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Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan

Savvy donors always ask plenty of questions, by Lauryn Oates

Savvy donors always ask plenty of questions, by Lauryn Oates

CBS recently aired its expose of Greg Mortenson's Central Asia Institute on 60 Minutes, alleging significant financial mismanagement at the organization, falsehoods in Mortenson's two bestselling books and evidence that some of the schools the group claimed to have built either don't exist or are sitting empty.

Thousands of people, including many Canadians, have given money to the institute or to its Pennies for Peace fundraising program, and they have no doubt received these accusations with shock and disappointment. Many other charitable organizations working in Afghanistan, my own included, are watching the news with alarm, concerned there may be a backlash to the sector as a whole as the trust of donors erodes.

But the answer is not to give up on charitable efforts to support social development goals, such as advancing access to education. A better response is to apply greater scrutiny of the accountability systems in place at non-profit organizations soliciting donations, and to undertake a deeper level of inquiry into the means used to seek positive change.

Whether donors give $30 or $3 million, they need to do their due diligence and ask hard questions of the intended recipient. This includes watching for some basic good practices of accountability, such as the disclosure of regular, audited financial statements or checking the percentage of an organization's revenue that goes toward administrative costs.

It also means seeking out evidence of the impact of donor dollars, such as checking whether an organization collects verifiable, credible data on the results it achieves, and what kind of monitoring and evaluation systems are in place. Organizations should present donors with stories and numbers that document their achievements, while also being forthcoming about lessons learned and challenges faced.

Most importantly, donors need to consider if an organization's methods are sustainable. As anyone who has ever fundraised for a charity knows, some projects are an easier sell than others: projects that offer immediate, visible change for money, such as the construction of a school or a well, can be wrapped in a simple narrative that is digestible and responsive to people's emotions. In reality, however, development happens slowly along a continuum, and as a result of many different factors coalescing over the long term. Making education accessible demands more than a school building. Trained teachers, school supplies, a good curriculum, building the capacity of school administrators, textbooks, registration with the government and many other inputs are needed to ensure the long-term viability of an education project.

What is also less romantic about good development practice in real life is that there is rarely a single, charismatic hero making it all happen. It's not that there aren't heroes, but that there are many, and most of them have neither fame nor fortune, and seek neither. Our organization, Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, is effective because of the thousands of hours contributed by volunteers across the country who run chapter meetings, organize annual galas, sell Afghan products at local events, sit on committees, or store items in their garages for silent auctions.

We're fortunate enough that even our executive director is a full-time volunteer. On the ground, our Afghan colleagues teach the literacy classes we raise money for, train the teachers, drive up mountain roads dropping off mini-libraries to village literacy centres, and monitor our projects in dangerous areas. They live and work in a violent war zone, and the risk to their lives is very real. They are skilled, educated people and they could leave for safer shores, but they have chosen to stay.

It's also true that waste and corruption occur in the aid sector in Afghanistan on a scale that is simply unacceptable. But there is a pattern to it, and in a decade of witnessing both stunning success stories and monumental failures of development in Afghanistan, the key lesson I can draw on is that the best safeguard against waste and corruption is to think small. Aid projects with massive budgets quickly become unwieldy as funds disappear into the layers of subcontracting or among the multitude of players who may have inconsistent visions and levels of commitment to the original goal. Projects that are too big and too ambitious can lose oversight. That old cliche -grassroots -really is the way to go to keep actions reflective of objectives.

For instance, a 15-year-old grassroots development organization in Afghanistan, Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support for Afghanistan, operates literacy classes six days a week and livelihood skills training in four villages in Bamiyan province serving 600 women and children at an annual total cost of $30,000. However, a multimillion-dollar U.S. development contracting company operating in Afghanistan, Chemonics International, recently issued a request for proposals in the area of health education, offering $45,000 to the successful organization for eight days of workshops for 120 women.

That's 50 per cent more than what the other group spends in a year, and on only one-fifth the number of beneficiaries. The sum does not include whatever amount Chemonics spends on its own administration, security and other operational costs, just so that it can subcontract to another organization to do the work it received a grant for.

The track record of an organization like this is proof that a small amount of money can be stretched to achieve lasting, meaningful change in challenging aid environments. There is good reason to keep giving generously. But we have to be savvy, big-picture givers. We need to resist suspiciously simplistic solutions, and to be more pragmatic and thoughtful, which means asking pointed questions. A responsible charity will be glad that you asked.

Lauryn Oates is a Canadian aid worker managing education projects in Afghanistan. She is projects director at Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.

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Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan
PO Box 86016, Marda Loop, Calgary, Alberta
Canada T2T 6B7

t: 1 (403) 244-5625

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