Local Accountability and Transparency… During and Post Project?
Local development partners? Check. Long-term transparent and accountable investments through them as “local solutions” partners? Not so much. While President Obama and former United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Raj Shah promised up to 30% of all contracts would go to ‘local solutions’ that “promote sustainable development through high-impact partnerships and local solutions”, nowhere near that percentage became true then, much less now. While there seem to be good examples such as Haiti , Afghanistan is a poorer example. While most international non-profits implement projects through local sub-contractors, certainly building their capacity to manage and account for foreign taxpayer dollars spent, like this MSI in Lebanon example , if we extend the measure of ‘success’ beyond our project implementation, policies and programming needs to change to sustain capacity and implementation post-exit (see INTRAC report ).
How local partners are presented can appear as somewhat of a shell game. For while Haiti and Afghanistan have been featured by USAID, I have never seen a full inventory of partners for even a handful of the 60+ countries and regional missions that USAID works in. We hear about ‘local solutions’ and undoubtedly USAID’s ‘implementing partners’ do much good using local subcontractors. Yet are the locals winning the contracts these days? USAID posts contracts lists, for instance those who ‘won’ contracts amounting to $4.68 billion in 2016 . The for-profits of Chemonics ‘won’ over $1 billion, then Tetra Tech and DAI got $800 million of contracts each . These three contractors comprised 39% of all USAID obligated contract funding that year, whereas (U.S.) non-profits garnered 13% of the contracts and small and woman-owned businesses 12% and 7% . Only Kenya Medical Supplies Authority, a state corporation, was listed in the top 20, winning a five-year $122 million contract for Kenya . There are no equivalent sub-contractor lists, much less amounts allocated to national NGOs which would prove we are building ‘development’ ground-up.
While I am focusing on USAID, I believe this is true of most bilateral and multilateral donors. For USAID, caveats abound regarding their ability to accomplish local and sustained ‘development’. A 2015 Congressional Research Paper about their Background, Operations and Issues, cites “multiple challenges in the course of fulfilling its mission” , including:
- Local Solutions. Providing assistance to local entities incurs the risk of loss of taxpayer dollars. Efforts to mitigate risk generally require more personnel and consequent funding to monitor local entities and build their capacities 
- Sustainability. ‘Country ownership’ and domestic resource mobilization efforts are two ways the agency has sought to address sustainability, but a clear path to sustainability remains a work in progress  …
[Yet] the agency argues that investments are best sustained in the long-term if development is locally owned, locally led, and locally resourced.”
For more accurate accountability and transparency for bilateral, multilateral, pro-profit and non-profit implementers, we must look within data underlying the ‘development’ allocations abroad. For instance, the US government’s country-level foreign appropriations overall budget for 2017 (see Table3a) shows that $36 billion funded a variety of branches of the US government’s ‘development’, it would be instructive to see what the amounts of the funders’ award contacts which would be broken down into: what % went to implementers, what % went to national governments or local contractors, and what % was directly used for our participants . Maybe this is a new aspect the industry-standard Charity Navigator can add to its existing Accountability and Transparency criteria. On my repeated wish list for them is to show evidence the nonprofit is systematically doing and learning from post project sustained impacts evaluations. I first asked this 5 years ago 🙂
While I am scratching the surface, at least one private sector Corporate Social Responsibility company seem to have more transparent systems. This balance sheet from Abengoa, a sustainable energy technology company, could be updated with such a breakdown.
Their website also talks about its 25-year CSR investments (which is an enviable timespan, for most donors have 1-5 year projects) . “Abengoa believes that the good relationship it has with local communities, as well as respect and development in the areas where it operates, reaps benefits, referring to this method as “social licence to operate” . Abengoa’s social engagement aims to further the social and cultural development of the communities where they operate. From 2014 to 2016, the company reported its social performance in line with the criteria proposed by the London Benchmarking Group (LBG) methodology. This model defines a method to measure, manage, assess and disclose contributions, achievements and impacts of the company’s social engagement with the community” .
