Commentary

Newsflash: Non-Profits Are Not Impartial

This piece was originally written for my column about transparency and the media on Beacon Reader

The notion of editorial impartiality can be a very seductive failing.

The rise of data-driven explainer sites like Vox and FiveThirtyEight has heralded a resurgence of this ‘view from nowhere’, an insistence on editorial ‘impartiality’ that, at best, leads to imbalanced reporting and, at worst, is used to obscure the actual editorial line from the public. Either way, it is a widely derided practice within journalism for a number of reasons. For the purpose of this piece I will focus on one of the core problems — as a public communicator, is it ever ethical to obscure your subjectivity?

“If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it.” Jay Rosen

The ethical issue, in journalism, centres around deciding what exactly a media organisation is supposed to be doing. On the face of it ‘informing the public’ would be a clear, understandable, boilerplate answer. But does that mean informing the public about everybody’s views, regardless of context, or indicating which way the wind is blowing on various issues?

To do the latter is to be accused of subjectivity, a dreaded insult for reporters. But what is actually more useful for the public?

Objectivity is something to strive for in the news business. To abandon it completely is to abandon your purpose of informing the public. On the other hand, to replace editorial understanding, nuance and instinct with ‘pure’ objectivity is another abandonment — of the truth.

Here’s the secret: nobody is objective. To suggest that your editorial line is totally impartial is fundamentally a lie. Every individual has prejudices and opinions informed by their specific life. You cannot truly step outside of yourself and deliver totally impartial reflections on anything. You can try and fail, that is all.

Unless you own the fact that you are aiming for and missing true objectivity, you are misrepresenting your organisation and the content it produces to the public.

There’s nothing ethical about that.

Changes in non-profit communication

A long-standing interest of mine is the interactions between non-profits, media organisations and government bodies (particularly on the issue of transparency). Usually, my criticism is that these different sectors do not share enough when they could often benefit from closer collaboration. In the case of the view from nowhere, however, crossover simply exacerbates the problem.

A number of excellent articles in the international development blogosphere in the last few months have reflected a changing mood. Essentially, this is a sector that has relied on over-simplification and shocking imagery for the last few decades, an approach often derided as ‘poverty porn’. For many years, lots of people people have been very critical of this approach.

This current wave of backlash is extremely welcome and makes a number of crucial points, which include:

The author of that last piece, Dan Lombardi, makes a lot of points that I agree with but I was slightly troubled by his focus on communication that does not focus “solely on the positive or the negative”. In telling the story honestly, Lombardi suggests, you end up with more balanced content that is better able to deal with the inherent complexity of much of the work done in the development sector.

Undoubtedly, this complexity is there — from competing viewpoints to widespread ignorance of the subject matter (see: Ebola) to deep divisions within the industry on how best to achieve success, or even what success might look like. This is all tough stuff for outsiders, which is 99% of the potential audience. For me, his take on honest story telling does not take in another vital component — the storytellers themselves.

Non-profits aren’t impartial either

Development agencies communicate largely to raise either funds or awareness. They are not making content to inform the public. Non-profits have agendas just like everybody else.

The stated aim of most non-profits is to alleviate poverty in some form or another. It is not to make the public more knowledgeable (although that could align with their aim). In fact, their strategy could well be to make the public shocked enough to give money very quickly — hence poverty porn — or to tell the public that their relatively meagre support will make a huge difference — hence Live8 or Kony2012. Those aims are often better achieved by misinforming the public, by dumbing down the message to the point of dis-ingeniousness.

I don’t think that the Make Poverty History team actually thought that they would end poverty by getting people to buy wristbands. They just wanted maximum coverage and support and figured that’d be a fast way to get it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think any of the development bloggers are actively endorsing the view from nowhere. Embracing complexity and rejecting the classically paternalistic approach of development communication should be applauded. But there is a danger that this could lead to communication that seeks to hide the agenda of the NGOs and agencies creating it — all in the name of letting their beneficiaries take centre stage. This is the ethical dilemma that has faced journalism for many years.

