A delay-prone new funding method has led the Canadian International Development Agency to turn off the taps to groups that have worked with it for decades and had developed solid track records.
An umbrella group of Canadian development NGOs fears a drain in development work capacity and a rollback of best practices. It's calling for the Canadian International Development Agency to review and improve the funding process.
The Canadian Council for International Co-operation, comprising about 100 member organizations, says CIDA launched its calls-for-proposals funding mechanism a year and a half ago without consulting organizations affected. The competitions launched so far have been plagued by delays and glitches, it says.
In January the group teamed up with its provincial counterparts to survey their members about the new system, both those with and without experience using it through six of the eight calls for proposals CIDA had launched.
The results, based on 158 completed surveys and released March 2, indicate that dozens of development groups were denied funding, no matter their track record. Smaller organizations were the hardest hit.
"CIDA needs to take a step back and re-assess the call for proposals mechanism, said Julia Sánchez, CCIC's president-CEO, in a news release.
The CIDA minister's spokesperson said CIDA values its partners' input and has continually worked to improve the system. He said it would review CCIC's recommendations.
CIDA used to fund Canadian development NGOs by responding to their requests for funding. The process allowed groups to develop relationships with CIDA staff to ensure easy communication about the status of a request.
But the system was also vulnerable to criticism that some groups were receiving privileged access.
In July 2010, International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda announced the system's overhaul. Through CIDA's new Partnerships with Canadians Branch, the revamped process meant CIDA would put out periodic calls for proposals, pitting groups against each other to gain from the same pot of money. It was a big change.
CIDA was surprised by the overwhelming number of applications for two of the broadest competitions so far—the under- and over-$2 million streams—leading to long delays, said Ms. Sánchez. CIDA also put in place a rigorous system to ensure fairness, which meant its evaluators couldn't review proposals from groups with which they had worked in the past, she said. And once they were on the minister's desk, it took more time.
With submission deadlines last spring, decisions were to have been made by early fall. But they weren't announced until Dec. 23. Applicants weren't told the source of the hold-up, and weren't sure when they would get a final answer.
"In this instance, the number of proposals received, the complexities of larger proposals and multi-part proposals increased the time required to assess the proposals, assessments based on merit and our aid effectiveness agenda," wrote Ms. Oda's spokesperson Justin Broekema in an email to Embassy.
That left groups like the Vancouver-based Community Builders Benevolence Group in a lurch. It submitted two proposals in the under-$2 million stream. In November, chairperson Gordon K. Wiebe and another colleague travelled to Sumbawanga, Tanzania and MacDonald, Haiti to explain the delay to local partners.
Their projects didn't make the funding cut.
They were among 86 eligible proposals that failed. Only 30 in the under-$2 million stream were approved, representing $30.7 million worth of projects.
In the over-$2 million category, of the 41 eligible proposals, 23 were approved, representing $111.7 million.
Mr. Wiebe said March 5 that the CIDA submission is just one of the funding proposals it submits regularly. Plus, it gets money from private donors.
But he said that without the CIDA money, he's lost the leverage it could have provided in attracting other funding. And, he said, although the projects it was set to fund are still running, they are more limited. For instance, community health nurses in Tanzania don't have a vehicle to use to see patients that could have been bought using the CIDA funding. They must walk, take a bus or boat, putting them at more risk of contracting malaria.
Big groups more likely to succeed
Mr. Wiebe estimates his group spent $20,000 researching and writing the CIDA funding ask. "That's a big investment," he said.
"There are much smaller organizations that I think don't have any hope of these type of CIDA competitions," he said.
Indeed, small groups are being hit the hardest, said Ms. Sánchez. Almost 77 per cent of survey respondents whose proposals were successful came from organizations with more than six staff members. All 11 groups in the over $2-million competition with incomes greater than $5 million were successful. Eight of 10 failed proposals were from groups with less than $1 million in income, and none of the four proposals from groups with less than $500,000 income made the cut.
Smaller groups tend to have a higher dependency on CIDA money, said Ms. Sánchez. They don't have the same level of capacity as big organizations to quickly respond to upcoming challenges and, for instance, funnel resources into writing good proposals. Plus, big development NGOs likely already have had experience their smaller counterparts lack in writing competitive funding proposals.
Mamta Mishra, executive director of World Literacy Canada, likened it to losing a bunch of mom-and-pop small businesses to big box stores.
"If you only concentrate on a few, if you only get down to a few Loblaw's and McDonald's ruling, then what you have effectively done, you've cut out alternative voices," she said.
World Literacy Canada lost funding for a program CIDA had supported since the agency began in 1968, even though she said the group had received excellent CIDA report cards on its work. On March 1, Ms. Mishra helped move the group's office into a smaller unit in the same Toronto building, in anticipation of running out of CIDA funding at the end of March. Her staff has also dwindled from four to two because of the funding loss. And she anticipates a "significant" cut to the group's programming overseas.
"I'm on my way to India on Friday to see how...we can manage to save as much as we can," she said.
CIDA money used to account for between 35 and 40 per cent of the group's total funding, she said.
Twenty-four groups, or 14 per cent of survey respondents, said they had to either cut staff because of the delay in announcing results or because of the results themselves. Nineteen of these groups were smaller organizations making less than $1 million in revenue. Also, 22 groups said they now had to end partnerships with groups abroad.
The effect may be a long-term capacity loss, said Ms. Sánchez.
In an effort to make the competition fair, she said CIDA evaluators look only at the proposal they're sent, not the sender's track record with CIDA so they have no preconceived notions about how good or bad they are.
"No organization is entitled to receiving taxpayer funding," said Mr. Broekema.
"We call on all our partners to ensure their proposals meet our effectiveness requirements: delivering concrete results in the lives of those in need, with transparency, accountability and sustainability."
That's fair, said Ms. Sánchez, and no one's against the switch to a competitive process, but development is about the long game, she said.
"Development is about process, it's about history, it's about partnerships, and it's evaluated," she said.
Competitions should take into account CIDA's past evaluations of the groups submitting proposals, she said.
"We're concerned about issues like the trend to move away from program to project funding, which is something I think many of us thought we had already graduated from in the '80s and '90s," she said.
Projects have start and end dates and focus on more tangible things. Programs require a longer-term vision and commitment, she said.
Not every group was disillusioned with the process. Most survey respondents said they didn't have to end partnerships on the ground, weren't laying off staff, and the calls-for-proposals mechanism wasn't affecting their organization.
CIDA granted the water charity WaterCan up to $5.2 million over five years for hygiene and sanitation programs in schools in East Africa. George Yap, the group's executive director, said it was different to experience no real communication from CIDA about WaterCan's submission until it was approved, when in the past there was a high degree of interactivity between CIDA officials and WaterCan program staff.
He said he understood why groups might be concerned about that change, but that it is a more objective process.
For CIDA's part, Mr. Broekema said: "We continuously improved the call process since we launched the first call, in October 2010."
He said input from partners is one of the components the agency will use to apply lessons learned in ongoing improvement efforts of the funding mechanism.
"We remain committed to ensuring our aid becomes more effective and we committed to consider each proposal based on its merit," he said.
"The report was released only last Friday. CIDA will review its recommendations."
CCIC's recommendations include: clear and predictable annual timetables for all regular calls for proposals; a lower-cost and less resource-intense two-tiered process with an initial concept note which, if accepted, would lead to an invitation to send a full proposal; a more level playing field to ensure smaller groups have a shot; more transparency during the evaluation process; and workshops for groups to understand how to submit a good proposal.
Ms. Sánchez said CCIC is having good dialogue with CIDA on the operational-type issues, but she said the larger questions about how this new funding mechanism is delivering better aid are harder to tackle.