When the Customer Isn’t Right: How Unsupportive Donor Demands Lead to Ineffective NGO Practices

  • Daniel Walker
Keywords: non-governmental organizations, NGOs, donors, foreign aid, development, interviews


Recent literature has criticized non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and their activities on three main grounds: (1) NGOs incur higher-than-necessary overhead costs, (2) NGOs do not coordinate to distribute activities and projects according to beneficiary needs, and (3) NGO evaluation methods and results are biased. To discover the source of these inefficiencies, I interviewed the leaders of 34 NGOs in Kampala, Uganda. Based on trends in their responses, I argue that supposed NGO inefficiencies are actually logical reactions to strategies NGO donors employ. First, because donor financial commitments are sporadic, NGOs prioritize organizational spending, causing overheads to be higher than expected. Second, a lack of donor agreement on local needs leads NGOs to adopt client-specific objectives, leading to a lack of needs-based NGO project distribution. Third, because donors prioritize positive information in the short-term, NGOs have large incentives to deliver exclusive and/or biased data.

Author Biography

Daniel Walker

Danny Walker just finished a Master of Arts in Political Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with an emphasis in comparative institutions and foreign aid. He is excited to apply this experience in the field of Public Policy, specifically within the topic of international development. His current work focuses on combining social science methods—such as matching analysis and crowdsourcing—with impact evaluation. To this end, he recently worked with several colleagues to publish a report on the impact of the United Nation’s Peacebuilding Fund in Burundi. Even more recently, Danny worked with several partners and the United Nation’s Children’s Fund to develop and promote their new crowd sourcing initiative, U-Report, in addition to running a small field experiment on the usefulness of crowdsourced information to local government officials.

The author would like to thank the following individuals for their assistance and input: Mike Findley for helping to build this project and sending the author to Africa, Lauren Soelberg and Eric Darsow for assisting with interviews and transcriptions, Bonnie Mutungi and DENIVA for providing access to so many wonderful organizations, Megan Spencer for helping with follow-up research and analysis, and Jennifer Brinkerhoff, Anne Kruse, and Andrew Pike for dedicating so much of their time to editing and giving invaluable feedback.