… in which we explore how procedures intended to make aid more
transparent and consistent become complicated, rigid, and counterproductive,
reducing efficiency and effectiveness and wasting both time and money.
Standardizing Procedures: The Rationale in Brief
To see full document
Organizations adopt procedures for good reasons. Procedures streamline and simplify recurring aspects of work. They support standards of consistency, predictability, and fairness by clarifying the rules for all actors. They facilitate orientation of new staff and partners to institutional standards.
International assistance organizations are no exception. Individually and collectively,
aid donors and aid agencies have developed standardized processes to translate
their policies into efficient and effective field practice. Many have enacted internal
management procedures, fiscal procedures, assessment procedures, procurement
procedures, and beneficiary selection procedures, among others. There are
monitoring and evaluation procedures and even procedures for evaluating the
effectiveness of organizational procedures. 6
People in aid-recipient societies also value the predictability and clarity that these
People in aid-recipient societies also value the predictability and clarity that these
agency procedures are intended to provide. They, too, want to have standards
and rules of behavior that they can rely on and work with, and to which they can
hold agencies accountable. In the context of international assistance, procedures
are important for ensuringthat the institution and its entire staff remain committed to
the organization’s priorities and accountable for the fundamental principles that underlie
“best practice.” These principles, agreed to by most aid providers and aid recipients,
include participation of local actors in all phases of project design, implementation,
and evaluation; promotion of local ownership; sustainability of results; equitable
distribution of benefits; and mutual accountability.7
Many also point to the importance of contextual knowledge in pursuing these principles. Without common procedures, programming decisions can be ad hoc, optional, unpredictable,
Many also point to the importance of contextual knowledge in pursuing these principles. Without common procedures, programming decisions can be ad hoc, optional, unpredictable,
subject to manipulation, and dependent on individual improvisation, which can
vary widely based on experience, proclivity, and knowledge.
Since everyone agrees on the principles that undergird good assistance and
everyone agrees that procedures are needed to ensure commitment to these
principles, one would expect that good procedures should lead to better results.
Some have done so, serving both providers and receivers of assistance well by
increasing transparency and fairness in the delivery of aid. However, repeatedly and
across all contexts, people on both giving and receiving sides describe a downside
to the growing numbers and complexity of international assistance procedures.
The Downside: Proceduralization
Providers and recipients of assistance describe procedures that “take too much
time” and are “inflexible,” “too complicated,” or “counterproductive.” Many
talk about the ways that “tick-the-box” processes become so dominant that aid
organizations and workers lose sight of the very values that these processes were
intended to support. They also obscure contextual differences and limit adaptations
to changing circumstances. Providers and recipients frequently describe how rigid
templates for planning and evaluation obstruct creativity and innovation, and lead,
instead, to pre-packaged and irrelevant or unwelcome projects.
“We all know that in order to reach the external aid resources,
management and administrative procedures are required and we poor
people don’t have the time for carrying out so many procedures”
- Afro-Ecuadorian neighborhood leader, Ecuador
When donors or aid agencies assume that efficiency (presumed to be embedded in
procedures) inevitably leads to effectiveness, they confuse compliance with systems
for achievement of results. They focus their monitoring and evaluation attention
on whether the boxes have been ticked rather than on whether the intended
outcomes and impacts have been achieved. Aid providers and recipients describe
how procedures can, and do, sometimes undermine efficiency rooted in simple
and clear practice. In short, they describe how processes and methods meant to
improve impacts have become so “proceduralized” that they are counterproductive.
We have coined this quite awful word “proceduralization” (which we promise
not to overuse!) to describe the codification of approaches that are meant to
accomplish positive outcomes into mechanical checklists and templates that not
only fail to achieve their intent but actually lead to even worse outcomes. The
word is meant to resonate with “bureaucratization,” which describes the process
by which bureaucracies that are developed to accomplish large tasks become rigid
and unresponsive to human concerns and the people who work in them become
“bureaucrats”—often used as a pejorative term—who impede rather than facilitate
accomplishment of the original task or mission.8
When relationships between aid providers and recipients are subsumed by
standardized procedures that close off spontaneous and respectful interaction,
then we can say that these relationships have become “proceduralized,” and the
values that the procedures were intended to enable are lost.
