There’s widespread agreement that more aid and more NGO donations are not a simplistic panacea to solve development problems. Judith Tendler 35 years ago wrote about the paradoxical phenomenon of aid abundance, in which donor agencies have trouble finding enough ways spending the money they already have; it’s still true today.
Yet things look very different at the other end of the aid delivery system. During a July trip to northern Ghana, I talked to a community leader in a small farming hamlet outside of Bolgatanga, Ghana about availability of bed nets. The nets are working to prevent malaria for those who sleep under them, he says, but the town does not have enough nets to go around. “Everybody cannot sleep under one net,” he says.
When you reach the end of the road, it IS about the money. More money that reaches the end of the road means more malaria nets, fewer cases of malaria, fewer tragic deaths. The debate has never been about THAT, it is about WHETHER the money reaches the end of the road.
So it comes to how likely it is that different official aid agencies and NGOs are to make the money reach the end of the road. This is a bit different than whether different aid interventions “work” according to randomized evaluation (RE). Even if the interventions pass the RE test, how do you know that one hundred additional dollars given to one particular agency will translate into additional interventions?
My visits in northern Ghana were with local volunteers from the international NGO Nets for Life . Their basic idea is to use the trustworthy network of the Anglican church, including local bishops, priests, and church workers to deliver the life-saving bed nets. I have been involved with Nets for Life at both ends now: both in board meetings in New York and at the receiving end in northern Ghana. I can’t claim to have performed any kind of systematic evaluation of Nets for Life, and even if I had, it would hardly be cost effective to for every concerned individual to perform their own time-consuming and costly evaluation of every small NGO program. We need a much better system for identifying who is doing better reaching the end of the road, where it IS about how much money the agency can raise.
Until then, I have a very favorable opinion of Nets for Life, based on hearing about their mode of operation, seeing them in action in the field in visits to their intended beneficiaries in northern Ghana, and also based on the impressive attitudes, knowledge and dedication of everyone I have met involved with Nets for Life.
So to bring closer the day when we know more about NGOs, get to know your NGO as well as you can, using every method possible, and share the information you collect with other actual and potential donors to that NGO (which is what I am doing in this post). Again, this is all to assess the essential question: do donations reach the end of the road?
If the answer is yes, then yes it really IS about the money.