Donor Information Demands and NGO Institutional Development

by Rick Davies, Social Development Consultant, and Research Fellow, CDS Swansea, E-mail: Web

1. Introduction

This paper raises some questions, and offers some answers, on the subject of donor information demands(1). How do they relate to the concept of institutional development ? How legitimate are they ? How do they effect funded organisations ? How can they be used constructively ?

The paper draws upon my experience of working with ODA (India), northern NGOs (Action Aid) and southern NGOs (Proshika) on impact monitoring and evaluation issues over the last year. It also responds to and makes used of comments on an earlier draft by representatives of a number of UK NGOs who attended the ODA-BOND-CDS Workshop "Institutional Strengthening of Southern NGOs: What role for Northern NGOs ?, held at the University of Wales, Swansea, in July 1996.

2. Institutional Development ?

In the field of development aid the concept of "institutional development" is obviously dangerous. There is a risk that various institutions which are meant to be intermediaries and means to an end will be treated as ends in themselves, and those whose welfare is supposed to be of final concern, the poorest, will be forgotten and recede into the background. The fact that there is so much uncertainty about the meaning of institutional development, and how it might be identified in practice (Moore, 1994:37), should perhaps be seen as a warning sign, signalling a dangerous loss of direction and mission.

The focus on "institutional development" is understandable because increasingly all that can be seen are institutions (to use the word very loosely). In many countries a complex international ecology of organisations has developed that is dependent on aid flows. These include:

1. Grass roots membership organisations;

2. Service organisations working with them, as well as with individual poor people;

3. Support NGOs selling or providing free services to service NGOs, membership organisations and other support NGOs; and

4. Membership organisations representing NGOs (service and support).

And then there are the developments within donor organisations. As individual NGOs have grown in size new structures, such as regional offices and country level representation have been introduced within. Structures within bilateral and multilateral donors have also proliferated as they have chosen to channel funds through NGOs. Overall, there seem to be some systemic biases favouring the development of intermediary organisations and multiple layers within organisations. These may be an inescapable part of the process of "scaling up" and suggest some of the limitations of that process as an objective.

Donors faced with the task of disbursing large volumes of aid monies are understandably concerned about increasing the capacity of recipient NGOs (or other institutions) to manage large volumes of aid effectively. In contrast to national governments the NGO sector of many countries typically involves a large number of small NGOs and very limited number of large ones. Donors can find themselves in competition for partnerships with large NGOs capable of absorbing substantial amounts of funding, competition which is potentially very destructive of the very capacity that already exists. Development of capacity to operate on a larger scale is justifiable not only because it is expected to make more services available, but that it also helps reduce transaction costs(2). The alternative of funding many small NGOs involves higher transaction costs. Smaller organisations with lower salary costs and overheads are in a better position to fund such organisations(3).

Funded organisations are also understandably concerned about institutional development. It can be argued that growth in the size of an organisation increases administration costs unless economies of scale can be made. More horizontal integration of information needs to take place and this is typically done through the creation of additional layers within a hierarchy. Economies of scale are only likely to be available where work can be easily routinised. This is possible in the case, for example, of projects focusing on credit delivery but in theory this should not be so easy in the case of development projects which emphasise participatory process. These are expected to be context sensitive and therefore are likely to be more costly in terms of staff time. One means of overcoming problems in the growth of such costs is to off-load them onto other organisations. This can take the form of handing over responsibility for the management of programs to organisations of beneficiaries (sometimes called "empowerment"). It can also take the form of funding other service NGOs to carry out the activities. Funded NGOs can convert what were their own project administration costs into the value of a benefit delivered, when the same costs are now incurred by the organisations they in turn fund(4). Not all NGOs do this because there are other costs involved, including loss of access to information which is essential for the NGOs own survival(5).

