'Try to trust your partners a bit more'

Lena Ag, secretary general of Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation. There should be a more "trustful relationship" between donors and implementing partners, according to Ag. Photo by: Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation

Upon recently accepting an award for her foundation’s work, Lena Ag declared with a smile: “Women are clearly smarter than men.”

It was meant in good humor and as a bit of a provocation. What she meant was that women represent a largely untapped resource for change globally — and digitally.

As secretary general of the Stockholm-based Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, Ag and her colleagues have worked with technology and women in crisis countries from Bosnia to Egypt and the Democratic Republic of Congo for over two decades.

Although — or perhaps because — it works at the intersection of several top donor priorities, Kvinna till Kvinna (“Woman to Woman” in Swedish) is struggling as much as other NGOs with the seemingly growing demands donors have for implementers. Like their peers, Kvinna staff are yearning for more respect, trust and recognition from funders. (The foundation got recognized last November when it was awarded the SIME Non-Profit Award 2013.)

Kvinna’s plight — however one-sided it may be — is echoed around the world by relief workers frustrated by strict reporting requirements and repeat audits. And it points to the difficulty of ensuring value for money especially for hard-to-quantify services such as peacebuilding and community organizing.

One example is the growing expectation from donors — Kvinna’s main donor is the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency — that their implementing partners hire local staff. Kvinna often works in environments where outsiders can be useful to mediate between hostile groups.

“We’re trying to say that this is part of the qualitative dialogue that we’re trying to have and that it’s absolutely necessary,” Ag said of her approach to convince donors of the need to employ international staff, however minimal it may be, at least initially. “Sometimes we’re successful, sometimes not. It depends on the donor and funding mechanism.”

Measuring results has also got more difficult as donor expectations and the need to prove value for money to taxpayers have grown, she added.

“It’s getting more and more regulated, this area,” suggested Ag. “We find that we have more and more detailed instructions from our donors — bordering on the ridiculous and nitty-gritty — instead of trying to have a trustful relationship.”

Among the most frustrating experiences is to repeat audits and ad-hoc requests, like when an auditor asked her last year to see original receipts within two days for staff expenses, including meals and travel.

“For bus travel, buying a glass of Coca-Cola … We tell them we don’t work that way. And they don’t accept it,” explained Ag.

Not that she’s against reporting requirements per se.

“You can apply absolute auditing standards to some of the activities you’re doing, but you can’t have a mindset of an auditor when you work with people, with human rights, with democratic processes, with peacebuilding,” said Ag. “You have to seize a moment, you have to be there.”

Corporate donors, Ag said, are more trusting — they want to be engaged but realize they’re no humanitarian experts, said Christina Hagner, Kvinna’s head of communications.

“Business is getting more into the humanistic way of dealing,” Ag suggested. “Maybe we can have a meeting in the middle. You apply the same standards to small women’s groups that you apply to big companies that are doing large infrastructure projects in the developing world — you can’t do that. It’s not fair.”

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    Rolf Rosenkranz

    Rolf Rosenkranz oversees a talented team of in-house journalists, correspondents and guest contributors located around the globe. Since joining Devex in early 2008, Rolf has been instrumental in growing its fledgling news operation into the leading online source for global development news and analysis. Previously, Rolf was managing editor at Inside Health Policy, a subscription-based news service in Washington. He has reported from Africa for the Johannesburg-based Star and its publisher, Independent News & Media, as well as the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a German daily.