Saturday, April 10, 2010

HAITI: Humanitarian best practice

A few days ago I wrote this message ... which was then picked up and posted to the HaitiPro website under the heading HAITI: Humanitarian best practice. The issue of is important ... but I was a little surprised to see the message reproduced.
Dear Colleagues

I get very critical when I read articles like this IRIN article HAITI: Humanitarian best practice - dignity, not just digits
It is journalism that confuses rather than analysis that clarifies. As I understand it, a number on a journalist's story gives the story credibility, whether or not the number makes much sense. But I get into an even worse frame of mind when I get to the academic writing that is the base of the article.

I guess these articles put me in a bad mood because the quality of the numbers being used for analysis are so very bad. The amount of aid varies very much depending on where the aid flow is measured. I recall trying to reconcile the assistance actually received by Mozambique based on what I could learn from projects and government records in country with the information flowing from donors to the OECD development assistance committee (DAC) information system. My conclusions was that the donors were simply lying about the scale of their assistance ... and nobody was checking and calling them on it. When numbers do not get checked ... then the numbers are pretty much worthless!

There were plenty of quantification abuses. One donor was delivering a large amount of food aid (corn) which it valued at a price of $700 a ton ... when the world market price was $200 a ton. The amount of food aid was substantial in tonnage ... but why was it necessary to mis-price the value of the aid?

In many cases numbers were based on commitments ... different from disbursements. In some cases the commitment and the disbursement were both counted resulting in a double count!

I do not get much comfort from the low percentage of overhead in some systems versus others ... this is usually nothing more than differences in the allocation of costs in the accounts. The problems are much deeper ... the issue is project design that does something good and project design that does nothing very much of value. Nobody seems to have any benchmarks for what things should cost, versus what things do cost. This is not about a percentage of overhead ... but about a cost efficiency percentage that too often turns out to be outrageously low.

The whole matter of quantification is a big subject ... but all the stories coming back from Haiti suggest that there has been huge waste ... very high costs for doing the work ... and absolutely no meaningful metrics about anything. I am disgusted ... and very concerned.

Peter Burgess
Community Analytics (CA)

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