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Foreign Aid: Upside Down; Inside Out, & Roundabout!




Almost every day Cambodia has conferences and workshops, ostensibly to promote development for the poor, but always senior officials and experts take pride of place to expound their wisdom down from upon high. The “Sage on the Stage!”

Just now, today, I received a call from development expert. “Our donor has some money.  We stand a good chance of getting it.  We have an idea, only we need your help...... to find the beneficiaries!”

And this message will be typical of many like it in every country where overseas aid and development money goes out to “Calls for Proposals”.

Now I have long expressed the view that this way to plan a country’s development and the allocation of development assistance is by chance rather than design.  It is:

Foreign Aid: Upside Down; Inside Out, & Roundabout!

Admiral Collingwood looking out over the Mouth of the River Tyne.  Photo Credit Ray Urwin©.
Statues do look better, right-way up; noticeably outward in appearance, and facing the right direction, as depicted by our local hero Admiral Collingwood.  Sculpturers could give the Aid Industry a few tips!


Upside-down – because the purveyors of these ideas are invariably the well-educated elite, who usually think that they really do know best. They fervently believe that knowledge flows one way - top-downwards.

2  Inside-out – because the ideas are hatched in sumptious surrounds in national capitals, where most development experts are comfortable, emanating them out to rural and urban poor communities later via intermediaries.

3  Roundabout – development experts with their pre-prescribed solutions go in search of the problems to fit them, instead of finding problems first and then designing solutions – or better still allowing beneficiaries to come up with their own solutions and then working with them to put them in to effect!

(See also related article: "We need smarter aid, not more aid".)

The “Call for Proposals” system, much favoured by donors, is an open competitive process that has grown in the last 15 years.  It has largely replaced the previous system, regarded as too cosy, with inside deals, that lacked transparency and was conducive to corruption.  The new system should make such faults less likely, but ultimately you still have the same inner-circle of experts involved from programme design to selection of winners.  For certain, what it does mean is far more time is spent, and wasted, in trying to win funding.  In my “Sustainability" article I give the example of 450 applicants, each spending at least a week on its bid, but only 38 (8%) in the end succeeded!

For many who do succeed, you will see on Cambodian TV the usual way of presenting their projects, any channel any night.  There are numerous conferences, workshops, and training sessions, in top hotels, where the principal development actors are pictured at-play.  The photograph above is typical of them. Rarely do TV stations show the actual projects taking place with the poor and the active development practitioners.

Back in 2002, I first tried to do things differently.  We had a well-funded rights and development project for poor disabled people.  We recruited 6 best-qualified community facilitators, drawn from the leading partner organisations.  I thought that with their experience, our initial induction would take a week.  It took 12 weeks. Even then, some would not go along with the “radical” approach, and we had to replace them.

To try to convey the philosophy, and avoid the usual jargon, I coined what is really an unoriginal mantra:

“Action by disabled people – yes!  Action with disabled people – maybe?  Action for disabled people – No, No No!”

Now let me be clear, the philosophy worked, and there were some astonishing good results.  It’s just that they did not last.  The beneficiaries proved that they could identify their main problems and solutions.  They prioritised two:  (1)  We are socially-excluded, can’t take part in village affairs!”  So they formed self-help groups and within four years, 135 such groups operated.  (2) “We are being denied our small state pensions!” Many of them were disabled during armed service or they were injured from leftover ordnance.  Corrupt officials were withholding all or part of the pension, and in some cases luring them to sell their lifetime entitlement for a one-off cash payment.  These disabled people were the first in the country to dare raise the problem publicly. Their bravery was rewarded when the Anti-Corruption Unit found that the scandal was indeed perpetrated on a national scale. (For more on this, please see Footnote 3 on this blog.)

Yet over the years, the old order kept reverting.  The truth is the powers-that-be do not welcome a large organized movement, at least one not absolutely loyal to them.

That was what scared people, and that fear is just as strong today.  You have to be constantly alert to the old ways creeping back in.  I remember two such occasions when organizing national events.

