The Charges against Big Aid

Terence, the Waylaid Dialectic, tears a couple of fair sized strips off Jonathan Starr’s self-righteous polemic about Big Aid. Terence’s points are well made, but I think not the whole story.

For a start, stripping away the pomposity, Starr is surely right when he says Big Aid has an accountability problem. As I and many other bloggers have remarked time and time again, our ‘customers’ are not the same people as those who pay the bills and that leads to massively misaligned incentives. Starr thinks he’s solved this by charging for his Somaliland school’s services, but (as Terence points out) since that only covers a fraction of the true costs – most of which are subsidised by volunteer teachers providing their time for free and him donating a pile of cash – I am not convinced he’s closed that case.

Still, for those of a certain political persuasion, the suggestion that our governments may be throwing millions of dollars at an unaccountable bureaucracy with a poor record of delivering its stated target results will be a like a red flag to a bull. International aid is surely not the only programme funded by Western governments to be susceptible to such a charge, but nonetheless we need to be able to justify aid spending in economically straitened times, and at present I do not think we can do so convincingly for large portions of government aid budgets.

Part of the problem, I think, is what Terence alludes to at the end of his piece when he states:

“Some aid fails because it’s bad. But a lot of aid is actually pretty good. And the reason why it still fails, when it fails, is only sometimes to do with the qualities of the people and organisations delivering it. More often, failure stems from the simple fact that the problems aid is being asked to solve are frequently close to intractable.”

There are two responses to calls for cash to be spent on problems that are “close to intractable” (aka wicked problems): (a) conclude that any investment of resources is highly unlikely to yield any results and thus refrain from any attempt to tackle said problems, or (b) determine that such problems are too important to be just ignored, and that it is fair and reasonable to take a few risks and try a few different approaches to see what might work. (Whatever you do, just don’t equate big problems with the need for big amounts of cash!)

Whilst some donors may decide that approach (a) is what best suits them, we can surely also support the idea that taking option (b) can also be a good idea. The problem, as I see it, is that we are very rarely upfront about the risks of failure. Far too much of the conservation and development industry is extremely reluctant to admit to failure (or even just disappointing results); glossy brochures proclaim an unending procession of success stories.

So by all means we should try to tackle these almost intractable problems, but we should be honest about our expectations of success in advance (sensible risk management), and we should also balance our portfolio with a good number of projects which follow more tried and trusted routes.

ps. Disclaimer: I helped setup and run what must surely be the most ‘perfectest’ of NGOs (according to Terence’s classification), so may not be regarded as entirely neutral in the basis for my above-stated views.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Hi there,

    Great post – I agree almost entirely. Aid is definitely not beyond reproach.

    I’d fall into your category B above — think we should try to help but also think we should be honest about the failures. And try and learn from them.

    Terence

    Reply

  2. [...] people as those who pay the bills and that leads to massively misaligned incentives.” But the main reason why people have such little faith in aid’s usefulness is, paradoxically, the high expectations [...]

    Reply

  3. [...] on risk in July, anonymous NGO blogger Bottom Up Thinking, who we track in our blogosphere, said: ‘… we are very rarely upfront about the risks [...]

    Reply

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