Donor Funds and the Elusive Accountability

Published on 31st August 2012

Graphics courtesy
When I had just joined one of my first jobs, we happened to get a fixed phone in our office. During lunchtime and after work hours, a colleague of mine would call her boyfriend and they talked sometimes for close to one hour. Like in many other organizations, the perception in our minds was that office phones are free! Free, because the callers do not pay the price out of their pockets, but the organization pays from the communication budget line. When Uganda Telecom started issuing printed details of all calls made in a month, it was amazing the number and length of private vs official calls. Yet this is, but only one example of the laissez-faire lifestyle orchestrated by the ill-conception that donor funds are free money that does not require proper accountability!!!

One day, I also attempted to make occasional non-official calls off the office phone.  A white colleague assured me that the money we were playing around with was coming from her grand parents’ sweat. She added that people in Europe work so hard, and upon reading about the misery in Africa, they collect funds with a good heart of charity and send them over to make a positive difference. Alas, no amount of donor funds seems ever to be enough to transform Africa as long as there’s no transparency and goodwill to achieve the desired end.

Today when you join an NGO, the first question likely to be asked is whether you have skills in writing proposals-not just proposals but fundable proposals, to get money, quick cash! In some organizations, staff are required to write a fundable proposal every month and are threatened that failure to do so, no salary! The all important question is; does all this rush for donor funds necessarily translate into positive change in the lives of those on whose ticket the funds are solicited? 

In one of my classes on Project Management at the Uganda Management Institute, it was emphasized that a project must be informed by a baseline survey. This requires that before seeking for funds, one must first do a critical analysis of a problem with statistical data not just from Google, but from the ground. However, nowadays, the process of securing funds has been made as simple as someone filling in a template from a donor organization and within a few days’ online interaction; someone secures say $200,000 for a six-month project to improve livelihoods in Karamoja region! While the need to improve livelihoods in Karamoja is common knowledge, given the region’s historic misfortune, the probability of achieving such an enormous goal in such a short time is too overzealous. Yet with zero results, the donor expects a complete report at the end of the project lifespan, possibly indicating some positive outcomes in order to wire funds for the next grant. At the end of the day, so much is spent, but the people’s lives remain the same.

I think there is a disconnect between some donor partners and the people they intend to help. The educated middleman often steals as much of the funds as possible and only uses a fraction to do the work, as long as they can produce receipts of how funds are spent! Africa, Africa, how shall we ever develop with this state of affairs?  Incidentally, for organizations advocating for issues like human rights, it’s very difficult to measure results in practical terms. 

How possible is it that such hard earned money is not subjected to thorough accountability, not only in terms of receipts but results on the ground? I have noticed that some donors strictly require accountability matching the funds received to the dot, and that failure to account to the dot, the balance must be wired back. Now, considering how tempting money can mean to be sometimes, who surely wants to return money to a donor when they can get matching receipts as required? And, who cares about quality output when there’s no mechanism to verify?

I have seen situations where one is given funds to host a conference of 1000 guests and only 600 turn up. Suddenly the conference has ended, but one is stuck with this lump sum of money, already signed for, and they don’t know what to do with it. The immediate thought is usually to justify, and with receipted evidence, that indeed all the 1000 guests attended! If you return the balance, you risk being considered incompetent and thereby missing out on more funding; and if you must account for 1000 as per the funding budget, you must adduce evidence of 1000 signatures on the attendance list! Staff then, start soliciting signatures and at the end of the day, you are not only engaging in corruption, but impersonation and thievery. I find this kind of life a completely illusion and a dangerous trend.

A while ago, I attended a Breakfast meeting where every participant was supposed to be given transport refund. I had been facilitated by my office to attend the function and therefore didn’t bother to ask for my package. As I was driving home, I received a call from some lady saying, “Please come to our office and receive your money.” I am like, “Which money?” She’s like, “Your transport refund for the breakfast meeting.” Perhaps, more interesting was the fact that the young lady had already ‘signed for me’ since she had to submit her ‘accountability’! Yet I was ‘lucky’ this one called; someone else could have signed for me, and taken the money for herself altogether!!!

One day I visited an old woman in Apac district in Uganda. She was staying in a rented hut with her six (6) children. Her violent husband had abandoned her, and the landlord was about to chase her from the house. I asked the woman how much it would cost to build a hut in her village and she told me only 150,000 Uganda Shillings (about $60). I had per diem worth 3times the poor old woman needed to breathe life into her family of 7! I offered her the money and told her, please go and built a hut for your family. What this woman needed, was not stories about women’s rights to own land- her immediate need was a shelter for her family worth only a few Shillings. 

So, the innocent grandparent in the United States or Netherlands or Belgium or whichever other country, sends the money expecting positive change in Uganda, only to read in the media that the situation is getting worse. The problem is multifaceted; poor priority staking, devoid accountability and thievery tendencies by implementers, and attitude deficiency that after all these problems cannot end! 

I think there’s got to come a time when everyone must repent and get back to the course of realistic expedience. I have ever seen T-shirts distributed during the anti-corruption week but on their first wash they all drip of colored corruption; I have seen human rights organizations that blatantly violate the rights of their staff; and healthy people stealing food intended for orphans-but what a shame! 

My view is that if the state of affairs cannot change anyway, and if donor funds must be ill-utilized anyway, let whosoever is managing the funds at least ensure sizable impact or appreciable quality and only make away with the extras, if the funds must be mismanaged anyway.

 As things stand in many situations today, it might take divine intervention to turn around Africa’s fortunes and achieve the donors’ dream of transforming our dear continent.      

By Tumusiime Deo
International Communications Consultant
E-mail: [email protected]

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