One was for International Day for Disabled Persons.  The team presented me with their plan that included a three course lunch at a restaurant for the invited officials and heads of partner organisations.  Meanwhile the beneficiaries were to be treated to “bread and water”.   That was half a sandwich and a small bottle of water each.  I had to veto that part of the plan!

Just a few months later a similar thing cropped up.  I was in my office, its door open to the main meeting room.  We were co-ordinating the national plan for what was then still called “International Day of Deaf and Dumb People”.  Political-correctness has been slow to catch on in Cambodia.  I sat in my office, overhearing the plan in Khmer, the Cambodian language. Then it dawned on me: “There’s something wrong!” If this is the day for people with difficulty in how to speak and hear, how do they contribute to the plan, why are the “organizers” not seeking their views?  Some were there.  I had made sure of that, but they were all watching from the sidelines, not taking part.

I joined the meeting and the chairman welcomed me, inviting me to say a few words.  I posed that question. He laughed! In fact all the “able-bodied” folks around the table laughed.  Then the laughter died down.  I stayed quiet.  Eventually the chairman broke the silence:  “How can they contribute….they are deaf and dumb!” I replied “I am prepared to bet you that every one of them can communicate in their own way or with the help of a carer........ if you ask them!

And of course we changed who at the meeting sat where and was deciding what.  It worked well.  In fact the Mistress of Ceremonies, with her assistant who translated her sign-language in to speech, was brilliant before a national TV audience. 


One suggestion I made met with hostility from the experts. “No, no, no, they said – if the Excellency is guest-of-honour, no way can a disabled person share the stage with him!”

So I telephoned him to ask.  He thought it was a great idea saying “The person can be Governor for the day and travel with me from my house in my car, etc!

And the little blind boy, with his older sister beside him, did everyone proud.

It is a shame that such progress has not taken place much if at all since.  Usually events with disabled people show them passively to evoke pity and grateful for hand-outs.

Development-planning and projects for disabled people are today in Cambodia still led largely by external experts, almost to a man and woman “able-bodied”.

The expert who prompted me to write this blog (mentioned at the start), wanted our help for his pet project.  It was just like one we rejected three years ago.  The guy that time was indeed a donor’s equivalent of the Aussie “Fly-in/fly out" miners.  He literally jetted in and out-of- countries with his high-tech solutions.  “I only charge US$1,000 per day!” he told me.

I suppose that may sound reasonable compared with the $10,000 per month of the UNDP Povertry Alleviation Expert back in the 1990s!

But most poor families even today can work their own way out-of-poverty for just US$100, if they are allowed, or trusted with the money!

Krousar Thmey - the only special school in Cambodia
Finally, just in case anyone thinks I am blowing my own trumpet here, I must make it clear that it is Dorset Social Services and Barndale House Special School in Alnwick, Northumberland, who enlightened me to respect that people with physical, psycho-social, or sensory difficulties, are usually perfectly able and entitled to express themselves.

To sit in Cambodia, and listen to Barndale House on Lionheart Radio, with the children presenting their show, shows just what can be achieved.  Krousar Thmey organisation in Cambodia is also highly-commendable.



August 2016 Update - Here is an amusing commentary about "foreign aid". Many a true word spoken in jest.

Update February 2017 - To contradict myself slightly, you need only examine the salary rates of United Nations workers and their fringe benefits to understand why people in developing countries resent them.  This is of course how and where so much of donor aid budgets are used up. I recall the head of the international department at a Cambodian government ministry complain about VSO volunteers on $300 a month allowances.  He said that those were worth more than his salary. They were and probably still are. This is one of the reasons that "justified" his "income-supplementing" (* see below) activities. Now some UN workers work in torrid and dangerous conditions, but the truth is an awful lot of them, especially "consultants" have very comfy existences. Every developing country capital has its fair share of them in its complement of Lords and Ladies of Poverty. You'll see them on the conference and cocktail circuits.

This resentment helped to fuel the Cambodian Government (and others) to enact NGO laws intended to find out about such benefits that are rarely disclosed - hypocrisy in NGOs that advocate for transparency. They do distort rates in local markets and there is a strong argument that local taxes should be levied on them.

