Idealism Vs. Realism: The Need for Accountability

Last Thursday, the Hudson Institute hosted a discussion with Nina Munk on her book The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. The book follows Sachs’ work to end poverty through Millennium Villages. The imgresproject provided improved fertilizer and mosquito nets to fourteen rural villages in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many in the development community view the project as a failure because of its inability to create sustainable development. Munk used the discussion to highlight the overarching themes in her book and to answer audience questions about her experience working with Sachs.

One major theme repeatedly appeared throughout the discussion: NGO and development accountability. Munk attributed a large portion of the Millennium Village failures to a lack of accountability. According to Munk, throughout the project Sachs refused to take the advice of on-the-ground development workers. He ignored the varying cultures, infrastructures, and economies of each village and how that would impact the individual development of each village. Quantitatively, the project seemed to be a success. It increased the corn production of villages and reduced starvation. But the increased corn production did not translate into long-term economic gains. The starving villagers were fed but what the project did not solve was the lack of a market or infrastructure to sell corn.

Munk claims that Sachs’ project needed an accountability structure. There were no measures to evaluate the success of the project beyond the quantitative numbers. There was no consequence for a failed venture and even now Sachs refuses to acknowledge the shortcomings of the project.  She equated the Millennium Village to a game of whack-a-mole. One problem would be solved only for six more problems to crop up. An accountability structure could have evaluated the project from the beginning and addressed its shortcomings in a timely fashion.

Sachs promoting the Millennium Village Project
Sachs promoting the Millennium Village Project

During the discussion Munk put forth the question of how to translate low hanging fruit into sustainable development beyond simple quantitative measures. An evaluative structure needs to be in place to measure the holistic success of development projects. The development community cannot afford to base success on purely quantitative measures. Munk claims the development community has a fear of failure and as a result does not acknowledge its mistakes. Making a humorous, yet genuine, suggestion, Munk proposed every organization should have a “Failures” section on its website. This way there is transparency across the development community and it can continue to learn from its past mistakes.

One attendee brought up a great question concerning the accountability of publicly traded companies compared to non-profits and development work. If an official in a publicly traded company breaks the law or creates a failing project, he is held accountable, whether it be through fines, prison time, or unemployment. Why then does the development community not have the same punishments for failure? There are no consequences for organizations creating unsuccessful development projects. The people who suffer most are those that are supposed to benefit from development projects. Should an industry that deals with human livelihood have strict punishments for failure?

The point of accountability is especially salient considering the financial outlook on development. As Munk described it, the amount of money, private or public, put towards development is not going to radically change in the coming years. It maintains consistent, incremental growth. Development work needs an accountability structure to ensure that this money is not going to waste. Munk claims the development community needs to be upfront about what it can and cannot accomplish so that it does not waste money on impossible projects that have already failed in the past.

Please click here to watch the full discussion with Nina Munk.

Stranger Than Fiction

What happens when you combine The Office and development work? You get The Samaritans, a mockumentary of life working in an NGO. The show focuses on the daily operations of an NGO in Kenya called Aid for Aid. It satirizes the bureaucratic inefficiencies of the modern day aid industry and its love of development

The new country Director, Scott.
The new country Director, Scott.

The pilot episode introduces the characters and a dysfunctional organization that may be harming Kenya’s development as opposed to helping it. Incorporating a very relevant theme, the first two episodes of The Samaritan focus on how the organization counterproductively applies for its largest grant ever. This is a large part of the daily minutia of actual NGOs who rely heavily on grant funding. In another scene that may hit a little too close to home, Scott, the new country Director at Aid for Aid, uses the words “barriers to change”, “capacity building”, and “political economy” to send a message that says absolutely nothing about Aid for Aid’s mission and goals. While NGOs may use their vocabulary to a little more effect, you can find NGO papers littered with these exact same words. Maybe from an outsider’s perspective what is a norm in NGO culture might seem borderline absurd.

The show’s scenarios and hi-jinx may seem extreme and unbelievable but many of the story lines come from true stories of people working in NGOs. The show’s website even has a contact section where they encourage actual NGO workers to submit their own real life experiences with NGO inefficiencies. The show’s creator, Hussein Kurji, says inspiration for the show came from a story of a real NGO, whose mission was rhino preservation, holding an auction with top prize being a rhino hunt. Does Kurji’s inspiration and plotlines seem absurd? Absolutely. But he says that since airing he has gotten many responses from NGO workers saying The Samaritans is more truth than fiction.

Kurji hopes his satire of the aid industry will create a dialogue about the industry’s shortcomings. What works and what does not work in the aid industry? Already the show’s popularity is growing. A range of media sites such as the BBC, Buzzfeed, and Devex have all run articles about The Samaritans. This show could generate a new conversation about the accountability of NGOs and the increasingly bureaucratic nature of grant making and development work. Are these changes making development work increasingly ineffective, as Kurji seems to propose from his show? The increasing buzz surrounding The Samaritans may be what the development industry needs to start a conversation about NGO accountability.

Aid for Aid's logo
Aid for Aid’s logo

The Samaritans is a groundbreaking concept not just because of its commentary on the aid industry but also because of its origins. Begun by a Kenyan production company, Kenya is not known for its entertainment industry, especially not television. The preferred entertainment method is radio. But Kurji has worked against the odds to create a show that is not only funny but has a social commentary relevant to both developed and developing countries. Kurji did not even have the money to initially create the show. He relied on the support of 74 Kickstarter backers to fund the first season. The show still needs funding help so it is currently selling the first two episodes online for $5.

It remains to be seen whether the aid industry will address Kurji’s NGO commentary. But regardless, he can be proud in knowing that he has shed light on a topic that has mostly gone unnoticed. As NGOs adopt more business-like attributes, perhaps we in the development community should consider how we are holding NGOs and ourselves accountable for quality development work. Does the NGO industry exist to serve workers’ martyr complexes like the characters in The Samaritan or are they actually there to serve developing nations?

Trust in NGOs Dependent on Media Independence

NGOs operate on the principle of being independent “Third Sector” organizations, working outside the realm of the government “Public Sector” and the for-profit “Private Sector.” The independence of NGOs of all causes has long been considered a fundamental operating principle.  For humanitarian organizations, being perceived as an extension of state power could have fatal consequences. For another group of NGOs, a lack of independence may not be life-threatening, yet for political non-profit organizations in the U.S., a perception of partisanship could result in the revocation of its “social welfare” tax-exempt status.

An independent news media, where people have the freedom to access objective information, has long been seen as foundational to democracy.  The recent tragedies in Libya and Egypt highlight the potentially lethal consequences of a perceived state manipulated media flow, as these countries’ governments have inculcated the widespread belief that the US government approves of the inflammatory “Innocence of Muslims” video, believed to be the source of turmoil in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia and Libya. Continue reading