I recently attended the Interaction Forum held in Washington, D.C. on July 6-9, 2009.  The Interaction Forum is the largest gathering of US ngos involved with development.  I met some very interesting people and learned quite a lot.  Here are some of my learnings from the Interaction Forum …

Here are some of my learnings from the Interaction Forum:

• Americans dealing with international development are very aware of the recent cases in which Charities Directorate of CRA revoked the charitable status of a number of charities involved with pharmaceutical donations.  I found the awareness of this in the US to be shocking – I know of almost no Canadians who are aware of it.  So why are the Americans interested and concerned.  The very unethical practices of a few charities in Canada, which have been deregistered, were creating problems for US charities trying to do legitimate work having to compete with sham US charities.  The Canadian CRA has some very big supporters down south. 
• Poorly planned disaster responses are not only ineffectual but also wasteful and environmentally destructive.  Sending inappropriate or excessive supplies just creates a mess for the nation to deal with.  A little forethought in certain areas where there are recurring natural disasters can result in pre-positioning of supplies – then instead of flying everything in – it can be shipped in beforehand.
• A lot of international development, whether practiced by national governments, NGOs or corporations is insensitive to the needs of beneficiaries and more destructive than helpful.  Many organizations still view everything outside the “western” world as a basket case and therefore as long as you are motivated and well intentioned whatever you do will be beneficial.  Nothing could be further from the truth. 
• Security is increasingly an important concern – security for expat workers, national staff and beneficiaries.  Aid organizations who don’t not take security seriously probably should be getting out of the business.
• There are a lot of great resources on international development – for example Oxfam has hundred of really great books – many of them are available at the Oxfam UK’s website for free and you can download them as PDFs.
• The US Obama administration is actively pursuing a reduction in tax benefits to all charities for wealthy donors and also changes and reductions to certain types of charities, like hospitals, that are not doing enough “charitable” work and operate more like private hospitals.
• The US has a number of capacity building organizations that we sorely lack in Canada.  For example, there is The Association of the Stability Operations Industry which is an association of members who are active in conflict, post-conflict or disaster areas – everything from aviation logistics to security and training.  I was reminded of the good work that RedR does in terms of training – and RedR is in Canada.  There is a new organization called the International NGO Safety and Security Association which does capacity building for NGO safety and security.
• I met some of the Plumpynut folk – which was a real thrill for me.  If you don’t know what Plumpnut is – well check out the 60 Minutes episode on it.  It is ready–to-use food (RUF) and an amazing product that can be produced locally to respond to severe malnutrition.  Yeah for Plumpynut.  You can check it out at www. Edesiallc.org
• A major issue that dominated a number of sessions was the importance of respecting the laws of countries that you are operating in.  NGOs despise arrogant mining companies who trash the countries environment and evade tax.  Well many very well paid NGO employees are not paying required local income tax.  Such taxes are needed by Southern governments to pay for vital services – you know education, water, roads etc.  NGOS who send employees or contractors into the field need to make sure that they are remitting appropriate taxes.  Otherwise you may find that you are hit with a major tax bill for many years’ unpaid taxes or that your employee is stopped at the airport and told they cannot leave the country unless they have a tax certificate which may take a few weeks to arrange. There is increasing enforcement of tax laws and rules that were previously on the book but not enforced.  In some countries there is strict liability – if your local partner/contractor does not abide by the law the funder is responsible.  There is a difference between host country nationals, third country nationals and true expats. 
• The standards of international operations are constantly rising.  Many organizations who had hired “contractors” to do work are now insisting that the work is done by employees and making sure that they maintain more supervision of what is going on.    Whatever type of relationship is being used make sure to properly document it with a contractor agreement or employment agreement. 
• There are some amazing and ingenious products out there – crates that convert into toilets and showers, flashlights that can last for 200 hours, etc.
• There were a large number of US military personnel at the conference – I don’t think that would happen in Canada.  Anyway there was an interesting dialogue between the NGOs and military.  Apparently in disaster areas which do not involve conflict there is good coordination and cooperation generally between humanitarian groups and the militaries.  When it is a conflict zone or post-conflict area the situation is more complicated.  In some situations there can be 20 or 30 militaries involved, each with their own agenda and with different capacities.  The US military has learned that it is completely unacceptable for them to refer to NGOs as force multipliers or that they are leveraging NGOs.  On the other hand it is perfectly fine for an NGO to talk about leveraging the free lift capacity of the US military!  This makes sense – a humanitarian organization needs to be very careful about its interactions with the military – the military may only be there for a few weeks or months and the NGO may be there for years to come.
• There was a lot of discussion about measuring what really accounts and accountability for results.
• There was an interesting discussion of working in countries with majority Muslim countries and the importance of faith and charity in Islam as well as maintaining dignity and not providing handouts.  I seem to getting the feeling that some of these experienced practitioners did not think that sending 18 year old scantily clad Western men and women to areas with large traditional Muslim populations was the best way to accomplish development goals.  There is just no respect anymore for US high school education!  I guess sending some of these people over can also be expensive and not really provide any local employment.  Employment is important and also having people do the work who are respected and knowledgeable.  Is it really important that you understand the language, customs and traditions of a people when you try to get involved in difficult and controversial issues?  Well apparently the poor in Muslim countries tend to be more religious, it is important to engage religious leaders if you want your program to have acceptance and some Muslims do not do not appreciate the value of proselytizing or organizations being subcontractors or force multipliers of the US government and military.  There was an interesting discussion of Islamic prohibition on interest and how that affected microfinance.  There was a discussion about well meaning Western organizations coming with a single agenda and not being very interested in local priorities and preferences. 

For a more in-depth, professional and official view of Interaction Forum 2009 see: