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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. An earlier bridge nearby over the River Tweed is also proving its longevity with a little modern help. 

In most professions like doctors, lawyers, and teachers, practitioners maintain direct or close contact with clients even after attaining leadership positions.  In Foreign Aid almost all top professionals are as far removed as possible from clients in all respects. Some may once have been practitioners in the field, but the system and culture soon elevates them away, to seniority in capitals in developing countries, with the most successful back to home countries and aid agency HQs. Does this disconnect between professionals and their clients in #foreignaid help to explain its ineffectiveness?  (The Unlikely Aid Worker)

Blog count: as on 30 September 2022

This my most popular blog passed 53,587 viewings since posted on 18 Feb 2015

23 June 2022  New Preface Added

The UK's House of Commons has today released its report on Racism in Foreign Aid, with considerable details of its manifestations in so many ways not just overtly - that it does at times - but most commonly through the basic way the entire sector operates.  I am biased. It is precisely what people like me have been saying for decades and been given the cold shoulder for doing so.  I hope that the report does lead to an entirely new philosophy underpinning how Foreign Aid exists.

Why is longevity elusive to Foreign Aid and the various "development" professions? 

Typical TV advert seeking donations
Whenever I am home 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. (For that story please see this CNN clip.)

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!
The Unlikely Aid Worker 
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 administrators, project managers, technical advisers, auditors and evaluators, invariably drawn from the same backgrounds and inner-circles - 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! Too many in #foreignaid conform, not enough perform.


Additional recommended reading and viewing

Please feel free to visit my website page dedicated to this subject.

White saviour mentality lives on.
Many a true word spoken in jest.

Here is an amusing commentary about "foreign aid".
Please also tune in to this short video from Survival  Although it is about indigenous people, the sardonic but veritable points made - especially the Foreign Aid jargon applies equally to other "beneficiary" groups. This development-speak by the way is well embraced by addicts of Foreign Aid, not just its purveyors.

Very often I refer to local people, citizens of developing countries playing little or no role in development decisions made far away "for" them. (More on that here.)  Usually I mean the "beneficiaries" but there are also well-educated articulate people who can also contribute.  Here is one.

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.

I have also explained how "grassroots-based, bottom-upward" projects work best based on community-organising.

Sustainability is the Name of the Game but does the last player count?

“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!

Updates and Follow-Ups

Update November 2022

Intriguing study about Foreign Aid effectiveness, or to be precise knowledge and perceptions about it with the general public.  When evidence is presented, especially anecdotal, then people are more positive about aid.  I still wonder though especially with donors like USAID and its reporting policies - what is the balance between informative and manipulative?  Fundraisers certainly rely on negative images, as I blogged about here.

Update June 2022

As stated in the new preface above the United Kingdom Parliament's International Development Committee has now released its report on Racism in Foreign Aid.  It has listed my contribution here.

Update April 2022

I came across an organisation extolling and facilitating community mobilisation. Its origins are in the US but it has also been working in the UK. Basically it is about collective advocacy on issues of the day or particular causes and I was impressed.  I thought I would share our experience of the same work with them.  However to my surprise they replied "we do not accept blogs from non-members and publish information only related to our campaigns and member organisations/ leaders".

I wonder if this is a case of the first world not wanting to learn from the third world?

Any way here is the blog in question.

Update 18 August 2021

A day of reckoning arrived abruptly for all those responsible for external interventions in foreign countries and in particular for the United States. It does not matter if the intervention was led for military or natural disaster purposes, and if it becomes humanitarian and “nation-building”.

The lesson to be learned is exactly as people like me expound. You must be very careful to engender a genuine local commitment to the change you want to bring about, not just in leaderships but also your “beneficiaries” and in particular in the local people you engage and entrust who act for you and between them. You must be "SMART"* about the change with a clear handover exit plan.

Afghanistan has now shown brutally in a macro-way how unreal and artificial your efforts are where you have not established that genuine mass local commitment to the change. It is however in essence the same as the multiple micro-lessons that ought to be learned from countries like Cambodia. It is one with the largest, longest, most expensive external intervention. Numerous, almost every major project, has failed in terms of the sustainable changes expected to be accomplished.