3. A Biased Approach to Institutional Development

In the face of what seem to be some systemic biases in favour of organisations it may be useful to have a definition of institutional development which is explicitly biased in it's orientation towards the poorest. The following working definition is proposed. Institutional development could be seen as an improvement in an organisations responsiveness to the needs of its intended beneficiaries(6). In practice this could be seen in the form of:

(a) Finer discriminations between beneficiaries needs,

(b) Quicker responses to those needs, and

(c) The ability to do both (a) and (b) on a larger demographic scale.

This definition does not require an a priori definition of the needs to be met. Experience tells us that this can be very hard to do because needs can be highly variable over time and across people. It also leaves some room for variations in organisational strategy which may reflect differences in needs. Many organisations make strategic choices as to which of these forms of responsiveness they will emphasise most. For example, there are some banks which specialise in very personalised services to small numbers of high net worth individuals, focusing on (a) and (b) above. Others aim to reach a mass market providing a more limited number of services very cheaply, focusing on (b) and (c) above.

From a beneficiary oriented perspective efficiency in resource use would not be a final measure of institutional development but it would be more instrumental and intra-organisational in its significance. Increased efficiency in resource use is one means whereby an organisation could improve its responsiveness. In itself, efficiency in resource use by an NGO is unlikely to be of concern to the poorest. The type of efficiency that is likely to be of concern to beneficiaries is that concerning the amount of their own time and effort that they have had to invest in securing benefits from NGO projects. For example, time spent in meetings, participating in the development of "peoples organisations", and attendance in various "training activities" that can been seen as conditions of access to other benefits, such as credit or grants. Rarely are these costs given much attention by NGO's either in their project progress reports, or even in external evaluations of projects. However, my own experience with ongoing projects and project evaluations suggests that beneficiaries are keen to minimise these costs and maximise the benefits they gain. Where successful this behaviour is sometimes rather perversely called "dependency(7).

Given this re-orientation in perspective it is possible to develop a beneficiary biased definition of efficiency, albeit one which is likely to be seen as provocative and contentious. This would focus on the percentage of funds given to an organisation which are subsequently placed under the control of that organisations immediate beneficiaries (be they intermediary organisation or the poor themselves). This takes the earlier concerns with transaction costs, tacit as they may have been, to their logical conclusion. Control would obviously have to be defined in gradated terms similar to if not identical to the "ladder of participation" developed many years ago. This indicator is provactive because actually giving people real material or financial resources has been so unfashionable in the aid industry for such a long time. I am ambivalent about this indicator, not because of concerns about "dependency" but because the management of resources intended for specific ends(8) is not cost free, and people (including myself) may be happier with some one else doing the managing, so long as they receive benefits which are meeting their needs. Taking control over resources may be the appropriate alternative when aiding organisation cannot show more competence in the funded activity than the individuals who are supposed to benefit from them. The best people to judge when this is appropriate may be the poor intended beneficiaries.

Here we end up with the possibility of two potential providers competing in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. NGOs would be competing to provide services more efficiently and effectively than the beneficiaries could provide them themselves, given the same donor resources.

A field visit to a village aided by a Ugandan NGO, in October 1996, provided some evidence that this interpretation of preferences for control is not totally unrealistic. One NGO called Vision Toredo is providing a range of forms of assistance including grants and credit to groups and individuals. In an interview with the appointed leader of one group of people in a village aided by Vision Toredo I was able to identify which forms of assistance they wanted to control, and which they were happy to have controlled by Vision Toredo. The leader said they wanted to be the ones who made decision about which oxen would be purchased for what price, with money granted by Vision Toredo. However, they were happy for Vision Toredo to make the purchase of roofing iron and other building materials needed for the extension of the primary school. In the case of the oxen these were to be given to individual households, on condition that they "repaid" this loan by giving the first calf to another oxen-less household. In the case of the school extension the materials were a grant, but conditional upon pro-rata contributions by the community. The preference for control, and the willingness to bear the associated costs (e.g going to the market) seemed to be linked to the purchase which would have the most immediate and personal consequences(9).

