Hamburgers for Hindus

This is a modified repost from a previous month

Craving beef I stopped by a McDonald’s in Indonesia looking for a hamburger. I was surprised at the menu filled with fried chicken and only one hamburger choice. Both McDonald’s and international aid are affected by market forces. At McDonald’s local tastes of the diners affect what’s on the menu. In international aid the “menu” is often based on the taste of the donors and senior management, not the diners.

A hamburger analogy

Imagine aid as fast food. In a top down or “donor led” model, here are some things that could go wrong.

  • The restaurant is paid to make hamburgers, but the local people are Hindu and don’t eat beef
  • The villagers will eat hamburgers but they prefer chicken, which is cheaper
  • The villagers can’t pick up their hamburgers because they are only served from 9 to 5, which would mean missing work
  • The restaurant was built ten miles away from the village and it’s too far to walk every day
  • To save administrative costs the restaurant is only open one day a week. Villagers are expected to pick up enough food to last a week, however, without refrigeration the meat quickly goes bad.
  • An opportunistic family sends each child in separately to pick up enough food to feed a large family and sells their extra food to families not so “fortunate”.

“Donor led” vs. “Owner led”

In donor led or top down programs, donors or senior management determine what type of aid will be provided and to whom. Unfortunately, they are often unaware of the needs and limitations of each location receiving aid. If there is no feedback loop programs may waste money and even do more harm than good.
The following excerpt is from CDA’s issue paper The Cascading Effects of International Agenda and Priorities compiled from listening exercises in 13 countries.

People also resent assistance that is pre-determined and inappropriate. They say things such as, “NGOs are inflexible in the types of assistance (they provide)…it is top-driven and is simply channeled down to us.”  “Some international NGOs come with their own agendas and are driven and influenced by the priorities set by their donors.”

One Listening Team summarized what they had heard, noting “There are common complaints that NGOs take a blanket approach and arrive with pre-planned programs.” Another suggested that, “NGOs are often bound by rigid proposal submission deadlines set by donors and this hinders their ability to consult communities.”

Listening Teams have heard many people express their anger at the arrogance of outsiders who pre-determine need in categories that they feel are biased and inappropriate in their society, or when they apply programming approaches that have been developed elsewhere in quite different contexts. Some used the word “insulted” to describe how they felt when NGOs brought pre-packaged assistance such as very low microcredit loans and training programs based on employment opportunities in other countries rather than their local economy and markets.

In “owner led” projects, aid recipients pay a key role in determining what type of aid will be provided and how it will be distributed. In addition to the programs being developed to meet local needs, it also gives aid recipients ownership of the program, which increases the chance that the projects will be survive once the aid agency leaves.
MANGO (Management Accounting for Non Governmental Organizations) outlines Two Golden Rules for managing aid agency field work.

  1. NGOs have to maintain a respectful dialogue with the people they aim to help.
  2. NGOs depend on their field staff and have to empower them to make good judgments.

The Humanitarian Accountability Partnership – International (HAP-I) has developed a system for training and certifying aid agencies that are accountable to those they aim to serve.

“HAP certifies those members that comply with the HAP Standard in Humanitarian Accountability and Quality Management, providing assurance to disaster survivors, staff, volunteers, host authorities and donors that the agency will deliver the best humanitarian service possible.”

To ensure that the aid we give does the good we intend, we have to stop giving hamburgers to Hindus. How can we break out of the common top down, donor driven, aid model to ensure that aid recipients voices are heard and aid programs are developed accordingly?