“Donors demand task-focused work. Staff would love to have
more time to talk to people in the camp, to spend the night in
the camp. But, we have reports due, with facts and numbers
and it needs to be right to keep the funding coming.”
The learning in this chapter comes from the people in recipient societies and from
the reflections of people involved in providing aid. Both have an interest in ensuring
the regular pursuit of the principles of good practice, and both see how many of
the processes currently used to do so have become proceduralized. All want to
see this corrected. Below, we describe how the principles of good practice are
pursued through procedures and how these very often play out in the experiences
of aid recipients and providers.
1. Principles of Participation, Ownership, and Sustainability
The three principles of participation, ownership, and sustainability are interlinked
cornerstones of good practice and effective development, or peacebuilding. Some
also argue that these same principles apply in humanitarian assistance because
when recipients of emergency aid are involved in decisions about what they need
and how it should best be provided—that is when humanitarian assistance is based
on and supports people’s own capacities of response—it also can feed into and
support sustainable development processes. Insiders (people in recipient societies)
and outsiders (external aid providers) all observe that when people participate
in all phases of an aid effort, from conception of the idea, to the design and
planning, to implementation, and through final evaluation, they will “own” the
process and therefore be more likely to maintain the results. Participation leads
to ownership leads to sustainability. Most people at all levels of the aid apparatus
agree to this linkage.
“People are either dependent on aid or they are engaged with
it—they are participating. If people are not involved with the
project, they will not own it and take care of it. If the people
are invested in the development, they will take care of that
- A local NGO staff person, Cambodia
The linkage of these three principles—participation, ownership, and sustainability—is
confirmed by positive and negative experience. That is, when people are thoroughly
involved in planning and executing a project, they do own it and manage it for the
long term. And, when they are not sufficiently involved, the reverse is true—little
or no ownership exists and short-lived benefits result.
Even though the international assistance community has developed procedures to
encourage the participation of recipients in planning and implementing projects,
the vast majority of people in recipient societies report that they do not feel
included in the critical decisions about assistance they receive. In their experience,
many of these decisions have been made before an aid agency arrives in their area
and there are few, if any, opportunities to add their ideas as the effort unfolds.
In several Ethiopian pastoralist communities, people said they were
very engaged in the selection process and nomination of community
members for skills training and that the participatory methods used
by the NGO were appropriate and fair. Some recalled participating
in meetings with experts or government people who came to talk to
them. They saw some of their input later reflected in the projects and
talked about open monthly meetings where they shared experiences
and identified and prioritized problems. An NGO in this area supported
these public meetings in an effort to revive the traditional system and
increase transparency. [But in other areas] Some government officials said
that international NGO projects are too donor-driven and that agencies
rarely hold discussions with local governments on their budgets and
People in Kosovo offered examples of effective three-way communication
and partnerships between communities, a municipality, and NGOs in which
the community worked together with the NGO to prioritize projects and
carry out implementation. The community and municipality also played an
active role in the selection of contractors, and all stakeholders within the
community were expected to contribute to the cost of implementation,
be it with financial support or in-kind support. One person commented,
“Our participation was very valuable—we wanted to own it. Even if we
did not always have the material support, we gave the moral support.
That was always, always there.” (Listening Project Report, Kosovo)
“This is how the verb ‘to participate’ is conjugated: I participate.
You participate. They decide.”
(An indigenous businessman and grassroots development worker, Ecuador)
“Everything is decided before you start the project. Some donors come
to us with ready-made objectives so we have to channel them into our
objectives. Once you get funded as a local NGO, you are strangled by
the conditions you imposed on yourself in the proposal.”
