Sustainability

For my first post I want to talk about one of my pet issues, and something which is likely to become a recurring theme in this blog; sustainability. Sustainability lies at the heart of many of the issues dear to the environmental movement; climate change, biodiversity loss, overexploitation of target species. Forestry and fisheries policies are, in essence, studies in ecological sustainability, which are then subject to varying degrees of political subversion. There’s a lot that I could talk about there, and probably will in some future blog post. But for now I want to discuss the issue of project sustainability.

In other development sectors, e.g. health or infrastructure, it is possible to supply a developing country with a particular good, e.g. AIDS vaccines or building a new road, which, to a degree, can be treated as a one-off donation. Donors may reasonably conclude that providing longer term assistance, e.g. in vaccine management and distribution or road maintenance, may improve the efficacy of the original donation, but even without these the initial donation generally has clear value. (Or at least as long as the donor has done their homework first, and checked the donation is actually needed.)

However, conservation is ultimately a social process aimed at achieving behavioural change. Whilst in well-functioning states a lot of conservation aims can be realised by achieving change in government policy, developing states rarely have the resources to enforce properly new regulations, particularly in low priority areas (which, regrettably, appears to include many environmental rules). Hence the need to support policy aims with substantial field projects, many of which must perforce work with the local people who live around site of interest. Thus it is that in tropical countries, in which the great majority of biodiversity is to be found, much conservation work has a strong social development element. Personally this appeals to me … so long as it is done properly!

A typical social development project in the tropics last for 3-5 years to fit with donor funding cycles. It may be that subsequent phases may also be funded, although often with some kind of a gap between, but eventually, having been established as a ‘going concern’ the project is usually handed over to the host country government to manage thereafter. This is known as the Exit Strategy. Unfortunately, the management capacity of the poorest countries often just isn’t up to the task, and the field of social development is littered with failed projects. Five years after the project ended often there can be very little evidence, except for the odd tatty poster, that there was ever a project there in the first place. Bill Easterly has this to say about the issue in his book White Man’s Burden:

“Besides the visibility bias towards new construction [e.g. roads, schools, clinics], the underfunding of maintenance reflects the elusive goal of ‘sustainability’… Donors envision the local government taking over the project, which they think is necessary to make it last. This intuition was once appealing, but the decades of evidence show that that dog won’t hunt… trying to make the project ‘sustainable’ usually guarantees that it will not be ‘sustained’… But donors keep flailing away at this infeasible but inflexible objective.”

A classic reason for this failure is the withdrawal of project resources such as a project vehicle and funds to pay per diems. I once visited an old trial tree plantation project which had fallen into disrepair since the original funds had run out and no tending or thinning had been carried out. Except that the plantation was right outside the local forestry office, who presumably had all the necessary machetes and spades, but just did not expect to continue to do work for which they had previously been paid extra.

The donor’s rationale in all of this is that if they fund a given project into perpetuity that stimulates aid dependency and is thus, by definition, not sustainable. It is up to host countries to determine their budget priorities; if they do not subsequently allocate resources to a project for which they have been handed responsibility then, the argument goes, they cannot have been that interested in it in the first place, even if it was demonstrated to represent clear value for money etc. This problem is particularly acute in the environmental sector, which generally has much lower priority than health, education and economic development, and this is one reason some conservation theorists have suggested that if the ‘West’ wants to achieve conservation then they should expect to pay for it, pure and simple.

Some payments for environmental services type projects (REDD is the latest example) are an attempt to move in this direction, but still most donors are stuck in their existing model of aid delivery in 3-5 year cycles, and seem unable to contemplate longer time horizons. A friend of mine recently showed me a draft consultancy report which had come into their possession. The consultants had been asked to advise on the suitability for a particular way forward for a community-based conservation project that was coming to the end of its 13 years of donor funding. The consultants were greatly concerned about the future for the project under local government management. This is what they wrote:

“If … sustained support is to be realised it will be necessary to deal with the inevitable donor fatigue that is unfortunately likely to set in. [The donor] have been supporting activities at [the project] since 1997, and all the indications are that they expect to phase out support very shortly; indeed the [last three years] can be seen as the principle manifestation of this thinking. We believe this would be a grave mistake, surrendering all the important gains made [by the project] up to this point, and effectively writing off [the project] as a waste of money. Presumably this is not what the tax payers in [donor country] have in mind when they pay for development support to poor countries such as [host country].”

The consultants were advised by the managing consultants (consultants, consultants everywhere!) that this would not be helpful, and the paragraph was deleted from the final version of the report. The rest of the technical consultants’ report was generally pretty positive; they clearly did not think the project had been a waste of money. In fact the project had won an international award for its achievements.

If long term (ideally 20 years plus) support to social development projects is not politically palatable in donor countries then so be it, but why on earth do they keep throwing money at shorter term projects which are doomed to fail?

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3 responses to this post.

  1. […] working on foreign aid projects who can’t answer why donors fund unsustainable projects probably should not be working on foreign aid. If you are working in the aid industry and […]

    Reply

    • Hmm, well there always is the cynical answer to the rhetorical question. I can also provide a whole host of my own suggestions as to why donors behave in such, sometimes unbelievably stupid ways, but Easterly and co are probably right in identifying misaligned incentives as being one of the most important causes, whilst, at the broadest, global scale, it is clear that international politics and diplomacy play a large role in the distribution of aid (e.g. US aid to Egypt). However, I think the aims of the ultimate donors are more altruistic. Who are these ‘ultimate donors’ of which I speak? They are the taxpayers and the voters (not always quite the same) in the donor countries, plus the myriad of contributors to international aid charities (some of whom are both v rich and well informed). These people certainly do believe in the spin that aid is helping people in poor countries, and would presumably be somewhat upset to learn of the chronic levels of waste and mismanagement. (Plausibly this is why Bob Geldof reacted so angrily to reports that Band Aid money went to Ethiopian rebels; once the mask slips you cannot so easily just put it back on.) The mass public support that campaigns such as Make Poverty History achieved was not because people cynically believed that aid was good diplomacy, but because they identified with the moral case for aid and the wish to do some good. As with all complex issues, they then left the detail to the elected politicians and special interest groups to work out, and unfortunately they didn’t do so good a job.

      So sure, that’s the why answered. The question is can anything be done about it? Aid and development seems to be riding higher up the international agenda these days (in politics and popular media). Maybe if we complain loud enough one of these days someone will hear us? I am a cynical person (as no doubt will come clear in future posts), but I am also an optimist, otherwise I could not do my job at all, and certainly wouldn’t be bothering with this blog.

      Reply

      • Great! Thanks for taking me to task on my cynicism. I agree with your conclusion fully. It will take a bottom-up effort in donor countries. This is a huge effort, but I am currently working with a CBO in South Africa that had far less resources and has managed to do a lot to claim their rights. Bottom-up can work, but its a long, hard slog.

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