A torrid ménage à trois…

One of my favourite aid blogs is J’s now defunct “Tales from the Hood”.  He’s a bit of a grumpy old sod and does tend to harp on about the same things again and again [yes, we get the need for professionalism in the aid sector].  As what he says tends to be Important Stuff That I Generally Agree With (With Some Exceptions), I can live with that.  To me however, his most important post was what about he called the “torrid ménage à trois” of aid (http://talesfromethehood.com/2011/11/08/menage-a-trois/).  Sadly, this is not about the latest erotica masterpiece starring two kinky billionaires and a trembling virgin, it’s the foundation upon which the aid/development industry is built.

The three participants of the aid ménage are the donors (either governments or individuals), the service provider (including NGOs) and the recipients or beneficiaries.  Whether it is bilateral or multi-lateral aid, the fundamental issue is that those who give the money are the not the same people/entities as those who receive the aid.  That’s the main difference between service provision in the aid/development sector and, theoretically at least, service provision in the public sector.  Those of us who work as service providers are directly accountable to those who fund us and not to those who receive our services – and this is the case whether you are a local or international NGO/CSO, recipient government or any other type of organisation in this industry.

This is painfully obvious for anyone working in or spending any time observing the industry – it’s “the Pope is Catholic” type of obvious, and it comes up whenever people talk about accountability of aid, aid effectiveness, governance, impact measurement and all those other Big Portentous Words.  Because this basic foundation of the industry results in a framework that perversely encourages dysfunctional sex.  Ahem – I meant aid.  Although it probably does its fair share in contributing to dysfunctional sex as well for those involved in it [ah, those proposals and reports, the logframes and spreadsheets – sexy times]…

I’m not Dambiso Moyo or Linda Polman going on about how the aid industry will be up there with Corrupt Southern Governments, Evil Multinational Corporations, and Zombies in contributing to the upcoming Apocalypse.  I believe, when done well, that aid can and does work.  But if/when it does, it does so despite and in spite of its central dysfunction – it works because people on all sides of the triangle on the ground make it work.

There is certainly a lot of awareness about the problem.  Although this awareness hasn’t always contributed to much beyond the token in practice, it has become part of mainstream discourse.  You have initiatives such as HAP (Humanitarian Accountability Partnership) set up ten years ago which aims to increase accountability of service providers (principally NGOs) to beneficiaries.  There’s some (IMO largely tokenistic) efforts towards participatory and beneficiary based accountability frameworks alluded to in the strategies of both NGOs and donors.  However, my fear is that increasingly, pressures are going the other direction with the mainstream donors and NGOs which makes it more and more difficult to navigate this ménage à trois.

So dysfunctional sex/aid, and not of the good kind, is set to continue…

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