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Breaking the Chain of Hypocrisy

2013 January 17

Rosario Leon

In a current visit to Bolivia I had a conversation with an old friend and colleague, Rosario León about her thoughts on the Results Agenda – from the perspective of her experience as a scholar activist, consultant and part of the NGO community that has been heavily financed by international aid.  Her perspective seems to be missing so far from the crowd sourcing we reported on last week We started our conversation by reference to her Story from Aidland’ that details her battles with results artefacts and their effects on her colleagues and their relationships with their partners. It explains how she and her colleagues tried to meet the requirement to produce measurable results, while simultaneously using the aid machine’s funds to support the social changes that were occurring as the marginalized people of Bolivia started to claim their citizenship rights and assert their cultural identities. Rosario and her colleagues increasingly found themselves caught between the everyday realities of working in the local communities, and the incongruous bureaucracy of annual operating plans along with the dictates of remote donor organizations.   The effects of this ‘double life’ meant some felt like actors adopting a language and a set of tools – technical activity reports, expenditure reports and products – quite distinct from the work they were actually doingIt was part of a mutually constituted chain of hypocrisy that Rosario outlined to me.Rosario Bolivia has changed since the time of that story. Now it is much harder for NGOs to access donor funds.  The government of today regards us as imperialist lackeys – anachronisms from pre-revolutionary Bolivia.   Ironically with respect to how the Government views us, the social activism of many of the NGOs that donors funded contributed to the social transformation that resulted in the 2005 elections that brought the present government to power.  Despite the very positive social and political changes of recent years, the space for civil society and alternative voices is shrinking. It leads me to appreciate donors’ historical role in enhancing citizen participation.

 Rosalind  Another irony?  That social activism depended on foreign aid?  You can’t manage without them?

Rosario  Yes, exactly.  We were hypocrites to accept their money while struggling to rid ourselves of the intellectual and cultural dependency that foreign aid represented.

Some of us were pragmatic. We took the donor money and delivered as per the contract while diverting as much as we could to what we actually wanted to do.  Others were intellectually captured by the donors’ logframe mindset. Yet others, of course, were financially corrupt, using the money for their own personal ends. But in any case, there was a big problem. We always got money for projects and there was a pretence that somehow we could cover our running costs  It was one link in a chain of hypocrisy.

Another link in the chain was how disbursement pressure and the difficulties in identifying NGOs to fund meant donors were lax in checking on how the money was spent – as long as the reports were OK.  Donors shut their eyes to what they didn’t want to see.

Rosalind  You are quite right. Until the late 1990’s, corruption was rarely discussed in the international aid sector. There are stories I could tell you……  Perhaps the current insistence on checking how the money is spent is justified?

 Rosario Indeed, but donors don’t like to admit that foreign aid itself generates corruption.

 Rosalind Well, we seem to have argued ourselves into aid being a bad thing! Yet, there are many amazingly dedicated individuals and organisations whose work is financed by the sector.  And when we started this conversation, you were keen that donor support should continue.

 Rosario  The aid relationship is full of contradictions! We need to be honest about that.

And corruption is not just about taking someone else’s money. More generally it is a distancing from reality. That you pretend things are other than they are.  Donors do this by insisting on the logic of the project. Donors must recognize the importance of process rather than exert ever greater controls.   Excessive control is counter-productive; it inevitably leads to cheating because one is forced into short cuts and inventions.  And it creates so much stress! There is no energy left for the work to which one was so passionately committed.   Meanwhile, the important part of the project (if one has energy and time for it) is transformation in relations and that goes unreported, as I argued in my story from Aidland.

We do need donor support but on different terms.  We need to start trusting each other again. We need to work out how we can be responsible to each other in supporting processes of social transformation  that change the power relations and the structures that sustain inequality and injustice. Only then can we break the chain of hypocrisy that together we have constructed.

3 Responses
  1. Rosario Leon permalink
    January 26, 2013

    Richard Holloway’s comments make me reflect on the efficacy and rationale of the control systems of aid funds. They are certainly an important part of the relation between donors and recipients. By who and how the control of aid funds is established, is an important subject of POWER and politics. It is neither in the forms nor in the requirements, nor in the procedures, nor in the perfection and transparency of making financial accounts that the relation becomes hypocritical, but in ignoring that it is a power relation where the underlying issue is the conditioning to a philosophy of change, a prior classification of the actor and a decision concerning the design of the course to be followed to achieve ” results “. It is a “take it or leave it” relationship. The trick in the negotiation, in fulfilling the requirements for being selected, etc. etc. is to accept the conditions and make a hidden way to reach your own objectives while concurring with the funder’s agenda.

    Financial management and control of outcomes do not allow the reality to surface, to flow with all its complexity and the conflicts, limitations, demands and people as these are assumed to be problems, that can characterise the aid recipient as inefficient or reluctant, etc. Thus all these emergent symptoms of social complexity must continue to be invisible. So the control imposes power over the beneficiaries and over those who manage the aid.

