Excerpted From: Miriam Hird-Younger and Sarah O'Sullivan, Signing Documents: Accountability Politics and Racialized Suspicion in Africa's Development Audits, 47 PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 10 (May, 2024 (2 Footnotes/References) (Full Document Requested)

YoungerOSullivanJosephine looked over the shoulder of her assistant, Gifty, at the well-handled stack of papers on the desk. “This is a big problem,” she sighed. Josephine was the national coordinator of a network of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) (what we call the “NGO network”) in Ghana tasked with coordinating civil society efforts on the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Josephine was frowning at attendance forms filled with the names, phone numbers, and signatures of journalists who had participated in the NGO network's recent training on the SDGs. The NGO network had targeted journalists for training because they could bring attention to the SDGs, especially driving public accountability on the goals. The donor agency that sponsored the training required the NGO network to submit the signed attendance form alongside receipts for lunch, a signed form for the small per diem given to participants, and the meeting agenda as evidence they had run the training and appropriately spent the budget. In preparing the documents for submission, Gifty noticed the attendance form was missing three signatures and called Josephine over to inform her. The “big problem” was that three journalists had signed the per diem form but not the attendance form, making it look like three people received the small monetary compensation without attending the workshop.

In this essay, we use a multisited approach to understand the role of signatures on audit documents within the operations of power in Africa's development apparatus. To do this, we draw on ethnographic data from NGOs in Ghana and Uganda, illuminating the invisibilized social and affective labor involved in completing audit documents for European and American donors. Miriam Hird-Younger was based in Accra, Ghana's capital city, where she conducted research with the NGO network. Her methods consisted of participant observation within the offices of the NGO network's governance committee and in-depth interviews with NGO leaders, donors, and other partners from 2017 to 2019. While working within NGO offices, Hird-Younger spent most of her time observing and supporting the network with the audit process, such as writing reports and documenting events. From 2016 to 2018, Sarah O'Sullivan carried out ethnographic research exploring the politics of postconflict aid in Uganda. In and around Gulu City, northern Uganda's economic center and largest municipality, she conducted participant observation with NGOs, government officials, community-based organizations, and members of Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs), who were common targets of NGO programs aimed at fostering self-sufficiency in the aftermath of war.

While different questions and topics guided our research, the notion of suspicion saturated our field sites, and we observed with interest the labor and affective practices that missing signatures or wrongly signed documents prompted among NGO staff. Josephine saw the missing signatures as a “big problem” for the NGO network in Ghana because she worried that when the donor saw the missing signatures, donor staff would assume that one of her staff had pocketed the money and, consequently, would pull their funding. She was not concerned over an actual misuse of funds, as she and Gifty had distributed the forms and per diems themselves. Gifty even reasoned that the three journalists likely arrived late, after the attendance form had been passed around. However, Josephine anticipated donor suspicion. Her colleagues had warned her that extra signatures on the per diem form would particularly incite donor suspicion and threaten their organization's strong reputation, which they had carefully maintained through their good governance practices. We take seriously NGO staff worries over signatures by considering what insights these worries and the actions they inspire offer on the racialized power imbalances in development audits in Africa.

Although geographically distant, Ghana and Uganda share a similar social location in a development system, where funding flows largely from the Global North to the Global South, and where audit documents (and their signatures) flow in the opposite direction. Scholars have long argued that the development system in Africa, which includes flows of money and modes of knowledge production such as audits, reproduces colonial hierarchies. More recently, critical development scholars have drawn inspiration from critical race scholars to consider how development functions as a purveyor of racial hierarchies globally. With the stated goal to explicitly theorize race, several scholars have emphasized the racial violence embedded in development's ethos and practice. Building on this work, we position the affective labor of NGO staff surrounding signatures and signing procedures to deter donor suspicion as one way that audits further entrench racial hierarchies within Africa's development apparatus.

In giving affordance to the racist logics undergirding audit signing procedures, we are inspired by both Cal Biruk and Jemima Pierre, whose work interrogates how racial thinking assembles the authoritative techniques of valuation within the aid apparatus in Africa. Biruk, building on Pierre's work, describes “racialized suspicion” as that which “center[s] on illicit or untrackable capture of resources by those on the receiving end (articulated in the racialized register of corruption)” of aid. Suspicions, they argue, “permeate the aid apparatus and are grounded in tropes of Africans as inherently corrupt, lacking, lazy, or slow”. Through audit processes, Africans involved in development projects are positioned as liabilities, whose actions must be effectively managed. We draw on this concept of racialized suspicion to explain the accountability system that prompted NGO staff like Gifty and Josephine to worry about three missing signatures.

