Guest Post: Please, Criticize Me! (Why Anticorruption Practitioners Should Scrutinize and Challenge Research Methodology)

GAB is pleased to welcome back Roger Henke, Chairman of the Board of the Southeast Asia Development Program (SADP), who contributes the following guest post:

In a previous post, I described a survey used to estimate the incidence of fraud and associated problems within the Cambodian NGO sector. The response to the results of that survey have so far been somewhat disheartening—not so much because the research has had little influence on action (the fate of most such research), but rather because those who have been told about the study’s results have all taken the results for granted, questioning neither their meaningfulness nor how they were generated. Such at-face-value uptake is, paradoxically, a huge risk to the longer-term public acceptance of the evidence produced by social-scientific research.  I am relieved that methodological considerations (issues of publication bias, replicability, p-hacking, and others) are finally getting some traction within the social science community, but it is evident that the decades-long neglect of these problems dovetails with a public opinion climate that doubts and disparages social science expertise.

Lack of attention to the methodological underpinnings of “interesting” conclusions is hardly a remarkable fate for corruption research results, nor is it specific to corruption research.  But the anticorruption community has a lot to lose by distrust in research, and thus a lot to win by ensuring that the findings it uses to build its cases upon pass basic quality checks. For the remainder of this post I’ll examine some basic questions that the Cambodia NGO corruption survey’s results should have triggered before being accepted as credible and meaningful: Continue reading

Guest Post: Corruption Among Development NGOs, Part 3–The Need for Collective Action by Funding Agencies

Roger Henke, Chairman of the Board of the Southeast Asia Development Program (SADP), a development grantmaker based in Cambodia, contributes the following guest post (the third in a three-part series):

Previous posts on development NGO corruption described a survey tool and its results in Cambodia and the conundrum of using the upward accountability relationship between local NGOs (LNGOs) and the grantmakers funding them for remedial action. The analysis of the report which underlies much of those contributions includes another foundational premise: Given the systemic functioning of Cambodia’s (and other countries’) LNGO sectors, anticorruption action to hold these LNGOs to account needs to be collective in order to be effective.

The characterization of the sector as “systemic” is meant to capture fact that nearly all LNGOs are funded by more than one, often five or more, grantmakers, while these grantmakers in turn, each fund many (sometimes more than 25) LNGO partners. To see why this matters for upward accountability, suppose for the moment that a given Grantmaker X takes seriously its responsibilities to diligently oversee LNGO Partner Y, and suppose further that Grantmaker X uncovers a problem. What happens next? The best case scenario is that the LNGO acknowledges the problem and fixes it, while the worst-case scenario is that both the LNGO and the grantmaker ignore the problem. Both of those happen sometimes. But the more common outcome is this: The LNGO fails to deal with the problem, and eventually Grantmaker X decides to stop funding it. But this affects LNGO Y only temporarily, because it has (or can find) other funders, many of which may not exercise the same degree of diligence as Grantmaker X. So nothing much changes. Even when Grantmaker X communicates with other co-funders about the problems, and more of them decide to question their support of LNGO Y, it takes a fair level of coordinated grantmaker disinvestment to put an LNGO out of business. That level of coordination is rare even in cases of obvious crisis, and absent during more mundane times.

What is needed, then, is more collective action. Many grantmaker staffs would agree with this in principle, but the dominant response is generally not action but resignation, dressed up as “realism”: “Why waste time on beating a dead horse? Even if local grantmaker offices were all willing to collaborate, aligning the diverse requirements regarding reporting, auditing, etc. of all the headquarters….forget it.” I reject this defeatism. One rarely knows that something won’t work until one tries, and my experience in Cambodia is that practical pilots are very rare. So, what would proper collective diligence regarding financial management imply in practice? Continue reading

Guest Post: Corruption Among Development NGOs, Part 2–The Hot Potato of Upward Accountability