(Local NGO staff, Lebanon)
In Burma, there was a widespread feeling that, because communities
were not adequately involved in the early stages, they did not know
what to expect of aid agencies and did not view the aid they brought
as belonging to themselves … A project may be implemented in order
to suit the needs of the organization, be it the need to implement a
certain number or a specific type of project, regardless of whether
that project will actually address a community need, or the need to
disburse remaining funds before the end of a funding period. (Listening
Project Report, Myanmar/Burma)
In Bolivia, people commented on the importance of NGOs engaging
with them in a participatory fashion, which encouraged and allowed
people’s involvement in priority setting, project design, decision-making
and management of participants, materials, and even funds. People also
voiced disappointment, frustration, and even humiliation when NGOs
refused to treat them in this manner and opted for a more vertical,
authoritarian, top-down approach. (Listening Project Report, Bolivia)
Proposal and Funding Procedures
Aid providers and people in recipient societies name international assistance
funding procedures as the starting point of limited participation. Aid agencies need
resources to do their work, so they appeal to donors. Donors need assurance that
aid agencies have well-thought-through plans worthy of their funding. They need
to know who will be helped, how, and with what inputs. They need specificity
about expected results; they want to know how the agencies will report these
results, often in the language of “benchmarks” or “indicators” of success included
in their logframe analysis.
To get funding, proposal-writing agencies therefore make some essential decisions
before they can even put staff on the ground. Recipients say that donors and
agencies talk about participatory development but do not provide time or financial
resources to allow it. They ask why they see no procedures (and funding for them)
for engaging recipients before proposals are submitted and funding allocations are
decided. Further, because funding depends on proposals with a logical framework,
conceived and elaborated by aid agency staff who, then, must submit donor
reports demonstrating that their plan was “right,” little space remains for people
on the receiving side to insert their analyses.
“INGOs have good techniques but are weak in mobilizing the
community people since they have limited time-frame. Not
all people from community know well about the organization
and its purpose, and when the field staff cannot explain well
to them, misunderstanding occurred. Since they cannot build
the capacity of the community people, the projects are not
- Local man, Myanmar/Burma
Pre-packaged projects that arrive already designed and funded through proposal
and funding procedures negate meaningful participation of recipients. Some people
also point out that because proposal writing is a complicated procedure that takes
skills they do not have, they must rely on others to do their proposals for them,
and this further impedes broad involvement. In their experience, the procedures
for proposing and getting funding for activities used by most aid agencies do not
really encourage, or even allow, genuine participation.
Household surveys, focus groups, questionnaires, and community meetings are
procedures that aid providers use to identify needs, learn about local conditions,
invite ideas, and engage people in considering options for programs. These tools
should encourage participation, and hence, ownership and sustainability.
However, many people find that these procedures function as straightjackets.
Where they are intended to gather data on existing conditions, they do so in
predetermined templates which categorize people based on family size, wealth,
needs, etc., for ease of analysis. When they are intended to invite ideas, they are
focused on whether people want what is being offered, or not, rather than on
hearing people discuss their priorities and suggestions for making progress. People
feel as if their thoughts are supposed to “fit” into predetermined categories or
options. And on the occasions when people say they are actually involved in an
assessment, they find that procedures for using the information and the ideas
they provide are nonexistent or inadequate.
Working in templates is easy. They are available. But to do it
right, you need more time and money and effort. Template
projects get more visibility. Some donors come with ‘resultsbased
frameworks’ with all their definitions. This is meant
to be a tool for better projects, but they spend half the year
explaining what it is.
- A Lebanese PhD student and consultant, Lebanon
International aid agency staff often begin their work in an area by calling a
community meeting to describe their plans. They also use these meetings to
ask people for ideas and suggestions. This procedure should, of course, lead to
involvement and ownership.
People in recipient communities say that this kind of consultation is excellent but
more so in concept than in execution. They find that the styles of interaction of
some international agencies limit recipients’ participation. For example, people
say that aid agency staff are always in a hurry. But in their cultures, discussions
and decision-making take time; when staff call a meeting for a specific time when
decisions are to be made, the process feels imposed and unnatural to them. Some
recipients describe how within their own culture, people express disagreement
in quiet ways that outsiders often do not recognize. They say that their sense of
courtesy means they sometimes accept the ideas of outsiders out of politeness
rather than because they really agree with them. Finally, people describe how
some external aid providers are domineering or rude so that people in recipient
societies simply shut down rather than engage. Many procedures of aid providers,
people feel, are not attuned to cultural differences and leave little space for building
relationships not focused on “getting the job done” and “meeting deadlines.”
