Your Donor is Not Evil

October 26, 2016 | Alex Snider

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In this post, Alex Snider, a Foreign Affairs Officer covering West Africa at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), discusses how, against all odds, donors and implementers can navigate flexibility, risk, and creativity to develop effective anticorruption programs. These actors balance one another’s constraints, offer complementary perspectives, and hold each other to high standards, he argues. This post continues our conversation about the donor-implementer relationship, and how both play a unique role in the development of anti-corruption programming.

It would be bizarre if implementers looked kindly upon their donors. Yes, no one mourns winning a grant but the gauntlet of requirements it comes with can take a toll. Donor work plans are rigid but priorities and circumstances on the ground can change daily. Funding cycles are slow but demands for results are immediate.

Unfortunately the complexity of tackling corruption further raises the level of difficulty. This blog series has shown that rigid contracts work for tons of concrete but not tons of corruption. Flexibility, risk, and creativity are necessary for anticorruption programs to actually work. The donor-implementer relationship is not naturally conducive to any of this. Add in end-of-fiscal-year deadlines and plenty of oversight and it only becomes more challenging. I don’t blame implementers for occasionally wondering if the funding is even worth the reporting requirements.

Yet, against all odds, it can work. Donors and implementers balance the others’ constraints, offer complementary perspectives, and hold each other to high standards. They test hypotheses about addressing hard problems through a humble, collaborative approach. Yes, there are unicorns and rainbows spinning in infinity too.

For the last five years, I’ve worked for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) at the State Department. As the lead for international criminal justice reform policy, INL helps partner countries improve security and justice service delivery by strengthening their police, courts, and corrections systems. You may guess that targeting corruption, both as a problem in itself and as it relates to the functioning of the criminal justice sector, is central to our work.

I’ve worked on programs related to corruption that range from inspiring to insipid. Here are three ideas for how implementers can best work with donors on the innovative approaches fighting corruption requires.

1. Listen, then Educate

Win a grant? Congratulations! The priorities of your donor are now yours. That doesn’t mean you must grovel before them. Instead your task is to explain how your approach solves their problem. This is true even as, annoyingly, priorities and circumstances shift. You may be tempted to stick to your guns but be careful about winning the battle and losing the war. Advocate for the enduring need for the original objective but be open to reframing or readjusting to what’s at the top of your donor’s inbox. Being willing to work toward a common solution can pay dividends, perhaps through timely policy support or encouraging your donor to find new funding for that option year.

It may not shock you to hear that donors are fallible. They too juggle too many projects, are never as smart on a given project as they wish, and may send curt emails in between back-to-back meetings (sorry!). Help inform their decision making. Give them grace and empathy.  Request the same from them.

A more radical proposition is that donors can be useful. As an implementer you have a nuanced understanding of local culture that can educate donors.  But donors know the culture of their bureaucracy and can help you navigate the choppy waters of policy constraints and funding streams. Their relationships can help with thorny political problems at the core of corruption. They are flattered when you ask for their advice and, who knows, it may actually help.

2. Help donors tell a story

Even in the hardest contexts, the demand for results from your donor’s bureaucracy is probably intense. But donors can be trusted with nuance. The need to slowly build coalitions or that progress does not come in the scale of weeks is not lost on those who are tasked with dreaming up policy solutions to corruption.

You don’t need to turn water into wine but you need to give them something. Numbers are important.  Quantitative data are more “legible” – they allow bureaucracies to aggregate incidents and accidents across projects and provide a more objective story than hints and allegations.

But donors realize “numbers trained” is not the holy grail of M&E.  Although the most important things can’t be measured, please remember that qualitative measurement is not an alibi. The difference between lazy anecdotes and thoughtful case studies is visible from space. “Hoping” participants use training occupies a different universe than reporting on work plan adaptations designed to implementation of training or emergent opportunity to build on success.  Luckily there is much interesting work that demonstrates that qualitative data can be rigorous and, without it, we can’t even begin to understand complex contexts.

3. Process permits risk

The Washington Post Test means that your innovative program needs to take into account the possibility – and potential risk – of it showing up on the front pages.  A “Circus to Combat Corruption” program is the other side of the “Elephantgate” coin. This creates incentives for risk-aversion and inertia.  The quip “no one ever got fired for doing the same thing as last year” is at least half true.

But, all is not lost. Risk is not just about results.  Donors know that making progress on complex, intractable problems is far from assured.  Whether an unsuccessful innovative project is a reckless waste of taxpayer money or valiant effort that deserves a shot at redemption comes down to process.  Documenting a thoughtful, legal (!) process that included key stakeholders and weighed risks with the potential gains is worth all the cattle in the marketplace.

The word “failure” is too blunt and misunderstood for these conversations. No one is omniscient.  Sometime the only way to learn is through action. So explain why decisions were made, where you are now, and how you will adapt to this new knowledge. Whenever possible involve the donor; surprises are only good on your birthday.

A focus on process doesn’t imply a rigid blueprint.  It can follow a “Questions not Plans” or “Sailboats not Trains” approach that focuses on learning and feedback.  The key is to prove to your donor – and yourself – that you are not winging it. If you want to pioneer flexible, multifaceted strategies to fight corruption , “Hey trust us” won’t work. You need to help your donor advocate for how thoughtful and deliberate you are. Take the risk to say the three hardest words – I don’t know – and explain how you’ll learn and adapt.

In the field of corruption, there have never been more good ideas about where to start. Many of these have been captured in this blog. But good ideas are not enough. If you meet donors where they are, help them tell the story, and use process to pave the way for risk, you just might get a chance to see how good your idea really is.

About this article

This post is part of the corruption in fragile states series. The series provides a space for conversation about corruption in fragile states. Since its inception in 2016 as part of the CDA Perspectives Blog, the series has sought to challenge status quo thinking with a particular emphasis on exploring systems-based approaches to understanding and acting on corruption dynamics. Topics in the series range from new research findings in Uganda, Iraq or the DRC to provocative thought pieces intended to contest dominant paradigms or practices.

Now hosted by the Institute for Human Security at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, series contributions are inspired by, but not limited to, the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy project as well as the, now concluded, Central Africa Accountable Service Delivery Initiative. All blog posts published after March 1, 2018, information about submitting guest posts, and subscribing to future series updates is available here.

To receive blog posts on other topics from CDA subscribe here. You may contact [email protected] if you are interested in submitting a guest post on the latest work in the fields of accountability and feedback loops, conflict sensitivity, peacebuilding effectiveness, and responsible business.

About the author(s)

Alex Snider is a Foreign Affairs Officer at the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. His work involves developing, managing, and coordinating criminal justice sector programs and policy in West Africa including citizen-focused police, corrections and anticorruption work. Alex previously served as a Political Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Cote d’Ivoire, sanctions advisor at the U.S. mission to the UN, and political economy consultant at the World Bank. Alex has a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill a Master of Science in Foreign Service degree from Georgetown University. He is passionate about bureaucracy (really!) and integrating systems thinking and behavioral insights into programs. He occasionally blogs at


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