I’m starting to get a little ratty with all the media right now talking about the Horn of Africa.
Articles are starting to look like a fill-the-blanks template that the reporters are all sharing around: Quote some stats about the famine; talk about the complicating factor of al Shabbab making life difficult in Somalia; drop in some pithy quotations about the fact that short-term aid is repetitive and doesn’t solve the underlying problems (always with a nod to the fact that, well, of course it saves lives now); then end on the dark yet hopeful twist that while aid agencies clearly don’t have it right, clearly what’s needed is ‘long-term solutions’.
Yeah, cool, thanks.
Interestingly, the reporting, which feels cookie-cuttered from every other cyclical emergency that pops up around the African continent (alternate Somalia with Niger, Sudan, Kenya…) is exactly the sort of thing that the reports slam aid agencies for doing in their emergency appeals: Template emergency request, paste photo of child in malnutrition centre top-right, insert country emergency name here.
But what I’m really ratty about is not that what the media are saying is wrong per se. My problem is, they’re making noise but missing the point.
Two of them, actually.
By rabbiting on about long-term solutions (I’m sorry, what solutions did you suggest, exactly?), they make it sound like nobody’s ever come up with that idea before.
[Cue professional aid workers the world over beneath newly-illuminated lightbulbs slapping foreheads, exclaiming “Long-term solutions! Of course! Why didn’t we think of that?]
The point is, aid agencies know about this. They speak this language. They can ream ideas out ad nauseum, et cetera, et cetera.
This is not new.
It’s just that, they suck at implementing them.
That’s point one.
Point two is, these solutions aren’t simple in the real-world. But we’ll come back to point two later.
Aid agencies have a presence in pretty much all these places that suffer cyclical emergencies. Long-term presence. And presence that isn’t just based on emergencies, either. Long-term community development, empowerment programs, child sponsorship, infrastructure development, food security projects, governance, microenterprise development… In short, kitchen sink included.
So, shouldn’t the presence of aid agencies stop famines from happening?
In principle, yes.
In practice, a woeful no.
Well, it would be unfair, but only partly inaccurate, to say because ‘aid agencies aren’t doing their job’.
There are other factors, of course, the most significant being that macro-level factors (global economy, environmental trends) do in fact overwhelm the relatively small investment that NGOs make by comparison. But, it’s not only that.
Most aid programs, however much they might claim the opposite, are not geared to manage pending emergencies. Their activities are not built to context. Their funding sources are restrictive, their monitoring and analysis is not geared around mitigating risk, and their management systems are too rigid to adapt.
Each in turn.
Most aid agencies have their way of doing things. Although they will all claim that their interventions are based on need, most of the time their interventions are based on an assumption of need. Their assessments are often facipulative or partipulative. Their approach is dictated by their organizational ethos, the way they’ve done things in other places. Very rare indeed is the [large- and read, able to make a significant and multisectoral difference over an area sufficient to mitigate against the effects of famine] aid agency for whom each project is truly designed from scratch. Most have to fit a donor funding model, match up with existing organizational skills and experience, fit into standard monitoring and evaluation frameworks, and are lifted from projects and programs that have been run elsewhere.
Most agencies don’t realise that they are a solution looking for a problem. And their ‘solution’ may not be what’s needed.
What is needed?
Let me say it again: Context analysis.
And I don’t just mean context awareness. All the gathered knowledge in the world won’t save us if it’s not applied. I mean a critical appreciation of the various factors that influence trends, patterns, norms and change, taken and re-applied in an intelligent way to what action is planned.
Agencies have to learn to go in there and fit their interventions to the reality on the ground. Not the reality they assume is there because it looks similar to some other place, or because sweeping the eye over the landscape makes it clear that they lack a particular resource which the agency knows it can provide.
Macro-level. Micro-level. Understand relationships. Understand the need, and the reasons for that need, and the reasons why those reasons exist. Make the communities you’re targeting a part of your analysis process so that you can learn their perspective and, if they’re interested, they can learn yours. Then figure out not what services you can deliver, but what changes need to happen to the situation to change the need that has been identified.