“Foreign staff efforts are undermining Cambodian efforts to
participate in a meaningful way. We have to spend time investing
in the staff. INGO staff speak fast English and use big words, and
by doing so, shut local staff out of decision making. Outsiders
run the show; local staff are not even invited to management
meetings. The NGOs and the donors have expectations that if
you are empowered, you will speak out and stand up for your
rights—basically be like the foreigner. Yet Cambodians are
constantly communicating their wants and likes in ways that
they feel is direct, but foreigners don’t get this and expect more
- International aid worker, Cambodia
So, the principles of participation, ownership, and sustainability are undermined
by procedures for proposal writing to gain funding, assessment procedures that
collect information in predetermined (externally designed) categories, and flawed
use of appropriate tools when agency staff invite input from recipients without
really listening to it. People see these tools, these procedures, as methods aid
agencies employ only to justify predetermined decisions and then to claim to
have been “participatory.”
People in Mali regretted the fact that visits were very brief and that
donors always seemed to be in a hurry. In their view, donors seem to
be responding more to the needs of their own organizations and were
more preoccupied with feeding their own systems (with reports, data
collection, meetings, etc.) than observing, addressing, and learning
from issues in the field. Donor representatives themselves lamented
the fact that they have little time to go to the field to see activities
first-hand and to meet with partners and beneficiaries. Time constraints
and the additional costs that more frequent monitoring visits would
entail were cited as reasons for the limited follow up on the ground.
(Listening Project Report, Mali)
“The lack of flexibility and short time spans for projects—12 months—
creates difficult conditions. Short time approaches are one of the main
factors that instigate failure. In spite of this, the donors still ask for
sustainability!” (Government official, Afghanistan)
The evidence from all our conversations suggests that most recipient
communities are not being sufficiently engaged in aid programming
and decision-making. There are common complaints that NGOs take a
blanket approach and arrive with pre-planned programs, without doing
appropriate needs assessment or consulting with the communities about
their priorities. (Listening Project Report, Zimbabwe)
To many people in Kenya, international assistance was seen as a series of
disjointed, one-off efforts to meet isolated needs, provided in ways that
left incomplete, unsustainable results, rather than holistic interventions
that made a long-term impact … Many people talked about how the
short-term nature of many aid projects, including the short reporting
time frames in which they are expected to show impact, was a major
challenge to making projects sustainable. They noticed that the emphasis
on speed leads to cut corners and poor quality work. Short time frames
and tight reporting deadlines and requirements also result in less time
spent with communities doing the time-consuming consultations
needed for sustainable outcomes. The funds come in installments that
are deliberately small, thus the organizations cannot plan long-term
for these funds. (Listening Project Report, Kenya)
Some people said that they had participated in many assessments and
projects but that they had never seen any of the reports that had been
written by international agencies or donors. A few did not have much
hope of changing the system and one person said, “Why should we tell
you what we suggest? No one ever listens to us. Even if you will listen,
they won’t, so why should we bother?” (Listening Project Report, Ethiopia)
Another issue relating to information and communication had to do
with the various groups or intermediaries that visited communities to
complete surveys and questionnaires, to conduct needs assessments or
to carry out evaluations but provided little or no follow up afterwards.
People felt a bit “used.” (Listening Project Report, Mali)
An Additional Note on Sustainability: “Projectitis”
The international community largely relies on the project mode of delivery. This is
true even in sector-based programming because what many people in recipient
societies see of such programs comes in the form of relatively short-term, discreet
efforts. It is at this level that most procedures are tied into the project cycle. Behind
the reliance on projects is an assumption that, over time, if there are enough
projects, they will add up to comprehensive and systemic change.
But as noted previously, many people in recipient societies observe that projects
do not add up. In their experience, one project simply leads to other projects;
they are often piecemeal interventions that are not strategic and cannot, with
such limited time commitments, support systemic change. The point here is that
many recipients identify the proceduralization of the processes of the project cycle
(assessments, proposal writing, reporting) as contributing to and reinforcing the
piecemeal nature of assistance. They call for more holistic approaches and longterm
thinking that, they believe, would support sustainable impacts.
