10 August 2011

It is Not Only About the Number: The Quality of NGOs Matters Most

The reason we have so many NGOs is that rich dupes keep on funding the incompetent ones. That they may then deliver the equivalent of the Soviet Union’s cars that no-one wanted to buy is as impossible for the donors to determine as it was for Moscow’s Politburo apparatchiks.

But it’s hard to blame the donors as most NGOs’ fund-raising literature is all much of a muchness; the same themes keep on cropping up and there is little basis on which the non-expert can use to choose. This works for the useless DIY aiders but also serves to protect the established BINGOs against effective upstarts (DIYers who actually hit on a better solution). It can take a long time to get much recognition in the Aid world; no from-nowhere-to-world-conquering-heroes like Google. Neither, apart from the satisfaction of a job well done, is there much in the way of reward for non-profit social entrepreneurs: BINGOs are not in the business of buying out their competition.

Too often it seems people expect too much from Aid / Development / Conservation, such that reducing their myriad outputs to one or more simple metrics would be almost impossible, ref my recent plea for simplicity in environmental certification. Simple metrics will always be distorting, but the merits of simplicity for comparing two rival service providers are substantial.
MJ of Bottom Up Thinking takes on some of the ideas put forward by J of Tales from the Hood. I think they are both right. The problem with too many NGOs is because some are very bad and there is not enough information being shared to show which do and do not work. MJ is kinder to donors that I am willing to be at this point. No, it is not their fault, but they need to start asking more questions and received better education.

Right now, there is little in the interest of an NGO to fill this space because it could leave them exposed to further scrutiny. In the sense of self-preservation it is an understandable act. However, it continues to allow terrible ideas to continue to be funded. As MJ says well, DIYers are not inherently bad. Some may create better solutions. The same applies to all other NGOs operating in the Humanitarian space.

The question is how to realize this shift. I am becoming more and more convinced that this space will need to be filled by researchers, think tanks, journalists and outside actors. The stories told and shared by individuals working for NGOs remains important, but there must be a slight buffer. Maybe that is why I am more drawn to the likes of IPA, CGD, Bill Easterly and aid blogs in general. Though working for NGOs, J and MJ are able to speak more honestly because they come from a place of anonymity.

The limits of my experience make it hard for me to speak in absolute terms. I feel it would be foolish to do so. Because of that, I am opening up the conversation to you. There is a problem with the fact that good and bad aid is not being adequately sorted out. Maybe you disagree with that statement or feel that there is a different solution than what I have shared. Jump in and share your thoughts.

Read more about the idea of growing think tanks here.