Why Donor Coordination Fails

This giraffe doesn't care if it is safed with or without donor coordination (copyright, Hope Hill on flickr)

If you have worked in the field of international development, you will have come accross Donor / NGO Coordination Forums in nearly all developing countries you go to. You have heard their great promises of reducing redundancies and increasing impact and you have observed how difficult that is to achieve in practice. So, why, as all donors are interested in ending poverty, is co-ordination such a challenge?

I think it has something to do with the fact that there are two kinds of goals: One kind is out in the open while the other is treated like a dirty secret. Talk about healing the sick. But don’t talk about increasing the visibility of your organization. Talk about saving the rhinos. Don’t talk about your own salary increase or job security. Talk about feeding babies in Africa. But please, don’t talk about fighting for more funding for next year. Talk about improving agricultural productivity of poor farmers. But don’t dare to talk about competing with other organizations in the same field.

Sometimes it can be much easier to work in the corporate sector, where everyone is expected to have self-serving, profit-maximising goals and any greater good is just an added luxury.

In reality though, most people (both in the corporate and non-profit world) want to do good and do well at the same time. Their motivation is a mix of making the world a better place and being able to feed their families (and build a house, buy a porsche etc.).

So what happens when the non-profit world denies the existence of self-serving goals in their own ranks? Do they just go away, because you are not allowed to talk about them? No. What would have been a healthy combination of goals gets split up into official and underground goals. All official communication in the broadest sense, project planning and evaluation has to be performed as if the official goals where all there was. And because the underground goals are supressed there tends to be a build up of pressure, explosions at unexpected points, double-talk and commitments no-one intends to keep: they sabotage those projects that pretend they don’t exist.

And that’s where we get back to the donor coordination bodies: One of the underlying hopes of organizing these forums is to be able to join forces behind the common goal and make competition between organizations disappear. Let’s just ignore the selfish goals of “I want my signboard on this project!” and “We need to show our donors that we as organization made an impact!” and “I have to show my bosses I am worth my money!” and they will disappear. Or, will they?

A less romantic but more effective approach to coordination would be: Let’s put all the goals on the table. Behind closed doors and in a comfortable and trusted environment. Let’s talk about the balancing act all of us have to perform between doing good and doing well (as individuals and organizations). How it can be a challenge to remain somewhere in the middle between zynical and idealistic and actually get the job done. That’s ok. That doesn’t make you a bad person, it makes you a hero (at least in my books). And let’s see how we can share and divide responsibilities, blame and glory in a way that helps us realize synergies for our greater good and feed our own families as well. The commitments you would get out of a meeting like this would be less glorious. But so much more likely to be followed up on. And, honestly, the poor (and the rhinos, for that matter), don’t care about your beautiful official commitments but about what you actually deliver – with or without official donor coordination.

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