31 October 2014

Chart of the Day: Major Gaps in Ebola Funding Data

Erin Hohlfelder and Anu Dathan of the ONE Campaign put together this handy scorecard to show donor spending and commitments for the Ebola crisis. What stands out are all the giant question marks for budget sources and additional budget allocations. What does this mean? There needs to be a standard for reporting and recording donor spending.

Hohlfelder and Dathan's analysis:
This is most clearly illustrated in the case of the US. Based on financial commitments alone, the US appears to have given relatively far less than its peers as a share of its GNI. In reality, of course, American military and other in-kind contributions valued at nearly $1 billion, in addition to conventional financial commitments, mean the US has been leading the response. A holistic view—while still to some degree inevitably ‘apples to oranges’—allows us to make different kinds of judgments.

Completing this data is not some dry accounting exercise. If we don’t know what’s really promised, and if it is not adequately coordinated, no one can adequately match the supply of resources to needs on the ground. That means responses cannot be properly resourced, gaps in supply cannot be easily identified, and time lags will result in more lives lost.

30 October 2014

Exposed: USAID watchdog's watered-down audits

So it looks like the report from USAID’s Office of the Inspector General, its internal watchdog, have been significatly edited over the years to not include some of the most critical findings. That is according to a Washington Post report published last week. It hints that the findings, uncovered by the newspaper and the Senate, are behind acting inspector general Michael G. Carroll's decision to withdraw his nomination to be the permanent inspector general, after waiting for 16 months.

Comparing draft versions of audits against what was finally published showed significant edits to negative references.
The Post obtained draft versions of 12 audits by the inspector general’s office, covering projects from the Caribbean to Pakistan to the Republic of Georgia between 2011 and 2013. The drafts are confidential and rarely become public. The Post compared the drafts with the final reports published by the inspector general’s office and interviewed former and current employees. E-mails and other internal records also were reviewed.

The Post tracked changes in the language that auditors used to describe USAID and its mission offices. The analysis found that more than 400 negative references were removed from the audits between the draft and final versions.

In one audit, the number of negative references fell from 113 to 61; in another, from 170 to 13.
One example of this happening comes from Pakistan:
For example, in October 2010, USAID launched a program to reduce waste and fraud in the nearly $1 billion in U.S. assistance to Pakistan. USAID hired three contractors to help monitor the spending and train Pakistanis to manage the money.

In a draft audit of the program written in 2012, auditors found that $32 million of the program’s $44 million budget went to “fringe benefits, consultants and travel.” Auditors also found that one contractor hired to provide training billed the agency $954,000 for “expenses such as salaries, fringe benefits, and travel” but did not train anyone for the 16 months of the contract.

One key section of the audit was titled “Program Is Not Being Efficiently or Effectively Implemented.” The section detailed how the USAID mission office in Pakistan increased spending on the project, even though there were few or no reports documenting whether the program was working.

Those findings and that section were removed from the draft report, along with other negative findings, and placed in a confidential management letter. A finding that the auditors were not provided with detailed records of the spending was also placed in the management letter. It was sent to the USAID mission director in Pakistan on Sept. 30, 2012 — the day the final audit was publicly released by the inspector general’s office.

The inspector general defended the changes, saying in a letter to Coburn that the auditor’s overall assertion that the program was ineffective could not be supported by evidence of “cause, and effect.”
It is worth reading the article in full to understand all the claims made. In the end, there are some serious questions that the USAID’s Office of the Inspector General needs to answer. One good example appears to be the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The more focused watchdog has issued a series of reports outlining various problems with the US-led effort in Afghanistan. Another good example is the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which issues reports scoring programs carried out by the UK's Department for International Development.

29 October 2014

Human Rights Watch gets the documentary treatment

...and it's pretty good.

E-Team follows some of the staff Human Rights Watch deploys for ongoing crises. The teams go to civil-war Syria and Libya to document human rights abuses carried out by the respective regimes and Libyan rebels. The audience meets four HRW staffers to learn about their lives and activism. 

I found it to be a fascinating view into the inner workers of the organization. A lot is not shared about HRW, but a lot is revealed about it and the people who work for the rights body. The people featured come out as heroes, but there are glimpses into the trade-offs they make and challenges to activism. 

It is streaming on Netflix right now and well worth watching if you have an interest in HRW and/or human rights documentation.

