Cash on Delivery & the Last Mile

Recently I had a conversation with a donor representative here who was frustrated by the progress of rolling out CBNRM initiatives in this country, and the subject of Cash on Delivery came up. (Ok, I suggested it.) This was well analysed by Owen Barder, but I think he missed one important angle which in many ways sums up  my motivation for writing this blog.

Owen principally talks about COD creating incentives for policy changes (though he is not clear what kind of policy changes he means), and correctly points out that until donor threats carry real credibility these will have little impact on donor country leaders. He also highlights the marginal impact aid conditionality has on the interests of elected politicians, although I believe we should not underestimate their persuasive force when there is no direct negative impact on a politician’s personal interests. (Not all politicians are totally corrupt.) My interest, however, is on solving the delivery problem, and here we are not necessarily talking about the bigwigs. (As the CGD blurb mentions, COD can be used within countries too.)

A lot of aid suffers from the problem of the Last Mile (e.g. see Esther Duflo’s TED talk). This problem is not always well appreciated (or well enough appreciated) by aid officials working in their plush offices in the capital city, or those even further away in donor countries. They tend to engage with aid on two levels. Firstly they get involved in direct bilateral projects; these are intensively funded and can help pilot new approaches, and point the way forward for a certain sector in the host country. Such projects can produce great results (if you can avoid the problem of unsustainability), but do not produce many bangs for the lots of bucks invested owing to the rather concentrated nature of such work. Donors, typically, then seek to convert these narrow projects into broader national programmes; in doing this they team up with the best officials they can find, nurture and support them, and generally get a good feeling that they are working with the right people.

Except that, at least in the country where I work, such talent is at a premium, and most of it heads towards the private sector. All this aid has to be delivered by someone, and here donors are trapped by constraint of low human resources and their understandable, though often misguided, desire to minimise transaction costs. I’m talking here about the teacher who doesn’t turn up to work, or the agricultural extension officer who cannot get to work because his car has been requisitioned by a higher-up. The final mile is often by far the worst managed, and this is the problem we confront daily in our view from the Bottom Up. I think most people working in aid do realise this, but then rather forget it in their desire to push out the latest big idea, or somehow kid themselves that this time they’ve got the right trick to solve that problem.

I think mid-ranking officials, as long as they’re not hopelessly corrupt, might be more susceptible to COD incentives. Most such officials want to be managing bigger departments, with bigger budgets (more opportunity for patronage if you want to be cynical). Under COD, those officials who can better manage delivery will do better, those who cannot will be left by the wayside. And it will also get the donor out from under their noses; as Owen points out, the best thing about COD might be how it incentivises donors to reform. Those who want change should first put their own houses in order, and donors are more culpable than most in this respect.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting. But part of me sees COD as GBS dressed up for a cheap night out. If it can be formulated in such a way as to motivate mid level officials, good. But the powerful centripetal nature of the civil service, at least where i am, needs consideration. And if we start to look at the motivations of officials and others we may be on our way to a dynamic view of the political economy. That has to be good.

    Otherwise, CBNRM and COD ideas……. Any thoughts on REDD?

    Reply

  2. […] The term “absorptive capacity” is a pernicious one: the implication that I can manage resources properly but you cannot is pretty insulting, especially coming from the sorts of organisations that typically use it (“lot’s of staffing, lots of activity, b****r all impact”). But at these highest levels, it surely has to be considered. Aid is not the kind of sector in which  doubling the inputs leads to a doubling of the outputs, there are serious problems of diminishing returns; simply turning on the tap is not the solution.  In particular I really question to what extent DFID has considered absorptive capacity of recipient countries not just at the top, but at the bottom; at the last mile of aid delivery. […]

    Reply

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