28 September 2010

Comments to @Uncultured

I began by writing a comment to this post from Shawn of the Uncultured Project, but realized that it would be rude to take up so much space for a comment.  So, I am writing it here.
To get you up to speed, Shawn says:
Many of the aid bloggers who have commented on my previous post (where I talk about charity overhead) insist that aid recipients don’t care whether overhead is covered by donations or through separate and distinct funding. This couldn’t be further from my experience.
When local villagers learn of the approach I’m doing they love it. Not only do they love it but they also compare it to more traditional forms of giving outside of the NGO-system. I wish I got a dime every time some villager, off-camera and just barely in earshot, would be talking to another saying (in Bengali) “for the first time, donations have been spent wisely”.
At the same time, I don’t deny that all the studies on aid recipient satisfaction may have no data on attitudes towards overhead (and whether or not overhead should be collected and raised separately). What I can say, as a sociologist, is that studies can overlook things. This is especially true depending on who’s counting.
My comments to Shawn:
I think the disagreement is not so much over what the recipients want, but over the characterization of the donations.  If person A makes a donation of $100 there will need to be operational costs in order to get that money to recipient B.  Even if every bit of that $100 makes it to B, there are costs incurred on the part of the organization to make this transfer.  So, as you are suggesting, the organization will raise a separate stream of funding to cover the administrative (overhead) costs so that the $100 can travel directly from A to B.  It sounds really nice, but people are still being paid in order to ensure the delivery of the money.

I understand that you offer a unique approach to this.  You are able to physically collect the money and deliver it to recipients.  However, you have to pay to get to wherever you are going.  So, if you are using savings or are sponsored, there is a cost to get you to where you are traveling.  This is an overhead cost.  You are using money in order to accomplish a task.  Do you also tell the recipients how much it cost for you to travel and stay in their country?  Those costs are necessary in order for you to deliver the money that you have raised or been given.  While the money given will go directly to the recipients, there is a a cost to get it there.  If you are arguing against overheads, you have to cut yourself out of the equation.  Wouldn’t it have been better to have just donated the price of your plane ticket and stay? 

Well, yes and no.  By going, you were able to ensure that the money was used as it was intended and distributed correctly.  That is the role that the evil overhead plays.  It ensures things are done right, sustainably and efficiently.  Donors want their money to not only be used for projects, but to be used effectively.  A staff who has spent time with the recipients will, if done correctly, work with the recipients to connect them to the donated funds.  Though crude, this is how development programs should work.

In the end, it becomes a bit of a ruse. It is wrong to pretend that people are not making money by delivering services.  That is not capitalist speak, but just the plain truth.  I think telling donors and recipients that an organization does not have overheads is intentionally deceptive.  Why not be more honest?  I, again, understand that the people you speak are happy to hear money donated is going straight to them, but the fact is that telling them that is a lie.

So, how about we focus on effective programs and pragmatic spending, rather than continue the fallacy of overheads?