* “Salary-Supplementing” or “rent-seeking” (the term used by Caroline Hughes in her seminal paper for DfID on Cambodia) is the practice developed within all aspects of public service for workers to make extra money and to repay their patrons. For insight in to the practice by teachers, read this account. Although the government has increased public service salaries, they are still relatively low, so this embedded practice goes on.  It has not been tackled at all by the Anti-Corruption Unit. To give the reader some idea, even today the top-paid official, the Prime Minister is paid just US$2,500 per month and his ministers $1,115. (See this.)




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An article from 2002 circulated in the Cambodian disability sector, based on my Dorset experience is reproduced below for those who want to read more.

The Half-Eaten Apple.

Who would have guessed that a half-eaten apple left in a bedside cabinet drawer 25 years ago could have caused a rumpus, and still be remembered 25 years later half-way across the world?  Yet it was the subject of quite an incident all those years ago in the UK; one that should be a lesson today in Cambodia.   It illustrates important principles of the rights of individuals; the responsibilities of others to respect those rights; how the social work professions can evolve, and how these can so dramatically affect the lives of vulnerable disabled people. 

The late 1970s in the UK saw the transfer of responsibility from health to social service authorities of residential care facilities.  “Care in the Community” became the vogue and for good reasons, not just to save money by replacing expensive health professionals with social workers.  It was a worthwhile aim to take a less institutionalised approach with vulnerable folks who had no choice but to live in such places.  They were to have new homes that more closely resembled normal everyday family living.  Many “patients” became “clients” and successfully made the transition.  Most professionals supported the move and believed it did serve the best interests of their clients.  The social work profession, long regarded as unfashionable and inferior to its health counterparts, was developing.

“Mabel” was one of the new breed of social workers that spotted the apple incident.  She reported her colleague “Gladys” who was a nurse and proud to be of the “old-fashioned” variety brought up to believe that “Cleanliness was next to Godliness” and an important weapon in fighting disease and ill-health.  But now she was a care-worker in a residence for clients with physical and psychiatric problems, not a health facility.  Despite that she had no compunction in opening Myrtle’s bedside cabinet drawer and removing the offensive half-eaten apple.  Myrtle was far from happy when she wanted to start re-munching it and “threw a paddy”, bringing everyone including the manager to the scene.  Gladys stood her ground. “We know what is best for you!”  “You cannot look after yourself.” But Gladys was wrong.  Her old habits prevailed over the new rules she knew that gave the right of privacy to clients in certain areas and possessions.  The bedside drawer was one.  She had deliberately violated that right.

In Cambodia today there are far more Gladys’s than Mabels.  In fact, I am hard-pressed to find one Mabel even within familiar international NGOs that have development programmes here, though most would profess otherwise.  Sadly, the dearth of Mabels costs the country’s poor disabled people dearly, far more than a half-eaten apple!   The “welfare” or “service-provision”, i.e., “we know best” approach is still very much the norm.  It is due partly to the fact that Cambodian Society is highly status-orientated.  The order of seniority is strictly top-down – senior officials, the wealthy, men, women, etc, in strict order .  At the bottom, at a similar level to children, are disabled people and other groups living with various vulnerabilities.  For example, they may live in extreme poverty; may have many dependants, or are single-women headed households and often elderly.  So right at the very bottom are found families living with disability plus several vulnerabilities.  Those are the families we work with.  Traditional society not only ignores them but shuns them.  Their plight is put down to Buddhism (mistakenly) in that such misfortune is due punishment for past sins.  A disabled person is not invited to weddings in case he or she brings bad luck on the couple.  Despite commitments to UN and domestic legislation promoting disability rights, the Education Sector does not allow disabled people to pursue careers in teaching.  Seldom can they enrol at teacher training school in the belief that children should not to be exposed to disability in their classroom!

