic-like climate change or nuclear disaster, we will be foot-noted in the annals of history as the mid-20th century/early 21st century “aid experiment” – a curious time in human history when folks from then-wealthy countries somehow erroneously concluded that something called ‘effective aid’ would do something called ‘save the world’. Perplexing indeed!

    Posted January 22, 2010 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  8. Jan wrote:

    Accountability would certainly help improve the obvious ineffectiveness of billions in WB, IMF, IADB, etc. loans, as well as so much UN, US, French, German, Spanish and everybody else’s aid, plus the NGO’s that live off same. The problem is almost nobody ever goes back one month, six months or one year after the project ribbon is cut with the accompanying photo opp featuring a government minister, the donor and the contractors for the annual report. Everything usually ends when the initial success is declared. Host governments don’t want to complain for fear of jeopardizing future donor funds, some NGO’s don’t check back or if they find failure won’t admit it for fear of not getting future projects, and often the donors have moved on to the next disaster. Meanwhile the social media project that never worked because there wasn’t electricity, or the income-producing egg project that failed because people ate the hens before they matured due to hunger, or the fishing boat project for people who won’t eat fish because of religious beliefs are ignored.

    Posted January 22, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Permalink
  9. Jeff wrote:

    Interesting dialogue. I have to say I agree with Anne that the push for increased accountability could make life worse. There are many ways to pave the road to hell….For example, in the past 5-10 years, all the focus on setting and meeting targets (MDG’s) was sold as a way to improve results orientation and accountability. The problem is that many of the targets are poorly defined and not evidenced based… or their measure processes and not outcomes. This leads implementers to stick to the processes in order to meet the targets even when it starts to become clear that those processes won’t produce the desired outcomes.
    RCT might help this problem, but my sense is they can only be sensibly used in a limited number of situations.

    Posted January 23, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink
  10. mjfrombuffalo wrote:

    My experience is in child welfare, specifically the private agencies that contract with government for funding. We’ve been held to accountability standards for over a decade in my geographic area, and it’s a mixed bag.
    – What you can count gets measured – so the number of contacts between a caseworker and a child are counted, but that doesn’t do anything toward measuring the quality of the contact and whether or not the contact leads to faster permanency.
    – What gets measured counts – so like teachers whose schools are rated by standardized test scores, agencies start training to the test; workers are told to prioritize the tasks that are being counted by the funder.
    – Outcomes are messy – so they don’t really get measured well, because they are hard to describe and standardize and count, especially when the aid intervention is directed toward a diverse population where individuals/groups may have different desired outcomes.
    – Proving negatives is also messy – so interventions intended to prevent certain problems may not be able to prove they had the intended effect, as the intended effect may have happened by chance.
    Transparency is good, as is keeping open dialogue between the measurers and the ones being measured since adapting the measures over time can help avoid unintended consequences. But this is human services, not widgets, and no accountability tool or standard of measure will be perfect, ever.

    Posted January 23, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  11. Adam Vaught wrote:

    Wow, this conversation went from ridiculously optimistic to frighteningly cynical. How about before we argue for accountability we demand transparency…isn’t that step one?

    Anne you talk about the smaller guys being in straitjackets…the smaller guys are the ones with a chance to make a real difference. The ones who can take the time to build relationships, understand needs and support communities who want to see change rather than going in and forcing it on them (not that many of them are doing that yet, but there is the potential). I would argue that its the big guys who are in straitjackets since often times they are accountable to governments who might talk about aid but whose real motives are often much more calculated, strategic, and self serving.

    Also if you are looking for Westerns with childish fantasies of ending world poverty I would suggest checking Jeffery Sach’s blog for that.

    Jan you are absolutely right about the short sighted nature of most of these projects, so lets work on educating donors to look for organizations that are established and aren’t going anywhere, that understand that real change takes place over the long term, not when you check off the box next to ‘build a school in developing country X’, and walk away with your picture.

    Development is a new idea. Throughout history the countries that we are trying to help have just been invaded and their populations killed. For every good project going on right now I have seen ten bad ones. BUT it is improving, because of the mistakes, the continued education’ and because of dialogues like this. We were all ignorant to these ideas at one point, giving recklessly because we were full of good intentions (at least I was), but the more you understand about what is really going on the quicker you evolve out of that mindset and become someone can actually help even if it is just through educated giving.

    Posted January 23, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Permalink
  12. Adam Vaught wrote:

    Mij, reminds me of watching the UNWFP drop off rice, canned fish, canned tomatoes, and oil at a school in rural Cambodia. Check off their box that 500 kids were fed for another few months and drive off.

