Why Haiti needs good government — not rule by NGOs
In responding to the Haitian earthquake, non-governmental organisations are the heroes of the hour. Even before the disaster, Haiti had 10,000 of them, more per head than anywhere else in the world.
As the NGOs further scale-up, the already limited capacity of the state has been decimated. Essential as the NGOs have been, this imbalance threatens to leave the state marginalised in the core task of basic service provision.
Marginalisation is dangerous. The existential danger is if the state is not visibly providing services, its predominant interface with citizens is as a tax collector, regulator and bribe-taker.
This has already bred a cycle of citizen disengagement from government with very low turnout at elections and extreme cynicism about politicians. People get little and so they expect little; they expect little and so they get little. The practical consequences are that, despite their furious denials, NGOs are largely unaccountable and uncoordinated.
Inevitably, accountability follows from money. NGOs depend not upon satisfying their users, but upon appealing effectively for donations. While the reality is that donor agencies fund NGOs to bypass the state, donor rhetoric is about building an effective state. By this they mean the standard 1950s model of service provision in European states: ministries of education and health directly running schools and clinics.
It is because this model has not worked in contexts such as Haiti that donors have opted for the NGO bypass. Ministries exist more in form than substance.
It is time to accept effective state provision of basic services need not be a replica of the European state: institutional design must be fitted to context. What might it look like in places like Haiti? The European model squeezed three functions into one organisation: policy, management of frontline services and the allocation of money.
Where it works, this provides the most cost-effective services on earth, but it depends upon the workforce internalising the goals of the organisation. One alternative is to split the functions. Policy setting is inherently political and must remain with government ministries.
But ministries need not run all the frontline services. The task of motivating workers is best left to each organisation to solve.
The third function, the allocation of money among frontline providers, needs a specialised public agency. In Haiti, NGOs should be getting their money not from aid agencies and British households, but from the government.
Of course, the money dispensed would ultimately have to come from aid agencies and charitable donations, but the government should have a degree of control.
If the money were simply handed over to the government ministries we would be back with the underlying problem that they lack the organisational capacity to spend money well.
What is needed is a hybrid agency run jointly by government and donors. It would take in money from donors and disburse it to the frontline. NGOs and ministries prefer business as usual, but business as usual doesn't work.
Paul Collier is Professor of Economics at the University of Oxford