Chris Blattman

NGOs: Please stop training

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NGOs love nothing like a good training. Or better yet: training of trainers. What better way to give services to 20,000 people? So much sexier than serving just 200.

I’m in central Liberia observing peace workshops. Local chiefs and elders are the first and last stop for justice of any kind in post-war Liberia. This NGO is educating leaders and the community on mediation skills and human rights.

The problem (as I’ve discovered today): 30 percent of the town has received peace training before.


These people don’t have roads. Surely this can’t be the best use of scarce aid resources?

I guess we’ll find out. It’s one of a handful of UN post-conflict interventons I am evaluating.

It’s too soon to say, but my guess: the outcome will be a very interesting panel data set and a nail in the coffin of peace education.

17 Responses

  1. Paul C.

    That was exactly my point about economics and economists.

    Talesfromthehood makes a goodpoint which he elaborates on further on his blog. It's fine to point out the failures of development actors but far harder (but much more helpful) to give useful advice on what they should do instead.

  2. On the Katine Project website – and on its blog that chronicles the progress of the Guardian and AMREF's joint rural development initiative in Katine, Uganda – there has been debate for a while now on the value of training over providing tangible outcomes.
    The following video features Joshua Kyallo – AMREF Uganda Director – as he explains trying to find a happy medium between the two.

  3. I have to say that you are making a huge blanket statement here. I work for a human rights NGO focusing on training public criminal defenders in countries that lack them, and it is an extremely effective way to improve the defense of those languishing in failed criminal justice systems. For instance in Rwanda there are about 400 lawyers for the entire population, and about as many as 80% of those who are in prisons lack proper representation. The trainings we provide to lawyers where there are few other methods of receiving this knowledge – and for free – are extremely helpful.

    You can't make blanket statements – in your situation, sure, perhaps there are flaws in that NGO's approach. But this does not mean that ALL types of training are a waste!

  4. You can tell training happens too much when the cost for renting a facility skyrockets and people live off the fees they get just for showing up. Still, not all training is bad. But if you are training on something nobody knows anything about (peace training) then it will have vague results of course.

  5. okay, so having given that pronouncement, you have an alternative to suggest?

  6. The key issue with training in international development, global health, etc., is that there is usually a lack of true needs assessment and context/audience analysis (or lack of including training professionals in the broader needs assessment process) when creating these training programs.

    This leads to training not being focused on the right individuals and excessive numbers of people being trained. In global health, this means pulling people out of their place of work, which is detrimental to already strapped health systems. Further, the issue of "per diems" being offered to get people into training means attending trainings becomes a form of income, and you find people who are not appropriate for the training being sent to your program. Or, as happened to me in one case, people not returning on the second day of a multi-day training when another training was being offered that paid per diem and mine didn't – so 1/3 of my participants went across town to the other training.

    Capacity building is key and it does require training…it's just the planning and execution on the organization's part that is the issue, whether they be governmental organizations or NGOs. I think funders must be engaged in needs assessments to ensure that they are funding NGO's appropriately and encourage NGOs to adequately target their audiences.

  7. ourman: I would guess that Chris – and a number of commenters here – have spent a little more than two minutes thinking about this issue. The headline is definitely a little tart, however.

    Ian: I'm not sure that economists are in a position to provide that advice, but that's because I don't think development is solely (or possibly even mainly) a question of economics.

  8. Two minutes worth of thought and blogging time put into an incredibly complex question.

    And do you really mean that headline?

  9. Agree with Paul C – but I think it's also a fair question for NGOs to ask themselves whether or not economists have any useful advice about how to "stop failing". It is easier said than done, and it isn't mostly about their level of skils in economic analysis

  10. since a big share of all aid projects are failures, it's a little too easy to criticize

    Well, quite. Surely the answer is not for economists (or anybody else) to stop criticizing, but for NGOs to stop failing?

  11. I'm not sure your evaluation of one training program is putting a nail in anyone's coffin, especially for something as vague as peace training – some kinds of knowledge / culture take a long time to build up. e.g. you studied the same theories of economics at the undergrad, master's and doctoral level. e.g. kids learn traffic safety in primary school over and over again. It wouldn't surprise me to hear that ideas about peace take a while to sink in when you've been at war for years.

    Second, please think about the history of NGO training and why NGOs do it. Before NGOs did training, they were criticized for unsustainable projects. Unmaintained roads and irrigation canals falling apart, farmer cooperatives dying as soon as NGOs pull out, building schools without teachers or pencils and health clinics that governments couldn't afford to staff.

    Smart economists not unlike yourself came in and said "surely this can't be the best use of scarce aid resources". Training is one response to these criticisms and also trying to get at what the "governance" school of development people thinks is important.

    NGOs are choosing between classical development projects where the benefits are known but failures are prominent and likely, and the fuzzy development projects like training which might or might not have big long term effects, but nobody knows. Most big NGOs do some of both.

    It's not so obvious that one is better or worse than the other. "Is this the best way to spend money" is a cheap statement that economists love to make – since a big share of all aid projects are failures, it's a little too easy to criticize, and much more useful to point to something that you actually think is going to work. But that puts you at risk of failure, which is why most economists are content to sit back and say "look how dumb that is."

  12. You seem too excited about putting a nail in that coffin — what's the point of having roads if they're just gonna get blown up?

    IMHO,teaching folks how to defuse violence and resolve disputes seems like money well spent — especially in a place with a history of violent outbrakes…. That said, if violence it not a problem, then roads would certainly be a better use of aid $$

  13. Maybe in Liberia, right now, peace training is the wrong approach. You're data may have something worthwhile to add to that debate, but to portend the hammering of the final nail into the coffin of peace training sounds a little over-reaching.

    In addition to roads, schools and basic needs, people in conflict areas need to learn that peaceful coexsistence is not just about the actions of the powerful nations and local warlords.

  14. Many NGOs and agencies come into a country and want "cheap", "high leverage" projects. This generally means no "implementation" funding. What do you do if you can't do implementation? Capacity building! (And for amateur development practitioners, Capacity Development=training)

  15. Is it really training that is the problem, or the content of what we are training? I'm involved in an NGO that has an agriculture training program in a developing country. We are training farmers on how to get significantly better yields on their tomato crops. We've also linked them to a processor that makes tomato paste that is contracting to buy their crops after our training. We are directly impacting jobs and income levels through training.

  16. Amen. Conferences, training sessions, and Davos are the bane of positive development.

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