Their website also describes current events. “A flagship initiative of the company is the PE&C (People, Education and Communities. Committed to Development) programme.… is now present in nine countries (Argentina, Peru, Brazil, India, Mexico, Chile, Spain, Sri Lanka and Morocco), [but] currently, the complex situation that the company is undergoing and the severe limitation of financial resources in recent months has meant the gradual and temporary reduction of the contributions made to social projects in the different regions. As part of the restructuring plan agreed with creditors and in order to limit the social engagement items based on the resources available in the different business units, each company has assessed its capacity to fund social development projects, maintaining, in some cases, their commitment to certain local social projects. In an effort to avoid the negative impact on these communities and disadvantaged groups, the company has worked hard to find partners and collaborators who could provide continuity to these projects until Abengoa can recover a solid economic position that allows it to continue working and giving support to them”  (which their Press Room tells us they have in 2018).
Sharing “achievements and impacts of the company’s social engagement with the community”, “find[ing] partners and collaborators who could provide continuity to these projects” is not often done in bureaucratically time-fixed global development . For too rarely do the fixed timelines and budgets, inflexible metrics and demanding deliverables enable true partnerships. Save the Children’s 2008 brief on aid modalities for country ownership includes a vital point, which is willingness. “The United States lags behind other donors in its willingness to use all the aid mechanisms that would build capacity, such as channeling aid through host countries’ systems”, including where only “1 percent [of aid] was passed through projects directly implemented by the host government” . At least US funds were aligned with national government priorities in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Malawi and in Liberia the US partnered with UK’s DFID for community infrastructure. Nonetheless, even aid to governments must be as locally transparent as possible for true accountability. “Local NGOs are a key actor in holding host governments accountable for the delivering meaningful results, and should increasingly be an important link between government and community through communications and provision of services”  … So why aren’t we funding more? We don’t know, don’t much data how well we are, but unless we start with accountability to the country nationals we are ostensibly ‘developing’, sustained success will not ensue.
The scant number of post project sustainability evaluations have shown how rarely our international donor funded partners return to partners and participant communities to see what they could self-sustain after our projects ended. So much for accountability to our true clients! Public and private sector needs to turn away from being data extractors aiming at short–term results, and rather turn to being led by sustained partners’ priorities and myriad voices. Private sector companies may have lessons to teach, for would they stay afloat if its investors did not learn how well their product worked by not returning to ask after the sale assess client satisfaction?
We don’t have a moment to waste.
Thoughts? Questions? Look forward to your comments.
PS – There are surely 500 sources I didn’t find in time to include, including this blog regarding Cambodia and aid, huge numbers of organizations focused on capacity building and also thanks to Abu Ala Mahmudul Hasan for a Pelican online discussion that spurred this. We hope to create a podcast this spring, so stay tuned…
 USAID Haiti. (2017, March). Local Solutions: Building Up Haitian Organizations (Fact Sheet). Retrieved from https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1862/FINAL_Local_Solutions_Fact_Sheet_March_2017.pdf
 MSI, A Tetra Tech Company. (2013, December 17). USAID/Lebanon BALADI CAP Overview w/ Dr. Fares El Zein. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzHvbDuekLI
 Hayman, R., & Lewis, S. (2017). INTRAC’s Experience of Working with International NGOs on Aid Withdrawal and Exit Strategies from 2011 to 2016. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 29, 361-372. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11266-017-9901-x
 Devex. (n.d.). Top USAID Contractors for 2016. Retrieved from https://pages.devex.com/rs/685-KBL-765/images/Devex_reports_USAID_Top_Contractors_in_2016.pdf?aliId=2107099003#:~:text=Chemonics%20reclaimed%20its%20position%20as,the%20contract%20funding%20from%202015.
 Congressional Research Service. (2015, July 21). U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID): Background, Operations, and Issues. Retrieved from https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R44117
 US Department of State. Congressional Budget Justification, Foreign Assistance: Summary Tables FY17. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/252735.pdf
 Abengoa. (2016). Annual Report 2016. Retrieved from http://www.abengoa.com/web/en/accionistas_y_gobierno_corporativo/informes_anuales/2016/
 Save the Children. (2010, May 27). Aid Modalities for Country Ownership. Retrieved from https://www.savethechildren.org/content/dam/usa/reports/advocacy/aid-modalities-for-ownership-2010.pdf
Altruistic Accountability… for Sustainability
Many of us in international development feel a sense of responsibility for others to be well, and for our work to improve their lives as well as for the work to be done in good stewardship of aid resources and optimizing their impact. As Matthieu Ricard writes, "Altruism is a benevolent state of mind. To be altruistic is to be concerned about the fate of all those around us and to wish them well. This should be done together with the determination to act for their benefit. Valuing others is the main state of mind that leads to altruism." We also feel a responsibility to our international aid donors and taxpayers. We who implement, monitor and evaluate projects work to ensure that the altruism of aid is responsible to both donors and recipients.
