Lots of hand-wringing this week in New York about poor progress towards the benighted Millennium Development Goals. (Texas in Africa has an excellent post about exactly who is doing the hand-wringing.) It is good to see top level acknowledgement (from the very top!) that business as usual in the aid industry is not going to solve the problem. However, the old 0.7% of GDP argument is rearing its head again, with the UK promising to up its donations to that figure by 2013 at the same time as implementing a whole raft of reforms about how it provides aid. Do I think this is sensible? No I do not, and here’s why.
There is a huge gap between a successful pilot project and a wide scale programme of intervention. When an intervention is scaled up in this way a savvy donor will lean on upon the government of the beneficiary country to ensure that someone good is put in charge of the new programme. This person may well be very able and impressive, and sitting in comfy aircon offices in the capital, it can be easy to be beguiled by these people – after all, they’re our chosen partners. But, the person in charge is not the person on the ground implementing the programme. They will likely be of much lower calibre, and working in a management system that is mildly dysfunctional at best. In actual fact all the donor’s hopes are vested in a bunch of pretty junior employees who are a long way from the supervision of the donor’s chosen champion. Even if the beneficiary government wanted to overhaul their civil service, they would be greatly constrained by the talent pool available.
In my experience the closer one is to a project, the more one sees the problems, when from the outside it may appear all is well (and this applies as much to our projects as any others). Some of the biggest problems are at the sharp end, in actual service delivery; here capacity is at its lowest (development speak for incompetence is at its highest) and management skills almost non-existent. Yet the donors by and large trust these local government officials to deliver key projects and services, and just suck up the all the reports of ‘success’ which are sent to them.
It is true that part of the blame lies with recipient governments. Donors can do little to clean up corruption and improve management practices – these things need to come from within. A lot of responsibility lies with donors who are maddeningly inconsistent both between themselves and over time (witness DFID’s back-tracking on general budget support) with conditions upon grants and loans often subsequently relaxed. They ignore basic issues like sustainability.
However, the rest of the aid industry (especially aid advocates) are also often guilty of mistaking local success stories with the next silver bullet and making wild extrapolations. Take, for example, the Guttmacher Institute’s estimate of $180 million for the annual cost of providing effective maternal health care to every Ethiopian women who wants it. (HT: Owen Barder) Now I’ve never worked in women’s health issues in Ethiopia; maybe there really is that capacity in the health system (Ethiopia does have a reputation for more efficient implementation of aid projects), and maybe the Guttmacher Institute have really researched the issue to its utmost limits, but I hope they will excuse me if I am just a little bit sceptical because I don’t see any capacity like that where I am.
The development sector is not just a pipe into which if you pour more money one day, more impact will come out the other end the next day. Where ‘absorptive capacity’ does not exist the additional funds will either go unspent, be wasted on unnecessary overheads, or be stolen. NGOs such as the one where I work continually have to battle to convince donors as to our absorptive capacity (not entirely unreasonably), and yet donors appear happy to continue to pour in more money into government systems which manifestly have considerably lower management capacity.
Few people would disagree that the aid system needs serious reform. Many say we need both more and better aid. I think that’s too much to deal with at one time. First make it better, much better, then add more if the absorptive capacity really is there.