Drawing attention to the affective labor of NGO staff surrounding signatures makes a claim about the “absent presence”  of race that permeates the everyday work of African-led NGOs. As Biruk observes, “relations between donors and African-led organizations are a site par excellence in which we can examine how racialized suspicion and stereotypes justify technologies of control and discipline”. The events we describe in this essay, however, happen relatively separate from NGO staff's direct interactions with (often White) donor staff, which better reflects the everyday working conditions of the “actors behind the formal shell of their organisations”. Donor representatives were not permanently stationed in the NGO spaces that we occupied, and the everyday work of NGO staff did not often involve direct communication with their donors. Instead, we focus on the social dynamics within NGOs and between staff and aid recipients as staff collect, worry about, and fix signatures.

The signature becomes a critical mechanism for NGO staff to validate their audit documents that will, staff assume, deter donor suspicion of financial mismanagement. Because African institutions are assumed to start from a deficit of good governance , we position this suspicion as rooted in racialized hierarchies. Whether the NGO network's donors would have noticed three missing signatures or not, we suggest, is beside the point. The narratives that circulated among African NGO staff about “other NGOs” that were found to be mismanaging funds and about what discrepancies donors might find suspicious created an everyday anxiety in which staff worked to differentiate their organization from the specter of corrupt African NGOs. Staff worked on audit documents in such a way that positioned the NGO as holding the burden of proof to demonstrate the “truth,” as though donor institutions held differential expectations of the level of transparency in their documents required to show good governance. A few missing signatures were not simply inaccuracies to the NGO staff but held the potential to shadow their NGO's entire reputation. Signatures did not always need to be real (i.e., they could be forged) to act as validation mechanisms in making true documents in order to deter donor scrutiny over missing or mismatched signatures.

We show that signatures are important based on who cares about them and why. Our research demonstrates that despite the time and labor that staff dedicated to worrying about and fixing signatures on audit documents, signatures could only ever temporarily relieve the immediate threat that donor suspicion posed to NGO staff, and not remove the suspicion altogether. Omnipresent donor suspicion remained even when staff implemented more documents needing more signatures. This is because the step of signing a document is a necessary, even mundane, requirement of audit protocols, which originate out of a system built on racial hierarchies and upward accountability.

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Globally, aid funding reached US$204 billion in 2022 (OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development], 2023). Recent statistics suggest that approximately 15% of that aid is channeled to and through civil society organizations, like NGOs (OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development], 2021). It is no wonder that accounting for this donor money is a significant concern and focus for NGO staff. Practices of documenting spending, from receipts to attendance forms, enact policies of good governance that call for accountability and transparency in tracking aid. Signatures, we have shown, make these documents “true”: they represent aid recipient participation in project activities, serve as evidence of transparent spending and money outflows, and document NGO management's review and approval of audit documents, all important practices for evidencing good governance.

Turning attention toward signatures, our work highlights how audit systems-- systems that supposedly ensure development success--uphold and legitimize a deeply racialized politics of accountability in Africa's development sector. NGO staff's labor and anxiety around signatures responds to their perceptions that donors will scrutinize audit documents for signs of mismanagement. These perceptions are rooted in structures of development that position African institutions as starting from positions of corruption, lack of governance, and financial mismanagement. If efforts to address racism and white supremacy in development take an audit-centered approach, however, they may be similarly mired in existing structures. As research has already shown, audit culture has historically increased austerity measures and inequity in Africa.

Audit systems are resilient and enduring, evident when a donor's response to gaps or flaws in the system is to double down on audits, rather than rethink accountability techniques and meanings. Until African institutions that receive aid are on equal footing with international donors and until the development sector begins to come to terms with its anti-Black racism, documents and signatures will continue to reproduce racialized power structures. Emma Crewe and Priyanthi Fernando contend that progress to end racism in development “will only be made when budgets, planning and evaluation are controlled by the South”. We add that such a South-controlled system must also rethink good governance logics that undergird decision-making and reconsider the evaluation tools and the types of knowledge that they infer. There would need to be a system, for example, that enabled NGO staff to worry much more about the reasons why VSLA members refused to sign an attendance form than whether donors would notice two mismatched signatures.

Miriam Hird-Younger, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Sarah O'Sullivan, Department of Anthropology, Capilano University, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.