I had a curious experience last week. A friend of mine had recently left from working at a multi-donor trust fund office in Yangon. I asked her why she left and she said it was the culture in the organisation.
She said it seemed as though the whole Fund Management office spent most of the time being scared of the Fund Board, and that shaped the way the program worked.
In turn, the partners – mostly local and international NGOs – were scared of the donor Fund Management office and often scrambled around to show they were meeting donor expectations.
Starting from the Fund Board level, she said the whole system seemed to focus on power and pleasing those above. And that likely also flowed into the experience of communities and beneficiaries.
Later in the week I went to a workshop at LIFT – another multi donor trust fund – about the excellent idea of starting a new Myanmar Monitoring and Evaluation Association.
A lot of people were talking about how the aid sector is characterised by a misunderstanding of monitoring and evaluation.
There was a general consensus that aid programs need to focus more on developing systems based around learning rather than simply upward reporting.
I totally agreed with that idea but I couldn’t help thinking that my two experiences of the week were connected.
It is fantastic to think about emphasising learning more in NGOs. But projects take place within a particular system that then creates an organisational culture.
My friend had said that, starting from the Board level of multi-donor trust funds, there was an emphasis on upward compliance, even to the point of the Fund management being scared of the Board. This sense of fear was replicated all throughout the system.
So it is not enough to just say to NGOs ‘you need to focus more on learning’. They are often part of a wider system that is emphasising almost exactly the opposite, the demonstration of compliance.
It is not fashionable to talk about power in aid meetings, but it seems to me that the use, or misuse, of power in aid systems is intimately connected with whether real learning is possible. And this culture is often set in motion from the top of the tree, from Fund Boards themselves.
I am all for giving support to local and international groups to develop new learning cultures around monitoring and evaluation.
But they are always part of wider systems. And a new learning culture might best start with donor fund Boards themselves.