Feb. 13, 2009 Many development aid organizations tend to herd together, like cows or sheep, and the majority all choose to operate in the same countries. Two-thirds of them are active in countries like Kenya, Sri Lanka and Uganda, and these countries sometimes receive up to twenty times as much aid per head of population compared to less popular countries such as the Central African Republic or Yemen.
‘This pattern of grouping together must be broken because it is leaving some countries, where half or more of the population is living below the poverty line, to struggle on their own.’ So says development expert Dirk-Jan Koch, who will receive his PhD on February 26 at Radboud University.
The aim of Dirk-Jan Koch’s research has been to identify which countries development NGOs (non-governmental organizations) provide aid to, and why. In total, he has collected data from 61 of these organizations worldwide, including World Vision, Care and Oxfam and organizations from the USA, Germany and Britain. Their collective annual budget of 27 billion US dollars means they are important players in development aid.
‘Donor darlings’ and ‘donor orphans’
Almost three-quarters of the country choices made by development NGOs (73%) are based on factors such as the severity of poverty, the reliability of the government, religious or colonial ties and the goals of the organization itself. However, of the 61 organizations included in Koch’s research, only a few are active in the poorest countries of all, like Yemen, the Central African Republic and Ivory Coast. Meanwhile, two-thirds of them work in countries like Kenya, Sri Lanka, Guatemala and Uganda – the ‘donor darlings’. Some of these donor darlings receive up to twenty times more aid per head of population than the ‘donor orphans’.
It’s a hard slog in the Central African Republic
The factors that businesses take into account when they are deciding where to locate apply equally to development aid organizations. These factors include the availability of expertise, the presence of infrastructure, an educated workforce and affordable support services, such as accountants or and transport contractors. The original pioneer organizations decided where to set up on the basis of religious or political affiliations, but after that there was a kind of snow-ball effect.
‘It’s a cycle that feeds off itself,’ says Koch. ‘Many development organizations prefer not to set up in locations where they have to build everything up from scratch. This is especially true if the alternative is going to countries where they can benefit from educated staff and where local organizations already have experience of working with other development aid organizations. Why would organizations choose to slog it out in the Central African Republic when they can achieve more with their money in Uganda?’ he asks. An exception to this pattern can be found in Norwegian development organizations. They were traditionally based in Peru, Brazil and South Africa, but they have made a conscious shift to focus on the poorest countries and are now mainly active in countries like Laos, Somalia and Mali.
Freedom of choice does not lead to different choices
Koch attributes the cautious geographical choices made by NGOs to the fact that they need to demonstrate rapid results to their donors. However, he qualifies this comment further: NGOs based in the US need to prove the effectiveness of their activities to their donors much more than German organizations, for example, and yet German organizations focus less on the most difficult countries.
India has headed the list of countries that receive support from international NGOs since as far back as 1989, but in the mean time the country has experienced such an economic expansion that one might begin to question this situation. ‘In countries that are enjoying economic good times, a different kind of aid is needed. It would be more appropriate to support organizations that monitor government activities, or that aim to bring about a better distribution of the newly created wealth. This approach generally costs less than building schools and hospitals, and the aid given to such countries can thus be reduced,’ says Koch.
Does development NGO clumping matter?
It is clear, then, that there are large variations in how much development aid countries receive. But does that matter? ‘Concentration offers certain advantages. People are better educated, organizations are more reliable, and in the short term you can make more of an impact. But actually, development organizations themselves think that this process of concentration has gone too far,’ comments Koch.
Setting up in ‘difficult’ countries where not many organizations are located is problematic, though. ‘Actually, many organizations are just waiting for others to take the first step,’ according to Koch.
Better coordination among aid organizations
Is there a solution to this stalemate? ‘Development aid organizations receive significant help through donations from the general public, but they also receive a great deal of funding from governments. It is important that incentives are built into the subsidies received from governments to encourage the NGOs to come together and coordinate who will operate in which locations.
Organizations that are brave enough to become pioneers in less stable countries should perhaps be rewarded for this. Most development aid organizations also belong to an international umbrella organization. It would be a significant step forward if umbrella organizations that have offices in several developed countries, such as Oxfam and Caritas, started to coordinate which countries they choose to operate in. It’s an approach you might call “incentivized self-regulation”,’ says Koch.
Koch, who works at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has compiled his data into a database. This will be maintained by the Centre for Development Issues Nijmegen (CIDIN), which is affiliated to RadboudUniversity. The CIDIN is working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the IS Academy to bring policy and research together. Koch’s thesis is the first fruit of this cooperation, and the commercial edition of the book is available from the British publisher Routledge.
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