Saturday, April 14, 2012

Need a cause correction

Prime Minister's statement about NGOs may be seen as a tactic to divert the public attention from burning issues. But NGOs should make their operations more transparent to regain public confidence.

S Remadevi/ Koodankulam/Kochi

The recent statement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh -- that foreign-funded non-governmental organizations are behind the anti-nuclear protests in India -- has rattled the NGO sector. His comments attracted a barrage of criticism too. Immediately after the prime minister's comments, there were media reports about "crores spent on Tamil Nadu NGOs by foreign donors" to organize anti-nuclear protests in Koodamkulam, where a massive nuclear power plant is being built. Offices of a few NGOs were raided and scrutiny of their accounts was carried out with a vengeance by government agencies.
NGOs getting foreign funding is not a new phenomenon. Many NGOs are money-minting agencies.
Is the prime minister's statement just an expression of frustration within the government which has failed on governance? Or is he promoting conspiracy theories which has been the hallmark Congress regimes in the past?
It is simply not enough for the Prime Minister to throw up his hands and blame NGOs for his own government's inability to get things done. Singh's statement was rejected by anti-nuclear activists.
"By making these absurd allegations, he is diverting everybody's attention from the real issues here," said V. Pushparayan, an activist from the Coastal People's Federation.
However, this controversy had brought, once again, the functioning of the voluntary sector in the sharp focus. Although all the NGOs cannot be painted by the same brush, the fraud committed by some persons associated with the voluntary sector has given the critics the handle to beat the sector.
Recently, bosses of a Bangalore-based NGO were arrested for misusing international credit cards and stealing over Rs 15 crore under the pretext of running a charitable trust.
Meanwhile, a huge amount of money is being pumped into India by genuine philanthropist for the uplift of the poor. But many NGOs take advantage of the systemic weaknesses and divert the funds for other purposes. In such scenarios, the only way to stem the rot is regular monitoring and evaluation.
Monitoring and evaluation of projects is a standard practice followed in the international development for the periodic review of the projects and organizations supported, by agencies disbursing aid. M&E is necessary to confirm whether the strategy pursued for sustainable development has been successful or not or if it is on the right path. That is because the strategies have multiple objectives and activities, socio-economic and environmental conditions also change over a period of time.
Monitoring of the implementation of the strategy is done to ensure standard management oversight and accountability. Evaluation is necessary to correlate actions with specific changes in human and environmental conditions, to test the strategic hypothesis, ensure accountability, capture lessons and develop capacity through learning.
While this may appear as an important tool to measure what impact a project has made, in reality it is viewed with lot of skepticism by the receivers of aid or the body seeking support. And this is not without reason.
More often than not they feel that M&E is subservient to the preconceived judgment of the funding agency and therefore not objective. There are so many cases where the team that conducts M&E are paid heavily by the beneficiary group to say what the former wants to hear. As a result the real impact assessment of the project is never done. It is not possible to know whether the work done has made any difference to the lives of people, what that difference might be, if at all, who gains and who, perhaps, loses, whose impact is it and who decides, so on and so forth.
There are several tools, methods and approaches adopted to evaluate results of a developmental activity. These include performance indicators, formal surveys, theory based evaluation, rapid appraisal methods, participatory methods, cost benefit and cost-effectivene analysis and public expenditure tracking surveys, to name a few. Some of these tools and approaches are complimentary and others are substitutes. The choice which is appropriate for any given context will depend on a range of considerations. These include the uses for which M&E is intended, the main stakeholders who are interested in the findings of M&E, the speed with which the information is needed and the cost.
While M&E of developmental activities provide government officials, development managers and civil society groups a better means for learning from past experience, improving service delivery, planning and allocating resources, yet there is often confusion about what M& E entails. Not only that, it also fails in achieving the desired results.
While impact evaluation helps us to understand the extent to which activities have reached the poor, and the magnitude of their effect on people's welfare, the methodology used for assessing impact, causes difficulties in identifying an appropriate counter factual. Even the participatory method used for evaluation is not fool proof, although it establishes partnerships and local ownership of the projects. In the participatory method there is a danger of domination and misuse by some stakeholders.
M&E is often activity focused, involving too many rituals and symbolism, to show that the funding body and the beneficiary group believe in its importance. Lot of effort goes into the planning, especially the methodology. However, the evaluation result is mentioned at the end of the planning document and thus typically treated as a residual matter and not the centre of attention.
A few proposals for evaluation, or the design of monitoring systems, define how the impact of M&E activities will be identified. As a result it is unrealistic to expect noticeable effects and also changes in the procedures adopted by NGOs. There is another flip side to it. Most information generated for the donor agency is done with a bias towards the confirmation of people's expectations that everything is moving along the expected lines.
Also the traditional method of M&E by an external agency which produces the report at the end of the project mainly provides a snapshot of the quantitative information, ignoring the quality of project interventions or the steps taken to achieve the desired goal. As a result there is no lesson learned in terms of steps to be taken to ensure sustainability of the project and to assist in the design of future projects. Thus the future projects end up making the same mistakes.
Despite the negative comments about M&E, it is important to conduct monitoring and evaluation the impact for the donors as it helps them to supervise the disbursement of aid to determine if money is being spent by the recipient in the way it was agreed upon and to push for the adoption of new ideas and approaches. If done properly, it also helps the recipient or the NGOs to take midcourse correction and to make a case for enhanced support. Also evaluations do create a space and opportunity for staff to go beyond their routine tasks and think on broader issues and to take stock of their progress, as well as to update records and monitoring systems. Considering, transparency and accountability remain hard-to-achieve goal in many million development projects in India, there is a tight rope to be walked and caution has to be taken in order to achieve the desired results.

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