NGOs – are they effective?

Not according to Blake Lambert and Wendy Glauser who write about Canadian NGOs:

Part of the reason NGOs have difficulty meeting their overall goals is that they often end up measuring day-to-day results rather than long-term progress. As Andrew Mwenda, a Ugandan journalist and political economist who’s currently on fellowship at Stanford University, puts it, they measure “inputs rather than outputs.” If an NGO is planning to free up women’s time from domestic labour, for example, instead of measuring how much time they are spending cooking and cleaning, they might typically count how many women attended their last job-training session. “An NGO will say it’s trained 50 farmers in agricultural techniques,” Mwenda says, “but it won’t say whether that has led to an increase in production.”

I don’t think this is a problem confined to NGOs. The problem that many NGOs share with us in government is that there is no feedback loop from those whom we are supposed to be helping. Our accountability is to our donors (or taxpayers) who do not have first hand knowledge of whether we are delivering what we should.

More at Blake Lambert’s blog.

8 thoughts on “NGOs – are they effective?”

  1. Pingback: Tim Worstall

  2. This is old hat Owen. Its how the colonial agric extension service (one of the frequently overlooked benefits of colonialism) worked.It is was Bill Easterly has been pointing out for the last 4 years.And now some Canadian arsewipes think they have reinvented the wheel. Great.  

  3. Yawn! as you say – William Easterly’s been there, done that, and it was a very good job of it he made too.
    I work in economic development in the UK, and its tough to estimate the impact of something you ain’t done yet and have never tried before! its risky, and people always expect guaranteed results. There are no guarantees. You are trying to spend a miniscule amount of money to lever in huge change. It often fails.

  4. Or go further – and measure outputs (the things you actually do) and outcomes the changes you actually make.
    The voluntary and charity sector in the UK are getting better and better at this. Government talks a lot about outcomes, but don’t always get to grips with them or understands the consequences of this. i.e. measure the changes you make so that you can focus your efforts on activities that make the most change.
    Sure Glenn, outcome measurement is difficult, and measuring longer term impact is even harder, but approximate measures and assessmnets of  what matters has to be way better that supremely accurate measurement of the things that don’t matter.

  5. I think you have all wandered off the point here. What Blake Lambert is pointing out (as did Michela Wrong before him) is that accountability is a big problem with NGOs – fundamental feedback loops that are reliable and accurate don’t exist. What signals guide NGO resource deployment decisions, and how do recipients signal their preferences to their benefactors? NGOs do things in developing countries (like providing basic services) that governments should do but often don’t, but the decision on to whom, what, how and when these are provided are at the complete discretion of the benefactor. If you live in rural Malawi and have very little, and you get even less from your government, will you refuse goods and services from a NGO? Unlikely, but how do you make a NGO aware of what you really need most? How the trustees of a multinational NGO are accountable to the vulnerable person in rural Malawi is the real question.  If you crack this, the debate on measurements will be redundant. If the provider of services is accountable to the receiver then you don’t have to measure inputs, outputs or outcomes – the receiver does it for you (and you don’t have to hire monitoring specialists to tell you what the outcomes are).

    Flipside – do we as the donating public hold those same NGO trustees to account either? Do we really know what effect our (well intentioned) donations have once they leave our accounts? Do we drill down into the activities of NGOs we give to, or do we just rely on the glossy annual report (and on the fact they are non-profit and therefore benign)?

    And to get to Owens point – do we as taxpayers hold our own governments to account when they spend 0.7% of GDP (our money) on international development? What effect would providing free fertiliser have on a western European country’s agriculture sector, and why should we believe that this would be any different in the case of Malawi (where this has happened in the past)? Now there’s a real debate………

  6. It is difficult to say they are as it is to say they aren’t. It all depends on what motivates the activities of the NGOs and over all nature of the NGOs. If the NGO is led and run by educated and ethically well grounded people, I think there wouldn’t be a problem of focussing on in puts while the output is not there at all. THis may emanate from various reasons, lack of knowledge being on top of the reasons. Ignorance and selfishness could serve as additional reasons that adds why NGOs tend to be more input oriented than out put oriented.

    But there are cases where an NGO is established and led by well educated people who indeed comit themselves for the causes of development of the poor. In Ethiopia there are such NGOs whose establishement from the very begining was inspired by life and suffering of the poor and succeed to extricate good number of people from poverty and backwardness. Thes NGOs did this happen because they know what they are doing? why and how they are doing it. They are passionate about what they do and usually achieve good results.

    Similarly there are others who simply enjoy their work by spending months and years by having pointless workshops, seminars and conferences in five star hotels. The result of their workshop usually remains in their shelf. So this is why I took a position that it is very difficult to call NGOs effective all together and ineffective together. We need to see case by case as the success and failure of NGOs differs from one to another.

    Amanyehun R. Sisay
    Founder & President
    The African Youth Leadership Academy
    Equiping knowledge to the mind & wisdom to the heart

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