A Donors’ Charter As A Tool For Better Oversight of Projects in ICT4D

Charter What is the definition of success for a development project? Is it simply “not failing” or is it something more? Does it – should it – require survival, or, more than just survival, growth? If so, how do we define and measure that growth?

This blog post at the Stanford Social Innovation Review suggests that professionals in the field of information and communications technology for development (ICT4D) have a different definition of success than the donors who provide their funding.

To a development professional, success can look like getting a project off the ground. Once funding has been obtained and the project is underway, the project is a success, isn’t it?

However, from a donors’ perspective, a poorly planned or ill-conceived project is doomed to fail, and one that is duplicative of projects that have gone before is a waste of money. How can either of these be termed a “success”? In that case, what is the point of that investment? Shouldn’t donors be able to expect a reasonable outcome from their invested dollars? With these donor dollars such a precious resource, shouldn’t the development community itself demand it?

The author of the blog post proposes a possible solution to this problem.

He suggests a document called the “Donors’ Charter” which would require greater scrutiny of projects before they receive funding. The Charter is essentially a list of questions that a donor would review and seek to have answered prior to agreeing to fund a project. Some of the important questions the Charter would ask include items like these:

    • Do you understand the problem you are undertaking?
    • Does a solution already exist? Have you searched for one? If there is another solution, have you attempted to collaborate?
    • Is your solution economically, technologically, and culturally appropriate?
    • How do you plan to measure your impact? How will you know if your project is a success?

The benefits of the Donors’ Charter are numerous, the author argues. The Charter would slow things down at the planning stage, requiring the development professional to think more deeply and plan more fully. It would help focus donor resources on better projects and divert funds away from projects that are likely to fail. It would encourage collaboration, and discourage secrecy and duplication of projects because it would require research into similar projects.

The comments to the blog post engaged in a vigorous debate about the value of this proposal. Some commentators scoffed at the utility of such a Charter, saying that it was too vague and too hard to enforce. Others felt that the Charter was unnecessary, one more instance of development professionals “tweeting…and conferencing…” instead of making progress, when these principles are already established in the field. One commenter doubted whether developers looking for funding would be willing to share so much detail about their projects for fear that their ideas would be stolen or “shot down” before they even got off the ground. Other commenters got into an argument over the extent to which donors could (or should) control how their money was spent, with one commenter taking the position that donors should be able to prevent the use of money on “luxuries” (not allowing the purchase of a “Mars rover while children starve”) while another commenter disagreed, stating that a grant is not a contract but a gift “at the intersection of what the donee was going to do anyway and what the donor wants to do.” One commenter scoffed that donor funding is such a small part of the picture that this entire debate is pointless.

Let’s continue the discussion. What are your thoughts? Would it be helpful to require more transparency and disclosure up front? Should donors know more about what they’re getting into, and should the developers seeking funding be required to be more specific about what they are offering? Would this kind of “charter” encourage collaboration or discourage creativity? Is such a charter a pointless exercise or a step in the right direction?

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