Humble gratitude

“Receiving aid is a privilege, not a right.”

So said I a couple of days ago. Something worth remembering, especially for those of us who work for NGOs and are fond, as I am, of bashing donors on a regular basis. Unfortunately always easier to remember when you hear others complaining than when launching into one’s own remonstration.

Thank you.

How did homophobia become the most important development issue of the day?

Oh Museveni what have you done? Of all the problems that Uganda faces, is the ‘wrong’ kind of sex really the most pressing? (More pressing, say, than having a minister who thinks there is a ‘right’ kind of rape?!?) You state you are concerned that “many of those recruited were doing so for mercenary reasons – to get money – in effect homosexual prostitutes”. So now you are legislating to shut off some people’s route out of poverty? Much better to focus on your implied root cause – poverty – which everyone agrees in a widespread ill in Uganda than to veer off on this sideshow.

But let’s not kid ourselves too much. With his regional (East African Community) leadership ambitions thwarted, M7 wants to be re-elected as Ugandan president for another term (or at least ensure his placeman gets the job). As I understand it (sorry cannot locate link), M7 was under pressure that if he didn’t sign the law then he wouldn’t get the political support he needs, and his veto might have been over-ridden any way, undermining his authority.

The fact that Western leaders then resorted to megaphone diplomacy really didn’t help, instead making M7 out to be ‘a son of the soil’ hero to millions of Africans across the continent. Yes many Africans are also anguishing over the hate-filled bill, but they are the liberal intelligentsia, a tiny minority. Blame it on Western missionaries and evangelicals if you will (I do), but the reality is that most Africans are pretty homophobic. So whilst they may feel free to ignore my advice on such matters, surely Western leaders should listen to those many African voices urging caution (e.g. this).

That all said, however, Museveni and his fellow homophobes’ own standard of debate leaves much to be desired, especially in the framing of the debate in anti-neo-colonialist terms.

“We Africans always keep our opinions to ourselves and never seek to impose our point of view on the others. If only they could let us alone.” [Museveni again]

Leaving aside the ridiculous hypocrisy of this claim (made in the moment that they impose their intolerance on gay people throughout Uganda), I reject the notion that the West is imposing its values on Uganda. Receiving aid is a privilege, not a right. Every day providers of charity across the world choose who should receive their largesse based on a range of issues, many of them ethical. There is a reason why the government of North Korea receives no Western aid (other than emergency food relief in times of famine).

Nonetheless, I am worried by the closing of Western ranks, even in apparently neutral bodies. For instance the reasons given by the World Bank for publicly postponing a $90m loan intended to boost Uganda’s health services do not ring true, but instead strike me as Western liberals seeking inappropriate economic arguments for a fundamentally moral question. Why should Ugandan mothers-to-be and new born babies suffer for their political leader’s ignorance and intolerance?

Uganda has enacted a truly odious bill, but the debate around it on all sides is muddled and dominated by domestic political concerns that do the noble cause of international development a serious injustice.

The joy and terror of total dysfunctionality

You have to marvel at the chutzpah of some government officials around here. Each day they commute into work only to spend most of their day seemingly reading the newspaper or out to lunch. Not such a bad gig if you can get it, even if the pay isn’t great! You can always top it up by demanding ‘express service fees’ to stamp the forms you’re supposed to stamp any way.

Except that presumably there must be a terrible nagging fear that, like a criminal trying to cover up his misdeeds, you will be eventually found out. Pity, then, the staff of the Ugandan National Seed Certification Service whom a World Bank evaluation adjudged to have a few shortcomings:

“The reality is that NSCS staff know that if the institution was granted autonomy, they would all be sacked.”

Ouch! But they need not worry too much, for, from my experience, should the donors ever prevail in persuading the Ugandan government to accept the prescription that the NSCS should be transformed into an independent body, the donors would feel morally obliged to support the newly autonomous parastatal by giving it a whole load a of (paid for) work even though they know its staff have not the necessary wherewithal.

Hat tip: to the marvellous new (and not the least bit boring!) Campaign for Boring Development. I just wish he would post a little less often, as I struggle to keep up.

Scraps from big brother’s table

“How do you find working with [name of BINGO withheld]? How could the relationship be improved?”

