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.
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.