4. Donor information demands and their acceptability

The indicators of institutional development outlined above will be of no consequence unless they are seen as important by NGOs working with poor people . One means by which their importance can be emphasised is through the type of information demands that are made on them by their donors(10).This influence will be dependent on how legitimate and justifiable donors feel their own information demands are.

In the first draft of this paper a number of different donor positions were identified. As pointed out in the Swansea workshop, the rationales are those as seen by donors. Their acceptability by funded NGOs is also important, but given the balance of power in donor-recipient relationships their views may somewhat dependent on those of their donors. The range of views that exists includes the following:

  1. Laissez-faire: Funded NGOs should be trusted to do as they say, and not harassed by donors. This view is possibly less common than in the past, and can be seen as a rationalisation of the minimalist position given below. Some church donors, and the World Council of Churches in particular, seem to take this position.
  2. Minimalist (defensive): Donor information demands can distract and undermine the effectiveness of NGOs in their work and therefore should be minimised. This view seems relatively widespread, especially amongst donor NGOs.
  3. Minimalist (self-interested): Donors are overwhelmed with the practical tasks associated with funding (identification, appraisal, approval, disbursement and documentation) and do not have enough time to read and make use of information about project activities and impact so they do not bother asking for much more than they already receive. This implicit rationale seems to be very common.
  4. Apologetic/realist: Donors have obligations to their own donors and thus must ask for information from the NGOs they fund, though they feel/know that this can be a burden on the funded NGO. Again, from personal experience this seems to be fairly common rationale.
  5. Facilitator: Information is needed from funded NGOs so that other NGOs can learn from their experiences. A related rationale is the need to support development education in the donors own country. This rationale, especially the former, is not widely used.
  6. Interventionist: The process of requesting information can have a positive impact on NGOs' institutional development (defined as above in terms of increased responsiveness,). This is uncommon, but it will be argued here, a rationale that needs much more attention.
  7. Hard-line: Funded NGOs have signed a contract and therefore have an obligation to produce the goods, which in this case is information. This would be how some might see USAID's position.

One underling difference between these views, especially the first and the last, is whether the transaction that takes place when a donor funds an NGO is seen as a gift or a commercial exchange. If it is a gift then any information in return may also have to be seen as a gift, not expected but gratefully received, perhaps. Certainly not demanded. If it is a commercial relationship then what is received in turn ? It is not a physical product but information, information about developments that took place as the result of using granted resources. The type of information that is wanted can vary, from very specific and known in advance, such as a 25% increase in immunisation coverage, to less concrete and predictable information, such as that about the empowerment of particular groups and it's effects.

Comments on views expressed by Swansea workshop participants:

"Some other justifications for donors information needs have been ignored". It was pointed out that donors need information in order to make decisions about the allocation of funds between many fundable NGO projects. Donors also need information so they can be more effective in their own institutional development work with the same funded NGOs.

In the former case I would argue that donors rarely have enough information about the projects that have been funded (let alone those about to be funded) such that they could make "rational" allocations of resources. Information on project effectiveness is simply not that available. What may be more available, is information about the values, the apparent decision premises of the NGOs, which suggest how they see the world. The suggestions made in this paper focus on making that process of perception more visible, and accountable. Where information needs relate to an objective of institutional development how problematic those needs are will depend on the criteria or indicators for assessing the institutional development that has taken place.

"Many of these positions are often not formally articulated within an NGO, but can often be implicit in practice. Views may vary between staff, and according to which NGO is being funded(11) This diversity of positions and their tacit nature gives the impression of a yet to be articulated or agreed upon policy. Participants comments also suggested that a range of strategies have been adopted. "Some donor NGOs have a "most favoured NGO" status system operating, whereby different NGOs are required to provide different amounts (and types?) of information" This system seems to parallel the differences within the ODA Joint Funding Scheme (block grants versus by application and competition). What was not clear from the discussion was the nature of the criteria in operation that determined the information that was required from different funded NGOs and the overall objective of these arrangements. Some mention was made of capacity and past performance as criteria. I suspect that NGO size and duration of the funding relationship act as proxy indicators for these criteria. While there most likely are good arguments for paying close attention to new (and often smaller) NGOs based on limited capacity and unfamiliarity with reporting expectations neglect of larger and older organisations may be dangerous, although it is one way of managing with limited resources. It is the larger organisations with wider geographic coverage and more levels within the organisational hierarchy that are especially likely to become alienated from the needs of beneficiaries, and the differences between beneficiaries.

