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How criticism from journalists can help NGOs

We’ve all watched the investigations, and occasionally sensational downfalls, of large corporations or corporate executives. Until recently, the NGO world has largely been spared this level of scrutiny, with their good missions serving as a shield against critical investigations.

However, journalists’ attitudes towards NGOs are rapidly changing.They are increasingly comfortable investigating and criticizing the work of aid agencies. This is not a bad thing.

I support journalists holding NGOs to the same investigative standards as corporations, and NGOs shouldn’t take the heightened scrutiny personally. In light of the report’s findings, these are the top questions that journalists, and the public, are right to push NGOs on.

1.  Is work being done where it is needed the most?

Aid organizations have been criticized for not giving sufficient attention and support to the frontlines of conflict regions, where it is often most needed. This criticism comes from journalists and from some NGOs themselves. Doctors Without Borders, for example, released a controversial report this past July, pointing out the lack of humanitarian organizations operating in “the most difficult places” like South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Syria. Even if they are unable to operate there directly, aid organizations must determine how they can contribute help to the areas with the greatest need.

2. Are NGOs being honest with donors?

Because donations are so valuable to NGOs, they have been accused of overstating the scale of disasters in order to increase donations. This is largely a result of competition between organizations doing similar work, and therefore competing over donations. In the West, international crises tend to only get widespread public attention when they become severe enough to receive media attention. The necessity of attracting funding, as well as the tendency to frame issues around what still needs to be done (versus what has been accomplished), often leads to NGOs highlighting stories of suffering which attract the most attention. Donors give to organizations that they trust, and NGOs must hold themselves to the highest standards of integrity to maintain this trust.  

3. Where is the money going?  

Some large NGOs are accused of being overly corporate and paying excessive salaries to senior executives. Paying fair and competitive wages to staff is important, and while it isn’t popular to advertise the fact that some donor money will be put towards staff salaries, administration, and logistics, these investments are necessary in order to run an effective organization. NGOs should be prepared to explain these expenses as well as the destination of all aid and programming money. If revealing executive salaries will brings unwanted media attention which undermines the mission and message of an organization, then these salaries need to be rethought.

4.   How is it helping?

It is important to understand how aid really is helping (or hurting). There is plenty of literature showing that development aid is often tied to corruption, and large portions of money often don’t get to their intended destinations.

Aid is only part of a strategy for economic development, and it should be put towards developing local expertise or providing emergency help. Aid alone won’t transform societies, but should help with issues of immediate need, while building local capacities to solve problems long term.

5.   What is the coordination strategy?

Especially following disasters, there is often a lack of coordination between organizations. While the organizations may all have good intentions, this is not enough. Proper strategic planning and communication between organizations is also vital in order to avoid missteps or repeated efforts. The response to the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 is often cited as being disastrous, largely due to a major lack of coordination between all the organizations responding to the crisis.

The lack of initial leadership and slow response in  fighting the Ebola epidemic also highlighted the necessity of evaluating the processes for coordinated responses to emergency situations.  Through better coordination and communication, NGOs can improve the sector by supporting each other instead of competing or duplicating work.

Increased journalistic focus on NGOs should not be seen as a blanket accusation of NGO wrongdoing. It should be seen as a valuable opportunity for NGOs to reflect, evaluate, and evolve. The majority of aid workers are selfless people, who truly want to help others and better the world. It is important that NGOs set the highest of standards for themselves in order to be worthy of the people they serve, and perhaps a bit of pressure from journalists can help make this happen.


Allie Kehoe