Altruism appears most vividly when implementers issue appeals after disasters, with millions donated as a result, but unsung heroes are also development workers. Organizations such as Charity Navigator, ONE and Center for Global Development on how well US organizations spent funds and track donor-country policy accountability. Thoughtful donor studies such as French Development Agency’s OECD study report on the power of AidWatch and Reality of Aid intiatives in Europe for their taxpayers.
But who is pushing for our donor’s accountability to the country’s participants themselves? While USAID funds many program evaluations, some of which “identify promising, effective…strategies and to conduct needs assessments and other research to guide program decisions”, they are always at project end, rather than looking at sustainability of the outcomes and impacts, and focus on Congressional and domestic listeners. This is no funding and no small audience. The US Department of State/ USAID’s FY13 Summary report states that in fiscal year 2013, USAID had $23.8 billion to disburse, over $12 billion for programming. While total beneficiary (participant) numbers were not provided, emergency food assistance alone used $981 million for nearly 21.6 million people in 25 countries.
So who is a watchdog for what results? OXFAM may excellently highlight opportunities for better programming. 3ie does many studies looking at projected impact and does systemic reviews (but only three were post-project). Challenges such as Making All Voices Count may fund channels for country-nationals to hold their own governments responsible, but can in-country project participants ever demand sustainable results from anyone but their own governments? Herein lies the crux of the issue. Unless governments demand it (unlikely in ‘free’ aid), only pressure from donor country nationals (you? we) can push for changes.
At the core of Valuing Voices mission is advocacy for altruistic accountability of the sustainability of projects to country-ownership at all levels. For us, this involves valuing and also giving voice to those supported by, and also tasked with doing ‘sustainable projects’. Unless we know how sustainable our development projects have been, we have only temporarily helped those in greatest need. This means looking beyond whether funding continued to whether the benefits of an activity or even the existence of entire local NGOs tasked with this actually continued after funding was withdrawn. Unless we strive to learn what has continued to work best or failed to be continued after projects left in the views of the participants themselves, we can let down the very people who have entrusted us with hopes of a self-sustainable future of well being. Unless we listen to project staff and local partners to see what program staff felt they did right/wrong, and national partners felt they were supported to do keep doing right, we have minimized success of future projects. While increasing numbers of organizations such as Hewlett Foundation fund work to “increase the responsiveness of governments to their citizens’ needs. We do this by working to make governments more transparent and accountable,” the long-term effectiveness of our donor development assistance is not yet visible.
OECD guidelines on corporate accountability and transparency are illuminating. Adapting it from State-Corporate to Non-profit-State is interesting. For how well have we considered who ‘owns’ these development projects in practical terms from inception onward? Our donors? Implementing agencies? Local partners and communities?
OECD Guidelines on Corporate Governance of State-Owned Enterprises
1: The State Acting as an Owner
2: Equitable Treatment and Relations with Shareholders
3: Ensuring an Effective Legal and Regulatory Framework for State-Owned Enterprises
4: Transparency and Disclosure
How well do we design projects along these lines to do this successfully? Not terrifically:
Too often ‘stakeholders’ are not consulted at the very inception of the proposal design, only at design or implementation
Too often our work is aimed at making only our ‘client’- our donors- happy with our results rather than the country nationals who are tasked with self-sustaining them.
Too often handover is done at the 11th hour, not transferring it throughout implementation or building local capacity for those taking over be true projects’ owners.