5. The impact of the process of responding to the perceived information demands of donors.

A number of negative impacts can be identified, which could be used to justify the laissez-faire, minimalist and apologetic positions outlined above. However, if each problem is inverted into an objective they also provide the grounds on which a more constructive interventionist approach could be based.

1. Any donor demand for information means organisational attention has to be directed to donors and not somewhere else. Given the generally powerless nature of very poor beneficiaries to command attention from any organisation donor demands for attention could be at their cost.

2. Material resources are diverted in order to provide the information required by donors. Specialist positions and units are set up, they in turn make additional demands on field staff. Again there is a potential risk that beneficiaries may be the losers. Examples from Bangladesh being the units set up in Proshika, BRAC and CCDB.

3. NGOs learn the language and representational devices of donors in the same way as beneficiaries learn the language of NGO staff. Donors hear their own words coming back from NGOs as do NGOs hear their own words coming back from beneficiaries. Learning is from the top down. Examples from NGO project submissions were given in Neil Thin's paper to the 1995 JFS/BOND workshop held in Edinburgh JFS/NGO paper, and in INTRAC's survey of NGOs views about capacity building (Beebington and Mitlin, 1996).

4. Inappropriate standards of performance are introduced. If projects are to be locally sustainable, i.e not involving perpetual use of external donor funds, then one requirement will be that they must be seen as successful in the eyes of local controllers and providers of resources. In reality. the sustainability of the NGO (via donor funding) is often confused with, or takes precedence over, the sustainability of the project activities, and the standards of donors prevail. This problem was evident in an early draft of Action Aid's proposed plan for evaluating the Son La programme in Vietnam.

5. Inappropriate units of analysis are used. Because NGOs are funded to carry out various activities to aid the poorest, they are held accountable for the success of those activities. Their reporting to donors is activity oriented both in terms of implementation and impact. But the eradication of poverty is about changes in the lives of whole people. A holistic focus on people, sub-groups and groups of people is lost, along with the implied requirement that the starting point for any review of project progress should be their own assessments of changes they have experienced. The need for peoples participation has to be re-discovered.

6. Inappropriate levels of aggregation are introduced. As already mentioned, donors, NGOs and their beneficiaries are part of a multi-organisation hierarchy. Those in positions higher up in such a hierarchy deal with larger units of aggregation, whole projects and country programmes rather than project components and people within projects. Donor needs for information, especially evaluations and impact studies, typically lead NGOs to focus on the behaviour of fairly large levels of aggregation. But flexible and beneficiary sensitive change within NGOs requires analysis at small levels of aggregation. The impact of donors demands for high levels of aggregation was evident in Proshika's impact survey sampling strategy, which has produced results which allow for very little dis-aggregation and comparison by area or group.

Comments on views expressed by Swansea workshop participants:

"Many UK NGOs experience being in both positions, both requiring and providing information." The implications of this were not explored. One is evident. The appointment of specific staff within UK NGOs to manage relations with bilateral/multilateral donors has the effect of bringing conflicts between the demand and supply of information within the organisation itself. This may be beneficial in that the proximity of contact within the same organisational culture may lead to a quicker process of learning and adaptation between provider and supplier.

"Can we expect information demands to be without cost ?" No. When anyone takes the time to answer a question they are using up their time which could be used elsewhere. This applies to beneficiaries participating in PRA exercises as well as senior staff of NGOs communicating to donors. The aim should be to reduce costs in relation to the value of the information that is generated.

