Making Poverty History: we can and must do better
As world leaders prepare for the MDG Summit and NGOs campaign to remind them of the promises they made, or simply to protect the budgest for development cooperation, it may be useful to consider the implications of the rapidly changing political and economic contexts for development cooperation.
Since the beginning of the decade, “overseas aid” has been in the headlines. To some extent, this is a direct result of the optimism of the dawn of the new millennium and the formulation of the MDGs. More likely, however, the political attention for Development stems from the 9/11 attacks in the US, and a political realisation that poverty and injustice breed instability and violence.
In other words, the reason why world leaders bring up “aid” as an issue at global summit after summit, is more closely related to their perception of self-interest than a new-found urge for do-gooding. Politicians are interested in aid because they have high expectations.
(see for instance this weeks claim by the German Minister that “aid brings peace”)
While Development NGOs have welcomed and benefited from this new political attention for their cause, they have rarely considered the consequences: when governments invest in new policy areas, they want to see returns. After years of growing aid budgets, politicians (and media) want to see results.
In itself that is no problem; we know that aid works. Ask any aid worker: despite the many disappointments and the many instances where politics, climate and culture conspire against human development, we all have seen lots of examples where aid is making a real difference in poor people’s lives.
But the thing is that, astonishingly, the aid sector has been very bad at documenting those instances. Partly because they often are at a micro level, affecting just one person or one family. Partly, this lack of documentation has to do with the fact that the sector prioritises other forms of communication: the bone-dry activity reports for institutional donors, or the over-simplistic and tear jerking fund-raising materials. The human story just doesn’t fit in well.
But there is another reason for this lack of credible evidence of the impact of aid: it is very hard! <see this blog>
It is extremely difficult to capture the long-term processes required in human development in the stats and figures so loved by logframes and “results-based” management. No problem coming up with input indicators (money spent) or measurements for outputs (number of participants in the training session), but how do you quantify outcomes and impact?
There are of course many ways in which that can be done. And very few of them require massive investment of time and resources – provided they are applied systematically and from the very beginning. Just because it is difficult doesn’t mean it can’t be done, or it’s not worth the hassle.
And the point of this article is that we can and must do better.
In the current climate of aid cuts and skeptical politicians, the “overseas aid” sector cannot continue as if ‘business as usual’ is good enough. At a time that the very concept of development assistance is under threat, Development NGOs must show that their work is based on more than moral arguments and good intentions. If we fail to demonstrate that investment in development cooperation works, we will continue to lose public and political support for our work.
Dóchas has identified this threat and has based much of its work of the past years on the principle that accountable NGOs are effective NGOs. We have brought in codes of conduct and we have intensified the activities of our Working Groups, which are our primary mechanisms for peer accountability. We have tried to enhance the transparency of the NGO sector, and we have stimulated debate among our members about what types of NGO work brings about the most lasting changes in poverty levels (Rights-based approaches, Disability, Trade reform, etc). And we have informed our political leaders about the many positive ways in which Irish NGOs work together to enhance their impact.
It is by now extremely clear that the discussions about the effectiveness of “aid” will go on, and gain momentum. Irish Aid, for its part, is stepping up the focus on value for money, and has increased the pressure on Irish NGOs to improve their work, and improve the way they measure the impact of their activities.
It is clear, and it is right: “Business as usual” will not suffice. If we want to make poverty history, we will all need to re-double our effort.