It is sad to say, but the truth is there is little or no indigenous spirit to change things.  The Ministry of Social Affairs is well-intentioned but it remains almost at the bottom of all ministries in terms of status and funding.  Efforts have been made, including by a body theoretically modelled on and called after the UK’s Disability Action Council.  Yet progress is painfully slow.  There is virtually no evidence anywhere of special concessions or facilities for physical access for disabled people.  Sadly an important opportunity to do this and send a wider signal was lost.  The Asia Development Bank, nominally committed to the cause of disabled people, funded the building of many of the 1,629 new commune council offices, but they and the ministry responsible did not include access for disabled people in the design., despite representations. 


Pictures show that both wet-season and dry-season access are impossible. 

Could this happen in the UK?  Brand new local council buildings - which is worse for access by disabled people?  Wet season or dry season?

Therefore the task falls on external bodies - international donors and NGOs - to instigate change, to instil sensitivity across whole communities, and to enlighten those in authority who are able to sustain change for the better.  But are we doing enough?  More importantly are we using our resources; taxpayers’ money allocated to foreign aid and development, in the best way? 

The real aim must be for vulnerable groups to be able to improve their own situation; to aspire to equality of opportunity in all walks of life, with our help.  Has this not been largely accomplished in the UK and developed world?  Higher standards of public sector professionalism in the UK and developed world have meant patients; clients and children now have an automatic right to be consulted in decisions that affect them.  The experts admit that they do not always know best.  Assertions that a form of disability can affect a person’s capacity to reason are rightly challenged and subjected to close scrutiny.

So why are we so slow to bring the same standards to Cambodia?  Why do we abandon them? Is it due to some kind of local expediency?  Our disabled beneficiaries tell us the same story.  If they are not put off and can find a clinic; rehabilitation aids centre, vocational training school, etc., when they do get there, they are given little choice.  They are expected to be passive and accept whatever is on offer unquestionably even when it may not be an appropriate solution.  In areas that do have facilities the only choice in how to acquire a new livelihood is to attend a residential vocational training school.  These are very expensive institutions to run where the management sticks to their own beliefs that only a few skills are suitable for disabled people such as clothes-making, mat-weaving, electronic or mechanical repairs, and hair-dressing.  So disabled people must “take it or leave it” and even then after their training, only limited support is given to get them started in their new business if by chance, not design, there is scope for it in their community.

One organisation, New Horizons Society (NHS), however, has been trying to do things differently.  It does try to emulate the best standards of UK and other countries and can point to three major accomplishments.  Most importantly it “starts off the way it means to go by”.  Firstly, it does something unique in livelihood improvement projects.  It actually allows poor disabled beneficiaries to decide themselves on their own best solution to improve their incomes.  They do not have to leave home.  NHS’s current 3,035 members have formed or joined 135 self-help groups and have a say along with the other members on their personal or family plan, which then goes on through their federated group network, to approve grants or loans and the conditions to be met.  It is not local authority officials, NGO workers, or Microcredit Managers doing the deciding.  These disabled people, often deprived of an education, have proven, to the disbelief of many, that they “can do” just as well if not better than the experts. They now have US$ 130,000 in revolving funds and a consistent 90%+ record of success in new ventures; with the ones that fall by the wayside being more than compensated by the higher returns from the most successful ones.

Their success does not end there.  If anything their second accomplishment is even more remarkable. They now have newly-acquired confidence and skills in advocacy.  At first their aim was just to obtain equality of opportunity, so their children could go to school, or the family would be included in health services.  One of their ideas went from one of their then three districts to the national scene for all 184 districts.  They persuaded the Ministry of Social Affairs to take action to stop officials acquiring for themselves the small sums of money that are payable as war pensions.  After 5 years, in several of their communities, the transition is complete.  They have gone from one-time total social exclusion to be leaders today.  Some now serve as commune councillors and village chiefs.  The “Child Advocacy Group”, consisting of mainly disabled children, has outshone the adults in their newly-found confidence to convey positive images and key messages, especially in their dance troupe.