For me, the stakes are much higher in the world of development: ultimately, development agencies seek to serve the poorest, most vulnerable people on earth. They have no way of combating the agendas of development organisations. If those organisations do not take ownership of their agendas and seek to communicate that, alongside their more nuanced telling of the stories of their work, they will have misrepresented their beneficiaries.

There’s nothing ethical about that, either.

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Experiences

Engaging the Private Sector in the Post-2015 Development Agenda

Last week the Brookings Institution hosted a very informative panel discussion (you can view it hereon increasing the role of the private sector in the global development agenda. The panel discussion, entitled Partnerships, Corporate Social Responsibility and the New Development Agenda, centred around how to ensure that sustainability and accountability are at the heart of corporate strategy. It also looked at how to engage business on sustainable development and how to mobilize companies to more effectively advance global priorities.

The panel consisted of Anne Finucane (Bank of America), Jane Nelson (Harvard University), Daniella Ballou-Aares (U.S. State Department), Mindy Lubber (Ceres), and Vera Songwe (World Bank). I shall begin by providing a short recap of the discussion and the main themes that emerged, and then conclude with some of the my thoughts on the event.

Partnerships and the New Development Agenda

In response to growing recognition that the private sector has an important role to play in combating poverty, promoting shared prosperity and enhancing environmental sustainability, policy-makers are working to define a clear role for the private sector in the Post-2015 Development Agenda. While this is a great start, realizing such an ambitious agenda will require that the private sector become a global development leader in its own right. There has never been a greater need for financial innovation and for banks, financial institutions and investors to develop new products, services, technologies, and even new business models so that they can be a part of the solution in driving more inclusive and sustainable growth. Some examples of private sector-led initiatives that contribute to development include new business models that reach lower-income customers, giving them access to basic products and services, and bond issues for public health programs that accelerate research funding and the distribution of vaccines.

Rebuilding Public Trust

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis the private sector is facing a pretty serious public trust deficit. If the private sector is going to play a leadership role in development, they must work to rebuild this trust. Corporations need to demonstrate how they are improving their risk management systems, government processes, accountability and transparency. While it is essential that these corporations address their governance and risk management issues, it is equally important that they look to the future are not paralyzed by the past. Some necessary steps to rebuild trust include engaging in public dialogue with legislators, regulators and consumers, sharing knowledge and best practices, and developing new products and services.

Opportunities for Financial Innovation and New Models of Partnership

Many of the panellists echoed the sentiment that without significant engagement from the private sector we will not achieve a new set of development goals. The private sector has the resources, finance and expertise to face some of the most costly development challenges including climate change and expanding energy access. Without strong functional collaboration between governments, NGOs, stakeholders and the private sector, we cannot hope to mobilize even a fraction of the funds required to address these problems. In addition, the demand for business to provide financial resources and innovative solutions has become even more pronounced due to declining faith in the aid/NGO community to solve these problems. With government resources becoming progressively constrained and the growing demand to demonstrate value for money spent, the need for new models of partnership in development is becoming increasingly clear. The ‘new models of partnership’ discussed by the panellists mostly involved banks, companies and financial institutions coming up with innovative products and services and NGOs helping to develop standards and evaluation tools. One of the panellists stated that over time having sound development expertise will become a fundamental pillar of risk management strategy. In order to protect their investment, companies who operate in developing countries will make more of an effort to understand what and who they are investing in.

What Gets Measured, Gets Managed

In order to encourage greater participation from the private sector, there needs to be a push for more tangible commitments where results can be seen. Having clearly laid out goals and targets is important because what gets measured, gets managed. Currently, one of the only things we have good measurements for are public aid flows and related activities. Panellist Daniella Ballou-Aares stressed that moving forward it will be critical to find ways to measure the value and impact of the private sector activities.

