Who are an NGO’s clients?
The Three-Cups-of-Tea guy’s charity is getting sued, for allegedly misleading donors (posted on Chris Blattman and AidSpeak.) I agree it’s not a bad thing for NGOs to be held accountable for doing what they say they are going to do. However, I think this raises a very interesting point about whom NGOs are accountable to.
NGOs, like businesses, are accountable to their clients. Those of us who work where the rubber hits the road (assuming there is a road) probably like to think of the people who are the beneficiaries of our projects are our clients, and that the product we provide is improvement in their welfare. Time for a wake-up call. NGOs, like all economic entities, are, first and foremost, beholden to the people who give them money, and that means not beneficiaries, but donors. NGOs exist because a donor somewhere gets utility from a beneficiary getting a new school, or deworming, or ugly shoes, not because those people actually want them. The beneficiaries of our projects, and their welfare, are the product that we sell to donors.
This isn’t a very flattering way to look at NGO work, but I think it’s a necessary one. There is potential for dissonance between what donors want people to have, what NGOs have an incentive to say they do, and what beneficiaries actually want and need, and this potential dissonance should be addressed, not ignored.
This brings up the issue of research NGOs, like IPA. When viewed through this paradigm, research NGOs perhaps look the worst: the product that is being sold is not even beneficiary welfare itself, but data about beneficiary welfare. But this product is the key to addressing the problem of donor-NGO-beneficiary dissonance: donors who have good information about what actually helps people, and what NGOs are actually doing, what they demand from NGOs is more likely to align with the needs of beneficiaries.
So maybe I can still feel pretty good about what I did today.
The Other Corruption Currency
Last night, I was traveling by trotro from Kintampo to Tamale. We stopped at a police check point.
"Driver, close your boot!"
I saw them pack the boot (what they call the trunk here). There's no way the boot is closing. Damn. That means I have to flirt with the other officer, who is yelling "My wife! My wife!" at me.
I ask his name and tell him that I have to go to Tamale, and the faster we go the faster I can come back and marry him. We are waved on our way, along with our still-unclosed boot.
When people think about corruption, they often think about it in terms of money. If your boot can't close, you pay a small dash so the officer will let you continue your journey. If you want a driver's license, you pay a dash to get it done in one day rather than three. If you overstay the 60 day limit on your visa, you pay a dash to avoid a renewal process that is very costly in terms of time and effort.
But there is another currency that those who extort bribes will often accept: flattery and flirtation. I have never paid money to police at a checkpoint, but I have paid in smiles, jokes, and fake email addresses.
Is this a good thing? I'm not sure. At its best, it feels like nothing more than being friendly, and the person you are interacting with can go from being a hurdle to a helper. At its worst, deferring to or faking interest in someone who is clearly on a power trip feels degrading. An interaction like the one with the trotro leaves me feeling like I have prostituted myself in small way, and more than I hate that authority figures have the power to extort money, I hate that they have the power to extort me as a sexual or romantic object, even if only in very small ways.
My conclusion is that corruption is not about money, it is about power. You can reduce the bribes paid to zero, and still have corruption. That means that focusing on punishing people for taking bribes won't solve the problem-- graft will be paid in other currencies, such as favors. Fixing corruption is about limiting the discretion of individuals--setting up systems with clear rules and expectations-- to take away their ability to extort anything, be it money or my Facebook name.
I have worked in economic policy and research in Washington, D.C. and Ghana. My husband and I recently moved to Guyana, where I am working for the Ministry of Finance. I like riding motorcycle, outdoor sports, foreign currencies, capybaras, and having opinions.