Roger Henke, Chairman of the Board of the Southeast Asia Development Program (SADP), a development grantmaker based in Cambodia, contributes the following guest post (the second in a three-part series):

My previous post in this series described the results of a survey that estimated the incidence of fraud and associated problems within the Cambodian NGO sector. The survey utilized a relatively independent source, the grantmakers that fund local NGOs (LNGOs), and triangulated the results with information supplied by the firms that perform external audits for LNGOs. The basic idea was that grantmakers are likely to have an evidence-based opinion of the quality of their LNGO partners’ financial management, governance, and fraud risk (and fraud incidence). After all, grantmakers assess organizational soundness before awarding a first grant to a potential partner LNGO, periodically monitor the work being funded by that grant, and require extensive, often cumbersomely regular, results and financial reporting, as well as yearly or project-based external audits. To put it simply: Grantmakers conduct regular due diligence (in the broad sense of the term) on LNGOs.

It seems strange that such an obvious source of objective data on NGO corruption and some of its correlates had, to my knowledge, never been considered before. Why not? My guess would be that the strained and ambivalent relationship that the aid community has with concept of so-called upward accountability is to blame. The engagement is strained in at least the following two aspects: Continue reading

Guest Post: Corruption Among Development NGOs, Part 1–Getting the Facts

Roger Henke, Chairman of the Board of the Southeast Asia Development Program (SADP), a development grantmaker based in Cambodia, contributes the following guest post (the first in a three-part series):

Compared with media attention to corruption among public officials and corporate interests, corruption in the non-profit sector is virtually ignored (though a recent GAB post on NGO corruption in India is a notable exception). This lack of interest is matched by the absence of sustained substantive debates about the sources of NGO sector corruption and the effectiveness of remedial interventions. My own experience with these issues derives from my involvement with the NGO sector in Cambodia. Corruption within our own house is a regular topic of informal conversation, and also makes it into our periodic sectoral assessments (though often through oblique references to concerns like “weak financial systems” and the “lack of checks and balances”). However, there are no efforts at all to go beyond these anecdotes and self-reported “weaknesses” to gather systematic, externally validated evidence about levels of corruption, let alone about issues like costs of corruption or the way it correlates with characteristics of the NGO sector that would offer entry points for positive change.

Given the comparative importance of development aid channeled through the NGO sector in countries like Cambodia, this lack of attention to NGO corruption is unfortunate. Admittedly, gathering information on local NGO (LNGO) corruption is challenging. Yet there are potentially useful sources of information that have not been exploited. For example, LNGOs are funded by grantmakers, and these grantmakers (often criticized by LNGOs for their cumbersome administrative requirements and time-consuming monitoring visits) are a possible source of data about LNGO fraud and its correlates. Additionally, the audit firms with an LNGO client base are another possible source of information.

In 2014, to test the willingness of grantmakers and audit firms to share information on their LNGO partners and NGO client base, we at SADP piloted a grantmaker and audit firm survey. The results were promising enough to repeat and expand the exercise in 2015. In this second grantmaker survey, 18 out of 26 grantmakers approached agreed to participate, and 13 of those 18 shared LNGO partner-level information (for a sample of 93 LNGOs). The grantmaker survey queried incidence and seriousness of (1) financial management problems, (2) governance problems, and (3) fraud. (In order to maximize participation, the survey prioritized brevity and simplicity over depth of information.) The audit firm survey (in which four of the five firms approached agreed to participate) asked only for some aggregate data (total number of LNGO audited, number of audits that identified fraud, number of audits that flagged serious financial system issues, etc.). Admittedly, neither the sample of grantmakers nor the sample of LNGOs is statistically representative of Cambodia’s NGO sector, but the surveys provide more valid information about corruption in development NGOs in Cambodia than has previously been available. And the quantitative picture emerging from the combination of these two data-sources about the organizational quality of Cambodian LNGOs is both revealing and disheartening. Interested readers should check out the full report; the most important findings are as follows: Continue reading