Mission impossible? A strategy to unlock access to local aid info

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Following a previous commentary, Kenya-based aid monitor Angela Kageni asked :

Do you know how difficult it is for an independent person to get information regarding [Global Fund] sub-recipients and other lower level implementers? Even from formally registered agencies. (…) When we dare to inquire from principal recipients and sub-recipients information on Global Fund grants (financial or programmatic), we are asked : ’Who are you ? Why do you ask these questions ? What mandate do you have to track other people’s work? We only answer to our contractual donors!’

If you are a small NGO, media or community representative, why indeed would grantees of international aid answer your queries? There is such fear and mistrust of journalists and activists on the one side, and so little tradition in openness and accountability on the other, that it may seem like mission impossible. And you can’t turn to the Internet for filling the gaps: despite the promises of transparency initiatives, the data trail of development money stops for the most part at the entrance of recipient countries, with little trace of what happens to the funds after they hit the ground. Monitoring aid flows and raising accountability at the local level is still more about relationships than crunching numbers.

The good news is that people are generally willing to tell you a lot more than you think… if only you give them the chance to and don’t spoil your chances by being unprepared and unfocused.

From my experience as a journalist, media trainer and Global Fund insider, it boils down to taking time to reflect on what you hope to achieve, who can best help you with it and what shortest route will get you there. In other words, it’s about having a strategy. There is no one-size-fits-all solution but here is a reminder of some basic things that we too often ignore in our rush to get answers before being clear about what we are looking for. These should save you precious time and hopefully make you a more effective aid watchdog.

  1. Do your research.
    Avoid using people’s precious time to fish for basic facts. Before meeting with anyone, do your research. Find and read all relevant background documents that you can find on the web and locally to refine what you are looking for and clarify what change you want to bring about. Without this initial research, you might miss opportunities that won’t present themselves again, lose precious time, credibility and scare people away. Save the little time that you will spend with your sources for questions that can yield high-value information.
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  2. Define your objective(s).
    Be clear about the change that you want to trigger. Know what you are looking for, what impact on people’s lives you are aiming for, what concrete results you would consider a success (beware of being unrealistic or too ambitious) and what indicators you will use to measure those.
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  3. Build and maintain a list of key people.
    Don’t underestimate this. Spend time learning who does what and how to contact them. If you are focused on monitoring Global Fund grants in your own country, for example, this includes the Country Team in Geneva, the Country Coordinating Mechanism members and CCM secretariat focal point(s), the Principal Recipients’ focal points, the Sub-Recipients, the Local Fund Agent and technical partners. A lot of this can be found on the web. If not, there are many ways around and some basic tricks to get this information.
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  4. Know who to speak to, how and when.
    Your research must include some background checks on people and local power dynamics. Who holds valuable information? Who may be open to share it, to discuss and/or to be quoted? Who is in a situation to influence the change that you hope for? Beware of the order in which you interview people. If, for example, you are looking for something that no one seems ready to share locally, you may turn to the relevant people at the headquarters of the  funding organization (based on your list of key people). But if you want to validate information on the performance of a grant, you will have to do your research locally before turning to someone at a higher level.
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  5. Choose the proper communication channel.
    Nothing replaces a handshake and a smile. When possible, always prefer face-to-face meetings over phone calls or emails. Emails should be limited to information sharing. If the person you are trying to connect to is far away, try calling over the phone or Skype. If you have no choice but to use email, be extra careful about reporting lines and personal sensitivities. If someone is totally uncooperative, you may have no choice than copying this person’s supervisor or team mates. Otherwise, copying people without due reason can be seen as a hostile move and backfire.
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  6. Put yourself in the shoes of the person you want information from.
    Why should s/he trust you in the first place? What does s/he stand to gain or lose from sharing the information that you need? Think about this before knocking on anyone’s door. Evaluate people’s comfort level with the subject matter and situation. Consider what they might risk (job, relationships) or gain (support to achieve a common goal, recognition for their work and progress) from accepting to speak to you.
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  7. Introduce yourself properly.
    Before anything, people want to know who you are, who you are working with, what information you need precisely and what you intend to do with it. Know how to introduce yourself clearly and convincingly. If you have already followed steps 1 to 6, it should flow naturally.
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  8. Offer collaboration, not confrontation.
    Approach people with an open mind, in a spirit of collaboration. While confrontation may be necessary in some instances, and as a last resort, it rarely helps to achieve long-term objectives (see Watchdogs or critical friends?). Be conscious of your own state of mind. Ask yourself: is it my job to bring justice to the corrupt and incompetent? Have I made up my mind about problems and responsibilities? If the answer is yes, you’re off to a bad start. Your vigilante attitude will probably show by the way you ask questions or through your body language. And in any case, you will not get a second chance after people realize that you broke their trust. Be ready to have your own assumptions challenged. Take pressure off your shoulders. Be clear in your own mind that you are not after anyone but after the truth.
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  9. Make your information sources feel in control.
    Make people feel comfortable not to answer any question or get back to you at a later point if they don’t immediately have the answer. Start by asking factual questions to double-check what you learned from your initial research. Avoid loaded terms and keep emotional issues for last. At the end of the interview, thank them, inquire whether there is anything important that you didn’t think of asking, or how they would summarize things. You will often be surprised by how much new information you get at this point. If naming people is not necessary to achieve your goals, be ready to offer confidentiality, I.e. not quoting them, using the interview as a backgrounder only, or discussing the subject matter « off the record ». But be careful before considering this kind of deal. While this may be tempting and help you to understand what is truly behind what you are researching, accepting means that you will not be authorized to mention what you were told (unless you have additional sources) and the interviewee will take no responsibility for it.
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  10. Build and maintain trust.
    If you aim to develop longer-term relationships and want your sources to speak to you again, make sure that the end result of your efforts (a story, a report, a statement, etc.) is factual, constructive, fair and balanced, and that it doesn’t distort what they told you. Deserve their trust.
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