Don’t forget how it was before

Continuing the spirit of new starts in the new year, I was intrigued by J’s post considering to what extent aid efforts have succeeded in Haiti since last year’s devastating earthquake. His post mostly talks about the huge scale of the disaster and complexity of helping its surviving victims, and how these challenges explain the lack of success or even “failure” of interventions thus far. But how did it all start out?

Obviously all development and humanitarian relief interventions have target end goals they are seeking to meet, and when they fail to achieve the desired end point there is always a degree of failure to be considered. However, it should be remembered that most such goals are what the business world calls stretch targets. Indeed it is often necessary to be deliberately over-ambitious in order to secure funding. That is to say the architecture of the aid and development sector sets up many projects to apparently “fail” in the first place.

J, however, also questions whether it is correct to talk in terms of success and failure, and I think he is right to do so. When coming to a new place in the developing world it is always easy to spot the problems; complaints are often not far behind. What these critiques may fail to understand is just how bad the situation was before, and thus the degree of success that has been achieved.

This applies not just to disaster zones, and I was reminded of it over my Xmas break. We went to visit some friends in another developing country (it doesn’t matter which). I knew the country very little, and our friends not much better (they’ve been there just over a year). Of course, before long our conversation turned to the various shortcomings manifest in the government of said country. It wasn’t hard to find things to criticise, and there is certainly much that could be done better. However, our friends also passed on the views of some of their local friends and longer term residents. They were more relaxed about things; yes they agreed with all the criticisms but nonetheless they said the political situation was much improved now upon a few years ago. Things were bad, but they had been worse; the country, still very poor, is on an upward trajectory (although unlikely to become rich any time soon).

I help run a small NGO. Some of our management processes are still necessarily somewhat chaotic; we’re still putting together all the systems necessary to make it run smoothly. But compared to where we were ~5 years ago the organisation is a purring machine of efficient endeavour. It’s hard for new staff to realise that, though; they just see the problems (not enough computers) and don’t appreciate the progress we’ve made (2 laptops between 4 of us when we started).

Of course, one must be careful of this argument. It is not an excuse for every missed project milestone or impact that goes unachieved. The defence that things would have been much worse without the project only goes so far, and is probably over-used. But progress is something  to be valued. When evaluating a project, and deciding whether to commit further funding, donors need to be careful not to throw out too many babies with the bathwater. Here, unfortunately, I detect double standards: NGO projects can be measured against impossibly tough yardsticks, whilst bilateral donor projects continue to pour funds down recipient government maws whilst negligible progress is made towards the targeted outcomes.

That is a subject to explored more fully in a future post. For now, whenever you go somewhere in the developing world, don’t forget to ask how it was before, before you go making judgements about how it is now.

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