Final Remarks

While I agreed with many of the points that the panellists made, I found the discussion a little too hypothetical for my taste. Although the panellists expressed a sense of urgency to enhance the role of the private sector in development, there wasn’t much of a discussion surrounding the logistics of how a partnership between development actors and the private sector could be achieved. The discussion also focused more on how a partnership with the private sector could help the international community to achieve their development and sustainability goals, without really a exploring how private sector-led development initiatives could help to improve (or harm) the lives of individuals and communities in developing countries. The discussion left me with more questions than answers: What kind of incentives will it take to encourage the private sector to step up to a leadership role in development? Is it even reasonable to expect that they will take on a leadership role? What steps can the international development community to take to foster a partnership with the private sector? In which sectors can business make the greatest difference to development outcomes? What are some of the ethical implications of business-led approaches to development?

In my opinion, the highlight of the event was the panellists themselves. I was so pleased to see five dynamic female leaders on the panel and I really enjoyed how they emphasized the importance of women’s economic and social empowerment. The panellists did an excellent job of affirming the necessity of engaging the private sector as a partner in development, and what can be achieved if we are successful in doing so. I believe that the private sector offers many lessons and best practices that could help to improve development impact, and that the development community would have much to gain by working more closely with them. I hope that the international community will move towards formulating a tangible, realistic action plan to realize such a partnership.

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Learning

Jeffrey Sachs Answered Questions On Reddit, Here Are The Highlights

Recently, the online community of Reddit provided us with yet another great opportunity to question one of today’s top minds in a social-convention-free zone. On January 15th, Jeffrey Sachs took part in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session where hundreds of Reddit users were able to ask him educated and insightful questions about his work, beliefs, and opinions.

If you’re wondering what Sachs could possibly be doing on Reddit, or what Reddit even is, be sure to check out this great article by Rowan Emslie which should help to clear that up.

Part of Sachs’ motivation for doing the AMA was likely to promote his upcoming free online university course ‘The Age of Sustainable Development’. This 14-week course begins on January 21, and if your interested you can learn more or register for it here. Sachs encouraged many of those participating in the AMA to take the course and “join the generation-long quest to achieve sustainable development”.

For those of you who may not have the time to read this entire (rather long) article, here are some of the main takeaways from the AMA:

  • The importance of public health and environmental sustainability dominated the discussion
  • Sachs stood adamantly behind his views about foreign aid (as expected)
  • He often used the AMA as a vehicle to help plug his main causes and give them more exposure

Over the course of the AMA, Sachs also expressed his opinion on some topics you may have not expected, including the recently leaked draft of the TPP´s (Trans-Pacific Partnership) Environment Chapter, how automation and robotics will affect development, and even Sachs’ favourite novels. While these were definitely interesting insights, below I will focus mainly on recapping the main themes and top comments for anyone who missed the AMA.

What is Sustainable Development?

“We’ll discuss that at length in class. I am using the term “Sustainable Development,” meaning a holistic approach that combines economic, social, and environmental goals.”

Enough said. 

Global Health as the Key to Development

Public health and economic development have always been key components of Sachs’ policy and academic work. He makes it no secret that he views global health as the first stepping stone towards development.

Prioritizing development goals:

“I’d start with the health goals, since those are life and death. And then (or simultaneously) the hunger goal (obvious reason) and then education. Of course once people are alive and properly nourished, education becomes the KEY!”

On strategies to end poverty while increasing sustainable development:

“I think that the key to ending poverty and increasing sustainable development is “investment-led growth,” with investments in people (health, nutrition, education, training), plus investments in infrastructure (such as low-carbon energy), plus investments in “smart” systems using information technologies.”

The Great Aid Debate

As a champion of foreign aid and constant presence in the great aid debate, it was inevitable that the effectiveness of aid would be questioned and that some of Sachs’ top critics would come up in the discussion.

On Dambisa Moyo:

“Unlike Dambisa Moyo, I believe that aid is needed and can be organized effectively and respectfully. I am very happy with the successful scale up of aid for public health in the past decade. It has saved millions of lives and helped to promote economic development.”

