Donor Centricity – RANT I


Since touchdown in Lebanon, I’ve been sharing photos of the beautiful scenery, rich history, delicious food and heartwarming encounters on my social media accounts. I haven’t spoken much about what I’m actually doing here. Though it may seem that I flew all the way to Lebanon to eat all the tabouleh, this is not the case. In a recent post, I mentioned that I’m working as a Project Manager and Communications Advisor for an INGO. This has meant I’ve been working quite a bit with the donor for my project, as well as wining and dining donors for our other projects and I’ve learned one lesson along the way that I would like to share.

 Because I can be quite critical, and even unreasonable sometimes, I will once again leave out the name of my organization and the donors involved in our projects.

Now that formalities are out of the way, I wish to paint a picture for you. You’re a 25-year-old Syrian woman with 3 children. Your family fled to Lebanon from Homs 4 years ago because of the war, and has been living in an informal tented settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley ever since. You have many needs… cash assistance, education for your children, basic hygiene, medication… but your greatest necessity is clean water. NGO’s regularly visit your settlement, assessing your situation and writing profusely onto their clipboards. You’ve even had to entertain Europeans/Westerners entering into your wretched home, so that they can ascertain whether or not you’re worthy of their funding. And for all of this nonsense, you end up getting a baby kit as assistance. Not something you’ve asked for, but something someone else decided you were in need of. A blanket in the middle of summer, pajamas that are too small for your 9 month old, diapers which are also too small, and two bibs. What the hell, right?

When I was in South Africa, something similar happened with a ridiculous Canadian donor who visited the Township school we worked with, saw the children playing on muddy ground (just being kids for heavens sake), and decided that her hard earned dollars should go toward purchasing artificial grass turf for the school. Meanwhile the school had a long list of immediate needs directly related to increased access to education… but instead they got some fake grass. But how do these royal fuck ups keep happening? How do millions of dollars in humanitarian aid go to waste every year when they can be used toward life-changing interventions? In this case, and the case of the baby kits, the answer is donor centricity.

The donor centric model is pervasive in humanitarian aid, especially if there isn’t a focus on human rights. From my little experience working in development and emergency management, donor centricity helps perpetuate the very inequity the sector is attempting to address. The examples I gave of the baby kits and fake grass are both instances of donor centricity, though they are very different. For the baby kits, it was the decision of the NGO to purchase them because it was something the donor “would be interested in” especially when it came to visibility. And yes, visibility is literally being able to slap a huge logo on something to shout that this item was donated or funded by so and so. Though the beneficiaries prefer cash assistance (especially the case for refugees in Lebanon), cash isn’t sexy enough for the donor since they can’t stick their logo on it… hence the baby kits. For the turf, it was the donor’s direct decision to intervene so specifically… without conducting a needs assessment, asking the school’s board of directors or the NGO’s board of directors what her thousands should be spent on. The NGO knew this was a waste of money, but rolled with it because at the end of the day, the donor must always be happy (according to the donor centric model). When we do this… we are literally reinforcing the donor’s sense that they are experts when they are not. It not only damages the work the NGOs are doing, but diminishes the voices of those most affected by injustice or crisis.

“This model works… the money always comes.” This is the argument I’ve heard over and over, and it’s true in a sense. If the donor is happy, funding appears. I witnessed this in Bolivia back in 2012… when a truly horrible volunteer plastic surgeon wanted to “better his life” or whatever, and made his way to an impoverished indigenous community in Santa Cruz. He came without any preparation, except for his camera and a vomit inducing speech on his good works. Seriously… no cultural sensitivity whatsoever. He was offensive and self important, yet when I asked the leader heading the center for the community why he was tolerating all of this without a word of protest his answer was simple and clear, “he brings with him lots of money.”

Whether the donor is a voluntourist, a clueless self-made connoisseur, or the visibility police, they should not be in the center of nonprofit work. Donor-centrism gives donors the belief that they hold the solutions… when in truth, the people on the ground and the beneficiaries hold the solutions.

I will leave this here for now, as this is part one of a three-part rant. I just wanted to share that this issue of donor centricity has really affected my future involvement in humanitarian work. I thought Emergency Management would be different from International Development, but my frustrations are the same… from a grassroots NPO to an International NGO… not much has changed. My next move will therefore be to look for a human rights based organization in either sector. But before even looking at future projects, my priority will be checking up on the donors.

Until next time.