Much has been made of the "new model" of aid attached to the Gates Foundation -- rapidly becoming one of the biggest players in the global development scene. It is supposed to be innovative, agile, and private-sector influenced in a way that no NGO has ever been. That energy is summed up in one of its guiding principles: "We take risks, make big bets, and move with urgency. We are in it for the long haul." Oh, and the Gates Foundation packs the big guns, with an endowment of over $30 billion and contributions of $3.0 in 2009.
Interestingly, however, it seems that the Foundation's partners on the ground -- i.e. the groups they actually work with in needy countries -- are not as impressed. A report to survey their grantees on their experience with the foundation turned up some troubles that probably sound familiar to other aid groups -- the sort of problems that are all the rage in the reforming international aid debate:
Many of our grantee partners said we are not clear about our goals and strategies, and they think we don’t understand their goals and strategies.
They are confused by our decision-making and grantmaking processes.
Because of staff turnovers, many of our grantee partners have had to manage multiple Program Officer transitions during the course of their grant, which creates more work.
Finally, they say we are inconsistent in our communications, and often unresponsive.
Aid skeptics are sure to sieze on this as proof that aid, no matter how well-intentioned, backfires in implementation. Aid backers are sure to say that the fact that the Gates Foundation posted the critique on their Website and have already come up with a strategy to respond is proof that these nay-sayers are wrong.
My take? Bigger isn't always better, and maybe this time it's in fact the problem. The Gates Foundation has grown -- fast, having been promised Warren Buffett's fortune back in 2006 (the Sage of Omaha sent $1.62 billion this year). My brief time working for an NGO in Sierra Leone taught me how overstretched such organizations can become, how details slip through the cracks when the projects is scaled up and exported elsewhere too quickly, and how easy it is to forget that the model you so brilliantly applied in one place goes terribly wrong in another.
These problems may in fact be inevitable with size -- imagine if your company had operations in multiple countries on six continents, each with different aims, objectives, languages, cultures, governments, bureaucracies, local staffs, legal structures, and living conditions. Add to that the fact that your own workers transfer location every couple of years, so expertise is rare and in fact uncoveted.
With any luck, the Gates Foundation will prove that it is the agile and responsive organization it claims to be, using this review as a chance to do better. But maybe not, if it doesn't slow down and, yes, maybe even scale back until it grows into those shoes.
Hat tip: Philanthrocapitalism