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"Smarter Aid, not more Aid!"

"Smarter Aid, not more Aid!"

Photo: flettrek.wordpress.com
Built to Last.  Robert Stephenson’s 28 Arch English/Scottish Border Bridge has lasted since 1850. 

Why is longevity elusive to aid and development professionals? 


Whenever I am in Northumberland and watching TV, I keep seeing numerous advertisements from charities.  They follow the same style.  They depict pictures of hardship to evoke pity and ask you to hand over cash.  If you do not feel guilty when not doing so, you may take comfort in that your tax has helped the UK Government to meet its over-generous commitment to devote 0.7% of GDP to overseas aid, and thus claim moral leadership among the world’s rich nations.

They are misguided.

Some celebrity donors around the world learned the hard way.

They were disappointed when it emerged things were not as presented to them for their desire to do something about “Human Trafficking”.  Despite advice from inside people like me, lessons seem not to have been learned.

I have been at both ends of the wide aid and development spectrum.  First there was Saint Helena, a tiny island, population around 5,000.  Now there is Cambodia, 15 million today, and though far in size from countries also grant-aided with larger populations, it is almost certainly the one that has received the most intensive; costly and continuous aid intervention since it started in 1993.  Both recipients in this sense are at the top of the most grant-aided nations per head of population.

Personally I would say that both are object lessons in how not to do “aid and development”.  Basically after decades of support, neither population - despite those massive interventions - has attained self-reliance. For many, their world is "Upside-down, inside-out and roundabout!"

We really should try other ways to do aid, at the same time get rid of the jargon that cannot be conveyed properly in local languages and contexts!

In recent weeks, two authoritative reports, are saying the same thing as I started to say years ago. I will admit to being most unpopular with some representatives of donors and large international agencies for saying so.  My original article questioning Aid “Sustainability” (development-speak for "built-to-last") is still often accessed from various websites.

The first of these two new reports comes from the UK’s reputable ODI that is usually a trusted insider – well done to them for changing tack.  One quote is apt "Supporting change that reflects local realities and is locally-led"

The second report is actually a series of seven parts for development forum “Devex” “Foreign aideffectiveness: A radical rethink,” by Diana Ohlbaum — a former deputy director of USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives.  Here is one more apt quote: "Where there's little or no government will for change benefiting the population building capacity is doomed to fail" 

In Cambodia, government and NGO officials alike are addicted to overseas aid.  It has been lucrative for them.  As Sophal Ear comments, aid has actually prevented citizens from holding their government to account. They would be better able to do so, if there was a direct link between service provision and payment of taxes or fees. Instead that link especially in education, health and social services, is in the form of a free hand-out from rich donors!

Donor fatigue though is beginning to set in. The vast NGO sector must contract. It is far too large. There are too many duplications – repeating the same work again, revisiting areas supposedly served before. The best of NGOs and NGO practice in Cambodia is great, but there is too much mediocrity, so the challenge is to retain the best and lose the rest. Before they depart or scale down, donors in my view should be seeking to help NGOs to merge and to operate leaner, in order that funds are better used.  That means leaving most if not all things to locally-managed organizations, and not imposing daft decisions on them. (I blog about one in Alnwickdotes No 4.) True, there will be "seepages" but then they exist now, despite the vast army of expatriate adminstrators, project managers, technical advisers, and evaluators - the Lords and Ladies of Poverty!

But I bet someone will be saying this again in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years in Cambodia and Saint Helena!

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

July August 2017 Update - Excellent Article on the subject by Marian L Tupy of the Cato Institute 

(For a recent article I wrote for and about Saint Helena on this subject, please go here.)


“It’s the money that matters”, but do these Aid beneficiaries, the final players in “Sustainability – the Name of the Game”, get what they need to be sustainable?  Do most people know that only a minute fraction of their charitable or tax-payer-funded donation actually ends up with the intended beneficiaries?  The rest is swallowed up on the way.  Perversely, when poor vulnerable people are entrusted and empowered to decide what to do with the money; what solutions work best for them, at least 85% make the right decision!


Blog count: as on 19 July 2017

This my most popular blog has had 32,645 viewings since 18 Feb 2015


January 2017 - Disparaging the World’s Poor

I took issue with the UK Daily Mail latest “revelation” supporting its quest against taxpayers' money spent on foreign aid.  The newspaper has been equally hostile to my friends on Saint Helena with reports of child abuse on the island (found to be exaggerated) and its UK Aid-funded airport (not yet commercially usable due to unanticipated wind-shear affecting safety).

Readers must judge for themselves about the quality; accuracy and fairness of such journalism, but sadly the post-Leveson Press watchdog sees nothing wrong with it.  Apparently “balance” is no longer needed.  My view is vulnerable people are denied an equal voice to correct mis-impressions, whether they include the ever-loyal pro-UK Saint Helenians, or the much more numerous and disempowered world’s poor.

The basic charge made by the Daily Mail is that direct cash payments to the world’s poor is inappropriate and a misuse of aid money.  The fact is it can be a highly effective and the most economic way of delivering cash and benefits to the poor cutting out the vastly more expensive conventional models. I refer here of course to the usual system administered by and through Lords and Ladies of Poverty.  (I set out for the Daily Mail and IPSO the entire series of steps from inception of donor aid programmes right through to their conclusion and aftermath, a process that costs vastly more than whatever sum ends up with AND is retained by the poor.)

My main point, based on my personal experience with community-based self-help groups of the world’s poorest and most marginalised citizens, is that actually once they have the money in their hands, they actually make good use of it. On average 85%, I have found do so.  High overheads; leakage, even fraud is far more likely to occur among the ranks of salaried NGO or public officials entrusted with roles over them. I also cited articles making similar points: “Just Give the Godam Fish” and one in foreign aid information network Devex. Shouldn't the Daily Mail reflect such opinions?

Some of the 23,537 families organised in to self-help groups.
Please go here to read the full story of localised community-based development in Cambodia.

By chance, within a few days reputable body ICAI endorsed the viewpoint that these cash payments can be an effective mechanism. Although this was taken up by the BBC; Guardian, etc., the Daily Mail did not oblige.

Unfortunately the Daily Mail and its readership don’t need to know about alternative information that could influence their views about foreign aid; its benefits, etc.

All this comes at a time when US President Donald J Trump is attacking media projecting cynicism about its value, despite it being vital to any well-functioning  democracy.  Journalism per se and freedom of expression are taken for granted too easily in the West, but it still costs lives elsewhere.  In this case, quality journalism is simply dealt self-inflicted blows by the Daily Mail.

6 comments:

  1. For a fuller analysis of the "human trafficking" issue, please see: http://www.antitraffickingreview.org/index.php/atrjournal/article/view/200/199

    ReplyDelete
  2. April 2017 One more article from inveterate insider Tom Dichter about the failures of foreign aid. He asks is US President Trump right to end it, even if for the wrong reasons? https://qz.com/959416/time-to-end-foreign-aid-but-for-the-right-reasons/

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  3. 26 May 2017 - A great story of a fellow development worker doing precisely what we should all do: handover and allow people in developing countries to get on with their own projects. You've given them the best start. Best of Luck, Sally! http://www.sallyhetherington.com/after-almost-four-years-it-is-time/

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