Friday, March 21, 2008

Aid organisations as self-interested businesses?

This posting has been prompted by a letter I received recently. A client I am working with (evaluating their project and that of another donor) wanted me to sign a confidentiality agreement. While it did not seem excessively restrictive, in terms of general intent it was the very opposite of what I have been trying to encourage this and other donors to do with information about their projects. Increasingly over the past few years I have been pushing for more transparency, not less. The rationale being that the whole aid process would benefit by being more accountable to the public at large, not just to donors or the project manager’s immediate partners and intended beneficiaries. Some of my clients have taken this approach seriously and used their websites to make a whole range of project documents publicly available (See G-rap and PETRRA). Others have agreed in principle but seem to have made little progress in practice.

Parallel to this effort I have been trying to persuade donors and project managers that achieving specific development objectives is not enough For example, increased levels of health service usage, or increased farmers’ incomes. It is also essential that knowledge be accumulated, and made available, about how these objectives were achieved, and what factors made the difference between higher and lower levels of achievement. Without this knowledge the existing achievements are less likely to be sustainable, and they are certainly unlikely to be replicable. Given the scale of most development problems, sustainability and replicability of achievements is absolutely essential. Measuring sustainability and replicability is not easy. But identifying the availability of relevant knowledge should be possible.

If information was made publicly available on how specific developments were achieved then a project can be considered to have created a public good, that others can use. The more usable that knowledge is, the more value that public good is. Businesses do not often do this, though putting usable knowledge in the public domain is becoming more common in the world of software and internet services[1]. Businesses usually have a commercial self interest in keeping secret the key parts of their business processes that would enable others to compete with them in providing the same goods or services. The production of public goods could therefore be seen as a way of differentiating the degree to which aid organisations (of varying kinds) are operating as self-interested businesses versus more public interested organisations. Whether they make and distribute a profit could be considered a secondary matter.

If the production of public goods is accepted as an important defining feature of good aid organisations then more attention to the quality of those goods, and how it could be improved, would be justified. Some might argue that a lot of information products produced by aid organisations are often more like advertising and public relations materials, and better described as “vapourware”[2]. One means of improving the quality of potential public goods would be increased transparency. So we can see not only the final information product (e.g. a book, web page, video, etc), but the drafts and the debate that surrounded their development, and the background data. Not simply as a final package, but during the process. The public could then become engaged, though comment and feedback, in the process of producing the public good(s). This type of semi-open production process is increasingly common in some areas of business (see "Democratizing Innovation", 2005 and Wikipedia entry). In aid organisations this approach could be realised in fairly simple forms through the use of websites to host draft documents, and the use of online open forums and email lists to promote awareness and discussion of those documents. This is not rocket science. But nor is it yet common practice on the scale it should be.

In my argument above transparency has two rationales. One is pragmatic, tranparency could help improve the knowledge that is available about how best to have an impact. On the other hand, when visibly put into practice, transparency may also function as an important signal of intentions, helping us differentiate organisations that are more public interested from those that are more self-interested.

[1] For example, in the form of open source products, free internet services and services that inter-operable with those provided by others.

[2] Software products that have a name, and promotional materials, but not much in the way of contents that will actually make them work and deliver what they promise


  1. Hi, I agree with the need to share more and be more transparent as a first step to improve knowledge creation. Two additions:
    1. blogs could be perfect for not showing the 'final product' but bits and pieces of people 'on the job'
    2. I think (more) succesful learning network or communities of practice are necessary to enhance understanding of each others work over time. This is a prerequisite for deeper learning together (and innovation) in my opinion.

  2. Example may help some aid agencies and comptetion others. The Dutch development funding agency Hivos--who makes over USD 100 million a year in grants--has lanched a knowledge generation and sharing programme. See

  3. A quick response to Ricardo's comment.
    While I think the Hivos initiative is good I am a bit worried that it might be seen to be a separate set of activities from the set of projects that it is funding. And that someone else is responsible for this activity other than the managers of the projects being funded.

    To me the ideal would be that the production of public (knowledge) goods would be one of two primary outputs of every project. The other being the achievement of actual changes in people's lives (or organisations relating to them)

  4. I am curently finishing a major, formative outcomes evaluation for a five-year Hivos programme on arts and culture in central America. They are very keen that the results and the evaluation mthodology we developed be broadly shared in Central America, in the Netehrlands and in Europe. They will invest specifically to make sure the knowledge is made public.

    Therefore, although I understand Rick's concern in the light of the special knowledge project decribed at the Hivos website, my experience is Hivos approaches this project in the spirit of the ideal Rick proposes.

    I am sharing with them his clear proposal that public knowledge have equal priority and impact in people's lives.