Many people criticized the “project mentality” among donors and
aid agencies, saying that it lacked a long-term vision and impact
and that more money was wasted with short-term thinking.
Some noted that when projects are started by outsiders, the
projects are often left to deteriorate and even called by the
name of the “owners” (i.e., donors or NGO). People were critical
of how most projects do not help communities identify their
own resources and how to build on them.
- Listening Project Report, Kenya
2. Principle of Equitableness
Aid providers set criteria by which to decide where and when to provide assistance.
In doing so, many weigh two factors: they want to be strategic, and they want
to be equitable. We saw above that people in recipient societies feel that aid is
not sufficiently strategic but, too often, comes as piecemeal projects. Regarding
equitableness, they note that aid as a delivery system largely focuses on overcoming
perceived disadvantages (i.e., supporting equitableness) by addressing “needs.”
Recipients say that since aid is provided to address gaps in societies, providers often
focus on those who have been marginalized economically, socially, and politically.
An Intrinsic Distortion?
Needs-based (gaps-based) programming, however, can distort the procedures
used to do contextual analysis. The approach virtually obviates the potential for
identifying and honoring existing capacities. When international assistance is meant
to meet needs, aid agency procedures focus on identifying what is missing. They
attempt to deliver material and nonmaterial aid to overcome the identified gaps.
As noted elsewhere, even though the language of “capacity building” is regularly
used by donors and operational agencies, capacity building is often focused on
meeting the “need” for “missing” capacities. Proposal frameworks and funding
templates more often ask for evidence of “needs” that will be addressed by a
proposed program rather than for evidence of capacities that the programs will
support and reinforce.
The procedures aid providers most often use to determine who they should
target with their assistance are essentially the same ones we discussed in relation
to participation, ownership, and sustainability. The ways in which they affect
distribution, however, deserve specific examination.
Preplanning for Proposals and Funding Purposes
The necessity of specifying (some would say “over-specifying”) “targets” in
order to get funding locks agencies into preset distribution criteria. Because this
specification occurs before funded activities can begin, these may or may not turn
out to be the right targets under local conditions. The proposal/funding nexus
as it presets reporting criteria makes adjustments for local conditions difficult.
To receive funding and be seen as “efficient and effective,” agencies accept the
limits of their preset plans, often to the detriment of more successful outcomes.
Space for people in recipient communities to provide input on how to allocate
resources in the early stages of planning is, in these procedures of proposing and
funding, marginal or nonexistent.
Though donors and agencies affirm their commitment to meeting local needs
or addressing missing capacities, many people on the recipient side of assistance
say that aid is distributed according to the requirements of donors and agencies
rather than according to local priorities and needs.
Assessment procedures also lead to problematic distributional decisions. The
standardized procedures most agencies use to determine who should receive
their assistance assess whether or not people in any given community need what
they, as an agency, have to offer. Agencies seldom are free to open their inquiry
widely—looking for capacities (as noted above) or listening to options and ideas
local people offer. Assessment tools are designed to document findings and
structure local responses in templates, frameworks, models, and categories that
are related to the mandates and specialties of the aid agency doing the assessment.
(This in part, explains why each agency feels it must do its own needs assessment
rather than relying on those done by others.)
Many people did not understand the criteria for assistance
of different projects and did not get explanations as to why
some people and communities were assisted while others were
not. Many said that people were targeted differently under
different projects of different agencies and that the criteria
often were inconsistent and did not make sense. Many people
noted that each organization did its own assessments, had its
own information and did not seem to share this.
- Listening Project Report, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Assessment procedures designed to convince donors that what an aid agency is
good at doing is exactly what people in a given region need are, by their very nature,
too “closed” to capture the range of opinions and options offered by local people.
Fair or Unfair?
People in many locations say that they do not understand the procedures for setting
distribution criteria. Procedures for “consultation” are, it seems, more extractive
than informative. That is, they are designed (and followed) to gather information
about what people need or want more than to communicate back to people about
why the agency made specific decisions. In particular, people say they are not told
how aid agencies use what they learn through surveys to determine where and to
whom to provide aid. Because the terms on which some people receive aid and
others do not are unclear, to many they seem unfair.
