The never-ending MFS treadmill

Knowledge brokering28 Apr 2010Berkhout Remko

A colleague who sits opposite to me leans back and sighs: ‘What a day…’. Like most of us, she’s spent the past few weeks drafting country context analyses and new programme descriptions for our co-funding application that will be submitted in the coming months.

The ministry has approved our concept note, some 30 centimetres thick. Now we’re in the process of refining, expanding, focusing, completing the plan. Based on the requirements of the ministry, we’re adding more than 700 new pages, and continuing the extensive process of consultation, brainstorming and political negotiation over every little detail in each consecutive draft.

One colleague recently estimated that the whole process, which started back in 2008, will absorb some five man-years’ worth of working time. That estimate feels rather conservative. In terms of energy and management attention, the MFS application (More Funding Stress?) sometimes seems to have hijacked the organization. All of us have our ‘normal work’ to do as well: the partners, programme themes and countries we are working on, admin, our networks. But these have been pushed into the background, here and in most of the other organizations that are going through the same process.

The ministry is to blame for the impossible formats that we have to work with: 30 country context analyses, detailed outputs and outcomes per programme, SMART indicators, network analyses to avoid overlap and ensure complementarity. Colleagues at the ministry, who know exactly what the practice of our work looks like, privately admit that it’s ridiculous. Who’s going to read all this? Who still believes that core themes in the civilateral channel, such as civil society building, can be captured by quantifiable tangibles? They have no idea, and neither have we. And yet we soldier on.

Some still believe the effort is worth it. They have a good point: half a billion dollars of core funding for the next five years is a lot of money. But still … by the end of this year, the whole application process will have kept us busy for at least two years. And that will not be the end of it. 2011 will surely be dominated by the organizational changes emerging from our plan: new partners, phasing in and out of programmes, the closing and opening of offices and the much dreaded monitoring baseline. Thereafter, we will be caught up in whatever replaces the current system.

This morning, I picked up the latest Vice-versa, in which Rene Grotenhuis and Jack van der Ham, directors of the two largest MFOs, once again set out their objections to the current system. Their points concur with the opinions of their peers, but why, then, do we keep on running? During the last 10-15 years, each funding cycle has seen more cumbersome procedures, with more distraction and less crucial flexibility as a result. Why haven’t we, as a sector, been able to challenge the ministry more effectively? Why do we still think the effort is worth it? Who’s putting a price on the loss of quality time and relationships with Southern partners? I raised these points with a colleague who told me not to worry: ‘We’re almost done and then we can go back to normal’. Good to hear that there is still some optimism around, and yet I wonder: who’s kidding who here? Are we almost done, or are we caught in the never-ending MFS treadmill?

Personal reflections, with many thanks to Marlieke Kieboom and Maaike van Adrichem.