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Getting Funded and the “Problem-Inflation” Syndrome

June 19, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

NGOs, donor agencies and the UN ‘claim’ to intervene to address a specific problem in a given country. ‘Claim’ being the operative word here because if the problem is not there or is not big enough to attract funding, then they will by default create the problem from scratch or more often inflate its dimension and gravity. Everybody is aware of this “problem-inflation syndrome,” yet it continues to exist. One of the most evident cases in which this happens is the grant application proposal. Imagine you work for an NGO and you are applying for funding a project for commercial sex workers. The NGO is expected to present an analysis of the problem that sex workers are facing and that the intervention will try to address. In principle, such a problem statement should reflect the reality of the specific context in which the intervention will be rolled out. The problem is that NGOs conflate and inflate any challenges that could possibly affects sex workers  in this section. This can happen in the following way:

You can extrapolate experiences from other contexts and assumes that this applies to your context too. Consider for example the case of  discrimination that sex workers face when they seek care in public hospitals. There are cases whereby they are refused to be treated because of their activities and therefore some of the sex workers will not go to hospital when sick. This happen in some cases, but not always. Conducting a needs assessment in your area, you can find that such a problem is not experienced by sex workers in your district. Yet, in the problem statement each NGO tends to put “discrimination at health services” as a problem because this happen in other parts of the country. There is always going to be a study or an expert  in some part of the world who has found this issue to be a challenge for sex workers. Hence there are potentially unlimited problems based on “evidence” that can be listed. Why should NGOs desire to list as many problems as possible? The answer is simple: the more problems there are, the more interventions to be implemented, the more money to be channeled through the NGO. The perverse effect arising from such a practice is that the NGO will not focus or specialize on the specific problem in the area, but will instead expend its energy and time on addressing all the problems as identified by the mainstream narrative. And this has an impact of the effectiveness of the intervention itself. I would like to hear from you what donors could do to change these perverse incentives.

P.S. To see how the “problem-inflation” syndrome worked in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake you can read David Rieff in the FP here.

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