People say that because the categories and templates are not appropriate for their
circumstances, the result is misallocation and waste of international donors’ resources.
For example, in some areas, people say that it is right for aid to be provided to
widows and orphans, while in other areas, people say that larger families should
be the focus. The issue is context. Standardized procedures for determining aid
allocations seem to under-assess variations in circumstances and cultures.
Some people raise another aspect of beneficiary selection procedures that they
feel undermines effective assistance. This has to do with disincentives for people
to move out of the recipient categories. In general, procedural categories do not
include designations that leave room for people to transition from dependency
to independency. One result is that people fight to retain benefits, even though
they also wish to be independent. Some recipients suggest that processes be
developed that help people move from an aid target category into increasing levels
of self-reliance, rather than have clear lines of demarcation between eligibility and
ineligibility for support from, or relationship with, assistance providers.
a person who wants to move forward in his life. This is why I
don’t understand why the people that help continue to call us
gang members. A gang member is helped in order that he stops
being a gang member, but then he receives no help if he’s not
a gang member.
- Young former male gang member, Ecuador
And people say, consultation processes, again, often fail to correct distributional
misjudgments because there are limited opportunities for agency staff to listen
to a wide range of inputs from people in recipient societies.
Western concepts of vulnerability and worthiness do not always match
local concepts. For minority ethnic groups in Cambodia, who stated
that they believe everyone is equal and deserves the same aid, foreign
concepts of vulnerability clashed with local concepts of fairness. “They
come and ask about our needs and then come with district officials to
distribute.... We don’t agree with the selection. Poverty assessment is
based on whether or not the family owns a motorbike or a wooden
house (richer) or no motorbike and bamboo house (poorer).” People
were angered by the selection criteria and stormed out of the community
meeting. (Listening Project Report, Cambodia)
“They decided to give bread to the displaced, but only to families with
more than four members. This is not logical. The ones who really need
it are the widows, the old couple who is living alone without relatives.
The big families usually have members who can work.”
(Refugee in a camp, Lebanon)
The lack of transparency regarding criteria for selecting beneficiaries was
the cause of discontent in many areas in Zimbabwe. In only a minority
of cases were community members aware of how beneficiary selections
were decided. Often the outcomes made obvious the distortions that
had occurred, including one example where bedridden people were
given agricultural tools. (Listening Project Report, Zimbabwe)
“We know there should be priorities (often named by villagers as ‘weak
and widows’ or ‘poor and alone’ or ‘those who lost the most’) but the
tenth priority gets things while the first does not.” (Villager, Indonesia)
Some people in Angola complained about the targeting of widows and
elderly persons for assistance, saying that the neediest families were
those with the most mouths to feed, which in many cases, did not
meet any of the various official selection criteria for “vulnerability.”
There was general discomfort with the relatively low age of 50 used by
some aid agencies as the threshold for assistance to the elderly. As one
apparently healthy woman in Luanda observed, “I am 48; am I almost
elderly?” (Listening Project Report, Angola)
Some NGOs said that they often have to design programs without
specific communities in mind, then later are assigned communities
by the government, making it difficult to meet the specific needs of
selected communities. (Listening Project Report, Ethiopia)
“Here in San Lorenzo, I know of programs that call on people who know
that help was being provided only for them to be in the picture for the
final report.” (Afro-Ecuadorian youth member of a CBO, Ecuador)
There were comments about NGOs promising or feigning a participatory
approach but in fact acting in a fashion that was quite different. This
includes NGOs relying too much on local leaders (sometimes a single
leader) who themselves did not consult widely and openly and who
dealt with others in an authoritarian manner. (Listening Project Report, Bolivia)
3. The Principle of Mutual Accountability
Finally, donors and recipients alike are committed to accountability. They agree
on the importance of the principle, and they agree that procedures can be useful
for promoting accountability.