Their third achievement also defies a trend in Cambodia.  Most civil society organisations are started by individuals, usually in response to international donor or NGO initiatives. Such organisations can be artificial and invariably begin in the capital Phnom Penh.  They are top-down/centre-out in nature.  Our members are the opposite.  In fact they may well form the single largest genuine active mass membership, grassroots upward movement in the country, and one with an authentic elected leadership.

You would think that these accomplishments would be heralded and replicated.  Sadly, despite the fact that the Ministry of Social Affairs and most expert visitors attest to the quality of practice, this is not the case.  Their very innovation can be seen as “non-conformity”! It does not go down in some quarters; with some in authority, among some donors and more traditional sister organisations that keep up the old ways.  In fact this is one reason why it finds it hard to compete for funds and remains at constant risk of going out of business. 

There is one other reason though.  Post-conflict developing countries usually attract considerable support to rebuild poor infrastructure and human resource capacities.  Very large sums are spent on roads and buildings that are visible physical evidence of progress being made from philanthropic awards.  Less visible, but still discernible over time, are the efforts to improve services – administrators, lawyers, teachers, health-workers and others all feature prominently in education and training programmes.  Many are supported to go overseas for best education and training.  In Cambodia this process has been going on since 1993 when it was admitted back in to the international community.  There is though one profession that hardly features – social workers.  Why?  Given the scale of disaster in Cambodia - the world acknowledges the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge with millions killed through execution, starvation, or hard labour and almost every surviving family traumatised - if ever there is a country that needs the best most highly-skilled social or community workers, surely it is this one?  Some 9.8% of the population suffers from one form or more of physical, sensory or psycho-social disability. And the absence of social workers shows, because the weak and vulnerable continue to miss out and be left behind.  There is no institutionalised profession dedicated purely to working with them on a generic or holistic basis to overcome adversity.  Why does social work professional capacity-building seldom appear in international aid programmes?  Unlike the medical, nursing, teaching, and legal professions, there is no national plan.  There is no career entry scheme within services or academic institutions.  The Ministry of Social Affairs does have officials down to district level but their main role is to compile statistics.  It does not have social workers. In fact they just do not exist although other occupations do perform social work as a sideline.  Mainly it is a responsibility of the Commune Councils and Village Chiefs.  However their order of priorities is first loyalty to the ruling party, which has 98% of Commune Chiefs, followed by Law and Order.  Social work in reality is part of “Order”.  Given the emphasis on the military and police even today – they receive a much higher share of the national budget than education, health or social services - it means that suppression rather settlement of problems usually occurs.  Money is a factor too.  Officials use their positions to obtain unofficial fees – so those without money always lose out in disputes.

Credit must be given to some organisations that are trying to do original work in these difficult circumstances but none have the same mass active local membership of New Horizons Society.  Two, both modest in size relatively, are worthy of mention.  “Social Services of Cambodia” which is an NGO not a public service is pioneering the idea of professional social and community work, but can only do so on a small-scale.  Transcultural Psychological Organisation (TPO) is the only organisation to face up to and tackle the mental scars in the population.  It is trying community psychiatric care as well as clinical treatments.

The “New Horizons Society” of ultra-poor mainly disabled people may have proven there is a better way, but with the exception of one great donor, they have found it difficult so far to win over others.  Even the UK Government’s Aid Agency DfID, which must be given great credit for helping to establish them, has no means to give support to replicate and build on it.  Their Civil Society Challenge Fund cannot be used to replicate projects, instead requiring other donors and funds to take on good practice.  The same applies to the now lapsed Diana Princess of Wales Fund.  Between them, these two agencies provided vital capital resources and core running costs but once those grants ceased, it has been impossible so far to replace that lost income. The current donor is keeping things going, for now, but as with so many donors these days, they want most money to go for direct activities for beneficiaries, with only a limited contribution to running costs.

In conclusion, the plea of “New Horizons Society” to governments and other donors is please reconsider your rules.  We appreciate the help you give, but we do need core cost support until we can generate internal revenue to cover them and manage all our resources on a sustainable basis.  We admit that as disabled people, the usual 1-3 year project timetables are not long enough bearing in mind our very low starting-off points.


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