De-escalating the paperwork in development

Alanna Shaikk writes about the good and bad of working in international development.  Here is a big part of the bad:

… You’re a bureaucrat. An awful lot of every expat’s job involves paperwork. Most people picture international work as feeding hungry people, providing health care to refugees, or building schools. In reality, it makes no sense to pay an expatriate to do that. Instead, we do what cannot be hired locally: English-language paperwork. We write reports to HQ and donors, proposals, and program guidelines. We write even more reports. We can go days without seeing anybody who is helped by our work.

This is a very acute observation, and it is confirmed by what I see here in Addis every day.

It seems to me that we must de-escalate the amount of paperwork involved in international development.

There has to be some record-keeping to enable us to account to the people whose money we are spending.  But the bureaucracy involved in designing and getting funding for projects, for hiring people, and for monitoring and reporting, has become an industry in itself. 

Akvo is promoting “Really Simple Reporting (RSR)” which is intended to simplify reporting.

The Skoll Foundation is also apparently working on a common reporting format to simplify the paperwork for grantees of US foundations. (I can’t find anything about this project online.)

I think the time has come for all donors – government agencies, international organisations, private foundations, and NGOs – to adopt a common reporting format for their grantees, so that each organisation can provide information about finances and performance in a single report – possibly provided online – on which all their funders can rely. 

The people whose money we are spending – taxpayers and individual givers – don’t want to pay people to fill in forms; and the people who work in development don’t want to do it either.  A common reporting format would also make the information more comparable and useful.

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Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and