Donors rely principally on narrative and financial reports to determine that their
assistance has been delivered honestly and without mismanagement, that the
original target population has been served, and that original goals have been
achieved. Reports are written by consultants, international and national staff in
charge of projects, local partner organizations and, occasionally, by someone in a
recipient community. Reporting procedures have been tightened according to each
donor’s needs (which do not always correspond!) throughout the international
Procedures have also been developed to ensure that donors and aid agencies are
accountable to people in recipient societies. Some agencies welcome “audits”
in which external agencies assess their professionalism and reliability according
to international standards of delivery through field visits. Some agencies use
suggestions or complaints boxes, inviting people in recipient communities to provide
anonymous feedback—positive and negative—about their efforts. Some try to
elicit honest recipient judgments through community meetings and monitoring
and evaluation tools.9
But there is widely shared agreement among many people in recipient communities
that these procedures for mutual accountability (to both donors and recipients)
are largely failing.
Narrative and Financial Reporting
Aid providers and receivers both say that current report-writing procedures,
completely counter to their intent, introduce inefficiencies into international
assistance work. Report preparation to meet donor requirements to ensure continued
funding for a series of projects becomes an end in itself. Aid agencies say that
more and more of their time is spent complying with reporting requirements in
each successive year. The costs of reporting have, many feel, overtaken the value
of reporting—particularly as the procedures of reporting limit the scope of what
is covered to “results” that were specified in proposals rather than encouraging
engagement with people on accountability around actual impacts and learning
that can improve future performance.
Four problems with the proceduralization of reports are identified and discussed
at length by people (aid recipients and aid workers) who live and work in recipient
Reports focus on what was proposed, not on what actually happened.
To track that funds have been spent to achieve what was proposed, donors ask aid
agencies (and recipients) to prove that they engage in “results-based management.”
Donors require reports that are tied directly to the proposals they funded to justify
and account for their provision of funds. This limits flexibility and responsiveness
to contextual changes. It may mean that actual results (not proposed) are not
included in reports.
“For international donors, a project is only useful if it has
immediate results that they can show and measure. How can
you heal a trauma in six months? And tell me how can you take
a picture of a healed trauma?”
- Coordinator of a Lebanese NGO, Lebanon
Reports are overly complicated.
In an effort to streamline reporting, many donors and aid agencies have developed
standardized formats. Perversely, most users of these formats (from large international
NGOs to small, local community-based organizations) say that such standardized
formats have made reporting more complicated rather than simpler. Many also
note that standardized formats limit honesty and accountability by predetermining
reporting categories rather than inviting genuine reflection on what has occurred.
This relates also to the “faking” of reports; people say that as much is left out
of such set formats as is included in them. The complications also make it more
difficult for local people to be involved in reporting.
Reports often are untrue; they do not in fact promote accountability.
People comment on three aspects of the dishonesty of reports. First, because reports
focus only on what was proposed, so much may be left out that they represent
very little of the reality. Second, many note it is easy to provide pictures (sometimes
faked) and receipts (also sometimes faked) to meet reporting requirements since
it is widely known that donors will not often go to the field to see what has or
has not occurred. Third, many people note with frustration that a true report
would include the ideas and analyses of people in recipient communities about
the larger impacts of any activity. Most people were quite clear that they are not
consulted or listened to about lasting impacts. Most feel that they have no way to
hold international assistance providers accountable for impacts in their locations.
Not all want to complain, but they do want to have an opportunity to provide
feedback that is heeded. This is not accomplished by current reporting procedures.
The message is that donor agencies do not really care about real impacts or lasting
results, but only about reports.
Perhaps the most pernicious effect of the proceduralization of reporting is the
message it sends to people in recipient societies. Many say they doubt the sincerity
of the international assistance community’s claims to want to be helpful. Instead,
they say, the system is self-serving: it is interlinked through proposals that get
funding that lead to top-down and prepackaged programming, which is then
reported on as successful when it delivers the things that outsiders decided it
should deliver. It is, people feel, more concerned with its self-perpetuation than
with actual outcomes and impacts. Their cynicism about the purposes of aid is
reinforced by standardized reporting procedures that do not capture their voices,
reflect real events, or provide a basis for increased understanding and development
of alternatives. In short, current reporting procedures have become so proceduralized
that they undermine, rather than support, the principle of mutual accountability.
