Decolonize your mind

Red Tape, Risk and Decolonization: how can the Aid Sector square the circle?

July 19, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

When discussing a bunch of Good Things in the aid sector – decolonization, adaptive management, thinking and working politically etc, a common complaint is that the procedures of the aid bureaucracy frustrate a lot of good intentions. On decolonization, the main culprit is seen as ‘compliance’ – a set of procedures to ensure that those receiving the money do not steal or do bad stuff with it. Given that we can’t just order a bonfire of all such safeguards, how can we find work-arounds that stop them becoming such a road block?

So I was intrigued when Oxfam’s Sophie Walsh got in touch ‘to talk about the decolonising aid agenda and what this means for managing risk’. Her team do that very compliance that others criticise, but is leading a process to try and get away from what she calls ‘control-hungry’ approaches that ‘exacerbate imbalances of power’ between donors (in this case Oxfam) and partners. These include not being too onerous in our demands for form-filling, and ensuring more proportionate approaches that rework expectations that partners must ‘drop everything’ whenever there’s a compliance issue. Cool.

I started off with some standard rants, which regular readers may be all too familiar with, but then some new lightbulbs sparked, so let’s start with them.

How to build processes around trust? When I worked at CAFOD many years ago, part of its funding seemed to be based on ‘we’ve known Father Bloggs for 30 years and we trust him, so we just fund his work and no questions asked.’ I caricature, I’m sure, and it was a long time ago, but there’s a point here. With a new partner, you probably need more levels of reporting and due diligence, but as the relationship develops and trust builds, surely there should be some way of reducing the paper work? Is that happening and could we take donors along with us? Maybe a certification scheme, a trust star system or something? There’s a downside of course – just funding the Old Boys/Girls’ network inhibits innovation and excludes a lot of people and risks nepotism, but it is worth considering what updated lessons for today’s world we could take from the Father Bloggs model of partnership.

Relationship-based decolonization v procedure-based: Perhaps this is the same point, but our processes for managing risk are formal, rational, procedural and a royal pain for those on the receiving end. Yet in some ways, decolonization is an exercise in influencing – influencing donors and others to devolve power and decision-making, and ensuring we do so without screwing up. We know that relationships are the basic currency of influencing – if you want to influence a target, then build a relationship with them, build trust and credibility (as in previous para) or find a messenger that they fear or respect. So how about identifying some kind of independent, locally based intermediary/critical friend who fits this bill (a cleric, university prof or respected elder) who could vouch for partners, increase the costs of non-compliance, and feed back to the donor if the partner is not being treated right?

Start in the lowest risk places: Some environments are more corrupt than others, have more established civil society structures, rule of law etc etc. Maybe start there and learn what does/doesn’t work? Similarly some sectors are worse than others (pity anyone funding construction projects, luckily we don’t). And internally, maybe start with some roles – HR, as well as compliance, that are critical to unblocking the decol agenda – if we don’t employ and reward the kind of devolutionary, risk-taking mindset needed for decolonizing, we could end up with a set of risk-averse staff, whether national or international.

Find the right donors: Lots of people in aid-giving organizations realize that we need to do more on this, so let’s recruit one or more donors to fund some explicit experiments in decol, and make sure they are written up and shared.   Some donors should have greater risk appetite than others. Foundations, for example, should not fear Daily Mail headlines as much as bilaterals with hostile parliaments and oppositions. So let’s start there – any offers?

Are individuals lower or higher risk than organizations? The aid sector is organizational in form, but often individualistic in practice. A programme officer or similar will think ‘this is someone who is effective and trustworthy’, but then ask them to put together an organizational project proposal before they can receive money or support. Would funding leaders directly (stipends, scholarships, training) be more or less likely to trigger compliance issues?

Great to know that Oxfam is working on this – as always, other suggestions welcome.

July 19, 2022
Duncan Green