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Being a responsible donor

Part one of this post addressed a familiar question: how should individuals concerned about international issues decide where to donate money? Here I turn to a second, less familiar question that follows from the first: what is entailed in being a responsible donor after the question of where to donate has been settled? While this latter question cannot be sharply distinguished from the former, my main focus here will be: what are individuals’ responsibilities after they click on the “donate now” button?

A large literature offers ample evidence that humanitarian and development aid organizations frequently have unintended negative effects. For example, by bringing large quantities of resources into high-conflict, resource-poor areas, humanitarian aid frequently exacerbates tensions among social groups. Humanitarian aid can also displace governments by providing goods and services in their stead, thereby reducing governments’ capacity and perceived legitimacy. Development aid can promote counterproductive social policies. Both kinds of aid can lure talented local professionals away from positions in government and public universities by offering higher-paying NGO jobs, thereby weakening the public sector; development and humanitarian aid can also distort local markets by increasing demand for some goods and services (e.g. drivers, housing) and lowering the cost of others (e.g. staple foods).

While unintended, many of these negative effects are by now anticipated, at least in their general outlines. The best organizations work hard to minimize them, but some negative effects remain. Aid organizations must therefore make difficult practical judgments about which of these unavoidable negative effects to grudgingly accept as a “cost of doing business,” and which to avoid by reducing or even eliminating aid in some contexts.

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“Food Chain” by United States Marine Corps Official. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.

In short, donating to aid organizations is not like putting coins into a “do-gooding machine” that magically transforms money into lives saved or poverty alleviated. It is, instead, more like many other human endeavors: messy, uncertain, ambiguous, and morally risky.

Indeed, donating to aid organizations is in many respects like donating to the campaign of a candidate for elected office. However, because donors typically fund aid organizations that work far away, donating to an aid organization is like funding the campaign of a candidate for elected office in another country. And because aid recipients typically cannot sanction aid organizations (via a vote, withholding funds, or other means), donating to an aid organization is most like funding the campaign of a candidate for elected office in a foreign country in which many people are disenfranchised.

This analogy suggests that donors have at least three distinct responsibilities after they donate.

First, just as citizens don’t expect politicians to have only positive effects, donors should not expect aid organizations to have only positive effects. Expecting aid organizations to have only positive effects perpetuates a vicious cycle in which aid organizations do not disclose their negative effects because they fear losing donors, and donors, in turn, never learn that some negative effects are an unavoidable aspect of aid provision. Rather than expecting aid organizations to be do-gooding machines, donors should ask the organizations they fund to engage in open and frank communication regarding both the positive and negative effects of aid.

Second, just as democratic citizens communicate with their elected representatives and hold them accountable if they perform badly (by voting them out of office or not contributing to their campaigns), donors should also communicate with the organizations they fund, and hold them accountable if they perform badly, by withdrawing funding.

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“Refugee camp in Liberia, along the Ivory Coast border” by Oxfam International. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

There are at least two ways that donors might hold aid organizations accountable: by demanding that they meet specific ex-ante requirements and/or by asking them to explain and justify their actions ex-poste. Because aid organizations work in unpredictable contexts, have reason to be responsive to aid recipients’ preferences, and are constantly learning new things, donors should put relatively more weight on ex-poste explanation (e.g. asking aid organizations to explain what they accomplished after the fact) rather than demand compliance with very specific ex-ante promises.

Third, just as powerful citizens have a responsibility to fight for the enfranchisement of those who have been wrongfully excluded from a political community, donors also have a responsibility to support aid recipients’ capacity to hold aid organizations accountable. In other words, it is not enough for donors to hold aid organizations accountable directly themselves. They must also encourage aid organizations to be more accountable to the people they most directly affect: aid recipients and other vulnerable people significantly affected aid organizations’ activities (such as poor people who live nearby to refugee camps).

These three responsibilities—developing appropriate expectations, holding aid organizations accountable, and empowering aid recipients to hold aid organizations accountable—are really difficult to fulfill. Most ordinary individuals in wealthy countries who donate to aid organizations know very little about aid, compared to both aid workers and aid recipients. They also often feel that they have “done their bit” by donating. Putting these two thoughts together, they conclude that it was (more than) enough for them to donate money, and they are more than justified in leaving everything else to the professionals.

I think this conclusion is too hasty. First, donors can do relatively simple things, like ask the organizations they fund what sorts of negative effects they have, and in what ways they are accountable to their intended beneficiaries (and other vulnerable people). In addition, the very fact that donors are differently situated than aid organizations, and have different incentives, suggests that their biases are likely to be different, which in turn suggests that the process of aid organizations justifying themselves to donors might well be fruitful—despite donors’ limited knowledge. Indeed, while its implications for donating have yet to be worked out in detail, research on epistemic democracy suggests that groups—especially diverse groups— can exercise good judgment, even when individuals within that group are relatively ill-informed. While this does not mean that donors can ever be adequate surrogates for aid recipients themselves, it does suggest that donors’ ignorance might not be quite as much of a roadblock as it might initially appear to be.

That said, the difficulties, for donors, of fulfilling the responsibilities to which donating seems to give rise suggests the need for structural reform in the aid sector more generally. In particular, responsible donorship, as I have described it, would be more feasible if there were more watchdog organizations, “meta-charities,” journalists, and other actors and institutions independent from aid organizations, devoted to providing donors with relevant information—including, especially, organizations with the capacity to listen to aid recipients directly. Ideally, this information would come from a wide range of disparate sources, perhaps roughly analogous to the information provided by political parties, endorsements, online commentary and journalism in the context of conventional politics.

The description of responsible donorship that I have sketched here suggests that donating—even donating motivated by a simple desire to “do good”—offers no escape from the messy world of politics. There are no magical do-gooding machines. We must alter our expectations, and design our institutions and practices, to accommodate this fact.

Headline image credit: “Providing clean water to millions of people” by DFID – UK Department for International Development. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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