"Is diversion of NGO attention towards donors in itself a bad thing ?" No, it depends on the nature of the information being sought by donors and how it effects the NGOs capacity to appreciate and respond to the views of beneficiaries.

"Donors make all sorts of information demands on funded NGOs. These need to be disaggregated." Yes. For example, field visits, financial reporting and project progress reports. This paper has implicitly focused on progress reports. However, similar arguments could be made for the way in which financial reports are structured. How many donors requirements seek information on what sections of the project budget are under the control (to any degree) of the beneficiaries ? This is especially relevant in projects that are described as participatory.

"NGOs experience conflicts between demands for qualitative and quantitative information" Although it is not the primary argument, the thrust of this paper is towards greater emphasis on the use of qualitative information but within a framework of specific expectations: more differentiation of beneficiaries and changes over time.

"This section of the paper is too negative in its emphasis" While this is true none of the participants could readily identify positive process effects of information demands as they currently exist.

6. The impact of the content of the information that is produced

Overall, it is argued here that the content of the information produced for donors is far less important, in terms of its effects on the NGO producing the data, than the impact of the process. There are two grounds for this argument. One is the nature of the systems used to generate information. The other is the evidence that is available from some of the largest NGO funding mechanisms.

Monitoring and evaluation systems are the sources of much the information that is produced for donors, but not the sole source. There are a number of typical problems facing these which reduce the likelihood of information content having any significant impact. These problems are more likely to be evident when their development is in response to perceived donor demand rather than internal needs.

The following table summarises what seems to be the fate of many monitoring and evaluation systems:

Monitoring and Evaluation systems

Stages of development

Degrees of attention given



Data generation

Data interpretation



Extensive attention






Much M&E is as activity focused as the project implementation process it purports to evaluate. Implicitly there is a lot of symbolism and ritual involved. Doing M&E shows capacity to do it, and it shows that the organisation and individuals believe in its importance. That can often be enough for many CEOs and the donors to their NGOs..

Dissemination of research results, and of evaluation results, is typically treated as a residual matter, mentioned at the end of planning documents, but not the centre of attention.(This is less often the case with monitoring systems) Much more attention goes into the planning, especially of methodology. One NGO research unit I have had contact with produced informative newsletters on their work but had no idea of who they had been sent to. In these circumstances it is very difficult to identify the perceived relevance and impact of the contents(12).

Few proposals for evaluations, or the design of monitoring systems, define how the impact of those M&E activities will be identified. This was the case with the ODA Evaluation Department's evaluation of JFS funded projects in 1993 and I have seen the same errors of omission in proposals by SCF UK and Action Aid.

It may be unrealistic to expect noticeable effects. Most information generated for external use is generated with a bias towards the confirmation of peoples expectations, that everything is going as expected. Changes to NGOs' procedures should not be expected.

From my own experience, evidence of the impact of information content on the producing NGO is rare. This may be partially a problem of poor dissemination of information about those forms of impact. The same seems likely to be the case with evidence for impact of the content on the donors to NGOs. If we look at the ODA Joint Funding Scheme, which provides more than £34 million a year to NGO projects and generates large volumes of progress reports(13) there is little evidence of the impact of their contents. This acknowledged by the ODA NGO unit which has already indicated to UK NGOs that would like to see that information put to better use, and is in the process of identifying possible means of doing so.

Despite these negative comments about the impact of information content it is nevertheless true that producing information for donors is essential. Without it, or certain amounts of it, funding is likely to be in jeopardy, and the organisations survival will be at stake. But this is more about the impact of the process rather than the contents.

Comments on views expressed by Swansea workshop participants:

It was pointed out that some NGOs focus on information use and dissemination more than others, and are more aware of its use. But no examples were given in the discussion of where the information these NGOs produced for their donors had a visible effect either on themselves, their donors or others. Information produced for campaigning and lobbying is usually part of a separate information system.