Describing his relationship with William Easterly (with a passive aggressive smiley):

“There are days when I’m happier and days when I’m less happy. We’re colleagues and friends, but sometimes I’m simply amazed (and not happy) when he declares that “aid has failed.” This is simply NOT RIGHT!!! :-)”

On ‘The Great Escape’ by Angus Deaton:

“I did not agree with his very blanket statements against aid. In my view, such statements are contrary to the evidence. When somebody declares so categorically that all aid fails, raise your doubts. Such generalizations are not accurate. Much aid is very important. We need to understand why some aid succeeds and other aid fails, so that we can improve the design of aid programs.”

The Millennium Villages Project

The Millennium Villages Project has become one of Sachs’ most controversial endeavours, and has been the source of heavy criticism. This contentious debate arose following the first independent evaluation of one of the villages, and erupted in a series of online articles and duelling editorials. This past September, the commentary resurfaced with the release of Nina Munk’s book The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. Despite this, Sachs is quick to challenge any criticism and stands firmly behind his project.

Sachs’ response to those who criticize the Millennium Villages Project:

“The project has had enormous positive impacts, way beyond the villages themselves. Governments have taken the successes of the villages as a basis for national policy, e.g. the control of malaria and the scale up of community health workers. There were originally 10 countries in the program, but its so useful for governments that the program is now operating directly or indirectly (through policy advice for example or as a template) in 23 countries. Please see www.millenniumvillages.org. By the way, there will be a comprehensive evaluation of the project, and a comparison with other places nearby, in 2015, to be reported in 2016. It will be interesting for all, including of course the project participants, to learn from these results!”

On the Millennium Villages Post-2015:

“The MVs will be evaluated at the end of 2015, and we will make course corrections and improvements as needed in several national programs underway to scale up the MV model. So the basic notion of using community-based rural development will continue past 2015, for sure. It’s working in many powerful ways, but will have even clearer evidence in 2015 on many important detailed issues.”

The Global Fund

In 2000, Sachs worked with then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to design and launch the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria and has worked to support the organization ever since. Last month, Sachs called to task many developed countries for failing to come up with the necessary $5 billion to maintain the momentum of the Fund. He continued his campaign to gain support for the Fund through his AMA.

On using empirical studies to evaluate aid programs:

“We need to be smart in our aid policies, using knowledge, experience, and EXPERTISE outside of economics (such as in public health). The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, and GAVI are examples of aid success. We should measure and evaluate programs, but use methods that are appropriate to the circumstances. There is too much of a one-size-fits-all strategy to evaluation these days (too much on randomized trials, excluding other means of evaluation).”

On the continuation of the Global Fund agenda:

“The Global Fund is still trying to close the $5 billion. I’ll be speaking with several governments over the next few weeks as well to help close the deal. The name of the game is PERSISTENCE. It takes time to convince governments!!!”

On getting governments to work in the interest of their people:

“I believe that aid can be designed in ways that promote accountability and transparency. This is how the Global Fund has worked most of the time. It’s been a good and successful model. Yes, we should promote a high degree of transparency. Remember that much of the corruption starts from the side of the rich countries and their companies.”

Throughout the AMA, Sachs maintained his idealistic persona and most of his responses had an upbeat tone to them. While he frequently spoke about the success of his projects, he often rebuffed any commenter who brought up critiques of his work. One thing that I found particularly interesting was that Sachs often lumped those who disagreed with his work into the same category as those who simply didn’t ‘understand’ or ‘get’ his work and ideas. A little condescending don’t you think? That being said, what really shined through for me was Sachs’ talent as a campaigner, as it’s undeniable that he is quite effective at garnering support and drawing attention to his principle causes.

So what did you think of Sachs’ AMA? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments section below!

Editor’s Note: Two of our new writers – Michelle Gonzalez Amador and Holly Narey – are taking Jeffrey Sachs’ new online course and will be blogging about their experience. We’ll be using the tag ‘Age of Sustainable Development’ for all these posts so check back on that in the coming weeks for more.