    Regarding local funds, many times during my 34 years of work in development I have heard the suggestions or demands of some donors that we must raise local funds to make our work sustainable. This request or demand came when we needed to renegotiate the project and make changes, when we needed to continue the project or when we needed to extend its scope. In short, when we needed to make changes or, as in this case, when we dared to reflect on the power relationship that occurs in the management of aid.

    Then, as development practitioners by conviction or necessity, we must enter the field of finance, of negotiating political arrangements, economic undertakings, etc. etc. What I know is that in many cases we managed to do without the donors and their money, but this diminished the possibility for reflexive social action and support of change processes, of processes for combating poverty, of training leaders to respect the political rights of the people and their democratic participation. People became the clients of your business or undertaking. One of the most telling signs of this are the second-tier banks, which subsist and earn from the interests paid by the people who before used to be project beneficiaries. The social effects of those enterprises are rarely assessed and evaluated beyond the “results”: rate of delayed payment, rate of recuperation, number of clients, and rate of return, etc. Are these really indicators of the success of the enterprise and the people?

    A few months ago, the Big Push Forward reflected on the relation between value and money, and proposed many different ways to bring out the value of the aid relationships and not just the effects of monetary investment in them. The political relationship generated through the management of aid can favour civil society organisations. It provides power to people, from intellectuals to the grassroots, so that they can become stronger actors for systemic social changes in favour of equity, inclusion and wellbeing.

    The history of many leaders of the Bolivian change process is linked to aid. This effect was not only due to the quantity and quality of the control systems, but to trust in the people; not in the amount of money invested, but in developing their capacities and creating opportunities for citizens’ participation for exercising their rights, strengthening their organisations; basically letting people exercise their power, a power provided by the donors, to act on the elites or systems that excluded them. Without this power, which granted them some authority over people and institutions, the possibility to make changes would have likely been more difficult.

    Aid is more important than the money invested.

  2. Richard Holloway permalink
    January 22, 2013

    I am greatly sympathetic to what has been written about the hypocrisy of aid. I suffered from this with DFID unrestricted partnership funding while i worked at the Aga Khan Foundation as head of the civil society program. This is an important topic and one that needs to be battled out with the donors – but i do want to add an important rider to these discussions – which is that you should try not to take aid. CSOs should try to become fincially self-reliant by seeking funding from (a) their own governments, (b) their own public, (c) their own business community (d) their own organised charitable sector, and (e) by developing income from their own enterprises. Easier said than done, it is true, but still CSOs keep battling away with hypocritical and unhelpful international donors when they could be approaching a whole range of financial self reliance strategies.

    Some of the readers of this blog may know my book “Towards Financial Self-Reliance” and the traning courses that come from it which basically say that you will never be sustainable in your work if you rely on foreign donors – for all the well known reasons – many of which are explained in Rosarios article above. Govts don’t like you if you take foreign funds “away from ther,” as they believe, foreign funds discourage the independence and self-reliance that you are seeking to inculcate in your partners/clients/target groups, and foreign funds are likely to go to Afghanistan or Syria, leaving you in the lurch at the decision of the donors made without your involvement.

    As soon as possible CSOs should try to acquire assets and a reputation in their own country which can be turned into income for their work which will free you from the chain of hypocrisy.

  3. Tina Wallace permalink
    January 18, 2013

    Thanks. This interview reflects many realities that NGOs are talking about but often do not feel able to share openly with their donors…this lack of trust and the ‘chain of hypocrisy’ which prevents learning and joint problem solving was seen during our research in Africa for ‘The aid chain’ book and has (sadly) escalated since. It was clearly reflected in discussions with many small/medium NGOs in UK and Africa during a review around grant making for the Baring Foundation last year.
    The latest review (IPR) process for DFID for NGOs receiving unrestricted partnership funding – where an externally contracted consultancy firm Coffey used DFID rules of engagement, criteria for evaluation, the scoring of the reports and ranking of performance- shows how distant the bureaucratic processes of some donor grant funding and accountability have become from the realities of those engaged in the development processes. The levels of stress, anger and concern within some NGOs and among some consultants have been palpable as the criteria of e.g. efficiency, effectiveness, value for money (all poorly defined within the development context), alignment of theories of change etc and a tight, set reporting format crowded out much of what NGOs do and wanted to say about their ways of working and approaches.
    Very few NGOs scored highly, many were classed as medium performance and some were seen as poor; these rankings may affect future funding so it is difficult to see how any concerted critique or feedback can be made about the process, the quality of the review design, the scoring systems etc. I raise this because as donors increasingly outsource to companies working to clear and tight contracts there is less and less room for building trust or relationships between donors and NGOs for discussing issues and problems ; there is no space for joint analysis or problem solving or indeed shared learning. The trends towards ratings, ranking, assessment systems by some donors (in line with current thinking by Government around accountability systems more widely) appear to be worsening the challenges so well articulated in this interview, for which many thanks.

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