The example of NGOs reports to the JFS, as evidence of the very modest impact of information content, was not questioned. A question was raised as to how its use could be improved upon. Two brief suggestions were made. Firstly, that the JFS could systematically provide feedback to funded NGOs on what parts of the reports it found were of positive value. Secondly, by making the information contained in NGOs progress reports much more widely available, using appropriate methods of presentation(14), the JFS itself could then obtain feedback from a much wider audience as to which items of information were of value, i.e made a difference to other peoples understanding and practice.

7. What information should donors be seeking if they want to enhance NGOs' responsiveness to their clients ?

It is suggested that most organisations are inherently inward looking and self pre-occupied, and this tendency increases with size. Where attention is directed externally it tends to go towards those people and events that can have major consequences for an organisations survival and growth. Beneficiaries generally have little consequence for an NGOs existence, except if they disappear(15) or threaten the NGOs own financial viability or perceived competence(16). If this is the case then donor information demands need to be made in such a way that they encourage organisational attention to be directed externally, especially in the direction of beneficiaries..

This suggests that information donors request from NGOs should be primarily about the people (beneficiaries) the NGO is working with, and secondarily about the NGO and its activities. At present the bias tends to be very much in the opposite direction; activities first, then people.

The definition of responsiveness given on page one suggests what form that information about people might take. Evidence of the ability to differentiate the needs of different beneficiaries could be shown by the extent to which NGOs can progressively dis-aggregate people into smaller and smaller groups according to differences in their needs and views. My own reading of NGO reports (annual, and others to donors) suggests that very little dis-aggregation is normally provided. The extent of disaggregation can be represented quite simply in the form of tree diagrams showing categories of people, sub-categories and sub-sub-categories etc(17). If organisations of beneficiaries exist, their peak bodies can provide the same form of summary of their own membership, by differentiating their sub-sections, and by those sub-sections differentiating their sub-sections. Such a proposal was made to Proshika (Davies, 1995), an NGO which works with more than 70 multi- level peoples organisations representing more than 650,000 people in total.

The second attribute of responsiveness is the ability to quickly respond to expressed needs. Establishing evidence of this is more difficult and it may be necessary to use a more proximate indicator. A prior requirement for this capacity to respond quickly would be for the NGO to actually be aware of changes that have recently taken place in the lives of people, and for this knowledge to be rapidly available. If this is the case then donors should try to establish in which areas the NGO is most frequently updating it's information, and which areas least frequently. Where information is being collected frequently how beneficiary focused is that information, and more importantly does that information include beneficiaries own judgements of events ? In Bangladesh the most frequently tracked events are typically credit repayment behavior, usually on on a monthly, and even weekly basis. In 1995 Proshika was being advised by foreign consultants on how to improve the sophistication of this aspect of it's monitoring by differentiating the status of different types of overdue loans (eg. by size of loan, proportion of loan overdue and duration overdue). At the same time effort was being invested into an impact monitoring system which would look at wider aspects of the programme, including success with empowerment. The proposed frequency of monitoring was radically different. The system would gather data on the lives of beneficiaries every 18 months at the most.

The third attribute of responsiveness could be evidenced by the demographic scale on which the NGO is able to do both of the above. The minimum expected standard of performance would be to suffer no loss of ability to differentiate or update as scale was increased.

Both forms of donor information demand, because they are focused on people as the primary units of analysis, would bring back a more holistic perspective on the aid process, overcoming the focus on activities mentioned above.

There are other related strategies whereby donor information demands could encourage greater responsiveness by NGOs. These would draw attention to the process whereby an NGO is seeing its world. Firstly, rather than focusing on the expert perspectives generated from specialised research and evaluation units, donors could request information about beneficiaries from front line/field staff who are in direct relationships with them Their views are of consequence because they directly mediate the NGOs assistance to beneficiaries and also the views of beneficiaries back to the NGO. Because of the numbers of staff involved there will be some diversity in those views. Rather than aggregating these views into averages the alternative is for the NGO to make some expression of preference and choice amongst these. This would be both practically relevant for an NGO as it allocates its resources but also provide the basis for structuring a report on these views to donors (See Davies, 1995b).

