When donor cuts are a good thing
By the end of this post I think the odds that I’ll be invited to any more Canadian NGO roundtable-stakeholder-forum-workshops will be less than Mel Gibson being asked to host Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards.
To be honest, I’m not really going to miss those invitations. They arrive in the office about every other week and they usually abuse the word “dialogue” as in “This meeting will allow key stakeholders to dialogue with the Minister on the critical challenges facing the world’s poor”. Inevitably, once these round-tables launched off, it would emerge that the primary critical challenge was that the government wasn’t giving enough money to Canadian aid organizations.
The last invitation I accepted was to attend a meeting of Canadian NGOs to discuss Afghanistan with the Minister for the Canadian International Development Agency, Bev Oda. When I sat down at the very large conference table I was impressed by the turnout. There were dozens of NGOs, eradicating every evil known to man from human rights violations to malaria to a lack of playgrounds. Oddly, almost none of these organizations were operating in Afghanistan and I couldn’t understand why they were there. Lord knows that if my organization wasn’t neck deep in the Afghan sand, I’d have been back in the office sneaking sips of whiskey from my desk drawer and hoping the intern couldn’t see.
As soon as the microphones were turned on, I found out why they had all come. Every speaker wanted to talk to the Minister about money, as in why weren’t they getting more of it? Why was their latest proposal to host native American healing circle therapy seminars for homeless and starving victims of genocide (true story) not funded? Why was CIDA not channeling more aid through their Canadian “partners”? Imagine a pack of unruly ‘tweens whining for an increase in their allowance and you’ve nailed it nicely.
I left early, because frankly we had all the funding we needed, and we didn’t depend on CIDA for most of it. And it also occurred to me that the intern could be nipping into my stash of desk-whiskey while I was out.
The problem with these meetings lies in the word “partners”. Canadian NGOs have built a very comfortable relationship with CIDA over the years, and a symbiotic system has developed. The cycle goes like this. Canadian NGOs demand that CIDA spends more money to help the worlds poor. CIDA, wanting to be seen to be helping, pushes the money out the door as fast as it can. The NGOs spend the money as fast as they can, stopping only long enough to demand once again that CIDA needs to do more to help the poor (by spending more money). Rinse and repeat.
The incentives in this pas de deux are clear. The amount that the government of the day is seen to care about the world’s poor is directly proportional to how much it spends. This is what the famous goal of dedicating 0.7% of national income to aid is all about. And the NGOs know that if they don’t spend their entire annual grant, CIDA will find another NGO that has a faster disbursement rate.
CIDA is trying to stop this. It’s been focusing funding on specific sectors and specific countries, and most notably it has untied aid, so that non-Canadian agencies can compete for it, too. The idea is that aid money should go to the organization that makes the biggest impact, not just the Canadian organization that whines the loudest.
And the Canadian NGOs publicly embraced this. The Canadian Council for International Cooperation (a coalition of aid organizations) was especially loud in its praise stating “We welcome this important announcement which demonstrates that the Government is serious about making aid more effective.”
Well, it turns out, to the CCIC’s surprise, CIDA was a little too serious about making aid more effective. So serious, in fact, that they decided that money should be used “for real development work on the ground” and not for organizations that will use it to host yet another round-table where they can “dialogue” with the Minister and demand more money. In other words, they cut funding to the CCIC itself.
“Outrage! Bloody murder! Brutal partisanship!” yelled Gerry Barr the President of CCIC. In their press release, they noted that two thirds of their budget was core funding from CIDA and that their very existence was threatened because they couldn’t make up the shortfall with fees from their member organizations.
Now, step back for a second. Mull this one over. The CCIC is an industry association. The industry is aid, but it is an industry association nonetheless; no different than the AIAC, the CSIA, and the CRIA. Take the first one, and imagine if Industry Canada provided the Aerospace Industry Association of Canada with two thirds of its budget so that the AIAC could then lobby Industry Canada to change its aerospace policies (and give it more money)? Insane, right? Not in the aid industry, because there they take the word “partners” very seriously. CIDA gives the CCIC money so the CCIC can ask CIDA for more money. That’s what partners do.
Which brings me to the part of the post that will really ensure I don’t get any more invitations from my colleagues in the Canadian NGO community. I think it’s great that CIDA has untied aid. This is one step closer to creating an aid industry where the best ideas get funded, not the coziest partners. And I think it’s great that CIDA cut CCIC’s funding. This ends a ridiculous “partnership” and if its member organizations think the CCIC is that important they can pay for it.
There are many reasons why the aid industry has failed so miserably in its goal to eradicate poverty over the decades. The symbiotic NGO-Donor relationships that encourage greater spending over greater impact is only one reason, but it’s an important one. So here’s a toast to no more of those damned workshop-seminar-dialogue-forums…..yup, just as I feared. The bottle is gone.