Determining the potential of local populations, resources and the effectiveness of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is essential to securing a stable future for the world’s needful countries. This is a very important subject, particularly in Africa, where corruption and civil war have conspired to prevent foodstuffs and other essentials from reaching their destinations. Together, the writings of Robert Chambers; Martin Ravallion; and Susan Dicklitch and Heather Rice chronicle some of the key factors that impact the ability of aid to reach underprivileged countries and their ability to help themselves. These three articles introduce more substantive metrics and standards for determining how NGOs interact with and benefit indigenous rural populations and what kinds of aid sources are best equipped to oversee their activities.
In “The Origins and Practice of Participatory Rural Appraisal,” Robert Chambers examines a group of methods that enable local populations to pool their “knowledge of life and conditions,” and to find ways to act in their mutual interest (Chambers, 1994). Chambers’ article is concerned with the theory of Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), a locally oriented compendium of data and projections that includes weather mapping, matrix scoring, wealth ranking and other parameters that enable local populations to determine their own, native capabilities (Chambers, 1994). Chambers explains that this is a relatively new phenomenon because, until recently, outside influences have discouraged the compilation of such knowledge (a possible lasting effect of the colonialist system). Chambers explains that PRA has encouraged a merging of innovation that has produced positive change in many rural populations.
The number of countries utilizing PRA as a source of measurement has risen over the past 20 years, and NGOs have been instrumental in promoting and supporting the application of PRA in this endeavor. Chambers notes that Southern NGOs that support PRA number in the hundreds, while Northern NGOs also support its widespread use. Nevertheless, Chambers warns that PRA is easily overestimated because it has come to be perceived as too “politically correct,” which has discouraged its use in some locales and influenced the data and recommendations that emerge from this community-based initiative (Chambers, 1994). However, despite such inconsistencies, “the number of peoplewho have now chosen to use PRA as approach and processprobably runs into thousands, and is growing” (Chambers, 1994). The research methodology Chambers describes is, to a large degree, anecdotal and narrative in nature. Chambers writes of anthropological field reports and field research on native farming systems, information which is imparted through verbal exchanges, collated and produced as evidence. Oral histories and “ethno-biographies” are valuable means of gathering the kind of valuable local knowledge that has made PRA such a popular and lasting trend among NGOs and other agencies.
In his 2012 article “Mashup Indices of Development,” Martin Ravallion proposes a more quantifiable source of data measurement, which can be applied to the “valuations of life in poor countries,” and to other worthwhile uses (Ravallion, 2012). Other measurements might include price reliability, agrarian productivity and poverty indices. To illustrate his point, Ravallion compares a number of different “mashup” data compilations, used to draw conclusions in a variety of areas. Ravallion cites a 2010 Newsweek magazine article that used
an extensive mashup to try and identify the “World’s Best Countries.” This admittedly overly ambitious undertaking collected a group of factors in areas such as health, education, quality of life, political environment and economic competitiveness (Ravallion, 2012).
In comparing the practice of using mashups to rate socio-economic performance, Ravallion argues that there should be a more careful focus on exactly what is being measured, and why. The Newsweek article to which he refers is interesting in that its professed goal is to rank countries, but “The rationale for the choices made in the Newsweek index is far from clear,” (Ravallion, 2012). In another example, Ravallion notes that a number of mashup indices have been employed based on the argument that GDP is not a sufficient statistic for human welfare (Ravallion, 2012). However, Ravallion contends that this is a superficial reason for applying what amounts to an overwhelming array of indices at the problem. One of the shortcomings of mashup indices is that they often are simply unnecessary for many of the purposes of “evidence-based development policymaking” (Ravallion, 2012).
In their article “The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and faith-based NGO aid to
Africa,” Susan Dicklitch and Heather Rice examine a somewhat clearer objective, the accountability of non-government organizations (NGOs) as a means of delivering foreign aid. The decades-long history of foreign aid to Africa has been a confused subject to study, with the
prevalence of corruption in African nations making the issue of organizational accountability nearly as pressing as the social ills the foreign aid is meant to eliminate. Dicklitch and Rice studied the structure, backgrounds and self-governance of NGOs, finding that faith-based NGOs offer the most transparent means of bringing aid to disadvantaged populations. Specifically, they
identify the Mennonite Central Committee as a particularly reliable and accountable source of distribution.
Many NGOs, particularly those that are secular in nature, have a tendency toward privacy. The Mennonites, however, have a tradition of spiritual and administrative openness, which makes them especially effective. “Organisations like the MCC, which encourage fellowship inside and beyond the church, help build social capital and greater civic engagement” (Dicklitch and Rice, 2004). In its role as a funnel for food aid, the MCC’s avoidance of government sources of funding is highly desirable, as its aversion to American funding based on the group’s philosophical disagreement with the American government’s approach. The authors conclude that if more aid groups in Africa operated as the MCC does, help might reach its destination more frequently.
Together, these three readings show that there are multiple ways to collect and apply data to determine socio-economic factors affecting local populations. Chambers writes that the spread of PRA has altered the very meaning of local resource capability, though he does not directly state how this paradigm has materially benefited native populations. Ravallion finds benefits and flaws in both the method and meaning behind the “mashup” approach to data assessment, which is often insufficiently focused to provide truly meaningful conclusions. Finally, Dicklitch and Rice propose that accountability among NGOs is both desirable and possible, and that faith-based organizations such as the Mennonites are preferable in this area, though the long-term efficacy of organizations that operate without state resources would seem to be in question.
Chambers, “The Origins and Practice of Participatory Rural Appraisal.” World Development,
22(7), 1994, pp. 953-969.
Dicklitch, Susan and Rice, Heather. “The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Faith-
Based NGO Aid to Africa.” Development in Practice, 14(5), August 2004, pp. 660-672.
Ravallion, Martin. “Mashup Indices of Development.” The World Bank Research Observer,