And that is already way too oversimplified.
Easy? Of course not. It involves time, flexibility, intent, relationships.
The frustrating part? Aid agencies have already had time. Twenty, twenty-five, thirty years of it. And if you go into some of these places and talk with the field staff, or the community members, when you drill down into it, they do in fact know a lot of this stuff. But the projects aren’t built around that context. They’re still matched to organizational norms, easily summed up in a donor report and an implementation table.
This has to change.
Agencies have their sources for funding long-term programs. Sometimes they’re long-standing cooperation agreements with institutional donors, where five years’ worth of funding is guaranteed for a particular community and sector. Sometimes it’s child sponsorship, where donors provide funds to the agency on the basis of a link with a child in the community in which the agency provides support. Sometimes it’s from general donations sourced from a faithful donor base.
Too often, these funding sources are restricted- either by the donor, or by the agency. If an agency has promised a donor a particular type of activity- providing clean water, or providing education- the agency may not be able to use those funds in other sectors. In some agencies, donors and not the agency have the strongest say in what sectors, approaches or activities are used (guaranteeing that we miss the context). In other cases, the funds may be more malleable, but still tend to be geared towards a suite of perceived acceptable activities.
Of course, these funds are often the agency’s bread and butter, providing the bulk of what keeps the agency in business, so making changes to how those funds are spent is a risky proposition.
When dealing with a context, like the Horn of Africa, which routinely slips into a crisis, we see a pattern. Existing funds continue to be pumped into the agreed sectors because there’s no donor flexibility to jump to other, more needy sectors. Activities continue to be geared towards the long-term development context without taking the emergency context into account, because this is what the organization has promised to deliver with the funding.
It sounds basic, but this is essentially what happens.
And if we’re also seeing a situation where the project has been cookie-cuttered into place, rather than built to context, then this is only going to be compounded.
What’s needed? Well, der, flexibility. On behalf of both donors and the agency. The agreement that, when a crisis emerges in a long-term program area, the agency can switch its donor funding into what ever activities it needs to to meet the needs. Not an unreasonable request, you’d think, for a donor who wants to help communities. So long as the donor trusts the agency.
And, of course, the organizational will and apparatus to do-so.
Thus avoiding the need to launch a fresh appeal every time a new emergency cycle appears in a place we always knew it was going to.
Monitoring and Accountability
And that’s the thing. We know. We often know. We knew about the Horn of Africa drought months ago. Many agencies began responding, in their own small way, long before this was a media circus. Mostly by tagging a few auxiliary activities onto their existing programs with a bit of extra funding. This was in part, to be fair, restricted by the lack of donor interest in the burgeoning crisis. It wasn’t until the media started making a fuss about it a few weeks ago that the public and governments sat up and started taking notice- making them equally complicit in this debacle.
Subject of another discussion.
Where aid agencies struggle though, and this is closely linked to the funding issue, is their indicators for success. When a block of money is granted to a project, there are almost always guidelines around how that money can be used. Hit the agreed targets and indicators, and the project is deemed a success (even if impact is negligible, uncertain or not measured).
And these targets- generally based around what can be produced by the project activities themselves- are most commonly concrete deliverables. (Some, granted, are vaguer, but these are both harder to measure and harder to get funding for.)
What long-term development projects are almost never measured against is their success at reducing the likelihood or impact of known crises in the area.
A malnutrition project may measure the number of children treated (in this case, a crisis that produces lots of malnourished kids actually makes the project look good!). A food security project, the increase in yield produced or the increase to household income- if the agency is really doing its job. Very rare is a project held to account for averting- or failing to avert- a crisis like a famine.
Despite the lip-service that agencies pay to having a positive long-term impact on a community’s context, very few of them can demonstrate this empirically, and even fewer actually hold themselves accountable to this principle in tangible terms.
They need to.
In fact, this should be the very raison d’etre of any long-term development project in an area known to be vulnerable to a particular disaster. Before we start launching into a wide array of obscure assistance packages that are au fait with our donor audience, let’s first make sure that our communities have food, water, shelter, and that we’re greatly improving their chances of hanging on to these things when the known and quantifiable threats this community faces materialise.
