With more than 10 years’ experience in the humanitarian sector, working in logistics and supply chain, I have faced many challenges. The most frustrating by far? Seemingly arbitrary and nonsensical donor requirements. I don’t think we should bite the hand that feeds us – indeed, we should remember that institutional donors are the only organisations that can provide the financial muscle NGOs need to operate. However, it is vital that we openly discuss the dysfunctional outcomes resulting from donor requirements that are too strict. Other aid workers will have their own stories. Here are a couple of mine.
In 2010, my NGO received funding for several thousand family shelters from the US government. We had first arrived in Haiti 24 hours after the earthquake and rented a large warehouse from a timber merchant, which provided ample space for our office and storage needs. The merchant continued to operate from another warehouse in the same compound, just 10 metres from our front door. By the time we had received confirmation of our budget, he had got hold of large quantities of high quality, treated timber in anticipation of demand from humanitarian organisations. Our staff, particularly those with limited humanitarian experience, must have thought everything was going swimmingly. It wasn’t.
The timber, which was stacked in every available space in the compound, had been purchased in Brazil. But our donor, the Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), had included clauses in the contract that specified aid supplies must originate from the US and be carried by a ship registered there too. This is a fairly standard clause. In Africa, because of the impracticality of such a clause, we could usually obtain waivers to bypass these rules. But with the US so close to Haiti and American businesses keen to meet demand, it was impossible to obtain such a waiver. We had the money in the bank, the timber was of good quality and it was available immediately. We just weren’t allowed to buy it.
Instead, we had to send a team to Florida to search for suppliers. Given that we had no formal presence in the US and little knowledge of their export regulations, we needed to find a supplier who could handle the export of the goods and load them onto the ship for delivery to Port-au-Prince. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the supplier we selected had no experience of exporting to Haiti so there were delays.
It was more than three months before we took delivery of the timber. All the while, we watched from our office window as other NGOs, which presumably had different funding sources, collected timber from our landlord and started building shelters. In the end, construction was hampered even further due to legal issues regarding the land to construct on. Our dysfunctional supply chain was not the critical factor but it could easily have been, and it was deeply frustrating.
I even heard a story where a donor representative requested that the pile of sand he paid for be kept separately from the piles of sand that were funded by other donors. There is a temptation to think the donors must be mad or deliberately difficult. However, the truth is that incentives are misaligned. While there are overlaps in the objectives of stakeholders, often they are working towards separate, sometimes contradictory, goals.
These tales highlight the biggest problem that the humanitarian community faces in aid delivery: donors. They all apply their own rules to how money can be spent, according to their own priorities. Rules are drawn up by bureaucrats in Washington, Brussels, London and elsewhere, with limited consideration to the needs on the ground. Donors apply disparate rules on procurement procedures so each purchase we make often must be done differently. Donors only care how their money is spent. They care little of the overall effectiveness or efficiency of the organisation spending the money. If we get it wrong, we must reimburse the donor’s funds. The result is significant unnecessary work and delays. The problem, in short, is no effective coordination between donors.
With humanitarian responses so massively underfunded, if we have any ambition to maximise the effectiveness of aid, coordination is key. The humanitarian community identified this weakness after the Asian tsunami response of 2004-05. As a result, the cluster system was established, with each sector of aid coordinated through a single body to identify gaps and prevent duplication. But what is the point of this if donors act independently?
Donors must begin to coordinate. They must establish common objectives and measures of accountability and transparency. I would like to see less forensic analysis of how individual dollars are spent and more audits of organisations’ management systems. However, I would settle for all donors asking for the same level of bureaucracy from their implementing partners. I can certainly accept that donors wish to see their money spent well, but the country of origin of supplies should only be relevant where trade embargos are in place.
NGOs need to be empowered to make decisions based on need and value for money, while being held to account on how they reach those decisions. Only then can we get real bang for our buck.