If aid were like McDonald’s

Menus vary according to local taste and preferences

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 too often based on the taste of the donors, not the diners.

A hamburger analogy

Imagine aid as fast food. In a “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
  • 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”.
  • 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.
  • Restaurant staff steal half of the meat and sell it out the back door.

Donor led vs. owner led

In “donor led’ or top down programs, donors and senior management are often unaware of local needs and limitations. If there is no feedback loop programs may waste money and even do more harm than good.
Developing programs that are “owner led” (developed by those that receive the assistance) allow them to adjust to the local situation. 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 judgements.

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.”

Donors are key to promoting owner led aid

The next time you donate, give to those organizations that are actively working to empower aid recipients and local staff. Donors are key to ensuring that aid recipients get their choice of chicken, beef, or maybe even fried rice.