But it is coming, through changing societal trends. On the data-access front, USAID (and differently, other European donors) have promised to modernize diplomacy and development by 2017 by “increas[ing] the number and effectiveness of communication and collaboration tools that leverage interactive digital platforms to improve direct engagement with both domestic and foreign publics. This will include increasing the number of publicly available data sets and ensuring that USAID-funded evaluations are published online, expanding publicly available foreign assistance data, increasing the number of repeat users of International Information.” Now to generate and add self- sustainability data to inform future projects!
Second, on the they-are-se front, our basic human nature, according to Ricard, lends itself to altruism. “Let's assume that the majority of us are basically good people who are willing to build a better world. In that case, we can do so together thanks to altruism. If we have more consideration for others, we will promote a more caring economy, and we will promote harmony in society and remedy inequalities.” Let’s get going…
Listening better… for more sustainable impact
Are we listening better? Maybe. As Irene Gujit states on Better Evaluation, Keystone’s work on ‘constituent voice’ enables a "shift [in] power dynamics and make organizations more accountable to primary constituents”. For example, "organisations can compare with peers to trigger discussions on what matters to those in need… in (re)defining success and ‘closing the loop’ with a response to feedback [on the project], feedback mechanisms can go well beyond upward accountability."
There are impressive new toolkits available to elicit and hear participant voice about perceived outcomes and impacts, such as People First Impact Method and NGO IDEAS' Monitoring Self-Effectiveness. As People First states, "Across the aid sector, the voices of ordinary people are mostly not being heard. Compelling evidence shows how the aid structure unwittingly sidelines the people whom we aim to serve. Important decisions are frequently made from afar and often based on limited or inaccurate assumptions. As a result, precious funds are not always spent in line with real priorities, or in ways that should help people build their own confidence and abilities…. As a sector, we urgently need to work differently." These are results of 40 year old participatory/Rapid Rural Appraisal distilled and shared by IDS/UK's Robert Chambers which I've used for 25 years, including lately for self-sustainability evaluation.
In addition to qualitative, participatory tools, the application of quantitative evaluative tools have a ways to grow to be terrific at listening and learning. Keystone did interesting work on impact evaluation (lately associated with Random Control Trials comparing existing projects and comparable non-participating sites to prove impact). Their study found that not only "no one engaged through the research for this note is particularly happy with the current state of the art…. There is a strong appetite to improve the delivery of evaluative activities in general and impact evaluation in particular … Setting expectations by engaging and communicating early and often with stakeholders and audiences for the evaluation is critical, as is timing." So many of us believe that evaluation cannot be an afterthought, but monitoring and evaluation needs to be integrated into project design, with feedback loops informing implementation.
Yet this otherwise excellent article made one point that is common, yet like Alice looking through the looking glass backwards. For they write feedback is "to inform intended beneficiaries and communities (downward accountability) about whether or not, and in what ways, a program is benefiting the community". Yet it is the other way around! Only communities have the capacity to tell us how well they feel we are helping them!
Thankfully, we are increasingly willing to listen and learn about aid effectiveness. Some major actors shaping funding decisions have already thrown down the feedback gauntlet:
* As our 2013 blog asked for, Charity Navigator is now applying its new “Results Reporting” rating criteria, which include six data points regarding charities feedback practices. The new ratings will be factored into Charity Navigator star ratings from 2016.
* Heavyweight World Bank president Jim Kim has decreed that the Bank will require robust feedback from beneficiaries on all projects for which there is an identifiable beneficiary.
* The Hewlett, Ford, Packard, Rita Allen, Kellogg, JPB and LiquidNet for Good Foundations have recently come together to create the Fund for Shared Insight to catalyze a new feedback culture within the philanthropy sector.
* This February, a new report on UK's international development agency, DFID recommended a new direction to their aid: "The development discourse has generally focused on convincing donors to boost their aid spending, when the conversation should instead be on “how aid works, how it can support development, how change happens in countries, and all of the different responses that need to come together to support that change…. One important change will be for professionals to deliver more adaptive programming and work in more flexible and entrepreneurial ways… emphasized the need for development delivery to be led by local people. Commenting on ODI’s research, [DFID} said successful development examples showed “people solving problems for themselves rather than coming in and trying to manage that process externally through an aid program.”
Hallelujah! What aid effectiveness great listening are you seeing?