These questions, and others in a similar vein, were asked of me and my colleagues last week by consultants hired by a major donor of a BINGO that supports us with some of said donor’s money. The donor wanted to see whether they were getting fair value for money from the relationship.

Mismatched: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito in Twins

Equal partners, right?

As with so many other ‘partnerships’ in the aid world, the relationship between a BINGO and small local NGO is far from an equal one whatever anyone claims. Indeed, just like recovering drug addicts, so for BINGOs: the first step in dealing with the problem is to recognise that it exists and that simply mouthing endless platitudes will not make it go away.

There is also no avoiding the fact that societal pressures (aka donor preferences) mean that both sides, the BINGOs and the local NGOs, are addicted to such relationships, with little hope of being weaned off. Moreover, for both sides there is often very little choice in who they partner with: at least in tropical conservation BINGOs largely try to stay out of one another’s territories, whilst vice versa the choice of capable local partners for a BINGO to work with may often be quite small. So to a significant degree partners are stuck with one another.

A more reflexive, self-critical approach will certainly help; being honest about the nature of the relationship does not have to mean being arrogant about it. As with so many things in life, that understanding, personal touch can make all the difference to the relationship. But is there anything more that could be done?

Ultimately I think it comes down to a question of how and to whom the BINGO are accountable. This echoes one of the main themes in development aid in recent years to which a leading response has been a call for more transparency, and the emergence of things like the International Aid Transparency Initiative. I think the same trick could work again here.

One of the things we found frustrating about our relationship with the BINGO was being drip fed small amounts of money that covered only a few months and were then micro-managed, e.g. budget lines of only $1-2,000. (The BINGO did not have systems that could differentiate between capable, trusted local partners, and others about whom they were more cautious.) The micro-management was a pain, but in many ways it was the drip-feeding of funds that caused the bigger problem, because they were almost impossible to plan for.

Partly, I think, the BINGO did this to remain in control, but partly also I think because it kept us in Oliver Twist mode – always asking for more but rarely seeing the bigger picture – and thus allowed them to prioritize their own management costs and strategies. I would like to see BINGOs being much more open about their own funding streams; how they are divvied up, managed and reported. The middle-man role is an important one, and for our part, those of us in smaller NGOs need to recognise that performing this role does not come cheap.

So when a big chunk of the donor money goes on BINGO bureaucracy (no doubt disguised as technical assistance) we shouldn’t bleat too much. Proposing standards for what is an appropriate slice to take is likely to be counterproductive (in the same way that misdirected focus on overheads has proven). Instead the BINGO becomes accountable to some degree to their small NGO partners (who are already have to do lots of accounting to their bigger brethren), and both sides of the partnership can better evaluate whether or not they are getting value for money from the relationship. Longer lasting commitments of funds would also help the smaller NGOs to plan better.

Corruption myth flipped but still lands butter side down

“Many international development organisations hold that persistent poverty in the Global South is caused largely by corruption among local public officials. In 2003 these concerns led to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which asserts that, while corruption exists in all countries, this ‘evil phenomenon’ is ‘most destructive’ in the global South, where it is a ‘key element in economic underperformance and a major obstacle to poverty alleviation and development’.

There’s only one problem with this theory: It’s just not true.”

So says Jason Hickel. He explains:

“According to the World Bank, corruption in the form of bribery and theft by government officials, the main target of the UN Convention, costs developing countries between $20bn and $40bn each year. That’s a lot of money. But it’s an extremely small proportion – only about 3 percent – of the total illicit flows that leak out of public coffers. On the other hand, multinational companies steal more than $900bn from developing countries each year through tax evasion and other illicit practices.”

It is a good point, but here’s the thing: it’s not necessarily the amount of money stolen that matters. Since most of this money is stolen from government coffers this only materially harms a citizen of that country if the government would otherwise have spent the money on services to them. Round here, however, most people are pretty cynical; the government mostly spends money on itself (legalised corruption if you like) and is often pretty useless at actually delivering useful services.