    They weren’t there ten minutes later to see another truck show up, buy all the food, and drive off.

    When I told a UNWFP friend of mine about what we had seen he said, “We know it goes on, but we dont have a budget for monitoring or enforcing. We have just enough to provide the food and drop it off.”

    That was in 2007, hopefully things have changed

    Posted January 23, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Permalink
  13. geckonomist wrote:

    Adam, and your friend didn’t tell you the second truck drove to the WFP procurement office to sell the same (re-bagged) rice to the WFP again at a handsome profit…?

    Posted January 25, 2010 at 7:27 am | Permalink
  14. Anne wrote:

    Hey Adam,

    I do have hope in “little guys” – especially those that haven’t been domesticated by the dominant institutional culture of the Aid Industry. It *is* a domestication – we feed you if you loyally fetch our slippers.

    Anyway – the kind of change that could actually make a difference and make people’s lives easier (aid workers, mid-sized agencies, INGOS, small grassrootsy guys) primarily comes from the big donors – the bilaterals (DFID, CIDA, USAID, SIDA, etc., WB). Since they hold the purse strings (UN agencies and big INGOs rely on them so they are mostly middle-men/line managers) – major donors hold the power. They are the ones that do the imposing – both of aid priorities and of accountability mechanisms. It was they that imposed the LFAs and the RBM. It is they that determine the short-term funding cycles that make proper and long-term planning so difficult. It is they that take money away if its not spent in a particular cycle and thus force other agencies to have botched planning.

    The best example is “participation”. We all know by now how important local consultations are to the success/failure of any project. As any aid worker will tell you – there is never any time for this. Why? Because it takes a lot of time and it’s very difficult (i.e. class/ethnic issues that make groups un-homogenous and thus the process messy). You have to spend the money and show results in a 2-5 year time period. Forget letting local populations determine aid priorities – those are already decided by donor govts. Basically, we are SET UP to fail – so that is why it’s extra-annoying when aid critic-parasites come along and intellectually profit off the whole rigmarole – sucking our blood to secure their next book deal and justify their own impotence.

    Even at the best of times it’s not easy to make a project “work”. Dare I say corruption, incompetence, selfishness, hierarchy at the “local” level are there in ample supply? There is an underlying assumption among aid critics that the world is set up with with ineffective/bureaucratic/fat-cats on the one side and then a group of ready/willing/able/cooperative/resourceful “locals”/”grassroots” organizations on the other side that are just waiting to thrive should aid come to them in a more accountable package. *Sigh* must I go on to explain why this is the furthest thing from the truth? Why so many times projects “fail” bc of entrenched local politics that would be there even in the absence of the aid industry? Just like there was no such thing as the “noble savage”, there is no such thing as the “noble aid recipient”. And transparency isn’t necessarily transparent. I could very well see a member of a local elite blogging away from X-developingcountry against international aid workers – who will be cast as the bad guys. But little will be said about the said blogger’s own incompetence and self-interests at heart. Who is innocent?

    Anyway, the Industry survives and will continue to survive bc it serves a purpose: the public doesn’t want nuance, it wants to feel good. Is why World Vision keeps its ranks as the highest grossing INGO. “We” in the “biz” are the only ones that care to spend tons of time thinking, talking, and writing about these issues – our microcosm is big to us. But as for the general public – they still dominate google searches for news on celeb scandals and porn.

    Posted January 25, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  15. Raphael wrote:

    Thanks for your comments Anne. I think this blog sometimes gets lost in the macro world of economists and doesn’t realize what NGOs and CBOs are doing on the ground.

    All these requirements for results-based management are great, except when taken to the extreme – when donors (especially USAID) impose 45 different indicators on a project to report on, which have little relevance to the context to boot. Upward accountability if I ever saw it ….. And all resulting from well intentioned results-based mgmt.

    I think we’ve lost sight of the benefits of participatory rural appraisal, where M&E is done for the benefit of the project and for the beneficiaries, where indicators are actually developed and selected by communities to measure what THEY want to measure. This process improves the outcomes in the community, but it won’t provide neat numbers to report. Of course, the question is how can I prove a project is effective without a RCT? Well … I can’t if that’s your burden of proof. I can give you community perceptions of benefit and case studies of improvements, which I admit can be misleading and sometimes abused. But that is what a bottom-up approach is going to give you (with very few exceptions).

    So, in sum, both extremes can be quite dangerous if you’ve walked a mile in the real world of community-based projects.

    Posted January 25, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

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  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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