28 October 2014

The anti-voluntourism calls just got a bit louder

Just when it seemed like the voluntourism debated stalled, in comes Mark Watson and his organization Tourism Concern. He is the latest to argue the problem with unskilled international volunteering. From his interview with the Independent:
"Volunteers often have unfulfilling and disappointing experiences; volunteer placements can prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs; hard-pressed institutions waste time looking after them and money upgrading facilities; and abused or abandoned children form emotional attachments to the visitors, who increase their trauma by disappearing back home after a few weeks,” Mr Watson said. 
“We feel that there are many opportunities for people to undertake meaningful volunteering in their own community, where they will receive proper training, support and supervision – without the need to pay a tour operator for the privilege. In the majority of cases people would be far better (and have a more rewarding experience) volunteering at home and spending their money on travelling and staying in places listed in our Ethical Travel Guide,” he added.
I tend to fall in with the group that is mostly pessimistic about voluntourism. However, people want to travel to see the world and do something good in the process. Rather than shun such good intentions, the challenge for the voluntourism industry is to responsibly channel such desires. The challenge for news media is to responsibly cover the industry.

Who can translate this dense DevSpeak?

I have to admit that I gave up pretty quickly when reading about the World Bank's "100% citizen feedback agenda," described by for Integrity Action CEO Fredrik Galtung. His blog post is detailed to the point that it is hard to understand what the World Bank is actually doing. By giving up so early, I missed this gem of a paragraph:
A feedback system that uses the fix-rate as a KPI places the emphasis on being results oriented and delivering solutions, rather than simply identifying or reporting problems. As such, it will contribute to improving service delivery and development outcomes. A rising fix-rate will improve public trust in government and public office holders, improve the effectiveness of public services and assist policy makers in identifying the policy-level changes that both reduce the incidence of problems and further improve fix-rates.
I think Tobias over at Aidnography had it right with his reaction:
Seriously...I can hardly understand this paragraph because it is an assemblage of empty, neoliberal business- and policy-speak. And remember: This only on the program level, so this is obviously not '100%' of what the Bank does-the Bank as institution will hardly become more open or responsive in this process-some managers in some programs may if they have sorted out their type As, Bs & Cs...
I'd appreciate any help in translating the DevSpeak in the selected paragraph and the whole post. The basic idea makes sense, especially when articulated by World Bank president Jim Kim, but the analysis is above my paygrade. 

Some clarity amid the murky Ebola funding/spending numbers

As with any crisis, the question of how much is spent by whom comes to the forefront. It is usually the case that the answers are not immediately apparent. Enter Amanda Glassman of the Center for Global Development. She pulled together what information she could find on how the world is responding to the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

The big discrepancy is what UN OCHA’s Financial Tracking service does not capture. This chart she made shows what is in the OCHA totals and what is not. Her findings:

Glassman uses problematic data to show that this needs to be cleaned up. She writes:
The lack of aid accountability in the aftermath of a crisis is an ongoing problem for the development community. The amount of aid given in the aftermath of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake is still difficult to quantify, and tracing US government funding down to the subcontractor remains next to impossible. A public health emergency such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa faces largely similar risks when inflows of money are difficult to trace. Aid may be allocated inefficiently; contractors and subcontractors will not be held accountable for outcomes. Governments that already face the pressures of managing a developing economy often lack the infrastructure to manage these large inflows of cash. The onus for accountability therefore ought to be on the donors, not the recipient country governments that are in the midst of coping with an evolving emergency.

Releasing comprehensive, regular updates to the OCHA database would be a good first step, and should be considered a priority for all donors—if only to be sure that your press releases are accurate. But the UN OCHA database also needs to provide more detail about the allocation and use of funding to be most useful. Smarter allocation and greater accountability and evaluation are only possible if exact uses, locations, and recipients are known.
See her full post and analysis here

24 October 2014

Quote of the Day: Western hijacking of #BringBackOurGirls

From Nigerian writer Tolu Ogunlesi, in Al Jazeera:
the arrogance behind the actions of many Western do-gooders tends to undermine the significance of local agency; the reality that African problems will never be solved without the active involvement and commitment of Africans themselves, and that external help - in the form of funding or publicity - will only be effective when hitched to expressions of home-grown effort, within the context of a clear understanding of everything that's at stake.

For example, there's a Nigerian Bring Back Our Girls movement that has daily gathered at a public square in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, since the end of April, and have kept up the pressure on the government long after the celebrity hijackers strayed away. Those are the real heroes, and the ones to whom the international celebrity backers should be seeking guidance from as to how to intervene.
Read his entire piece here.