Secondly, because formal M&E systems are one means by which many organisations do interpret what is going on directing some attention to that process may also be of value. Rather than seeking information about the existence and nature of M&E systems donors could seek information about the impact of the existing monitoring and evaluation systems, i.e the observable differences that they have made. Furthermore. an expectation of continuing improvement in these more formal processes of learning could be encouraged by donors if they were to ask for information about changes in the NGOs own monitoring systems, especially in the means by the NGO understands it's relationship with it's beneficiaries.

Comments on views expressed by Swansea workshop participants:

To my surprise no one argued with the proposition that "most organisations are inherently inward looking and self-pre-occupied"

"How much dis-aggregation [of beneficiaries] should there be ?" The paper did not suggest a specified amount, but rather that the degree to which NGOs were able to disaggregate could be seen as an indicator of the NGOs responsiveness to its beneficiaries.The contents of the distinctions made during those dis-aggregations will also be informative of how beneficiary oriented the NGO is. For example, the geographic isolation of a particular group may be one feature which it distinguishes it from others. This distinction may be seen as important because it makes it difficult for NGO staff to get there, or for those people to get to markets where they can sell their produce.

"When it comes to field staff making reports there is a problem of their limited capacity. How should this be dealt with ? By training ? by recruitment policies ?" Because of the power relations involved within the mutiple organisation reporting structure our first inclination is to adapt field staff capacities to the needs of the wider reporting system defined by people holding more power. The argument in this paper is that there is a need for a countervailing bias, one where information needs are adapted towards the needs of beneficiaries. Field staff are important brokers of beneficiaries views to their NGO and they are the often ones that finally enact NGO policy towards beneficiaries. NGO senior staff and donors need to understand how they see the world, especially that of beneficiaries. Totally imposed structures will render these invisible. Methods biased towards their existing capacities and incremental development of those capacities are likely to be more appropriate. Strategies for making use of field workers reports, and developing their capacity, were not detailed in the working group but are discussed in Davies (1995b).

While this section of the paper made a distinction between NGO aided activities and people (expected to benefit from these activities) some working group members treated this as the same as an activities versus impact distinction. It was emphasised that this was not the case. By focusing on people the former distinction encompasses the experience of impact, but in a way that is more holistic and provides more direct practical implications for how information can be generated (i.e ask them ! ). The whole idea of impact is suggestive of a mechanistic metaphor where the objects being acted upon have no choice or awareness. It may be time to ditch it completely.

8. Can funded NGOs influence donor information demands ?

NGOs may be as conscious of their own shortcomings as their donors, or even more so. If this is the case how can they assist donors to reduce information demands which are against the interests of their beneficiaries, because of their process effects, such as that outlined above ? How can they move donor information demands in a direction that encourages increased capacity to be responsive to beneficiaries ? Three possible strategies have been identified, two through discussions with NGO representatives at the Swansea workshop.

The first approach could be called one of exceeding expectations. This would involve exploiting the diversity of demand for information that may exist within large donor organisations and amongst other organisations around them. It is conceivable that by generating information beyond minimal requirements, and ensuring distribution to wider than required readership, that demands for more innovative forms of information about aid activities could be identified and cultivated. Their existence could provide additional grounds for negotiations over changes in the information demands of existing donors.

This approach may not be very realistic because it would require substantial extra effort. It may simply be easier for NGOs to play along with existing maladaptive information demands which despite their problems do ensure NGOs access to funding. If this is the case how do we interpret this behaviour ? That these information demands are not that detrimental to the interests of beneficiaries, or that it doesn't matter if they are ?

