Elinor Ostrom, the political economist who won a Nobel prize for work that showed local communities were able to manage at-risk resources better than business or government, died last week. Ostrom gained recognition for challenging the notion that only top-down intervention could help save dwindling forests or water supplies.
"What we have ignored is what citizens can do and the importance of real involvement of the people versus just having somebody in Washington or at a far, far distance make a rule," Ostrom said on the day her Nobel was announced. Ostrom’s work in the 1960s tilted against traditional thinking. What is striking is that, some 50 years later, the idea that communities or individuals faced with such challenges – poverty, disease, environmental degradation – might have a crucial role to play in devising and managing the solutions is still viewed with scepticism in many circles.
Earlier this month, non-profit organisations working in international aid met to look at this issue in terms of governance – in other words, how an organisation is run in a way that serves and incorporates the needs, desires and knowledge of those in whose name the work is done. The inaugural Advancing Good Governance seminar, held in the august rooms of Rhodes House in Oxford, UK, and organised in partnership between Linklaters, Camfed, the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and the Blavatnik School for Government, took as its first theme ‘Accountability to the Client’ – an issue that goes to the very heart of Camfed’s thinking.
For Camfed, the involvement of those on whose behalf the organisation works is non-negotiable. In practice, this means having community members run our programmes, make decisions about what support is needed and how resources should be allocated, and manage that allocation. The girls and young women whom Camfed has supported through education bursaries frequently advocate for their communities on the world stage. Staff in the five countries in which we operate – Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Zambia – are all nationals of those countries, and the directors of those country offices sit on the international executive management team. All of this is a significant step forward in addressing the power imbalance that often exists between the non-governmental sector and the people it supports.
Does it go far enough? One of the thornier questions at last week’s summit was whether the people in whose name an organisation campaigns or seeks funds should have a place on an organisation’s board. One delegate caused ripples when they suggested that although this sounded desirable in theory, in practice these individuals did not have sufficient ‘sophistication’ to sit on the boards. The idea that superior knowledge and expertise resides entirely with the non-governmental organisation is not uncommon (corporates are often accused of having much the same view of shareholders). But even those who reject outright the notion that knowledge and expertise is simply something brought from ‘outside’ have – for the most part – not gone the whole way and put a client* on the board. Whether this is something that should be done and seeking examples of where this has worked successfully – and how – could be one of the research areas that comes out of the seminar. *NB. Although’ beneficiary’ is the term most often used in development circles to describe aid recipients, this term is problematic because it carries within it the imbalance of power between 'beneficiary' and 'benefactor' that successful development overturns. Camfed uses ‘client’ to emphasis the responsiveness of Camfed to those it serves.
Given this lack of representation at board level, there is therefore an even greater onus on the board to act as ‘the guard of the guardians’ – the check and balance that ensures the organisation acts in the best interests of those it is meant to serve – and much of the discussion in Oxford centred around the role of a good board, the codes of practice that needed to be in place, the qualities needed in a board to ensure it exercised proper oversight over managers. Delegates agreed that this was in many ways a tougher task than that faced by corporate boards and executive teams since non-profits have to deal with the additional demands of donors, whose greater financial power can give them disproportionate influence over the work a non-profit chooses to execute, especially where governance in that organisation is weak. “There is a constant tension,” said one delegate, “between satisfying donors and those we exist to serve.” If you are not are careful, he warned, non-profit organisations risked becoming “retail merchants of their core beneficiaries” – serving up the needy as "fodder" for whatever results a particular donor is hoping to see, and imposing solutions that reflect more the desires of the donor than those of the beneficiary.
“If we cannot be there with our heads held high,” said another “then the people with whom we work cannot hold their heads high.” Dignity was a word that recurred throughout the meeting, as was collaboration. If non-governmental organisations in particular could work more collaboratively, some delegates suggested, then not only was there an opportunity to deliver even greater benefits, but also this could act as a form of improved governance whereby organisations held one another to account.
It is an attractive idea but one that many felt overly idealistic given the competing ideologies and scramble over a diminishing pool of donor cash. Getting organisations to collaborate was like herding cats, one panellist reflected – or weighing frogs suggested another. Elinor Ostrom showed that it is possible, however, to manage a threatened resource – she spoke in terms of water and forestry, but it could also apply to education or health – in the common interest and without an external rule set being imposed. Perhaps as funds dwindle in the 21st century the same may prove true among non-governmental organisations – and collaborations between this sector and other partners, including donors, governments and the for-profit world.