But, as anyone who has spent significant time in the least developed countries will tell you, the bigger problem is the all pervasive, endemic petty corruption. I would wager that economic underperformance happens not so much because some official stole some money from the government, but because someone could not register their business without paying a bribe that they cannot afford; others die or are maimed in road accidents because the police accept small bribes on a daily basis to look the other way; the list goes on … I have no figures to back up this assertion, so could be wrong, and obviously some thievery does have direct economic consequences if it means a new road or power plant is not completed. On the other hand how many business investment opportunities are foregone with investors are put off by their inability to enforce basic contracts due to a justice system that is always on sale to the highest bidder?

Dr Hickel’s moral outrage is well directed. The scale of tax evasion by multinationals is truly disgusting. But it does not detract from the importance of developing country governments putting their own houses in order, and it would be a shame if the crusade against international tax evasion served as a fig leaf for inaction domestically. Alas I doubt a UN Convention will help much with that; real reform will only come when the citizens of these countries demand accountability for themselves.

Floods and conservation: best not to over-reach

“Nature has a way of dealing with high rainfall events and storms: in rainfall-prone areas, she covers the soils with thick, deeply-rooted plants, providing a network of vegetation that absorbs the water and hold the soils in place. Biodiverse ecosystems have a complexity and resilience that can take on more of the knocks that nature throws at us than eroded, heavily utilised or human-altered environments can.

Rich, dense vegetation in a landscape can dull the impact of a downpour, diluting, absorbing, channelling, holding and then slowly releasing water. Mangroves and salt marshes buffer coastal landscapes from storms, reducing the force of the onslaught by softening its power and slowing the erosive energy of wind and wave action. These systems are designed by nature to take on nature.

If you mess about with these systems, what happens? The services provided by ecosystems erode and things start to go wrong. If you remove vegetation from the land, soils are laid bare and are washed away. If you carve up a landscape, alter natural features, damage the soil structure, pave it, or build all over it, nature will battle to function.”

That is Pippa Howard from FFI on how poor landscape management in Britain has contributed to the current floods severely impacting parts of southern England. I agree with the main thrust of her piece, but I was nonetheless alarmed by a couple of important points.

Firstly nature never designs anything. It might seem a nice turn of phrase but it is sloppy language and a little bit of thought could have removed the anthromorphism without diminishing the power of the argument.

This has a bearing on the second point, which is that on their own nature’s flood defences are often not sufficient. Nature is as red in tooth and claw as she ever is nurturing and maternal, and certainly won’t hold back from the odd catastrophic flood just because we go all eco-activist. Indeed the occasional catastrophic occurrence is very much a part of how nature goes about refreshing herself.* How else do you think we got big wide flood plains around just about every major river in the world? Ecosystems have both short term cycles and longer term, often more abrupt and less predictable dynamics, that interact in complex ways. Some species even rely on once in a decade type events to reproduce (desert flowers are a classic case in point).

All of which is little comfort to flooded farmers in the Somerset Levels and elsewhere. Yes the focus may well have swung too far one way, and more sensible approaches to landscape management could undoubtedly help mitigate future floods. But I’d keep the man-made defences too.

* Ok I admit it: this anthromorphism can be hard to avoid!

Tree grab or land grab?

A bunch of smallish NGOs has released a report criticising REDD as apparently incompatible with human rights. Some of these guys have previous form on just about any conservation programme that engages with markets. They have some nice principled arguments, but in the here and now they are so far away from a workable, affordable solution, that they’re just not helpful.

That said I have plenty of sympathy for the people subjected to rights violations mentioned here. I guess you could lay the blame on REDD for motivating at least some of these land grabs, but here’s my concern: are they not fundamentally illegal any way? (Yes, governments will deploy various quasi-legal arguments in their support, but in many cases these are weak, and courts with more than a modicum of independence may well find against them.) Stopping REDD will not stop other land grabs, e.g. for logging, agriculture or mining.

Blaming REDD is a bit like blaming world food markets for agricultural expansion, and betrays the fundamentally anti-markets stance of these critics. Better, I think, to tackle the underlying governance failings that lead to such abuses than to confuse the issue with an attack on REDD, which otherwise can deliver a lot of good to the world. I had the same thought a few years ago when biofuel production briefly menaced this part of Africa: no need for a dedicated biofuels policy if you implement your own land laws properly.

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