My own area of good governance is one, as I explain in blogs. There was never a genuine full commitment to embrace the concepts we thought would be good for all Cambodians. Many poor and vulnerable people did want changes but not the people in charge nor I argue are many of the people we relied on as go-betweens. Indeed as I narrate in my blogs, too many of those are in it for their own reasons. This is best exemplified by the true story I tell about one champion of democracy and human rights in whom our American friends placed so much trust and invested so much money.

The Name of the Game is “Sustainability” but Does the Last Player Count?

*SMART - specifc, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.

May 2021

Excellent publication from Peace Direct much along the lines we espouse here. "Time to Decolonise Aid"

January 2020

In this blog I devote most attention to the major players in Foreign Aid, the donors and top influencers. Leigh Matthews adds a new dimension in her series of "Do-Gooder" interviews, how ordinary people as tourists, as charity-givers, and even as first-time junior workers abroad can be more enlightened. All of them can benefit from listening to others who have gone before including learning from "our" mistakes. (I can count myself as one.)  They're quite long podbasts but well worth listening. The main aim is better child protection, but what she and her colleagues recommend also makes for better foreign aid, better use of your money and your generosity.  For more, please access their book "Modern-Day Slavery and Orphangae Tourism".

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 (labelled by tabloids as "World's most useless airport" when regular flights were delayed 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%* (see update 4 July 2019 below), 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.

Update December 2017

A great end-of-year round-up from @devex of headlines in the UK tabloids and their stance on Foreign Aid. 

Update January 2018 

Worthy article "Are Grants for Losers?" by Felix Dodds and Minu Hemmati but is is for "Top-downers". Scroll down to comments below to see my observation as also added to the article.

October 2018

A thoughtful contribution to the debate from Mary Anne Clements.and colleagues.  Definitely much more "solidarity" in #foreignaid would make for more smarter pro-poor aid as well help to address the moral cultural deficiency.

Similarly it makes sense to allocate adequate resources to any enterprise in order for it to succeed. We could be talking about a commercial venture or one for the public good.  Here an issue I refer to "core costs" comes up in relation to UK charities. They need enough funding to operate properly and efficiently, not just for direct services to beneficiaries. I have commended the writer  Gareth Jones as it is "smarter aid" not just for UK charities but small NGOs in developing countries where donors often do not allow core costs in budget plans or limit them artificially. Lack of core costs, to pay essential running costs and salaries, is often why some NGOs resort to financial malfeasance.

4 July 2019

Excellent discussion on BBC about micro-credit.  In my text I referred to 85% of loans always paid back.  These ladies reported 97%. Worth downloading the podcast.

Excellent article by Paul Okumu: "Just 2.1% of global funding goes directly to civil society in the South".

14 December 2020

More evidence of effective use of cash transfers in #Cambodia during recent floods and with Danchurch Aid an organisation I have worked with.


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

  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/

  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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  12. "Are Grants for Losers?": By Felix Dodds and Minu Hemmati http://blog.felixdodds.net/2018/01/are-grants-for-losers.html

    There are indeed many worth points made in this essay, and they could lead to more effective foreign aid but one thing sticks out to me. This is a top-down debate by top-down people in the industry and largely about top-down people and what they do......top down of course! Until a way is found to enable intended beneficiaries of every kind to be much more involved, more in charge, and more empowered, we will continue to see mismatches. Too much money will continue to be kept or find its way back to the top-downers. The solutions the top-downers provide will be at odds with what the bottom-uppers want.

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    1. You will like my latest blog: http://anorthumbrianabroad.blogspot.com/2019/01/the-unlikely-foreign-aid-worker.html Also feel free to enter "foreign aid"or "#foreignaid"in the search engine for other blogs.

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    Read my Latest Post

    1. Many thanks. It's a subject that never ages. The UK with its "revolving door"of ministers at its foreign aid ministry "DfID" keeps giving new readers. https://twitter.com/LowrieJohn/status/1157812393893695489?s=20