This is, most feel, not only a travesty, but also a missed opportunity.
There was a general sense, especially among people who worked for
Cambodian NGOs, that donors required too much in writing, both for
reporting and for requesting funds. There was also frustration that
reporting timelines and formats were not synchronized between donors
so that some NGOs had to spend more time and effort writing progress
reports rather than focusing on the projects. Paying only for project
costs and not administration costs, and making project payments late,
were also concerns to local NGOs. (Listening Project Report, Cambodia)
“There is no interest to develop people; it is all reduced to practicality.
Just know how to write a report. The focus is on skills put into the
framework of outputs with no reflection included.”
(Director of a Local NGO, Lebanon)
The issue has to do with useful follow-up, such as participatory evaluation
at the end of a project and occasional monitoring or just checking in
during the years after the active presence of the NGO has ended. One
person added that it must be taken into account that donors rarely
authorize an additional budget for monitoring or evaluation once the
project ends, nor do executing institutions invest in carrying out such
follow-up, which always has a cost. (Listening Project Report, Bolivia)
One person pointed out that NGO projects are often timeframe-oriented,
rather than human-oriented; that projects occur only during the defined
timeframe, whether or not the project objectives were achieved and
Standard Procedures and Contextual Appropriateness:
Compatible or Contradictory?
The international aid community is committed at both the policy and practice levels
to the principles of good donorship. The principles discussed above emerged in
response to what aid providers observed of the policy/program gap. Procedures
were developed, standardized, and systematized first to make it impossible to
ignore these principles and then to regularize their translation into field practice.
It is therefore challenging to hear people in aid-recipient societies analyze the
missteps between aid providers’ commitments and field-based outcomes. Does
their commentary suggest that procedures should be abandoned?
Their answer—and ours—is a clear “No.”
As noted, people in recipient societies also want the predictability and consistency
that procedures can provide. What they want does not differ from what most
donors and operational agencies also want—namely, standardized processes
for ensuring that outsiders and insiders, in each context, can effectively engage
together to promote peace and development.
If we listen to the analyses of people in recipient communities about their
experiences with procedures, three notable factors emerge that point to solutions
to the problems the current proceduralization generates.
First, the location and timing of many decisions about international assistance are
undermining the very principles aid providers seek to pursue.
Second, the approach to assistance through projects with relatively limited funding
cycles limits attainment of the principles.
Third, the focus of decisions and funding on the delivery of goods and services,
with less attention to process—that is, the focus on what is done more than on
how it is done—gets in the way of achieving the principles of good donorship.
When principles and procedures are over-elaborated as they have been, they
undermine genuine relationship-building, which—most people in aid-recipient
societies suggest—should be at the heart of effective international aid efforts.
Procedures adopted to facilitate more effective and efficient international assistance
have turned in on themselves and now, more often than not, undermine the
purposes for which they were created. The international assistance enterprise
needs processes that work. The challenge now is to dismantle those that are
counterproductive and to find ways to develop new processes that accomplish
6 See, for example, DFID’s Essential Guide to Rules and Tools for one such collection of procedures governing interactions with recipients of their grants.
7 The Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative, which produced a set of principles signed by a large group ofdonors in Stockholm in 2003, represents one comprehensive step in enunciating and codifying principles and good practice for humanitarian donors. Some of the principles for effective humanitarian donorship are now widely accepted in all other areas of international assistance, such as the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness signed in 2005. The international NGO community has also developed corollaries in codes of conduct, the Istanbul
Principles for CSO Development Effectiveness, an INGO Charter, and, in the form of partnerships, for example, has set standards for humanitarian work (SPHERE) and accountability (HAP).
8 Dare we also coin the word “proceducrats”?
9 See the Listening Project report on “Feedback Mechanisms in International Assistance Organizations” on the CDA website (2011).
Thanks to CDA Collaborative Learning Projects for permission to publish this from their publkication:
Time to Listen
Hearing People on the Receiving End of International aid
Mary B. Anderson