Who Polices the Police?

    In the past few weeks, Betty, my fiancé, has been running around the Eastern Province of Zambia, attempting to monitor and evaluate projects to meet a funder's reporting deadline. This is the normal activity of a monitoring and evaluation officer. Nevertheless, this frenzied but commonplace activity has been given a unique twist.M&E is almost universally a bane on the life of the front line, service delivery employee. In my experience, most complain that the increased paperwork makes it impossible to do their job, that pointless form filling takes them away from their "real work" – that of providing services to people who desperately need it.Yet M&E is a vital tool to ensure money is spent appropriately on projects that have the potential to make a real difference in people's lives. The act of monitoring helps to correct any mistakes quickly, and evaluation provides valuable lessons for future reference.Additionally, setting specific targets helps provide real focus on those activities that will, hopefully, have the biggest impact.Most M&E systems here are forcefully donor-led. Internally, there is acceptance from senior management that they are important, but in reality, they are seen as something that is done to keep donors happy.When Betty came home for lunch a few weeks ago to explain that, in three weeks time, she was going away to monitor programs that had not been granted money yet, I thought that Thandizani, where Betty works, had begun to fully appreciate the benefits of M&E, and that it had chosen to carry out pre-grant site visits of those that were applying for funding.However, this was not going to be preparatory monitoring. Instead, she explained that one of Thandizani's funders – the Zambian agency for one of the world's largest HIV/AIDS donors – had delayed payment of its grant for three months. The 1.8 billion kwacha (US$360,000) that had been earmarked for the last quarter of 2008 arrived in Thandizani's bank account in the middle of January 2009. These funds were to be granted a week later, spent the following week and then monitored in three weeks time.I presumed that there must have been some innocent reason for the delay, due to administrative errors or some bureaucratic interruption. What was odd was that despite these errors, the donor still expected Thandizani to carry out all the activities in a shortened time.The original schedule was supposed to take almost four months. Instead, from the assessment of proposals to the monitoring of outcomes, all had to be done within three weeks, while also hitting the same number of target beneficiaries.The result reads like an example of why aid doesn't work. Certain projects, regardless of the impact they would have on people's lives, were scrapped. Any project that took longer than two weeks to finish, like training new home-based caregivers (HBCs) for people living with HIV/AIDS, could not be considered. Re-training existing HBCs only takes a day, so any organization doing that got funding. Purchasing of equipment such as bikes, or farm inputs like seeds for these HBCs were prioritized, despite the difficulties in auditing if these items had an impact or even reached the intended recipient.Several worthy projects were ignored because they did not have bank accounts set up – which would take several days – or because they were unable to attend the proposal workshop at such short notice.It appears that the only criterion was if you could spend the money fast enough on things that can be easily counted. There was little attempt to assess whether the lives of ‘beneficiaries' had been improved, but how could you possibly expect to measure such an improvement a week after the funding arrived?Initially, I blamed the inflexibilities of top-down bureaucratic systems, demanding results yet having no idea how the system is undermining even the best efforts of employees. More recently, as I was explaining Betty's frustrations, I heard more sinister rumors from a fellow VSO who work for an umbrella organization in the HIV/AIDS sector.Apparently the donor does this every quarter with all HIV/AIDS organizations, only releasing the money after the quarter has ended and yet still demanding results by the end of the month.This organization has channeled $15 million into the HIV/AIDS sector in Zambia since 2005. The interest rate in Zambia, once corrected for inflation, currently runs at about 15 percent per annum.Perhaps it is too easy to link these two factors, but that is certainly what most people seem to have done. Of people I have spoken to in recipient organizations, most believed that the funding was used to generate a healthy balance for someone, possibly politically connected, before being passed on. Despite all organizations complaining about the system in their monitoring reports, the only organization it was possible to complain to was the national funder.This national funder then compiles its own report for the global parent funder, and publishes full page advertisements in all the national newspapers, detailing the grants that were dispersed, according to them, "between October and December 2008."Alternatively, it may be that this is due to funding delays from the global parent funder, but if this is the case then why isn't the feedback of the implementing organizations being listened to? Why are the reporting dates set in stone – yet financing is so flexible?Grateful recipient organizations will always stress the impact the money has had on their communities in the hope of receiving more next time. This means they are unlikely to be critical, or to contact the parent donor to question the validity of the Zambian agency's own reports. It is therefore unlikely that negative feedback about funding delays reach the original donor despite widespread frustrations that past mistakes could be learned and the money could be spent better.Perhaps the problem for the intermediary national funder is that it is also too grateful to criticize the system. Regardless of the reason, what all this means is that the wrong projects get funded and money is wasted.As the benefits of good M&E are increasingly recognized in donor countries and stipulated in donor funding, it must be also recognized that bad M&E can exist. When and where it does, it fails to learn from mistakes and reduces the potential impact of activities, often blinding the donor to bad practices. It also undermines the importance of M&E, meaning disgruntled employees who feel they are putting paperwork before people are probably right.

    About the author

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      John Crockett

      John Crockett left the United Kingdom in October, 2008, with his partner Betty Alié to join a Voluntary Services Overseas program in Zambia. John will serve as fundraising and project management advisor to the Lundazi District Council for two years, while Betty will work as monitoring and evaluation officer with Thandizani, a local NGO focusing on HIV/ AIDS. John has worked in fundraising and communications for several U.K. nonprofits. Both hold master’s degrees in development economics from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where they met.