A second approach involves a form of bargaining. "NGOs that are funded by a large number of donors are in a position to argue for a common format on the grounds that a common format would reduce the costs of providing information to the donor NGOs". This was reported to be a common approach. But three potential problems were noted:

1. The process of negotiating common agreement may lead to a format that expresses the highest common denominator, increasing the overall scale of the information demands on the funded NGO. While this is likely to be seen as a negative change by the funded NGO it may not necessarily be so from the point of view of beneficiaries.

2. If all donor NGOs are receiving the same information from the funded NGO then what then is the unique value that they as funders are providing ? Implicit in this comment was the idea that funding NGOs add value (and hence justify their specific role) through the analysis and interpretations which they make of events arising from the projects they are funding..

3. The funded NGO the looses "room to manoeuvre" where they could tailor their reports to each donors individual needs and biases.

Moves towards common reporting requirements can also be initiated by donors. Christian Aid, EZE and ICCO have recently "officially agreed to accept the reporting guidelines of the leading donor agency as the official report for all the supporting agencies if they support the same programme of a partner"(van Leeuwen, 1996).

Both moves towards common reporting formats, by donors and funded NGOs, seem to be motivated by concerns about costs in the narrower sense of staff time spent, and possibly in the distraction effect noted earlier in this paper. How much a move towards a common format will actually be in the interests of beneficiaries will depend very much on the contents of those formats.

A third approach involves a more dramatic revision of our expectations of donor - NGO relations. Returning to an issue identified earlier in this paper, it may be of value to develop the concept that funding NGO programmes is a commercial transaction involving the purchase of information, not a gift. The introduction of contracts that specifically refer to expectations about information being provided in return for funding could mean more careful thought would need to be given by both parties about their ability to provide it, their ability to use it, the costs involved, and the interests of third parties. If donors focused on obtaining beneficiary centred information, as has been suggested in this paper, the funded NGOs themselves may also have to enter into contracts or understandings with their own beneficiaries. This itself may be empowering for those beneficiaries, since they are in the best position to provide information about themselves.

A more radical interpretation of this process would make use of another suggestion made in the workshop. Donors could be challenged by funded NGOs to be more accountable for the information that they received from funded NGOs. They should be able to indicate what value they found in the information provided, how they had made use of it and what difference it made. This is in effect the reciprocal of donors expectations that funded NGOs should account for their use of "grants".This form of reciprocal accountability (that of the use of funds and information) could take place at multiple levels in the hierarchy of organisations involved in the flow of aid.



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(1) This term is used to refer to both bilateral and non-government aid organisations who are in donor roles to other organisations.

(2) Cox (1996) reports that in a study of European bilateral donors "They found that the management costs of small projects were high, sometimes requiring six times as many staff".

(5) The use of both strategies by Save the Children Federation USA is documented in Michael Maren's paper "A Different Kind of Child Abuse" at http://www.

(6) E.g. Large sponsorship based INGOs such as Plan International.

(7) The term "beneficiary" may not be perfect but seems less ambiguous in this context than "client".

(8)" In reality the opposite seems to be more often the case. NGOs need beneficiaries for their very survival but only in disaster situations do beneficiaries become significantly dependent on NGO for their livelihood or security.

(9) It is assumed for the sake or argument here that donors would still want some boundaries on the end use of aid funds.

(10) It should be noted that Vision Toredo had given control over oxen purchase to the beneficiaries, and it had been willing to make the purchase of the school building materials.

(11) And their donors donors, etc.

(12)" This (and subsequent quotations) is a paraphrase of comments made, sometimes by more than one person.

(13) But staff members could still come forward with comments if they were specially pleased or displeased.

(14) In 1995/6 470 project progress reports were received by the JFS.

(15) Suggestions about the realistic use of E-mail were briefly outlined. Web pages accessible by schools and universities, journalists, and development agencies are another yet to be developed opportunity.

(16) For example, by being poached by another credit providing NGO, as is increasingly the case in Bangladesh.

(17) For example, by failing to repay loans on a substantial scale.

(18) See, for example, my paper "Hierachical Card Sorting: A Tool for Qualitative Research".

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