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Commentary

Open Data In Development: Finding its feet

On October 28, the North-South Institute hosted the Ottawa event for Global Transparency Week. This was one of 18 high-profile events taking place around the globe focused on open data, transparency, accountability and good governance. For those who don’t know, open data for development is all about making information and data more freely available to encourage feedback, transparency, information sharing, and most importantly accountability.

Although its a relatively new phenomenon, I find the drive towards open data absolutely fascinating and feel it has the potential to revolutionize the development field. That being said, this movement also has the potential to culminate in a whole lot of nothing unless 1) we ensure the participation of all stakeholders and 2) there is a clearer articulation of the desired outcomes, and how increased transparency will lead to accountability.

During the event, the panelists discussed the importance of open data and transparency in relation to Canada’s development objectives, the changing open government narrative, challenges in delivering on transparency, and lessons learned from the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) experience. The IATI Standard is a publishing framework that was developed following the 2008 High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Accra, Ghana. It is a multi-stakeholder initiative that has become the standard to which donors, developing country governments and NGOs are supposed to publish information on their aid spending and activities.

It is important to note that successfully publishing to the IATI standard requires a huge commitment on the part of donors and NGOs. They are required to meet a very extensive set of criteria which at the bare minimum requires publishing on aid activities in a timely manner, and in a variety of useful formats that can be easily accessed, compared and utilized.

While this may sound like a simple feat, if you actually take a look at an IATI data file you will quickly discover that it is not.

Organizations are also required to report on a number of ‘value added’ fields including project documents, impact assessments, and precise geographic information. Providing a diverse assortment of data is a necessary component of the IATI standard, as it is crucial to respond to the needs and interests of different data users.

However, as mentioned previously, two things need to happen if we really want to see the see the concrete benefits of publishing to the IATI standard. Firstly, while many donors have committed to becoming IATI compliant, there are still many development agencies, NGOs, and CSOs that have failed to follow suit. The irony is that these were the very organizations that campaigned for the government to commit to IATI in the first place. In order to see the transformative benefits of aid transparency in both developed and developing countries, all development organizations that are receiving funding from the government, providing aid, or conducting projects in developing countries should also be publishing to the IATI standard.

The hesitation of many small NGOs and CSOs is warranted. With minimal budgets and limited IT capacity these organizations question the feasibility of publishing to IATI and feel as though they are on an unequal playing field. Despite this, there are ways for NGOs and CSOs circumvent these roadblocks, and take on the IATI commitment without taking on excessive risk. Donor agencies can follow the example set by the UK in which all NGOs and CSOs receiving public resources are mandated to comply with the IATI standard, but are also provided with technical support as well as additional funding to help cover the costs involved.

The second area for concern, and in my opinion the most pressing, is the need to unpack what we mean by “transparency” (i.e. transparency to whom, to what end); and how transparency leads to “accountability”. One of the panelists expressed fear that when donors limit their focus to increasing the quality and quantity of their aid data, they risk getting caught up in the disclosure of information and losing sight of what is really important about that information.

Donors need to move away from focusing exclusively on transparency, and towards increased accountability both at home and abroad.

There should be more of an effort to evaluate whether IATI and other open data initiatives are realizing the ultimate goal of better coordinated aid, improved resource allocation, and greater participation and empowerment of citizens in developing countries who are the ultimate beneficiaries of these efforts. In this respect, there is little evidence whether these investments are having the desired impacts.

There is much work that needs to be done to generate a clearer picture of how open aid data will interface with state and citizen actors to bring about this desired accountability. One thing we know for certain is that there is considerable traction surrounding open data [Ed: particularly within governments], which is at an important starting point. Hopefully these concerns will be properly addressed so that we can achieve the ultimate goals of aid transparency; harmonization and co-ordination between donors, and real partnerships with recipient countries.

For more highlights from the event, be sure to check out the full report – available here

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