And, let’s actually hold them accountable with our measures of success and failure.
It’s called Disaster Risk Reduction. But like so many other technical terms that get touted in the industry, this one lost its currency almost before it had any. It’s another tick-the-box theme that pops up on proposal templates. “Explain how this project will reduce the impact of known disaster risks.” A paragraph of blurb, donor nods and signs the cheque.
Why does such a basic, logical and common-sense principle get sidelined? Partly staff knowledge, partly organizational will.
Many agencies have a firm divide between what is ‘development’ and what is ‘aid’. Long-term presence in communities is generally to acheive development outcomes. Emergency situations require short-term aid interventions, after which the aid cowboys can bugger off and leave the development professionals to their job of transforming communities.
Staff are not trained to live in both camps. Either they are aid workers, or they are development workers. It is not uncommon to find development workers resentful of having to change their activities because an emergency operation has been mobilized and their manpower is required. And by the same token, assessing long-term development projects for their suitability to the risk context bores a lot of aid junkies.
So staff lack the training, and often the knowledge. But they also lack the motivation. Because they’re held accountable to different outcomes. While aid workers might be expected to meet indicators around services provided in an emergency, long-term development workers will be expected to deliver on achieving their project targets. Getting the organizational systems- including operations management and staffing- to shift from one mode to another without completely shifting the operational and staffing structure- is very hard.
What am I saying? I’m saying that we need to train our long-term development workers to be short-term emergency workers as well. A staff member working on a water infrastructure development project needs to, at the drop of a flag, be ready to become a staff member working on an emergency water project. Staff managing a program to reduce chronic malnutrition must, when the indicators are reached, start managing acute malnutrition instead.
They need to be supported by flexible systems and management, and an organization that is ready to react when thresholds are reached.
In summary, a major reason why aid agency presence has not translated into reduced vulnerability to, for example, famine, is due to aid agencies not being geared to do just that:
- Aid agencies do not build their programs around context, but are influenced by donor interest, assumptions, internal capacity and their own models of approach.
- Aid agencies don’t have resources that can be quickly tasked from one mode of operation (development) to another (emergency response).
- Aid agencies’ internal measuring systems do not hold them accountable to how well they reduce the risk of a disaster happening, only on how well they acheive project deliverables.
- And aid agencies own internal systems and staffing do not allow a seamless transition from a long-term development presence to an emergency response.
As such, aid agencies condemn themselves, much like the context they are in, to an endless cycle of superimposing an externally-funded, externally-managed and externally-staffed emergency response program, when in fact they have plenty of funding, management and staff capacity in-place. It’s just not being directed properly.
All that said, for correspondents to sit in their air-conditioned offices and take pot-shots at aid agencies for their inability to come up with ‘long-term solutions’ without offering any themselves; to criticise media circuses in refugee camps without ever acknowledging that this is exactly where their story comes from; to slam hyped-up emergency funding appeals while their own publications feed off the drama created by images of dying Africans; and to condemn aid agencies’ slow response to the emergency when the attention which agencies require to raise resources is so largely crippled by the media’s short attention-span with chronic disasters; makes these journalists run the risk of being obtuse, hypocritical, or simply missing the point entirely.
Want to be part of the solution? Get to grips with the complexity of long-term crises and find ways to engage your audience so that donor funding is more forthcoming, understanding more sympathetic, targeting both more flexible and more intelligent. And where aid agencies aren’t doing their job right, don’t just regurgitate pithy soundbites. Take time to find where the holes are, then hold these agencies to uncomfortable account in the public light and show them where change is actually needed.
This isn’t rocket science. It’s about logic and common sense. Let’s be honest about these gaps and encourage change among agencies, donors and the public alike.
It’s not that aid agencies don’t think about long-term solutions. They have the language coming out of their ears. It’s that those solutions don’t match the context and aren’t backed by an operational reality that supports that sort of change. And until they’re forced to change because their survival depends on it, they may not.
Complexity coming up in a subsequent post.
Je m’excuse for the plethora of Francophone cliches. I was ranting.