Best in Aid: The Grand Prize

As long as there are disasters, there will always be people who want to help by whatever means first strikes their fancy. There will be those who insist on giving shoes (including such high profile experts as Jessica Simpson and Kim Kardashian). Still others offer used yoga mats, or baby formula. Ports and roads clogged up with shoes and yoga mats cannot deliver essential medicines, food and supplies. Then there are those who swoop in to adopt children before their extended families have had time to locate them; or just show up to ‘help’ as unskilled volunteers, adding to the confusion and occupying jobs that could go to locals. And there will always be organizations around to capitalize on those uninformed good intentions.

But now there is a small but growing chorus of voices dedicated to equipping individual donors with information on how to help effectively in a crisis. This movement has the power to harness the generosity of individuals, change ingrained giving practices, and create positive pressure on NGOs and aid agencies to demonstrate the impact of their work.

That’s why the award for Best in Aid goes to…the Smart Giving movement, nominated by Saundra Schimmelpfennig of the blog Good Intentions are Not Enough.

This year, a week after the Haiti quake, Stephanie Strom of the New York Times wrote a story on the “unprecedented effort” to teach Americans to resist the impulse to send the wrong goods to Haiti.  Many advocated just sending something very much needed and which has a low transport cost to value ratio: cash. The advice to send cash “appears to be reaching a tipping point,” wrote Strom. Some Americans saw first-hand the piles of unneeded clothing donations in the aftermath of Katrina, or heard about aid distribution problems after the Asian tsunami. Now, people are hearing the message from politicians and policy makers spreading the word on Smart Giving to Haiti in real time, in time to prevent mistakes that cause unnecessary suffering and tragedy.

Contrast Strom’s story with the high profile stories that have appeared consistently since the current surge in interest in global poverty started earlier this decade, like this NYT headline:

Coverage of both global poverty and disasters always stressed the same thing: how much was needed in TOTAL donations. It was never about the danger of the WRONG donations. Today it is.

Saundra Schimmelpfennig herself appeared in the NYT article, and many other news sources (among them CNN, NPR, USA Today, Canada’s CBC radio, WNYC, The Daily Beast, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the Christian news magazine World) sought her advice on everything from the dangers of adoption in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, to how to evaluate disaster relief volunteer opportunities. Here on Aid Watch, guest blogger Alanna Shaikh’s post on how not to help in Haiti, called Nobody wants your old shoes, became the blog’s second most popular and most-widely circulated piece ever (the first was a satire, which we’re no longer allowed to talk about).

The campaign against relying on overhead ratio as a measure of charity effectiveness is also part of the good giving message. In collaboration with six other nonprofits, Tim Ogden of Philanthropy Action launched a campaign last December to convince donors to dump the overhead ratio - the measure of how much money goes to programs versus administrative costs - as a primary means of evaluating the effectiveness of a charity. “We’re finally at a point where people do have an alternative,” said Ogden. In the last few years, organizations like GiveWell, Philanthropedia and Great Nonprofits have emerged to give people more useful information about charities, and to pressure charities to devote the resources to collecting that information and making it public.

Finally, the intensity of the debate on evaluation with randomized controlled trials in the academic world, and new organizations like 3IE (the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation) and DIME (the Development Impact Evaluation initiative at the World Bank), are other facets of the same movement. Behind the heated debate on what methods of evaluation to use, we see a much larger point – many more donors now insist on serious EVALUATION and ACCOUNTABILITY than used to do so.

As we’ve said on this blog before, accountability is not something that anyone accepts voluntarily. It is forced on political actors, aid agencies, and NGOs by sheer political power from below, from well-informed advocates for the poor and listening to poor people themselves. All of this may still be in its early stages, but since aid really CANNOT work without serious accountability, the Smart Giving movement is the best news to come along in aid in quite a while.

UPDATE: (3/20, 8:21am) the Center for Global Development reacts to our inclusion of 3IE, which was their brainchild.