Is the way aid is disbursed through NGOs promoting a development practice that addresses chronic poverty well? An overview of an on-going research project.
What have we learned during the last few decades of doing development about what works well for the poor in Africa? What works best for the poorest and most disadvantaged, especially those affected by HIV/AIDS, and gender discrimination? The paper will explore how current forms of funding through NGOs, and the many conditionalities around development aid, enhance or diminish the chances of addressing issues of chronic poverty in a continent that is getting poorer all the time.
Experience has shown that working with the very poor, in the past termed 'the poorest of the poor' by many NGOs, is complex, challenging and difficult. While academics and researchers have spent a lot of time trying to define and measure poverty and chronic poverty, they have usually focused on narrow monetary definitions of poverty. Much NGO experience has shown that the reality of poverty goes way beyond the economic; it is multi-dimensional. Poverty of voice (decision making and political representation), poverty of assets (including literacy and knowledge), weak social capital evidenced through limited or fractured associational life are all critical aspects of poverty and help to keep poor people poor. Over decades of working in contexts of dire poverty NGOs have learned that achieving positive change at this level is slow. The work needs to be multi-dimensional, taking into account complex micro level realities as well as the wider political and economic context. Involving people in their own development is important, but the more marginalised and unheard they are and the fewer rights they are able to claim, the harder it is to reach them, organise them and find ways to address their many problems. This work needs to be long term, results are precarious and often hard to see in the short term, battles need to be fought again and again to secure rights for the most disempowered and poorest in some cases against entrenched opposition. It requires dedication, patience, skilled practitioners and flexibility of approach.
Within the NGO and donor sectors there have been a fast changing array of development paradigms for addressing poverty. Policies and procedures for disbursing aid have also changed over time. How well do current aid management mechanisms and approaches support these positive ways of working with the poorest that have been identified largely through NGO experience on the ground? How well do they promote risk taking, participation, hearing voices usually ignored, long-term commitment? Where do current priorities lie?
This paper will explore these questions in a number of ways. First, it describes and analyses current aid flows and major funding trends, and discusses the changing focus of aid from the state, to markets to privatisation and back now to 'enabling states'. The role of NGOs has been seen differently in each of these phases yet there remains a real lack of clear analysis about the specific niche of NGO work in addressing poverty. The importance of securing funding in times of declining aid flows and increasing competition mean, however, that NGOs often have to dance to the latest tunes, and changing donor demands- whether positive or negative for NGO work- are seen to have a major impact on UK NGO behaviour. Secondly the paper explores the changing conditionalities around funding for NGOs including new planning frameworks, tight monitoring and evaluation, reporting and budgeting requirements, and a focus on targets, outcomes and measurable indicators. Thirdly, the paper looks at the implications of other aid conditionalities, especially the changing fashions and focus of aid from service delivery to rights, from infrastructure to advocacy, from environment to gender to diversity to inclusion. These changing priorities may not be drawn from development experience of working with the poorest and may or may not support those NGOs trying to tackle problems at this level.
The paper draws on research undertaken in the UK with a range of NGOs. It argues that the current conditionalities of aid from donors, and the new public management paradigms promoted by trustees and chief executives, which fit well the new donor demands, push many NGOs to behave in ways unlikely to impact positively on chronic poverty. The chances of achieving real impact on chronic poverty appear remarkabl y low while the focus stays on upward accountability, rigid frameworks, and 'one size fits all' approaches. In spite of a commitment to participation and bottom up approaches, recognised as needed for sustainability, the focus is still on 'us' solving problems for 'them' (be they individuals, households, communities, or governments) and little trust is given to agencies in Africa. The new policies and procedures force NGOs to think short term, to focus on easily measurable changes and quick results. They are top-down and often ignore local cultural realities. They are risk averse and rely on concepts of change that are linear and predictable, while the complexities of chronic poverty are multi-dimensional.
Is the way aid is disbursed through NGOs promoting a development practice that addresses chronic poverty well? An overview of an on-going research project, presented at Staying Poor: Chronic Poverty and Development Policy, Institute for Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester, 7-9 April 2003. Chronic Poverty Research Centre (CPRC), Manchester, UK, 9 pp.