Best Practices for International Development

We are so lucky to have our own international development expert, PhD Candidate Dacia on Vulnerable Children Society‘s board of directors. She has deep insights into East Africa, and we hope you enjoy her sage advice for best practices helping abroad!

Grammas and mamas self organize to feed the 70 kids each day at our Love & Hope Family Centre in Ethiopia.

By Dacia Douhaibi: Through my years of studying and working in the development field in Africa and at home in Canada, I’ve found that there have been two key problems with traditional development funding: donor driven priorities and inflexible funding arrangements.

Traditionally, donors who fund development projects drive programming. Priorities are set, calls for proposals that fit those specific priorities go out, and agencies and organizations around the world spend quite a lot of time painstaking filling out very detailed project proposal forms. Hopeful beneficiaries have become good at filling out boxes to get funding, ensuring that their programmes fall in line with donor priorities and plans, so good in fact that during recent conversations with staff from organizations in East Africa that routinely respond to calls for proposals, jokes were widely made about how well people are now conditioned to use key words and proper jargon in their proposals, while all the while knowing that the funding they receive can only go so far to actually promote, create or support positive change for the communities they work with. The problem with this system is that is is so backward!

For years, those of us working between donors and beneficiaries have seen the flaw in this process; should it not work in reverse? Shouldn’t community members voice their needs to project implementers, who then inform donors where their dollars would be most usefully spent? This is why many projects are so completely ineffective. A serious side effect of this model has been that those becoming conditioned to apply for funding this way – the locally grounded NGOs for example – are losing their ability to creatively devise meaningful, relevant and timely solutions to the real problems that they are addressing – and none of the interventionsthey devise to fit the funder priorities are, accordingly, actually responsive.

The second key problem is that there are also typically firm, specific guidelines for the way that funding must be spent once it is received, with little flexibility for change in programming to adapt to constantly changing local contexts and needs. In many of the locations where development projects take place, anything can happen from one month to the next, at times due topolitical crises, but increasingly now as a result of environmental crises. When funding has to strictly be applied to the programme created and proposed perhaps a year or two earlier when things looked very different, it handcuffs organizations from doing meaningful, helpful work. Further, if the money is not spent within the timeframe indicated in the terms of the funding contract, organizations lose it, which can sometimes mean pushing irrelevant programming just to make sure that funding is not lost. This is not only not helping those who could benefit from development funding and projects, but it
also means that donor money is not well spent.

Her child is active in the garden club at our Love & Hope Family Centre, and D shows off her son’s plants to Tawnya (VCS).

Fortunately, there are some organizations like Vulnerable Children Society who are blazing a new cooperative path. I’m proud that we work directly with Ethiopians to develop projects that meet the needs they identify in their communities. Although we certainly oversee budgets sent to us by partners, we let them drive the areas of focus and decide which priorities are most important for the impoverished urban kids and young women in the sex trade that we work together to help.

In the broader world of development, recipient organizations have been advocating for change, and some donors have started to realize that the traditional model may not make sense. More flexible funding arrangements that can evolve over time, particularly for multi-year projects, are becoming more commonplace, and donors that fund particular organizations more than once more regularly ask for proposals that do not follow their own prescribed formats, allowing for flexibility in programme structure and delivery models. There is more recognition that meaningful change takes time and flexibility. Priority areas are also becoming broader in some cases, allowing applications to propose a wider range of programmes.

Hopefully, over time, this will become the norm rather than the exception, and there will continue to be more ‘bottom up’ advice on how to arrange practical, responsive funding relationships. Hopefully, over time, donors will no longer drive programming, beneficiaries will. ~ Dacia

Dacia Douhaibi, Director of Vulnerable Children Society

Dacia has a passionate interest in social and political issues in East Africa. This passion has led her to pursue academic and professional work in the region through the past five years. Dacia holds a BA in Anthropology, a Masters Degree in International Relations and is currently working to complete her PhD in Geography at York University in Toronto. Professionally, Dacia works as a consultant, most recently conducting monitoring and evaluation of development projects in Kenya and documenting good peace building and reconciliation efforts or practices in South Sudan. She enjoys working with projects that thoughtfully and meaningfully engage with local communities to create and co-produce successful solutions and outcomes. Dacia is proud that Vulnerable Children Society works in partnership with grassroots organizations in Ethiopia to supporting children in precarious circumstances, is run by a volunteer board and maintains near negligible administrative overhead. Dacia has been a member of the board of Vulnerable Children Society for the past five years.


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