  5. I agree with Rick's view about the 'public good' aspect of development knowledge. IMO this has to be a central part of the knowledge management strategy of any serious development organisation. However the point is that simply making a piece of information available on your organisation's web-site does not go anything like far enough. How are people to know it is there? How will it be found in two year's time. The strategic issue is collaboration in the construction of shared, standards based, development information space which is available to all. Eldis offers a good example of this in relation to academically produced information but there is nothing which starts to capture the potential richness of programme documentation and grey literature. Thinking through some of the many technical and organisational issues which would be involved in how to construct such a space is one of the things we hope to do in the IKM Emergent programme.

  6. Dear all,
    As the coordinator of the Hivos Knowledge Programme, I have read your blogs with interest and hence, my – possibly somewhat lengthy – response.
    First of all let me say that we endorse the statement that “knowledge [is to] be accumulated, and made available, about how these objectives were achieved, and what factors made the difference between higher and lower levels of achievement”. Hivos is committed - in close cooperation with our partners - to publicize relevant and applicable knowledge to the wider public and in various forms, may it be on our different websites, through blogs, in Dgroups or through publications, toolboxes and narratives. The majority of these outputs (will) have a Creative Commons license and are thus freely available of- or online. Only in some cases we are not at liberty to distribute the full content of our publications freely, because it is published by a commercial publisher. The reasoning being that sometimes we want to ensure that our knowledge reaches the academic arena, where open access publishing is growing, but still limited.
    We are however concerned with – to our mind – a much larger concern, which is that the development sector needs new knowledge, and more specifically, appropriate knowledge to tackle specific knowledge gaps. Over the years, Hivos has increasingly become aware that, in order to tackle the tremendous complexities of the problems and opportunities, appropriate knowledge is needed. However, knowledge production is a time consuming process which requires expertise, finance and a continued strive for innovation. This especially holds for knowledge that cannot be easily defined in terms of monetary rewards. This long term perspective does not fit very well with the focus of the development sector on quick results. The need for investments in knowledge production has for a long time been underestimated, by some even flatly denied. So Hivos is dedicating considerable resources (including staff) to the development of knowledge on issues imperative to the work of civil society organisations and the development sector at large. (NB Hence, the employment of staff who can dedicate their time to knowledge development, knowledge dissemination, transforming new and existing knowledge into appropriate and effective strategies, and advancing the application of these knowledge-based strategies. Except for the coordinator, these staff members are embedded in the bureaus/programmes. They do not form a separate department.)
    Through this academic-practitioner collaboration Hivos will deliver manifold knowledge products including publications (academic, policy papers, toolkits, narratives), activities (conferences, seminars, summer schools, forums, dialogues), training and capacity building programmes, lobby and advocacy strategies, an interactive website, and a knowledge network.

    Looking forward to your thoughts on our message which is basically “share what you know, and (re)search what you don’t know’”

    Kind regards,

    Josine Stremmelaar

    Coordinator Knowledge Programme


  7. Dear all,

    Josine Stremmelaar in her much appreciated comments points to an interesting issue: "Only in some cases we are not at liberty to distribute the full content of our publications freely, because it is published by a commercial publisher. The reasoning being that sometimes we want to ensure that our knowledge reaches the academic arena, where open access publishing is growing, but still limited".

    The issue at stake her is that I see the reverse: because of the high fees for academic journals, non-academics (as most practitioners are) have limited access to valuable research findings, leading to a devide in knowledge sharing between the practitioners and academics. I know that I step on several toes by arguing that I would like to see a proces as happened with the music industry. Downloading music (through a legal peer to peer system) revolutionised the access to beautifull music, the music industry had to adjust itself to this new situation, but it did not mean an end to music. Why can't that happen with academic literature? Wouldn't it be interesting to experiment a p2p systems, were academic literature is stored on private computers, inviting others to download it to their own PC? Knowledge as a real public good!

    René Schoenmakers
    Bernard van Leer Foundation

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  9. Ricak, Can we get this discussion back on MandE? I have the feeling others would be interested.

  10. Hi Rick,
    I couldn't agree more with the idea of transparency in aid organisation, especially in the delivery of their programs.
    However, we should also remember that in delivering their programs, aid organisation need individuals and commercial contractors and this has become a huge business internationally.

    When we see it from this perspective, we realise that there are individuals or companies who could misuse certain information for their own benefit.

    For example when a consultant is engaged to design a new program that later will be tendered, the person can use the knowledge he has about the design to inform people who bid for the project and this could potentially impair the tender process.

  11. I completely agree that transparency is vital for develoment agencies to retain, share and develop good practice.

    But an organisation that becomes transparent is one which exposes its failures (as well as its successes) to the world. Without a sustained campaign for them to do so, development agencies will resist this.

    For more see: