Going back to the Aceh and Nias disasters of about 10 years ago, through to more recent events in the Philippines of both earthquakes and the very recent Haiyan typhoon [ cyclone], aid donors have been active in the region.
There are many agencies operational - local ones based in the recipient country, plus many international ones [ Oxfam, Red Cross, Save the Children, AUSAid, CARE, Caritas etc ] with many of the latter group also with Australian operations that seek donations from Australians, as well as from other countries.
Australians tend to be a generous lot, and do give quite a lot of money to the aid cause.
The big question is - are you getting value for your donation, and is the money being spent wisely?
A good starting point is whether your preferred agency operates according to a series of best practice guidelines for aid.
Best practices have all or many of these characteristics:
- They are comprehensive, aiming at all aspects of an issue.
- They are flexible and responsive, reacting to the needs of the population and changes in circumstances and conditions.
- They persevere, keeping at it as long as is necessary – indefinitely, if that’s what it takes.
- They look at issues and people in their context – family, history, community, etc.
- They target the underlying causes in addition to the symptoms of an issue or problem.
- They have – and stick to – a clear mission.
- They evolve over time, as need dictates.
- They are managed by competent people with appropriate skills.
- Their staff members are trained and supported to provide high-quality, responsive service.
- They foster strong staff/participant relationships based on mutual respect.
- They collaborate, both internally and externally.
- Both the organization and individual staff members have a set of core values that strengthen their dedication, morale, and resolve, and that give them a shared sense of purpose for the work.
One answer to this question is obvious: employing a method or program that’s been tested and found successful increases the chances that you’ll accomplish your goals, and that life will therefore be better for the folks who participate. There are, however, further reasons why the use of a best practice can be advantageous.
- Using a recognized best practice makes it easier to justify the work. .
- Using recognized best practices can bolster the credibility of an organization. It shows not only that the organization is using a tested process, but that it has been thinking ahead and conducting research to make sure it’s doing the best job possible.
- Using best practices can make it easier to get funding.
There is a downside to this advantage as well, as it also minimizes the possibility of innovation and the development of new best practices. Moreover, it ignores the fact that best practices don’t always work in every situation, and that some organizations may get outstanding results using practices that don’t show up in the research.
- Using a best practice removes a lot of the guesswork from planning. Employing a program or method whose structure and process are carefully documented makes it easier to set up and implement, and increases the chances that it will go smoothly.
- The originators of the practice are known, and might be available to consult on how to best implement it. If the originators aren’t available, there may be others experienced with the practice who can help.
- Most important – and most obvious – we know that best practices work. They’ve been shown to provide the changes in behaviour or conditions and the outcomes we’re interested in.
Promoting the adoption of best practices should probably be an ongoing activity, but some times are especially appropriate for it.
- Before a new intervention or program begins.
- When there’s a serious community problem that has to be tackled.
- When what’s being done isn’t working well.
- When the community requests it.
- When funders or officials request or demand it.
A word of caution here: as mentioned above, strict use of best practices can sometimes get in the way of flexibility and new ideas.
Some have tried to categorise aid agency performance based on a few criteria.
A 2011 research paper looks at “five dimensions of agency ‘best practices’:
minimal overhead costs,
delivery to more effective channels, and
selectivity of recipient countries based on poverty and good government / governance”
and calculates an overall agency score.
With the recent disasters, the last point is probably not directly relevant - aid needs to go to a specific country, so four issues are probably relevant. However, the governance issue is especially critical in some areas [with Afghanistan seen as a bad example in recent times - too much corruption / poor governance], and in disaster areas can distort what is happening, as governance is often lacking at least initially, although improving once the major effort starts to build momentum.
Not all agencies do the right thing - there are a few shonky ones around.
Major aid agencies tend to be effective and efficient, but all can do better. A good point is always to see what their overheads are, and reject those where overheads are excessive. There are some online comparisons around.