Within the development effort for poverty alleviation of smallholder farmers there is a strong tendency for implementing organizations to slant their reporting to appease the donors and make all projects appear successful, even when the generally voiceless beneficiaries are limiting their participation. The appeasement is necessary to assure project extensions and future projects particularly when donors demand to “only receive success stories”. The question is what does this do for the beneficiaries?
This problem stems from the up-front time and effort needed to bring a project to Implementation. The process usually involves six stages, consumes approximately two years, and costs upward of a million US dollars or equal amounts of Euros or Pounds Sterling, etc. With that much up-front time & expense no one wants to learn the project was inappropriate and not fully appreciated by the beneficiaries. However, the donors designing and developing the projects are usually isolated from the beneficiaries by a four layered Development Hierarchy. Also, during the project development process the beneficiaries could be poorly represented by the host government that has limited financial resources to become virtually Financially Stalled and unable to be truly familiar with their plight, and may have vested interest in potential personal Informal Income Opportunities derived from the project.
Ultimately when the request for proposals (RFP) is finally released and implementing organizations have the opportunity to bid, there is very little flexibility to steer a project towards more appropriate activities and innovations. Thus the implementing organization is forced to comply with the terms of the project and make the best of a possible difficult situation. This then requires appeasing the donor to make the project look successful. An example of how Appeasement Reporting reports success out of failure might be the reliance on farmer organizations and the cooperative business model for poverty alleviation of smallholder farmers. There are usually four techniques involved.
- The blanket vilification of the competing private service provider for exploiting the smallholder beneficiaries. This is often stated in the RFP as a given absolute fact and the major justification for the project. There is no need to question and no need to take a couple weeks at the beginning of a project to verify if such project justifications are valid. However, a detail analysis of the Private Service Providers operating within a Suppressed Economy serving an impoverished society, as is the case for most developing countries, will usually show a very efficient business model with only modest profits, with most of the presumed exploitive mark-up representing legitimate business expenses, including the nearly transparent Tripling of Transport Costs when serving remote smallholder communities off the tarmac.
- Report only aggregate numbers that appear impressive but with a few simple computation will prove to be trivial. An example of the use of aggregate numbers is the Ethiopia Fair Trade coffee project that listed some 21,891 cooperative members then marketed some 181 tons of coffee. Sound impressive at first, but when dividing the kilo marketed by the number of members it amounts to only 8 kg/member with a possible financial benefit of at most $5.00. This would represent at most 5% of the members coffee production and 1% of farm income. It is difficult to see how much you can impact poverty with this limited commitment to the project by the beneficiaries and overall reliance on the vilified private service providers for 95% of their marketing business. On further analysis it really looks like the projects are only marketing loan repayments and farmers are wisely side-selling 90% of their business to those highly vilified private service providers as is likely the case in Thailand where the marketed value flowing though the cooperatives was only equal to the inputs provided, and represented only 10% of farm income. Similar limited involvement was reported in Zambia.
- Avoid considering the extensive overhead costs of cooperative business model, by stopping the accounting of benefits at the cooperative rather than extending it through the cooperative to the farm level. This basically attributes the overhead costs as a financial benefit to the beneficiaries which is often about 30% of the costs. With all the extra accounting to maintain individual members accounts and possibility of getting involved in social services for the members’, the cooperative business model is administratively more cumbersome than private service providers which can quickly translate into excessive overhead expenses, that could easily exceed profit margins of private service provider.
- The results are project requiring continuous, extensive and expensive external facilitation and subsidies to keep going as was the case for the Fair Trade Coffee Project in Haiti. Then projects collapse almost immediately once the facilitation effort ends as with the Farmapine pineapple cooperative in Ghana. It is also possible with a little bit of effort to Highlight Several Reasons where cooperatives could lose their envisioned competitive advantage for which the beneficiaries to wisely minimize their reliance on the farmer organization business model.
While this type of appeasement reporting may please the project officers and assist implementer with contract extensions and future projects, it does very little for the beneficiaries looking for assistance to climb out of poverty. Instead the appeasement reporting serves to more deeply entrench project mechanisms into future projects, and virtually prevents projects from evolving to more appreciated mechanism for assisting the poverty alleviation process. It has to be understood and appreciated that project officers receiving appeasement reports tend to accept them at face value, happy with the apparent reported success of the project. They usually have little direct contact with the beneficiaries and what contact they have could be highly orchestrated by host officials with their possible vested personal interest as previously mentioned. Project officer are often too tied up in administering project details to carefully scrutinize the reports with a few simple computation that would quickly show the limited success of the project as done in the Referenced Webpage. Thus, the appeasement success of a project leads to duplicating the idea for future projects instead of evolving to more effective mechanism for assisting the beneficiaries, ultimately keep the beneficiaries from truly working their way out of poverty and remaining at risk.
In order to get such programs on track to better serve the beneficiaries, it is really the Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E) effort that needs to tighten up their evaluation criteria to, not only include the willingness of beneficiaries to participate, but also the extent they rely on the project services. Those responsible for M&E need to fully appreciate that they are not merely a means for assisting with the promotions and publicity of the project, but are mandated to represent the underwriting taxpayers, assure the taxes being invested are wisely utilized, and not squandered on projects the beneficiaries are mostly avoiding. This actually requires the M&E effort to also Represent the Beneficiaries. As such the M&E personal should be held fully responsible for the failure of future projects to evolve to more appropriate means of assisting the beneficiaries. This can easily be done by establishing more comprehensive M&E criteria. For the farmer organization business model the M&E may wish to concentrate on appropriate Basic Business Parameters that will not only measure the farmers willingness to participate but also the degree they are willing to rely on the project for the services available, and not side-sell to other business. Unfortunately, the referenced business parameter are virtually universally missing from any project reporting for farmer organization so the beneficiaries remain voiceless in the reporting process. Thus they continue at risk and trapped in poverty both during and after the project is completed. It might be interesting to see why these criteria are not included other then they would highlight such a low level of beneficiary’s participation to be embarrassing.
Finally, it should be noted that when someone develops an understanding of the degree of appeasement reporting that is taking place in an area of interest, it is quickly reflected in skepticism in reporting from other areas of development.
*This webpage originated as an article for Brink – The Edge of Risk on-line newsletter.